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Why I fell in love with Bhutan

I was on cloud nine for seven days while in Bhutan. It took me another seven days to recover and get down to reality.

I can’t remember exactly how I got drawn to Bhutan. But I can recall watching a documentary and was captivated by the scenery. I also read about the Gross National Happiness, a concept very unique to Bhutan as it was the idea of His Majesty the Fourth King Jigme Singye Wangchuck. GNH speaks volumes of how Bhutanese value spiritual and well-being over economic progress or worldly materialism.

So why have I fallen in love with this Kingdom? Let me try hard to put it into words.

Up in the sky, Bhutan will greet you and bid adieu with exhilarating panorama of the Himalayas and snow-capped mountains. If you are flying from Bangkok, make sure you get a window seat on the left row (right from Paro).

View of Himalayas on flight to Bhutan-001

Photo taken on flight from Paro to Bangkok

Usually, the drive from the airport to a city is dull and tiresome. It took us about 1 hour and 30 minutes from Paro to Thimphu. But nope, it was not boring at all because we drove along hills with lots of apple trees in bloom; I thought they were cherry blossoms. How about this old house above the riverbank?

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Paro to Thimphu Bhutan-001

Photo taken on the way back to Thimphu from Paro the day before my departure

I just loved to look at the fog-covered mountains. It’s the same sight I would marvel at on my journey to Punakha. But with the forest filled with blooming rhododendrons, I felt I was in Pandora. Remember Avatar?

Rhododendron bloom in Bhutan on the way to Punakha-001

Very few countries in the world can match the richness of Bhutan’s flora and fauna. Thanks to their serious environmental protection and conservation I enjoyed watching a monkey sitting on the side of the road; a huge colorful bird that hopped on a tree, I can only wish I knew its name. But when I saw the yaks (I had mistaken them for takins, Bhutan’s national animal and known to be an extremely rare mammal) I had to ask the driver to stop the car so I can run after them up in the hills.

Takin Bhutan's national animal-001

I have this strong affinity with ruins. A lot of people find them uninteresting, lifeless. I find them full of wisdom, exuding aura of the ancient times. I’ve been to ruins in India, Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia so I didn’t want to miss Drukgyel Dzong in Bhutan. I was dumbfounded. I have no words to describe and will rely on the cliche, “a picture paints a thousand words.”

Drukgyel Dzong in Paro Bhutan-001

Bhutan may be full of natural beauty but hey, the country is not just about that, it is full of art masterpieces too! In Punakha Dzong I have seen the world’s most magnificent temple. We were not allowed to take photos, sorry folks. I like it that way though, to keep its sanctity and solemnity. But here are some photos around Punakha Dzong showing very intricate designs.

Punakha Dzong Bhutan-001

Punakha Dzong interior-001

Punakha Dzong-001

I also had a bit of a shock when I saw penises, lots and lots of them, either painted on the walls of buildings and houses or carved on woods. My friend, understanding my amusement, explained that phallus is a religious symbol and is believed to ward off evil and brings good luck.

Phallic drawing Paro Bhutan-001

carved phallus Bhutan-001

Above all these, what truly captured my heart are the people. The Bhutanese are very warm and hospitable people. They are calm and patient. Around them I feel so at ease, it must be because they emit positive energies. With them I was reminded to savor the moment and not rush through life.

Mary Antonette Abello_Bhutan-001

On weekends they go out to play while most of the time I slack in front of the TV or drown on the internet. I passed by people playing different sports but when I saw an archery tournament, I let my driver have snacks so I can watch the game. I felt bad to have him wait at the car.

Bhutanese playing archery-001

I’ve seen a lot of young Bhutanese hone their crafts at the 13 Traditional Arts School (Institute of Zorig Chusum). I learned that most students came from underprivileged families. The school is financed by the government including their board and lodging. I asked one boy why he got interested in tailoring. He said he wanted to be an international fashion designer. They may be poor but why do they look more content and happier than those rich kids who showcase fancy items out of mommy and daddy’s pocket?

13 Traditional Arts School Bhutan-001

Institute of Zorig Chusum Bhutan-001

 

Photo taken at a ceramics shop in Paro

Photo taken at a ceramics shop in Paro

I admire how spiritual Bhutanese are. You will see many of them turning the prayer wheels, both young and old. They have a prayer room in their house; light incense for each morning’s prayer. Prayer flags are found all over the place.

