Sunday, 19 October 2008

Verdict: Bhutan Land of the Druk Yul

Photograph Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved

After almost 3 weeks of not posting, getting back in the "groove" is not as easy as I thought it would be, but what better way to restart this blog's activity than by writing on the results of my photo expedition in the Land of the Druk Yul.

All of the festivals we photographed at were regional (or less), since I make it a point not to bother with the large tsechus in Thimpu or Paro. Incidentally, I heard the Thimpu festival was held outside of its traditional venue in the dzong's courtyard because of the number of the tour these large well-known (and well publicized by travel & tour companies) festivals are never destinations for my photo expeditions and never will be.

The local or regional festivals (tsechus) offered us an enormous amount of photo opportunities, as I made sure we were in the very heart of the activities as well as behind the scenes to capture the best there is in such events. Mostly through the hard work by our fixers and guides, and occasionally by serendipity, we ended the expedition with an hefty amount of photo inventory that will certainly occupy us for many months to come. Especially notable was our first day at the Tamshingphala festival, when the light was incredible due to the earlier thunderstorm. The photographs made in the lakhang's inner courtyard are just luminous.

Some members of another photo tour saw us photographing in the Tamshing monastery's inner courtyard, and joined us. Out of professional courtesy, I decided not to mention that what they were shooting so gleefully was actually a private photo shoot that we had pre-arranged, and made some donations to make it happen. In reality, the organizer of this photo tour should've thought of that, and arranged it...but he didn't.

On the downside, I noticed a number of souvenir vendors displaying their wares to tourists on the path to Tiger's Nest, and outside of a number of monasteries visited by tour groups. Nothing's really wrong in that since people need to make a living...but it was disconcerting to see them in areas where there was none just 2 years ago. There's absolutely no hassle involved, nor any touting...the Bhutanese are too polite for that...but it's a new phenomenon.

As is usually the case with travel in Bhutan during the high season, there's no firm guarantee as to whether we would end up in the hotels on our itinerary. We largely did however. However, the quality of accommodations vary from one hotel to the other...and we experienced tiny rooms (in realtor's parlance also known as "charmingly rustic") with wood-burning stoves, to enormous suites with all modern amenities. I was told that clients of large tour operators such as Mountain Sobek had the same hotel experience to the one we had. In fact, there was one such group in our hotel in Wangdue, so being part of a tour group set up by a large international travel company is no guarantee for uniform accommodations.

In Jakar (Bumthang) we were asked by our originally chosen hotel to share, by doubling up, our rooms, and I refused. So our guide Sonam, assisted by Ugyen and Norbu, found us alternative accommodations at the just-opened beautiful Peling hotel in Tamshing. Not only was this hotel a few minutes away from the scheduled festival, but it was the nicest hotel experience we've had in Bhutan. Despite teething problems (frequent power outages) during its soft opening, the staff of the Peling hotel were incredibly nice, accommodating and helpful. The owner of the Peling hotel is said to be one of the queens of Bhutan, and the hotel will eventually be a prime choice for many travelers to the area.

Finally, the group's synergy and chemistry was notably good on this photo expedition. The tribute for such an amicable and agreeable environment goes to the participants who were extremely supportive of one another. Much credit is deserved by our local support team of Sonam, Ugyen, Norbu and Dawa, who all performed their duties as guides, fixers, comfort blankets, picnic organizers etc. perfectly well. Our travel agents Samdrup of Jachung Travel in San Francisco, and Pema of Adventure Travel Bhutan in Thimpu, also kept a daily watch over our progress. Arranging for a support staff of 4 to our 11 members is a testament to the quality of these two travel companies.

I'm not shy of blowing my own horn when it comes to my expeditions, and I can justifiably tout the logistics and conduct of the Land of Druk Yul photo-expedition as having exceeded even my own high expectations. We consistently "scooped" other competing photo tours during the festivals, and stayed in accommodations where much more expensive tours also stayed...we were at festivals earlier than the rest of most groups, and this allowed us to pick our favored positions, make contacts amongst the festivals' clergy, and thus photograph behind the scenes.

The above photograph is of the dancers during the Tamshingphala tsechu who traditionally take the role of jokers...essentially warming up the crowd before the ritualistic dancing starts. if interested in the details, click on it for a larger version.

I'll be working on many more of my photographs made during the festivals, and as I also managed to record beautiful ambient sound, I'll eventually upload a multimedia feature.