Come explore Bhutan – the Land of the Thunder Dragon! Easily one of the coolest and most unusual countries I've ever visited!
Unlike other countries, Bhutan pays more attention to its people's Gross National Happiness as opposed to Gross National Product. Most people wear the colorful national dress: a ‘gho' for men [ a woven wrap around jacket and knee length skirt with knee socks] and a ‘kira' for women [ also woven, but usually more colorful and fitted and with a floor length skirt].
Landlocked in the Himalayan mountains, it is one of the few countries never conquered or colonized as so has retained its unique culture. TV wasn't introduced until 1999 and the internet in 2005. It still only has about 30,000 visitors/year.
On my trip, I acclimated to the altitude at Paro and our group timed it so that we could see the Paro Tshechu Festival – one of the most popular in the region (see the videos below).
On Day two, we hiked to TIger's Nest [Taktsang] a SPECTACULAR monastery perched incredibly on the side of a mountain, and one of Bhutan's most holy and iconic sites. At the overlook before the final ascent, I told my companion that as far as I was concerned, I had just gotten my money's worth, and we'd only just begun our adventure!
Adventure travel in Bhutan : Here's Part 2 of our Bhutan series – hike, bike and paddle Bhutan!
Bhutan is almost exclusively Buddhist, and you see temples everywhere. All homes have a private temple as well. The bridges and peaks are strung with colorful prayer flags which have soon to be faded mantras to impart blessings and good wishes to all sentient beings. You also see colorful prayer wheels everywhere. Even those illerate can sping the wheel clockwise to build up blessings.
Because of the chiseled Himalayan mountains, Bhutan has some incredible hiking. There are several ‘normal' trails (by which I mean it's something I can hike), plus Bhutan has one of the world's most difficult trials, the Snowman (which can be dangerous and deadly). My group and I hiked the Druk Trek, which is part of the old Silk Road from Paro to the capital city of Thimphu.
This four and a half day trek takes you past monastaries, beautiful lakes, rhododendron covered mountain peaks and when the weather cooperates, provides stunning views of the tallest Himalayan peaks. These are supported hikes : we had fourteen horses and seven staff (cooks and horsemen plus our guide). Comfy tents and equipment was provided, including – most gratefully – hot water bottles to keep us warm at night.
You will probably have to decide if you want to see a festival or the blooming rhododendrons. Your tour company can help you plan the right time for you to go. Bhutan requires all non-Indian tourists to hire a local certified guide. The Bhutanese government sets a daily tariff, which is all inclusive except for drinks and guide tips (whether you are hiking or touring).
You can customize your trip however you'd like! I would recommend spending a half to a full day on one with one of the local villagers to learn their craft (different crops and crafts). Your tour company can advise about opportunities in the communities that you'll be visiting. Ask them about Gakyed Gatoen – Hands on Experience for Happiness. This program is not year 'round so inquire.
An athlete hiking buddy suggested I train for the altitude by using a product called Alto Lab. While I did get a bout of food poisoning, I suffered no effects from the altitude, so I think it worked for me.
In Thimphu, you see the Great Buddha Dordenma long before you finish driving up the hill! It's MASSIVE and filled with thousands of golden Buddhas. Try to go early in the morning for the best light and to avoid crowds.
Splurge on a night or two at the Paro hotel Zhiawa Ling – a Five Star masterpiece of traditional Bhutanese architecture. Includes a spa, meditation room, tea room and private temple. Excellent food, too!
Phallic symbols are quite common in Bhutan, particularly in the villages. It is not unusual to see a phallic carving jutting from a house or painted on the exterior walls, particularly in the Punakha area, there to ward off evil spirits.
When there, be sure to visit Chimni Lhakhang, a temple to honor the Divine Madman. Infertile couples also visit in hopes of fertility.
Each trip is custom but here's what I did
Day 1 Arrive Paro from Bangkok (I went there several days earlier to adjust time zones) – write me for recommendations
Visited Paro National Museum, Paro Dungtsa Lhakhang and the fortress Paro Dzong
Day 2 Hike to Taksang – the Tiger's Nest temple (altitude 3120m and a 2-3 hour trek UP) A MUST SEE! Kichu Lhakhang temple.