Prayer wheels monk Bhutan-001

Prayer flags in Bhutan

I rarely see Bhutanese who wear modern clothes. Most of them wear their traditional dress, gho for men and kira for women. This makes the cultural experience in Bhutan distinct because at this modern period, you will see how Bhutanese go about their daily lives the same way from many decades ago.

Bhutanese girls-001

I have not seen nor experienced a wild nightlife similar to that in Bangkok during my whole stay in Bhutan. Although I did relish this stunning view of Tashichoo Dzong and Thimphu skyline.

Thimphu in the evening

In Bhutan I was able to reconnect on a deeper level with mother nature, with my spirituality and immerse into the quintessential of human connection that our technology-driven world has so often neglected.

And just like in temples where I was forbidden to take photos, my most memorable experiences with people very dear to me are beyond words. I will just let my heart keep it locked in until I come again.

More photos are available in my Facebook. Click here.

P.S. If you want to visit Bhutan, I recommend Almost Heaven travel agency. It’s owned by a friend so I can guarantee you are in safe hands. If you are in Bhutan, I encourage you to watch my friend’s latest film Kushuthara – Pattern of Love. And if you are a bookworm, then grab copies of Sonam Kinga’s books!


Bike your way around Thailand in Muang Boran

Muang Boran or Ancient Siam, known to be the world’s largest museum, is one my favorite places in Thailand. I always recommend this place to friends and tourists who have limited time to spend in Bangkok because it offers a glimpse of what Thailand has to offer; from the golden temples, ruins of Ayutthaya, floating market, reclining Buddha, to the monkey temple up in a hill. Muang Boran is a vast land of over 200 acres in the shape of Thailand where miniatures of historical and tourist attractions are located at their exact spot in the country.

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Ancient Siam-001

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Cycling in Bangkok-001

I visited the Ancient City last weekend with my friend Pat who was on a 2-day transit from Kathmandu to Manila. It was my second visit since 2011 when I took my mom there. So much have changed since then, including a hefty entrance fee of THB700 (21USD) as compared to the THB400 fee before. But since I have a work permit, I was able to get the Thai rate which is only THB350. The fee includes the bike rental but if you don’t know how to bike, you can also take the tram.

How to get there
Depending on where you are in Bangkok, the best and most convenient way for me is to take the BTS to the last station Bearing. From there you can take the taxi which will cost about THB250 (8USD). This will work best if you travel in a group and share the cost. Otherwise you can take the bus but since I haven’t tried this option, it’s better you check their website.


I was in awe at this Ancient City that the first time I went there I just savored the feeling without ever thinking where it is coming from. But last weekend I am able to reflect some of the reasons why I will never have enough of it.

Communing with nature
I am a nature lover and living in metropolitan Bangkok makes my heart yearn for green things, lakes and cool breeze. Some tourist destinations make me feel exhausted at the end of the day but Muang Boran is such a stress-reliever. Imagine lying on a grass with a cool wind kissing your cheeks! And cycling is a good de-stressor, and with a pinch of yoga oh I just had an awesome Sunday. Here’s a photo of me trying to do the crow pose and another photo in the office showing my progress 5 days after, yeehaaa!

communing with nature in Thailand-001

Muang boran thailand-001

crow pose at muang boran-001

crow pose in the office-001

Cycling in Muang Boran-001

Stunning historical structures
For someone like me who fancy anything old or vintage, much more ruins, Ancient Siam offers stunning architectural structures which bring century-old stories in it. You will also be amazed at how intricate the designs are which reflect Thais’ stellar craftsmanship.

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Ancient siam golden temple-001

Ruins in Ancient City-001

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Ancient siam big fish-001

Anicent City Thailand-001

Omar Piamonte Jayag

Beautiful gardens
There are several gardens around Ancient Siam which come in different styles. Some have fountains, human-sized figurines, hanging plants and various ornamental and flowering plants.

Garden Bangkok-001

Hanging plants Ancient Siam-001

Ancient city garden 2-001

Ancient siam lake-001

Local food and cultural experience
It was during lunch at the floating market where we contemplated that Muang Boran does not just offer a taste of local food but also offers a cultural experience. And since I believe that a cultural experience is something we acquire on a personal basis, you have to get there to experience it yourself.

