Here in Thimpu, the capital of Bhutan, the sporting obsession is archery. Teams face each other over 100m apart and aim at a target no more than 35cm across. They are surrounded by the opposition archers who heckle and dance, shouting insults as the steel tipped arrows fly in, and leap out of the way as the arrows thud into target or ground.
A series of near misses is celebrated with a dance, and the chance to shoot back at the opposition target, again shrouded in archers. As a spectator it takes time before you can even see the arrows approach, let alone have the eagle eye and agility to leap to safety.
Elsewhere, in isolated monasteries in the hills, young monks improvise the same game with hefty steel tipped wooden darts, likewise defending the target with dancing and heckling.
In Thimpu the archery ground is below the town by the river, and competitions are on most days.
Forested Himalayan foothills, rushing rivers, Tibetan hamlets of timber houses with prayer flag-bedecked cantilevered wooden bridges, and a steep climb to C17th Cheri Gompa monastery with its temples and houses founded by Bhutan's first ruler. Sip butter tea, and picnic with the locals and lots of dogs.
15km north of Thimpu along the Wang Chu River, beyond Dechencholing, the Queen Mother's Palace.
Down by the river and the life-and-death archery ground, the market is alive with the aroma of dried or fresh produce, animals, abundant chillies and every sort of herb, fruit and vegetable. Colourful locals and stallholders pass the day chatting and choosing the ingredients to go with the obligatory chillies. Monks try out bones fashioned into wind instruments and traditional masks conjure up holy spirits.
Central Thimphu down the hill to the riverside.
A remote and green farming valley sending potatoes all the way to India. Visit the museum in an old Dzong with displays of rural crafts, costume, and telling about local history including the arrival of the British from colonial India. Swiss cows roam the riverside.
Walk over the chain bridge from the monastery at the head of the metal road, and up to the museum in a semi-restored courtyard house sititng high over the valley.
After the lavish festivals of Paro and Thimpu, visiting a small rural community festival and joining in is the best way to meet and understand the proud people and their traditions in a changing country.
Be sure to have some money to tip the clowns and buy food from the host of stalls. If you're Dzonged-out having reached this far into Bhutan, the simplicity is refreshing, and the singing and dancing involves the young monks and just about everyone.
Tangbi is a small hamlet a few km north of Jakar the main town in the valley, walk with the locals or car/bus.
A stunning setting nestling in the cliffs above Paro valley, walk all the way up (an hour or so each way) and try to arrange on a day when you're allowed into the monastery (leave hats and camera at the gate) and be offered holy water and maybe butter tea.
The decorated timber, prayer wheels, carvings, and holy figures are rich but simple. Tea house on return half way down.
5k beyond Paro heading north
Impossible to miss as it dominates the landscape and life of the valley, but be sure to visit the national museum in the watchtower up the hill for an insight into this beautiful country.
Visible from anywhere in Paro, across the covered bridge mingling with the cattle and monks.
Be sure to travel over the stunning Cheli-la pass to nearby Ha Valley, which leads up to the Tibet border and is an ancient trade route. Just stroll round the village, the shops and try having a drink in the bar. The open air market is the place to see yak meat and half the dogs in the valley. The Dzong is off limits as it's an Indian/Bhutanese army base.
An hour by bus or car from Paro heading over the highest road pass in Bhutan to the west.
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