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Phobjikha Valley

Phobjikha Valley

Taking advantage of the long weekend last week, I tagged along with some friends on a road trip to Phobjikha to see the famed black-necked cranes. Kuenga and I drove out to Punakha to spend the night at her aunt’s home. After a short hike from the nearest feeder road, we were welcomed warmly by the family and treated to a traditional outdoors Bhutanese stone bath in the evening. Naturally no photos were taken because this blog is rated G (okay okay, the truth was that I was too lazy to grab my camera). A fairly good description of a Bhutanese stone bath can be found here.

We then met up with Tashi, Passang and Phuntsho at Lobeysa and set off in Tashi’s car to Phobjikha. After a two-hour drive or so, we arrived at the beautiful and peaceful Phobjikha valley. Unlike many other towns, no electricity poles and cable mar the landscape. This is an attempt to protect the valley as the cranes’ ideal habitat during their winter hiatus away from Tibetan plains. At the information centre, we got a good eyeful of the foraging black-necked cranes through the telescopes available. After a spot of photo-taking, our hungry stomachs demanded lunch and we picked a picnic spot with an excellent view of the valley.

Lunch Spot

Crazy Crane Friends Smile! Unpacking Our Lunch Couplehood

We took a stroll around the valley after lunch, taking the chance to document as much of our picturesque surroundings as possible. We headed back to Lobeysa late in the afternoon, spending a night at another of Kuenga’s family home before driving back to Thimphu Saturday morning.

It’s always great to escape the dust and cold of Thimphu. My thanks to my lovely companions on this trip, you made it all the better…

Strike a Pose

I am nursing a major winter flu (so much for the effectiveness of the flu jab I got), so pardon the short recap from yours truly who is quite drugged on flu meds.


I sent off 2007 with a VAST rock climbing outing. I’m embarrassed to say that being the ultimate Singaporean urbanite, the first image that sprung to mind on hearing about it was that of artificial rock-climbing walls with the mounted hand and feet grips. It was not until I heard someone talking about the location of the rock-climb “Oh, the rock just behind Rinchen school…” that I realised that when they said rock, they meant *rock*, not some fake wall. Duh. Still holding on to hope despite my paralysing fear of heights, I said sure, I will give it a try.

Yeah, sure. When I finally laid eyes on the rock face that we were to be scaling, it was not one of my proudest moment – I chickened out. Getting up to the base of the rock face was a bit of a struggle and there was no way I’m going to haul my butt up that *thing*. I settled for taking snapshots and shouting out words of encouragement to the rest of the crew. So what if I was put to shame by a 12 year old, at least my two feet were safely planted on solid ground.

Happy 2008

I kicked off 2008 with a nice New Year’s Eve dinner cooked by Gelay for everyone at VAST. I was originally supposed to join some folks for a new year party at some pub but a nice cosy VAST dinner sounded infinitely better than being stuck in a packed bar and infusing my lungs, hair, and clothes with second hand smoke (Bhutan’s ban on smoking is definitely not working).

Food Food Food

So that’s what we did. Kuenga and I went to pick up a chocolate cake from Seasons for dessert, before heading back to VAST for a really delicious dinner (thanks Gelay!). Some folks had a little too much to drink, but I am not telling who. 🙂

Drinking in the Sun

It was a bummer having to work on 1st January, but 2nd January was Winter Solstice and a public holiday (Nelo) here in Bhutan. I was invited by Asha Karma and family to their new home in upper Motithang for lunch. Their new home was lovely and again the food was the excellent. Basking in the afternoon sun during winter is always fun; with good food, wine and great company, all the better!

Nelo Lunch Spread

The Magic

Thanks to Kuenga, I managed to attend two family Chokus in the span of a week. One in Punakha and the second in Lobeysa (Thimphu). Choku is an annual religious ritual that each household performs to give thanks and pray for blessings for the family. Monks are invited to the house during Choku to pray and perform rites. In addition to its religious significance, Choku is also a time to meet up with family and friends. Extended family and friends are typically invited, and neighbours join in the feasting on the second day.

Being invited for Choku was my chance to experience a little of life in the village. For this Singapore-bred city slicker, the traditional Bhutanese village was an experience like no other. To get there required a morning on winding moutain roads, sometimes over iced-over patches (snow wheels? doesn’t exist) and another hour on unpaved feeder roads. Despite the numerous bumps, the newly-dug feeder roads were a god-send, allowing us to drive right up to the house instead of a 2-hour hike uphill from the main road.

As we travel eastwards from Thimphu, a different landscape met my eager eyes. Instead of the brick and mortar apartment blocks found in Thimphu, traditional Bhutan houses made from mud and wood dot the green mountainsides and valleys. The air warmed up and the fragrance of Daphne (a local woody plant used to make paper) blooms drifted by.

When we arrived, faces young and old filled with warmth and sometimes a little curiosity greeted mine. “Is she a chillip? But she looks Bhutanese…” Looking on as I struggle up the steep and narrow wooden steps to the house, it didn’t take them to long to figure out the truth. Thankfully, this chillip (foreigner) eats like the Bhutanese for the most parts. Except for suja (butter tea) which is just too rich to drink 6 times a day and sometimes over-fatty pork, I eat most of everything put before me. And sometimes a little more. An ezay-eating chillip (chilli-eating foreigner) is understandably rare and I have a feeling my enthusiasm for ezay won me a couple of brownie points.

Talking about food, oh how I ate. These Bhutanese sure know how to feast; we pretty much ate non-stop from 8 in the morning until 9 at night. The pre-breakfast meal of meat and cheese porridge was one my favourites. “Pre-breakfast”, breakfast, “pre-lunch”, lunch, tea, dinner, and lots of snacking in between. I lost track of the meals after a while, but was contented to eat when I was told and happily snack in-between.

Sitting around the bukhari in the evening, sharing in the chat and laughter as much as a chillip can, a sense of realisation hit me silently. Man, I lucked out. This is it, this is why.

In the heart of that countryside village, the magic of Bhutan finally began.

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