Floating market muang boran-001

It is needless to say that Muang Boran or Ancient Siam with its grandiose beauty will make every photography enthusiast salivate.

If you want to visit the Ancient City and you’ve got some questions feel free to drop a comment.

Muang Boran-001

The Secret Garden of Chang Deok Gung Palace

Who doesn’t like a secret garden? How about a secret garden in a palace? Imagine how thrilled I was to learn there is actually a secret garden at Chang Deok Gung Palace! It was my first trip to Seoul, South Korea and I felt like I had discovered a hidden treasure only because I didn’t know it was there from the beginning (wink)

I only had a few hours left before our flight leaves Seoul in the evening so I thought of visiting Chang Deok Gung Palace. It’s just a walking distance from the Noble hotel where we stayed so I didn’t have to worry about the traffic.

Admission to Chang Deok Gung Palace including the Secret Garden is 10, 000 won, approximately 10 US dollars. The tour inside the Secret Garden is guided so you have to follow the schedule. Since the guided tour started a bit later after I arrived, I did not get to finish the whole tour as I have to be back in the hotel at 3PM and rush to the airport.

Secret Garden Seoil Korea

The Secret Garden is a forbidden place, only intended for recreational area and retreat of the royal family of the Joseon Dynasty. In the garden, you can see beautiful ponds like Buyongji, Aeryeonji and Gwallamji. A small but beautiful Ongnyucheon Stream runs through in the Northern part of the garden. The New Seonwonjeon, found in the deep woods in the western part of the garden, is a sacred place with facilities for ancestral rites. It’s not like our typical picture of a garden filled with flowers and ornamental plants but rather a place full of historical structures and stories.


Buyongji and Jumhamnu

This area is in the heart of the Secret Garden. It was a relatively open place used for retreats and study. The royal libraries of Gyujanggak and Seohyanggak are also in this area. State exams were conducted in front of Yeonghwadang Pavilion on special occasions, in the presence of the king. Buyongjeong Pavilion which seems to be a lotus flower bloom on the pond is designated as a Treasure.

Buyongji Seoul

Juhamnu Seoul

Aeryoenji and Uiduhap

King Sukjong, the 19th king of Joseon Dynasty, was said to have created an islet topped by a pavilion in the middle of the pond in 1962. The island disappeared, but the pavilion remains on the northern end of the pond. King Sukjong named the pond ‘Aeryeon’, meaning ‘Loving the lotus flowers’. The king once said “I love the lotus because it blooms with such clean and beautiful flowers, however dirty the water may be, symbolizing the virtue of a true gentleman”. Uiduhap, which bears the sign ‘Gioheon’ at present, is a modest study. Unlike most traditional Korean structures, it was not adorned with various colors named “Dancheong”. Next to it is Ungyeonggeo. It is the smallest building in the palace.

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Yeongyeongdang

Crown Prince Hyomyeong constructed Yeongyeongdang in about 1828 to hold the Jinjakrye ceremony to celebrate the 40th birthday of his mother, and to present a title for his father, King Sunjo, the 23rd king of Joseon. The men’s and women’s quarters are separated, but inside they are connected, just like in a typical Joseon nobleman house. Nongsujeong, situated on a high spot in the garden, bears a roof that resembles a hawk spreading its wings. Behind the women’s quarters is a kitchen; since the reign of Gojong, the 26th king of the Joseon Dynasty, Yeongyeongdang served as a venue to receive foreign envoys and throw parties with political overtones.

Yeongyeongdang

Nongsujeong

Jondeokjeong Area

This area is believed to have been the last to be added on the Secret Garden. Originally, there were five small round and rectangular ponds. During the Japanese occupation, three of them were transformed into one curved pond, which is called Gwallamji. The other two ponds were also put together then one pond, called Jondeokji, was made. Pavilions of various shapes were built here. Jondeokjong, a hexagonal pavilion with a double layered roof, and Gwallamjeong with a fan shaped roof were built on the brim of the pond. On the hill to the west stands Pyeomusa. Pyeomusa was originally built in a ‘ㄱ’ layout and an auxiliary house, but nowadays it is a plain-looking building with no auxiliary structure. Deep in the woods is Seungjaejeong, a smart-looking pavilion with a square roof. Of all these, Jondeokjeong, built in 1644, is the oldest.

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Jondeokjong


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Source: Chang Deok Gung Palace brochure