Day 3 Paro Tshechu festival, wander Paro
Day 4 Paro Tshechu festival, wander Paro
Day 5 Begin Druk Path 10km/ 4-5 hours/ 1115m ascent 40m descent Camp at altitude 3480m
Day 6 Druk Path 11km/ 3-4 hours/ 425m ascent 50m descent Camp at altitude 3770m
Day 7 Druk Path 12km/ 4-5 hours/ 375m ascent 370m descent Camp at altitude 3870m
Day 8 Druk Path 11 km/ 4-5 hours/ 820m ascent 400m descent Camp at altitude 4110m
Day 9 Druk Path 10 km/ 6-7 hours/ 130m ascent 680m descent Hotel in Thimpu (the capital)
We modified this plan due to declining weather and did not climb as high as planned on Day 8 leading to a shorter hike on Day 9
Your trek is fully supported with guide, cooks and horsemen. We were a group of 8 and had 14 horses and 8 support men!
Day 10 Explore Thimphu. Visit Channangkha Monastery, Buddha Dordenma (HUGE!), Thimphu Chhodzong, craft bazaar, & farmers market
Day 11 Punakha through Dochula Pass, hike to Khamsum YuelleyNamgel Chorten, visit Punakha Dzong
Day 12 Punakha => Paro and hike to Chimmi Lhakhang temple of the Divine Madman (considered a boost to fertiity)
Day 13 Fly to Bangkok from Paro
RECOMMENDED READING: Beyond the Earth and the Sky by
This is a marvelous memoir that really gives you an inside feel of the mysterious culture of Bhutan. It features a young woman who travels to Bhutan to teach English and her culture shock and eventual adaptation and love of Bhutan. Highly recommend.
TIME STAMPED SHOW NOTES (see below for a complete transcription)
00:10 The evil ogress Sinmo pins down Bhutan and part of Tibet
00:49 Stats and info about Bhutan
04:55 Bhutan’s closed society emerges
06:14 Japan’s Festival of Happiness program : homestays and learn skills with farmers
06:50 Polygamy in Bhutan
07:15 National dress of Bhutan : ghos and kiras
08:25 Paro Tshechu Festival
10:08 Phallic symbols and the Divine Madman
11:25 Thankha scroll at the festival
14:31 Naked Dance Festival
16:15 Planting trees for the new prince
16:38 Prayer flags and prayer wheels
17:03 Environmental practices of Bhutan
18:54 King IV abdicates and converts Bhutan to a Constitutional Monarchy
19:53 Four pillars of Gross National Happiness
20:24 Environmentalism and organics in Bhutan
21:59 Government signage
23:06 All non-Indian tourist MUST hire local guide; all inclusive per diem tourist fee
24:26 Food and cili cheese
24:50 Languages: Dzongkha and English
25:07 Zwiwa Ling five star hotel in Paro
25:56 Infrastructure and traveling in a developing country – your attitude makes a difference
27:00 Tradition and group think
28:35 Astrology, naming babies and making important decisions with temple die
29:35 There are A LOT of dogs in Bhutan and what they are doing about it
30:48 Cordyceps – a fungus worth more than gold
32:11 Male and female rivers in Bhutan
32:27 Punakha Palace of Happiness
32:47 No street lights (in Thimphu or anywhere)
33:06 Subsistence farming, organics and the markets
33:28 Home altars
33:55 Paro airport
35:58 Safety Warning: check State Dept links on Travel Planners!
BHUTAN CULTURE : PART I – COMPLETE TRANSCRIPT
The year is 686. An evil ogress by the name of Sinmo has spread her wicked body across all of Bhutan plus the southern part of Tibet. But in a miracle still celebrated today, King Gampo miraculously built 108 temples in a single night to subdue the ogress and her evil and to help spread Buddhism throughout this Himalayan region.
Her left foot is pinned by the Paro temple, Kyichu Lhakhang, and in Tibet, her heart by the Jokhang temple. It takes all 108 temples to keep this wicked one pinned down.
Today we are visiting the Land of the Thunder Dragon. A land at a crossroad: does it continue to maintain old traditions and lifestyles, or does it adapt with some modern ways. Frankly, it hasn’t been that long since TV and the internet were introduced or for that matter, outsiders. Protected deep in the unforgiving Himalayans, it is a land steeped in tradition trying to decide whether to join a global society or to remain isolated and thus maintain its unique identity it is justly so proud.
Today we are heading to Bhutan…the most “foreign” and here I am air quoting foreign, culture I have ever witnessed in all of my travels. This country is so unusual and so few people ever visit it, that I will be covering Bhutan in an Active Travel Adventures first: a two part series. Today’s Part I will cover the country itself and go to Bhutan as much, if not more, to explore this most unusual culture, and in Part II, we will cover the trekking I did as well as other outdoor activities like rafting and mountain biking.
This is the ATA and I am your host, Kit Parks. I hope you’ll enjoy this most exotic destination, the Kingdom of Bhutan, a country many people have never heard of and would certainly have difficulty finding on a map.
I struggle to put into words the culture I witnessed: Bhutan is as complex and complicated as it is also simple. Bhutan is light years ahead of the rest of the world in some respects, yet anchored deep in the past in others.
I’ll be honest with you: while I’d heard of Bhutan, prior to my trip, all I could tell you was that it is landlocked in the Himalayan mountains, promotes Gross National Happiness or GNH over Gross National Product, or GNP, and was the first county to ban plastic shopping bags (this I knew only because I have a reusable bag business).
When a hiking buddy said he was putting together a group to head to Bhutan, I said I was in.
Between my other businesses, travels and putting together this podcast, I didn’t have any time to do any homework on Bhutan, so I truly arrived clueless which made my discoveries all the more exciting. All I knew is that we were going to do a 4-1/2 day trek along the former Silk Rd in the Himalayas, watch one of Bhutan’s largest festivals and see some of the countryside and temples.
Because the time difference is so extreme – a half day – I arrived in Bangkok five days early and got a chance to explore that city for the first time. Members of my group staggered in over the next few days and we headed to the airport together to fly to Paro, the only international airport in Bhutan. Because of the rugged mountains, there is no airport in Bhutan’s capital city of Thimpu and only a couple of regional ones.
Except for the Maldives, Bhutan is the least populated country in Southeast Asia at about 800,000 people – and it’s about the size of Switzerland. Only about 30,000 people visit each year. To put this in perspective, that means more people attend a Green Bay Packers game on a given Sunday than visit Bhutan in a year.
Bhutan is not just rugged mountain peaks. It has many trout-filled lakes, but because lakes are considered sacred, you cannot swim in them, fish them or make noise around them. Bhutan has four ecosystems including frost-free sub-tropical areas in the south, where you can grow guavas and oranges and where you find an abundance of exotic wildlife, to temperate, subalpine and most known, the Himalayan alpine zones.
Snow leopards and tigers live in Bhutan, as does the hornbill, a bird familiar to anyone with a child addicted to the Lion King.
In South Asia, Bhutan ranks first in economic freedom and ease of doing business and is the least corrupt. However, and I’m guessing here, perhaps because it was closed off to much of the word until recently, it is also the least developed country in Asia.
The terrain is rugged, which I am guessing is the reason that Bhutan has never been conquered or colonized and thus has been able to retain its distinct culture.
After China annexed Tibet and India did the same with Sikkim, Bhutan’s King IV realized that Bhutan, sandwiched between giants China and India, could be next and decided to make sure that Bhutan emphasized its truly distinct culture making it more difficult to absorb. He also began to cultivate diplomatic relationships with other countries late in the last half of the 1900’s.
It wasn’t until the 1970’s that outsiders even got a peak into this unusual nation. TV’s weren’t introduced until 1999 and it wasn’t until 2005 that the internet was unleashed. TV and the internet, along with introductions from students studying abroad who returned with new ideas and unfortunately sometimes drugs, began to change Bhutan. So the kingdom now struggles with how to herd cats now that kids can see that there is more to the world than agricultural subsistence. Like many developing countries, once kids see less strenuous opportunities in the cities, they flock there and agriculture diminishes. There is a concerted effort to retain the youth in the villages now.
I found that Japan has a program in Bhutan where it promotes and encourages tourists to learn farm skills. You can take a class with a local on everything from mushroom harvesting to making yogurt. I am sorry I didn’t learn about these opportunities until the end of my trip. I would encourage you to take advantage of them when you go and will put more information on the website. You can also arrange for a homestay for either a meal or overnight, which is also a pretty cool way to connect with the locals and to see how they live. I would have liked more cultural interaction than I had. The Bhutanese people are very friendly, and I must say a very handsome people.
But if you fall in love with a Bhutan, you can marry, but if you divorce or your mate dies, you have to leave the country. Polygamy is allowed for either sex, but falling out of favor. My guide said at least men were realizing it was hard too keep all the wives happy and equal. The current king says he will only take one wife.
In Bhutan, there is a national dress and most people still wear it. For men is called a gho: a billowy woven jacket with impossibly white wide cuffs over a matching skirt that hits just below the knee, plus black knee socks and loafers. The kangaroo-like pouch means you’ll rarely see a backpack on a man as they store things in this front pouch. The women wear a Kira, which is similar to the men’s, although its often more colorful, is fitted and has a more Asian cut jacket over top of a full length skirt. The national dress is required attire for the Bhutanse to visit to the many Buddhist temples and for many occupations. I would guess that in excess of 95% wear the national dress. You can see photos at ATA.com. I found them to be quite attractive and the weaving patterns and skills are exquisite.
At festivals and other special occasions or temple visits, the men would add a cream colored shawl-like scarf draped over their kho’s, and the women wear a colorful silk scarf over the left shoulder.
We timed our trip so we could see the Paro Tshechu festival, where all the local people from the region attend in their finest and most colorful outfits. It is quite the sight and the plaza on up the hill is covered in locals in the most colorful attire.
The Tshechu festival lasts four days and is held each spring and is one of the largest and most significant events in the district. This hugely popular event is also a way for young people to meet potential mates from surrounding areas. Most Bhutanese have been to so many festivals that they know the monks’ colorful masked dance routines by heart. These dances tell the Bhutanese stories and moral tales while they cement the history of the people and are a way for even the illiterate to know the stories.
For the ceremonial dances, the monks put on these whirling dervish-like outfits and then wear an intricately carved mask as they perform the ancient routines that Bhutanese families have enjoyed since their childhood.
At one point, I heard a rapid beating of a drum behind me, and out from a covered VIP area popped a masked monk with a skin-covered drum he was beating with a large hook. He and others similarly dressed monks entered the crowds. Spectators would bow their heads to receive a hooked pop on the head which wards off evil spirits and offers a blessing. As I was video taping this unusual sight, the monk came towards me and bopped me on the head. I’ll put the video on the website.
There also appeared some red-faced clown masked monks who was collecting money from the crowd, I assume for a blessing. There’s a great photo of his outrageous costume with locals in their colorful national dress on the website.
While not at this festival, sometimes the clown masks have a phallic shaped nose. You will see a lot of phallic symbols throughout Bhutan and in the countryside, sometimes the houses are adorned with them, particularly in the Punakha area to ward off evil spirits.
There is a famous temple there dedicated to the Divine Madman. Lama Drukpa Kuenley lived in Bhutan in the 1500’s. He was an outrageous monk who often taught with strong sexual overtones that shocked fellow monks. One the walk to the temple, the little village is flooded with phallic symbols, painted on house walls, on the homes and available for sale. Infertile couples often visit the temple in hopes of fertility. I have a humorous photo of a phallic arrow pointing to the restrooms on the website /19 or /Bhutan. I was told that the astounding number of penises throughout the town was in no way sexual, but simply to ward off the evil spirits and also I think to celebrate one of the people’s most famous and outrageous lamas, the Divine Madman.
Now back to the festival…Near the end of the festival, an enormous embroidered scroll called a Thangka — and by enormous, I mean somewhere around 100’ x 150’ feet of intricately detailed embroidered scroll — is unveiled in the middle of the night but then rolled back up again before the sun hits it. It is said that this scroll is so sacred that merely gazing at it erases your sins. The line to see the scroll up close was naturally very long. I’ll put a photo online.
Like most of the festivals, this festival is held in honor of Guru Rinpoche, the saint who introduced Buddhism to Bhutan back in the 8th century. Now Bhutan is a bastion of Buddhists who practice a form called Mahayana, which believes that one acts in ways to bring enlightenment to all sentient beings. Virtually everyone in Bhutan is a Buddhist. I’m not sure if other religions are allowed to try to convert, and I would be surprised if they are.
I tried without much success to wrap my head around their Buddhist beliefs. I think I finally understand that the various Buddhas are actually one Buddha, the original, who manifests in other monks over time. That regular worship at home and village temples is a natural part of their day. Each temple also has local deities one prays to for blessings and to ward off evil spirits. The temples are filled with all the many different Buddhas, each with a different gift or purpose, such a the God of Compassion. This Buddha has 1000 arms and and eye on the hand to see the needs of all sentient beings and to offer help and compassion.
In Bhutan, you see red-robed monks everywhere. In the past, if you chose to be a monk and changed your mind, you would be beaten badly enough to have to go to the hospital. Nowadays you can buy your way out if it turns out you aren’t cut out to be a monk. These monks can meditate in the noisiest of temples for hours.
At the end of my trip, I was most familiar with the Guru Rinpoche, the celebrant of the festival, as well as the Divine Madman who I’ll take about in a bit.
Because the king, King 5, attended the festival in honor of Guru Rinpoche, the sacred silk embroidered scroll was left out a little longer than usual. Unlike most countries, this Bhutanese leader is so beloved that his secret service seemed more interested in preventing unauthorized photographs of the king than worrying about any potential assaults on the king. In fact, I stood next to the red carpet so was within five feet of the king as he left the festival.
The day before, one of King 4’s wives – he married four sisters – attended with her grandson, who looked to be about three. This child, the nephew of King 5, is the reincarnation of a famous Buddhist leader and is said to have proven it by knowing certain things that only a reincarnate could know, such as where treasures were hidden plus the child knew exactly which was his old room, etc. Watching him leave with his grandmother, I can only say that I have never seem such a poised kid, particularly one so young.
While I didn’t see it, I learned a Naked Dance festival. In this festival, at the stroke of midnight, in the cold, twelve selected men don a white almost Casper the friendly ghost like mask and a decorative cape dance for the village for two days. It is an honor to be selected. This festival celebrates Bhutan’s welcoming of refugees that arrived naked from a neighboring ruler.
The way I understand it, the then emperor of the adjoining region, in an effort to ward off evil spirits, natural disasters, disease and intruders, would select several male and female teenagers. After a month long celebration, they teenagers would be stripped naked and paraded in the street along with a special alter that would be sacrificed at the end of the parade. The citizens would spit and curse at the youth, and throw flour and ash at them. They believed that by doing so, all of the community’s misfortune would be carried away by these sacrificial kids, who were then banished from their village after being fed one last time, and told never to return. They were given nothing to survive and departed naked.
Over the decades, indeed centuries, the surviving teens who made their way to what is now Bhutan, who welcomed these refugees, created new communities, and this is where the festival is now held to honor those kids and to bring blessing on their new community. I have a fun – and don’t worry I blocked out the private parts to make it a G-rated photo on the website. It’s definitely worth a look!
Getting back to the current king, to celebrate the birth of King 5’s son, all 82,000 families in Bhutan planted a tree, and volunteers planted more for a total of 180,000. Bhutan put in its constitution that 60% at a minimum of the country is to remain forest.
That 108 number seems to be an auspicious number to Buddhist, and they use the term auspicious a lot to designate days in particular. I believe Chimmi our guide said that’s the number of tall vertical poled white prayer flags one puts out to send blessings and well wishes to a departed loved one.
Since the Buddhist believe in reincarnation, they do not seem to mourn the same as non-reincarnate believers. One cool tradition they do is to take some of the ashes of a loved one and make a mini chorten stupa with them and then this stupa is ceremonially tossed in the river. The stupas are kind of shaped like a small circus tent, and are painted but not whimsically or as colorfully as the exterior of buildings.
In mini caves or other protected areas throughout the country, you will see clusters of smaller stupas in nooks and crannies somewhat sheltered from the elements. These charming stupas are for blessing and wishes of the living.
Inside the bottom base of the stupa is a mini scroll with prayers. The stupas are only about 2-1/2 “ tall. I have a great photo of stupas in a mini cave on the ATA website/ 19 or /Bhutan.
In 2006, to set an example for his son, King 4 abdicated the throne. King 5, who was the king I saw at the festival, was crowned in 2008. His father before abdicating to his son, also switched the country over to a constitutional monarchy much like the UK however with a clause that the king can be impeached with a 2/3 majority of the legislature.
So this fledgling democracy is only a decade old, and Bhutan is still figuring democracy out. A new election is forthcoming, and candidates are not allowed to visit large groups to prevent bribery, so must convey their positions via the press. During campaign season, all weddings and large gatherings are either prohibited or must be reported in advance, presumably so they can be monitored for potential election corruption.
From my perspective, it looks to me like the government acts as basically a benevolent dictator: With its Gross National Happiness program, all policies are decided on based on whether it would be good for the people and nation overall. The four pillars of GNH are:
1. Sustainable and equitable socio-economic development
2. Environmental conservatism
3. Preservation and promotion of culture, such as the national dress and Buddhism
4. Good governance evaluated by psychological well being, health, time use, education, community vitality and living standards
For a poor country, Bhutan places a huge emphasis on preserving its environment.
Over 70% of Bhutan is preserved forest, which allows for a rich wildlife that includes the fore mentioned snow leopards and tigers, and a healthy primate population. Bhutan has almost 800 kinds of birds and over 5400 species of plants.
Bhutan gets most of its energy from hydroelectric power and already 10% of its cars are electric, so it hardly emits any carbon, making it the first carbon neutral country in the world – in fact is is actually carbon negative meaning that the trees absorb more carbon than the country emits – and by a wide margin!
Virtually all produce is organic and pesticides and chemicals are rarely used. Bhutan aims to be completely organic by 2020. Yet they often litter, which is one of the conumdruns I often witnessed.
So as green as it is on a macro level, there is still much work to do on a micro level. The litter issue along the trail and along the highways seems to be addressed via signage campaigns along the highways and trails.
Our trekking litter was evaluated upon our return to civilization to make sure that we were bringing back an appropriate amount for the people and time in the woods – someone actually checks the inventory of what was purchased and used against the cans, etc brought back for appropriate disposal. I was told my guide company had to provide the inspector with a grocery list of what was brought in.
This benevolent government doesn’t just discourage littering with highway signage, there are also signs to discourage speeding, such as: It is not rally, enjoy the valley and to improve health awareness: Know Aids = No Aids: that is know K_N_O_W Aids = N_O_ Aids.
I also saw a sign saying it is a citizen’s duty to report anyone using or dealing drugs. In the paper I saw that a man got a 5 year sentence for having drugs and his friend got three months for failing to turn him in. While I would call all of the signs I saw beneficial propaganda, and I can’t say that I actually disagreed with any of the slogans or signage, it did somewhat remind me of Chairman Mao, who was by no means a benevolent dictator.
Being raised in an outspoken country that encourages diverse opinions and ideas, I was always a bit uncomfortable about the control the government has over the people. I never saw any signs of negative behavior from the government, but I can see how in the wrong hands, the government control could turn ugly, quickly, like the Chinese communist government it feared last century.
In fact, Bhutan requires all foreigners except for Indians to hire a local guide for the duration of your trip, whether or not you are hiking. Your visa is only for the areas included on your trip itinerary. That said, you and your guide can modify your tour to suit your interests. All trips are custom, whether is is a party of one or two, which is most common, or a party of eight like ours.
To control foreign visitation, the government sets a per diem cost. So whether I was camping or staying at a 3 star guest hotel, my daily tariff was $250, all inclusive except for drinks, including water, in many cases, and tips. If too many people want to come to Bhutan, the government raises the daily tariff, so its been as high as $300/day. If they need more visitors, they lower it.
All guides are trained and approved by the government, as are the restaurants that we went to for our buffet meals. They had to be inspected and certified for tourists. When we were on our own to wander Paro or Thimphu, we could go into other restaurants. They had some amazing bakeries, and once after two weeks of curry, we told our guide, Chimmi that we would prefer to pay and go out for pizza rather than eating our prepaid buffet.
Indians, with whom Bhutan has a special and very tight relationship, are the only folks who do not need a visa. The indian influence is striking, too, in the food – very spicey and much tastier than I thought we’d find. Their most popular dish is a chili cheese. Hot chilies in Bhutan are considered a vegetable, NOT a spice. The tourist restaurants dumb down the spice level for us, but will offer a bowl of chilis so you can jazz your food up to your liking.
And you’ll find it easy to ask for the chilies as English is taught in all schools, so you don’t need to learn any Dzonga, but it is polite to at least learn thank you and please. In fact, all signs are in both Dzonga and English, so it is quite easy to navigate.
On our last night, our group splurged and paid extra to stay at a five star hotel called Zhiwa Ling. Built only 14 years ago in the Bhutanses tradition, it was the most extraordinary lodge I’ve ever stayed in, and is included as one of National Geographic world’s most extraordinary lodges. I’ll put a link on the website. It took craftsman over five years to carve the lodge in the traditional Bhutanese way. The lodge included a serene tea room, a meditation room and a temple. In all of the many temples I visited, there was always people and noise as the visitors and guides spoke. However in the quiet hotel temple, I was able to sit quietly alone and smell the incense and listen to chanting monks – on tape- and while I am not Buddhist, I felt the peace and sacredness of the sight.
In Bhutan, sometimes the infrastructure doesn’t work, so it was nice to end our trip with reliable hot running water with a shower with good water pressure! In developing countries you need to go with an attitude of appreciating what DOES work instead of counting what doesn’t. In other words, go over with a glass half full attitude and you’ll be fine and will appreciate when things go right. Expect that the power will occasionally go out, you might not have good water pressure or even hot water. You need to drink bottled water – and many restaurants offer filtered water. And like most developing countries, the sewer system can’t handle TP, so you put it in the small trash can next to the toilet instead of down the toilet. It’s funny, I’ve spent so much time traveleing in developing countries this year that when I’m at home, I sometimes look for the little side can and feel like I’m being naughty when I flush it!
Similar to backpacking for me, a visit to a developing country makes me appreciate more the little things that I take for granted, especially reliable power and water, and clean drinking water – as much as I want. That said, I do like a little luxury at times.
One thing about Bhutan, I also felt, rightly or wrongly, that individual critical thinking is discouraged in favor of agreement with the group and community. Indeed, group cohesion and cooperation is critical for survival in village life. But I often felt a sense of unease with the group-think mentality.
Crafts such as painting, weaving, embroidery and carving are huge and are used not only in the national dress but also in the required architecture of homes and temples. Building must conform to Bhutanese tradition which is quite charming: It has massive dental molding of around 8” blocks which decorate what would be ordinary rectangular buildings and then these moldings and sides of the buildings are carved and colorfully painted with lotus and other flower decorations and symbols.
It reminded me a bit of Swiss chalets but with a decidedly more colorful slant. Be sure to check out the photos on the website. Not just homes but the many Buddhist temples over the centuries are adorned with these paintings.
The artists learn the traditional patterns at a technical school. On temples and homes at least, only the traditional symbolic patterns can be used. Murals though in the temples, tell stories, but all are in the traditional style.
I did seek out art galleries to check out whether independant art was permitted and/or encouraged, and was happy to see some skilled modern art. Most of the stores are filled with traditional styled paintings.
Virtually all citizens are Buddhists, a religion that while I don’t see me converting, I did come to appreciate some of the philosophies practiced such as mindfulness and loving kindness.
Virtually everyone in Bhutan is a devout, practicing Buddhist and it is common to see monks walking the streets or shopping the markets in their flowing robes, often talking on cell phones like the rest of us.
Astrology plays a big part in the Bhutanese life, and life revolves around the lunar caledar. Auspicious days are indicated in the daily paper to determine whether or not it’s a good day to buy land or marry, for example.
Buddhists have an interesting way to name babies and we were fortunate to see three babies get blessed in one of the temples. There are two jars at the temple, one for boys and one for girls. The parent reaches into the jar and selects a name. There are about thirty names from which to choose. Whatever name the parents pick out of the jar, becomes the baby’s name. However, if the parents don’t like the name, they may try again at another temple.
Important decisions may also be determined by a roll of the dice. There are three die on a plate by the temple altar. Each temple has two good numbers and the rest are bad numbers. If you have a big decision, you roll the temple die. If you roll a good number, you go forward with the decision. If you roll bad numbers, you do not. Unlike baby names, you do not go to another temple to try to get good numbers if you don’t like the outcome you rolled.
Buddhists do not believe in killing anything, not even a bug. If you kill a spider or mosquito, you may spend the next few lives as that kind of bug. Since a dog’s next reincarnation will be as a human, dogs have been allowed to proliferate. I would bet that there are more dogs per capita in Bhutan than anywhere else on the planet. Our first morning in Paro we had a dog howling wake up call that gratefully was not repeated. Dogs are EVERYWHERE. I have never seen anything like it. I did see a sign that they were trying to round up the dogs for mass rabies and sterilization.
A funny story: on the way to the market, the dogs were harassing a large white truck in front of us – barking and growling and otherwise intimidating the truck’s driver. Tashi, our driver, said that the white truck resembled the sterilization vet’s truck so the dogs were warning the driver to back off. Too funny!
