This post contains my notes on our visit to Bhutan. Our weeklong stay occured in the middle of our Nepali adventures. Please join us as we visit the Thunder dragon kingdom.
In our last hotel before departing for Bhutan, I ate Puri Bhaji for breakfast, absolutely delicious. Our hotel room toilet leaked all over my leg when I attempted to flush. We dropped off our excess luggage at our future (and, different) hotel, caught our flight at Tribhuvan International, and settled into our seats, surrounded by a plane load of happy Czechs. I got the window seat, and was rewarded with a clear view of Everest.
We arrived in time for the Taeschu festive, colorful flags everywhere. Colors and meaning of the Bhutanese prayer flags:
We quickly mastered two phrases in the western Bhutanese dialect:
Kardinchi – Thank you
Kuzu zangpola – Hello
Bhutan is a religious state, 70% Buddhist, 30% Hindu. Lord Buddha taught his followers, his teachings written down in the form of 108 sutras. Our tour guide explained one reason for that exact and perfect number:
1- the one and only Buddha
0- emptiness, not-self
8- infinity, endless cycles
Paro to Thimphu
Along the windy road from Paro to Thimphu, signs caution drivers:
On the bend
Go slow friend
Any time is
If you are married
Reminiscent of the old Burma shave signs
A roadside sign near the Mendocino-Humboldt county line reads:
Redwoods don’t move over
Which led me to my next realization about Bhutan. The country resembled Humboldt County, both in terms of forest cover and population density. Another similarity is the rhododendrons, some 46 species
Bhutan is a densely forested country, 72% according to our guide. Yellow rice fields, chili pepper covered roofs, traditional dress and buildings, the middle path. Hillside dzongs, or fortresses, used to guard the land from the “wild Tibetans.” When we visited, they housed administrative offices, museums, and galleries.
Tiny Bhutan, pressed between the twin giants of India and China, like a cherry between two slices of bread.
The Yak and the Buffalo
The yak and the buffalo used to be very close friends. In those days, the buffalo was vey hairy but the yak was not. The yak decided to go north to visit her family, and asked to borrow Buffalo’s fur. The buffalo agreed, and the yak, now very warm, set off to the north. The Buffalo waited and waited, but the yak never returned. And that is why, to this very day, all the Buffalos face north when they graze. – as told by Ugyen Kinley
Woman sang an ancient song of prayer for the kingdom and the valley.
We sat with thousands of other guests and residents in a large stone forum, baking in the hot sun. The dancers and performers reenact centuries old stories in song and dance, wearing masks and dozens of pounds of costume, each.
A monk intoned the eight-fold way, to horns, cymbal, drums, and chanting, an ancient spectacle.
From the postal museum: “At another level, the Mandala represents the organizational structure of life itself and our relationship with the world that extends beyond and within our bodies and minds. By mentally entering a Mandala and proceeding to its centre, a person is symbolically guided through the cosmos to the essence of reality. Like, the Tahono O’odham.
For further readings on Buddhism, see my recommendation on Robert Wright’s book. The Guru Drinks Bourbon is an approachable introduction to Buddhist teachings by Dzongar Jangyang Khyentse, published by Shambala. For an introduction to the symbolism and rubrics of Buddhism, I recommend Some aspects of Buddhism and its culture – A collection of articles, by Mynak Tulku Rinpoche (ISBN 978 99936-54-51-3).
The steady stream of faithful paused by the Chief Abbot for a blessing, in the shape of a yellow or pink string. After the ceremony, they wear it for good luck.
We also stopped to circumambulate the 3rd king’s stupa, built by his mother to venerate his memory. The 3rd king fostered modern education, opening his country to the West. Seated on his stupa, facing the four cardinal directions, are 4 kings. Buddha faces east, as is custom.
White guardian king east
Overlooking the Thimpu river valley is the 51.5m Buddha Dordenma statue and temple complex. when we arrived mid-afternoon, hundreds of momks were hauling water for white tea. An assembled crowd had ascended the steep hill upon which the temple stands to hear the teachings of the Chief Abbot, and assorted gurus. Around the feet of the gilded Buddha were assembled dozens of boddhisatvas, ten feet tall, and shining gold.
We removed our shoes, stowed our cameras, and entered the main floor. Thousands of buddha statuettes sat in individual alcoves. Eventually, the temple will contain 125,000 small pottery buddhas. Hundreds of monks sat cross legged, long parchments of the sutras spread before them. They worked quietly in groups, some repairing older parchments, others transcribing new scrolls for distant temples. The story of Monkey and The Journey to the West sprang immediately to mind.
Across a wide aisle from the monks, behind a cordon, were stacks of restored and new sutra sets, neatly wrapped in brilliantly colored silk covers.
Thimphu to Punakha
We paused to talk a brief walk around the Royal Botanical Gardens, the late morning sun rising out of sight in the soft fog. We peered inside a rustic nomad tent, complete with fire ring. During the summer, we were told, the gardens and lake fill to overflowing with families enjoying a picnic and boat ride. The day we visited the park was empty, the playground swings still, the boats partially submerged in the shallow lake.
It is said that the Bhutanese are the happiest people on Earth, but evidence of that attribute was scant when judging by their demeanor. Nepalis seem much more open and gregarious, Bhutanese appeared cautious around foreigners. I am not a fan of the state of happiness, a transitory attribute in my estimation. I understand, and can rely on pain, in its many manifestations much more readily than happiness. I grok contentment, but judging my own state of happiness is problematic. Wish me well or ill, you can keep your happiness, it will dissipate soon. (The eight worldly dharmas are given in verse 29 of Nagarjuna’s Letter to a Friend, are hope for happiness and fear of suffering, hope for fame and fear of insignificance, hope for praise and fear of blame, and hope for gain and fear of loss.)
Singapore has been called “the golden cage;” perhaps Bhutan exists in a sublime state of happiness beyond my ken.
Chimla means butterfly in Dzonka. Within the multistory forests, the chimla cavort, much as the putali did at the Peace Pagoda, above Pokhara. Water is abundant, spilling off these Himalayan hills in streams, waterfalls pour down at every switchback, their outflow undercutting roads; road crews are busy whenever weather permits.
We paused near Lobesa for mustard greens, chicken curry and eggplant at a roadside cafe – for me, only the rice was edible. The drive is vertiginous, made all the more challenging by the random cow or steer laying in the road, soaking up the warmth of the asphalt.
A side trip to visit the Divine Madman, an enlightened one who required wine and women, and whose dorje was the phallus. Near his temple, sits a tight cluster of artisan shops which specialize in life size, and larger, phalluses.
Not my cup of tea, nor am I fond of this Buddhist philanderer; his tendency to use his divine power to seduce and oppress women remains a mystery to me. Perhaps the divine is not so holy, or it may be that we ourselves resemble the divine attributes more closely than we acknowledge.
Animals aplenty, mostly grey horned cattle and common mina birds, and of course sleepy dogs.
Punakha Valley to Tiger’s Nest
Here’s another word in Dzonkha. Ga ki – harmony, happiness, contentment
We visited the Punakha Dzong, also known as the Fortress of Great Bliss, built in the 17th century at the confluence of the Po and Cho Rivers. Guru Rinpoche had foreseen this building, and its builder back in the 8th century during his wanderings throughout Bhutan. The fortress was damaged in the1986 earthquake, and again when the
Glacier lake dam failure flooded the Punakha valley in 1994.
Our visit to Punakha and Wengdue concluded with a stroll across a 400m suspension bridge, strung over the Po river. Why is it there? To get to the other side, of course.
Bhutanese call themselves highlanders; the robes fold in half to the waist, giving the appearance of a clansmen wearing his kilt, t-shirt underneath. Many of the weaves resemble the tartans and plaids, with which Scots are quite familiar. The traditional dress is mandatory for most people, their social level indicated by their shawl.
Our guide took us into the holiest of temples inside the Punakha Dzong. Three golden thrones sit at the front of the temple, one for the 4th king, who abdicated at age 56 in favor of his son. The second throne is used by the Chief Abbott, and the third, central throne is the seat of the 5th king (the modern monarchy began in Dec. 17, 1907). Behind the thrones tower three enormous bejeweled and gilded statues: mustachioed Guru Rinpoche, Buddha, and the bearded Unifier.
Then, using the murals that adorned the temple walls, our guide recounted the life story of the Buddha. If you do not know the story, please ask me and I will be honored to share what I remember.
For our visit to Bhutan, we hired a private driver and guide, the three of us shuttled inside a clean, spacious Hyundai van. Our hotels were Class 3, or better, you can read my review of these on Trip Advisor. This cultural and historical tour helped us to appreciate the dynamic balance Bhutan maintains
The restaurants and cuisine varied greatly, from unpalatable to exquisite. Tishla wrote an extensive review on food and ingredients for her daughters and granddaughters, which I hope she will share with us.
Tishla’s favorite word in Dzonkha:
Jeh-lee – cat
Fire heated friable granite stones dropped by rebar tongs into a wooden bath of water, scented with Khempa Shing, (artemesia absinthe), that’s how our last day in Bhutan ended. It began with my guide leading to the Tiger’s nest, 2000 feet above the Paro valley floor. MJ and Tishla chose to spend the morning shopping and relaxing. When I met them for lunch after my hike, they appeared relaxed and happy.
Tale of the tape round trip to the Tiger’s Nest: 6.6 mi, 17,334 steps, 144 floors equivalent. From the base camp, estimates varied from 2100’ to 900m elevation gain. We took 1:45 to reach the security screening, spent 1 hour in devotion and meditation, and walked down to Taktsang Resort. The farmhouse lunch with the ladies followed, the highlight of which was the chili paneer.
The Taktsang monastery and temple perches on the side of a sheer granite cliff. The stream of pack horses, tourists, and faithful was constant along the strenuous hike. The visit to the monastery was a cathartic exercise for me, both physically and spiritually, one which I hope to share as a story about Guru Rinpoche in a subsequent post.
As I sit writing this in the Mandala Resort, overlooking the Paro valley, I feel honored and humbled to have been a guest of the Kingdom of Bhutan. I pray they continue to wisely manage the modernization of their pristine country. We flew back to Nepal today (6 Oct 2017), to go on safari in Chitwan.
A pano of the cafeteria, which marks the halfway point to the Tiger’s Nest:
Another panorama, from the Mandala Resort in Paro, looking west from the hotel balcony:
A video of dancers and singers performing at the Thimphu Fortress for the Thimphu Taeshcu annual festival:
And, a couple of mp3 recordings of the Thimphu performers. First, the women:
An mp3 recording of the male performers:
And, the Guru Rinpoche chant and response:
Thanks for reading.