Friday 19 February 2010

Bhutan, day 1

I'm the most excited about a trip abroad for a long time! I'm in Bhutan! Look - I have the Druk Air boarding card to prove it and all!

It was an early morning flight, and we were flying east towards the sunrise.

For quite a while I was looking down out of my window wondering when the Himalayas start... until suddenly I realised they came into view - not below us, but in the far distance, right at the top of my window.

The terrain got gradually more and more mountainous.

We passed Mt. Everest at some point, but I can't be sure exactly when. The pilot did mention it, but I think he was pointing it out right when my neighbours were complaining that the pilot didn't point out Mt. Everest this time. Anyway, I'm pretty sure the following isn't Mt. Everest.

Then we reached Paro valley; one of the few places in Bhutan that is flat enough for a runway for an airport. The approach to the airport was absolutely fantastic: apparently it is one of the most difficult runways in the world to land on as it is cradled in a fairly narrow valley in between the mountains.

My first sight of prayer flags next to the airport.

My first sight of people wearing the Bhutanese national dress! Some people at the airport were dressed in ghos.

Now, I have to explain: Before my trip I read a few books on Bhutan so that I would know at least a few things about the country before going there and hence would get more out of my short time there. I had read that there are lots of prayer flags in various places, so I was excited to see some with my own eyes. I had read about the Bhutanese national dress - gho for men and kira for women - and I had learned that by law all Bhutanese have to wear the national dress when in public. So naturally I was very excited to finally see with my own eyes people wearing the "famous", compulsory national dress for the first time. (I'm sure there will be many more things that I get stupidly excited about seeing in the coming two weeks!)

Here is the very handsome terminal building. Seriously, I'm pretty sure this is the most beautiful airport terminal building I've seen anywhere in the world.

Once inside and queueing for the passport check, we were tested for fever! Not sure whether this is a recent custom or whether Bhutan has always denied entrance from hot-heads.

The Medical Coordinators are wearing ghos, too.

The five kings welcome you to Bhutan at Immigration; starting from the first one on the left and ending with the newest, 5th king who was crowned just over a year ago.

I was surprised to see what the only poster in the window of the duty free shop was:

From one (fairly) small country to another: Finlandia Vodka!

Outside the terminal building I met my guide Dorji and driver Arun. We started our drive to the town of Paro. On the way we saw some traditional Bhutanese houses. Dorji explained that the top floor of the houses is without walls so that wind can blow through it and dry all meat and vegetables that have been hung there to dry.

Paro Dzong, and a watchtower on the hill above it (now converted to a museum).

Here is the entrance to the museum in that watchtower - The National Museum of Bhutan.

Want to have a better look at the prices?

10 ngultrums is about 15 pence (GBP), or 22 cents (USD).

Entrance to the building.

Photography was not allowed indoors, but this is the view that you are faced with when you come out of the museum.

Unobstructed view of Paro Valley.

Then we drove back to Paro to have lunch. On the way I stopped to take a photo of a typical house. I just snapped this shot from the road... I will get some more photos of Bhutanese houses some other time.

All the houses in the streets of Paro are built traditionally (as are most buildings in the whole of Bhutan).

10% of Bhutanese population are monks. And another 10% are stray dogs...

This girl must have spotted something yummy... look at her tongue in the cheek! ;-)

Women in kiras.

There were quite a few 'general stores'. This one is Shop No. 6. ;-)

Now, as soon as I met my guide Dorji at the airport this morning and asked where I can exchange my rupees to the Bhutanese currency of ngultrum, I found out that I have a problem. A big problem. See, I had read that the value of ngultrum is tied to the Indian rupee, and that a lot of places in Bhutan accept rupees as payment, so I exchanged all my travel money into rupees at Delhi airport. I had no other currency on me. The problem? Bhutan have stopped accepting Indian 500 rupee notes (or bigger) as currency, due to the spread of counterfeit money brought in by Indian tourists. No money exchange branch, no bank, no shop will accept 500 rupee notes or bigger. My rupees are...? Ten 500 rupee notes, and the rest of my cash for two weeks (including big tips for the guide and driver) all in 1000 notes. Notes that are unusable in Bhutan. Great. What a start for my journey.

Guide Dorji said that he will ask around and maybe, just maybe, he will find some shop that will exchange my rupees for me. This fine lady here agreed to change all my 500 rupee notes to ngultrums. Well, almost all: she rejected two that she thought looked suspicious.

Cool. So now I have money to pay at least for any drinks that I may have with lunch. But I won't have enough for the guide's tip or anything... so hopefully Dorji will find someone else who can exchange my rupees for me!

The lunch that had been arranged for me was a buffet of various dishes. The chilli chicken had yummy flavours, "tempura" eggplants were scrumptious and the broccoli butter fry melted in my mouth.

Tiny bananas for dessert.

After lunch we drove a couple hours to Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan.

On our way, at a confluence of two rivers, there is a border of two districts - Paro dzongkhag and Thimphu dzongkhag. My driver had to go and present a document to the good people at the border check point, stating his driver's licence number and our starting point and destination for the day. Surprisingly this is the only photo I took at the check point:

From the bridge over the combined river.

By the road there were three chortens, or stupas, in different styles: Tibetan, Nepalese and Bhutanese. (I'm not 100% of the first two... I will double-check and come back)

Finally we arrived at The Riverview Hotel in Thimphu.

My room.

View over Thimphu from the Riverview Hotel.

Monday 15 February 2010

Grasses of Camber Sands

Had a lovely walk in the morning on the sandy beach of Camber Sands. The light was lovely on the grasses near the beach.

Sarah portrait shoot

I had a great time taking photos of the lovely Sarah today. We took some photos at the seafront and a park, and also indoors with one "readhead" light as the lighting. Here are some shots: