The Beauty of Haa

Haa is one of the westernmost districts of Bhutan, nestled right up against Tibet on its northern border venturing close to India to the south . It’s remote and rugged, mountainous and forest-covered, quiet and nearly empty. With just under 14,000 people spread out over 1,899 square kilometers, Haa is the second-least populated district (or dzongkhag) in the country. And it is truly spectacular:

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Haa is well off the tourist path; when the mountain pass is closed for winter, getting to Haa Town from the capital of Thimpu requires at least four hours of bumping over windy roads studded with potholes. This means that if you put Haa on your itinerary in the off-season, you’re likely to have most of the district to yourself. Indeed, there are so few roads in the mountains themselves that many wares are still moved around by pack pony:

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Haa is the kind of place where you’ll find ponies wandering through your darts field …

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… cows walking untended up the lane in front of your hotel …

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… and bulls causing traffic hazards in the streets of town (you can tell that it’s a town because the road is paved):

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This area is nearly all rural and agricultural, so it’s not unusual to see women carrying enormous bundles of hay on their backs:

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And while Haa feels incredibly safe, you do wonder if walking next to a free-range bull underneath a “danger” sign on the road might pose any risks:

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But Haa isn’t all agricultural beauty. There are mountains galore, many lined with paths (generally unmarked) that you can trek:

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If you want to see religious sites, this region offers them by the dozen on a small and intimate scale. Villages are few and far between here, but each one has a Buddhist temple both in town …

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… and up in the hills somewhere:

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Singapore American School & READ Bhutan kids at the temple above Yangthang village

The mountain temple that we hiked to also housed a monastery:

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Traditional Bhutanese stupas dot the landscape throughout Haa, both in the villages …

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… and up in the mountains …IMG_0444.jpg

… and if you’re near a river, you’re likely to find a water prayer wheel somewhere close by:

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But Buddhism isn’t the only religion in Haa — deities and beliefs from pre-Buddhist days still hold sway. So we found this lay monk/astrologer (that’s how he was described to me) on the street one day:

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If you consult him, this gentleman might forecast an auspicious day for planting crops or tell you what to do to help cure a sick relative. For example, if someone is ill, he might tell you to make a cake, decorate it and put it on a bed of sod …

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… run through town with it …

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… and dump it on the ground (where the cake will then get eaten by the pack of dogs that’s been following you, though I don’t think that part is relevant to the astrologer’s prescription):

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I followed the cake-carrying man (with my guide’s permission), but a local schoolboy told me that I should stop — because if you approach the cake after it’s been thrown down, you also risk getting ill. So in this video, you’ll hear the cries of the man with the cake immediately followed by the schoolboy’s stern warning to me of “ma’am, ma’am”:

Ancient Bhutanese symbols of power in Bhutan come in many forms, but two of the most common are phalluses crossed with swords (which hang from the eaves of some homes) …

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… and the phalluses painted on the sides of houses that are meant to ward off evil:

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Garudas also abound on and inside houses as protective spirits:

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Prayer flags dot the landscape everywhere you go in Haa…

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… so a typical village street might look like this …

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… and every river crossing is a colorful reminder of people’s earnest wishes:

Bhutanese houses are beautiful, and the ones in Haa are no exception:

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Traditional homes in this region were built of rammed earth; they were then painted and have elaborately painted woodwork on the front and sides (the back of the house is often left fairly plain). Housing construction in Haa is still done by hand:

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Until fairly recently, animals lived on the bottom floor of the houses in Bhutan and the human residents lived upstairs — but in modern days, the animals have been moved to outbuildings. The top floor is always left open …

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… as a place for drying chilis, laundry, and especially hay:

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Inside, the rooms are large, sparsely furnished, and somewhat dark. Every kitchen will have a kitchen with a wood-burning stove and a couple of burners (but no counter space — chopping is done on small boards on the floor) …

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… a private altar …

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… and a ladder in the middle of the second floor that leads up to hole that provides access to the roof area on top:

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Needless to say, this setup leads to some serious insulation problems (there’s a large hole in the roof). Bhutanese houses have no central heating, so it can get really cold. You are, after all, in the mountains at about 9,000 feet — and it can definitely snow!

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Fortunately, the snow makes everything so impossibly beautiful that you stop noticing the cold for a while:

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We stayed at the Soednam Zinkha Heritage Lodge, and I loved everything about it, from the entrance gate …

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… to the lobby (complete with portraits of K4 and K5, the fourth and fifth kings of Bhutan, and the adorable crown prince)…

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… to the paintings on the walls …

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The Mongol Leading the Tiger

…to the rooms themselves:IMG_0272

The food at the hotel restaurant was also excellent. If you’re in Haa, it’s worth trying hoentay, a vegetarian dumpling in a buckwheat wrapper that’s a local specialty:

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The hotel was also in a spectacular location:

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It was lovely to stay right across from a river:

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Oh — we also got to see the military hospital in Haa! Four of the girls on our trip came down with various illnesses, so we made three different trips to the Indian military camp twenty minutes down the road.

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Why is there an Indian military camp in Bhutan? My guide said that it exists so that Indian military personnel can train Bhutanese soldiers, but I’ve read elsewhere that Bhutan is maintaining an Indian military presence in order to keep nearby power-hungry China at bay. In any case, while the facilities aren’t much to look at …

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… I was extremely impressed by the service. Health care is free in Bhutan, even for tourists. When you walk in, they just ask for your name — no passport, no national ID, no insurance card — and start treating you. It was like magic. But that said, no one wants to spend any part of a trip away from home at a hospital; so I’d like to give a huge shout-out to my trip co-sponsor, Malissa, for taking turns there with me!

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We were really sorry to leave Haa after four days. Here’s the “you’re leaving Haa gate” where we said a sad goodbye!

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2 responses to “The Beauty of Haa

  1. Pingback: Education & A King’s Celebration | Traveler Tina·

  2. Pingback: Bhutan: 10 Things to Know Before You Go | Traveler Tina·

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