Wednesday, April 11, 2012

In the Land of the Thunder Dragon

         It has been exactly 3 years since I’ve been to Bhutan. My first visit was with my whole family during the spring break of 2009. While we were here, we visited many of the famous sites, we made many connections with the people of Bhutan, and we all felt there was much more that we should see and do here, and that this was a place we would like to come back to one day. Now, during my current break from school, three of the five of us have returned. I'm with my dad and sister Emily, as my mom and sister Claira had to stay back in California for work and school. Since we’ve already seen many of the tourist sites during our first time in Bhutan, this trip is more about revisiting the sites that were important to us, reconnecting with people we met last time, and, most importantly, getting out into the high Himalaya Mountains as we'll be taking a 5-day trek along the "Druk path" between the historically important town of Paro and the capital city of Thimphu.

Lucky Emily went diving in Thailand during the first week of her break
            I am writing this on Saturday night, tomorrow we start the trek, but I didn't just appear here, there was a lot the happened the last few days. On Friday the 6th, I flew down to Bangkok on Qatar airways, which was quite fancy, and landed just after dark. My dad and sister had been off the coast of Thailand in the Andaman Sea for the past several days on a scuba-diving cruise (Emily had a two week break from school, whereas I have just one). They arrived about an hour earlier, so it was up to me to negotiate my way though Thai Customs. Luckily, Americans don't need Visas, so the process was pretty painless. I met up with my dad and sister at the airport hotel, and we went to bed pretty soon after, because our flight to Bhutan was at 4:45 am.

An unusual view of an airport runway....
            Waking up at 3am the next morning was painful, but we were all exited to be heading to the Himalayas. By the time we checked in, cleared security and customs, it became apparent that we were the last ones to arrive at the gate. After being escorted by an airport employee down a few levels to what should be the bus loading station, we saw instead there was a van. There was only one other person in the van. So I like to think that we got the VIP treatment. We weren’t necessarily late, I mean, we boarded the plane at 4:20, that's plenty of time! Soon enough, we were in the air and on our way to one of the most dangerous airports in the world. Drukair, the national carrier of Bhutan, is the only airline that flies into Bhutan, and they only have two (very busy) airplanes, both airbus A-319s. Landing at Paro airport isn’t for the novice or faint of heart. There are less than a dozen pilots certified to land there. The descent is visual flight-rules only and involves landing in a valley surrounded on 4 sides by mountains that exceed 11,000 ft. First the pilot must make a few hairpin turns to enter and follow the valley, at points coming so close to the mountainside that I probably could pick some leaves if there wasn't a glass window. Then the must fly straight over downtown Paro at about 500 feet, before making one final turn to line up with the runway. It’s a pretty terrifying experience, but really exciting at the same time. Check out this video of the last couple turns before landing (on a clear and calm day!).

            After being greeted by our guide, and getting a few hours rest, we started our activities for the day. Also joining us for the day was our Mr. Tashi, who was our guide back in 2009, and his wife. He has retired from guiding, and now manages one of the fanciest hotels in Thimphu. We’ll get to stay there in a few days, after the trek. We were also joined by his sister, who is a teacher at a local school. The highlight for the day was revisiting a school that we went to back in '09. They operate a school for the deaf on the campus, and we brought videos of our past visit with us to show them. They were very happy to see us, and quite a few remembered us from last time. One even remembered that I referee soccer! They were so happy to see the videos, and see themselves 3 years in the past. One of the deaf students we saw last time has since graduated and now teaches at the school himself. They have a great program there, where they learn sign language, various trades that will help to make them productive members of society, as well as writing in the local language and in English. Most of the conversations we had with them had to translated from sign language to English by the teacher, but one of the older students was able to have an entire conversation with us in written English! Many of them wanted to demonstrate some of their vocational training for us, as they are skilled artisans in woodworking, sculpting, and decorative arts. It’s great to see programs like this, because in most of the world, disabled kids are often denied an education and shunned, but here they have a great program that teaches them skills that they will be able to use the rest of their lives.

(I'll add a video of the school day here, when I get home)

            Next, we went down a small hill to the rest of the school. It was Saturday, so they were in the middle of their service time. All the students were working around the school planting in the garden, building stairs, repairing paths, you name it. We had the distinct honor of being the first ones to use a staircase built by the 5th graders. There were no classes going on, but the assistant principal, who was guiding us around, invited us to visit any classrooms that we wanted to see - and shortly after we entered an empty math classroom, before I knew what was going on, we had an audience of 60 6th and 7th graders. That's not counting the ones looking in from the windows on either side. There were many students there that remembered us from our last visit, and the asked where my mom and sister were. My dad went to back of the room to film, leaving me and Emily run the class and we began by fielding questions from the students. We got a lot of basic ones, like, What’s your name? How old are you? Where are you from? I was really impressed with their English; they all seemed very good at it. My family has visited many classrooms all over the world, and it doesn't matter where you are; Africa, Asia, America, there’s always the one little punk who wants you do something embarrassing. Of course it’s never malicious or anything, and it’s all in good fun, but it doesn't matter where you are, and Bhutan is no exception. So after a few basic questions, one of the guys raising his hand, and asks, “sir, can you sing us an American song?” I obliged him, and sang a rendition of Itsy bitsy spider so well, not only will it earn me a Grammy, but it also won a standing ovation from the class. Now it was my turn, I shot back at him “Ok, I sang my song, your turn! Sing me a Bhutanese song” He said “Oh, I can’t, I’m not a good singer!” I replied, “That makes two of us, but you have to!”. He then told me his friend sitting next to him could sing very well and pushed him up. And he wasn't lying, he sang a Bhutanese song, and it was awesome. Next, my dad showed them a video (on his iPad) that a class from Santa Barbara Middle School had made to show to them what a classroom in the United States looks like. Since my dad had showed them a video of the Bhutanese class from 3 years ago (along with many others we have visited), the kids at Middle School, knowing we were going to Bhutan, wanted to make one to show to the Bhutanese students. Even though there were many students in the class, and the screen was small, they loved it! At some point soon, I'll add the videos to this blog.

After we left the school, we had lunch in town, and visited a few temples. Then we returned to the hotel and after dinner will soon go to bed. I have been awake since 3 am, so I am ready for sleep. We have a big day ahead of us tomorrow, when we begin our trek. I’ll be off the grid for the next 6 days, so I’m sorry there will be a little gap in entries, but then again by the time you read this, the gap will be closed.


  1. Your dad showed me the video when he was here in SF visiting before the Bhutan trip -- I'm sure those kids loved seeing themselves and also the Middle School class as well.
    Wow that video of the landing in the last entry was pretty harrowing!!!
    love you, mm

  2. they have grapes there im suprised

  3. The picture at the top of the page is very nice. I really enjoy that architecture in the background.