Despite all the dogs, I only saw one sickly one, so they seem to be well fed by the local townspeople. Dogs have free rein of the streets and villages – as often do cows. They eventually move.
Bhutan doesn’t have many exports, with the notable exception of hydroelectric power which it exports to India, but it does have one of the rarest commodities in the world. Currently it is more valuable than gold.
Cordyceps, considered an aphrodisiac plus is advertised as a miracle mushroom benefiting energy, cholesterol levels, immune system, blood pressure, respitory illness and as a regulator of the kidney and liver, is the mold that grows on top of a caterpillar. It is harvested once every five years in the highest altitudes of Bhutan by the locals. For some nomads this fungus is a literal gold mine. There are nomadic tribes throughout the country, distinguishable by their colors and attire, especially their fantastical hats.
The fungus only appears at elevations between 14,500’ and 17,000’. Because of the extreme altitudes, many people get sick and suffer or may even die trying to harvest it. It is grueling work but as many as 5% of the harvesters can make over a million dollars, which in a country where most live off of less than a $1/day, it is substantial financial opportunity.
Because of the money to be made, poaching of other tribes’ land is common and obviously meets with local resistance. King 4 designated that the local people within the crop’s region are the only ones officially allowed to harvest the fungus of this crop.
In Bhutan, there are male and female rivers. The male rivers are fed by glaciers and are cold, while the female rivers are fed by underwater hot springs. There is a place with a male and female river meet, at the Punakha Dzong palace and administrative office. This magnificent structure, in English called the Palace of Great Happiness, is also where the king gets coronated and also where he keeps his office during the winter months. Many monks also live there.
In the capital city of Thimphu, there are no street lights, but instead traffic officers who use a fanciful hand signals to direct traffic that is not necessarily clear to a westerner. They tried street lights in Thimphu once, but the people didn’t know how to use them so the lights were quickly removed and as of this recording, there are still no street lights in the entire country.
Most of the country is made up of subsistence farmers and their families. There is an abundance of organic fresh vegetables and much of the mountain side is terraced for rice plantings. It is quite scenic but I am sure, back-breaking work. The popular town markets show the many available crops, dried and fresh meats, plus a multitude of spices for incense for people to hand roll their own.
The smell of incense is pervasive in Bhutan. All homes have a private altar and temples have large outside incense burners, in addition to the inside ones, so it is normal to smell various kinds of incense burning throughout the day. I liked that.
Bhutan is high up, and the town of Paro that we flew into is about 9000’ above sea level. Fortunately we had the Paro Tshechu festival to check out while we acclimated to the higher altitudes before our climb. Near the end of our trip, we had lunch on the mountainside overlooking the airport, which is quite small and the runway short. It was fun watching the planes weave between the mountains at take off, but I didn’t find it scary. I think the airport in Nepal covered in episode 17 looks much more, shall we say, exciting.
I found Bhutan to be fascinating and complicated. I saw so many of the good things they are doing to improve the lives of the people, yet was often troubled by the government control, which as I said, seemed benevolent, but what if a later King is not so. Perhaps that is the wisdom of King 4 who installed the legislature and gave them the opportunity to get rid of a bad king.
I would encourage anyone who is fascinated by unusual cultures to head to Bhutan. I want to go back to explore the temperate regions of Bhutan, hopefully in the next year or two. I fear that now that the cat is out of the bag, so with the introduction of TV and the internet, Bhutan will struggle to maintain its culture and will morph like so many of us to a global community of sameness.
In our next episode, I will review my trek in Bhutan, plus also talk about rafting and mountain biking in this mysterious country.
If you’ve enjoyed – or not- my expansive cultural take on Bhutan, please write and let me know at kit[at] activetraveladventures.com or leave me a voice mail at 252[dot]515[dot]0166 on what you think of this or any of my episodes.
I travel not only to see the pretty places, but also to enjoy and explore new cultures, and Bhutan was just so unusual, I had to share it with you. I do hope that you’ve enjoyed today’s tour of Bhutan.
Be sure to check out the extensive show notes, videos and photos at ATA.com/19 or /Bhutan (B_H_U_T_A_N). If you forget, just go to ATA.com and click on the directory page.
Be sure to share this episode with your adventurous friends. I’ll be back in two weeks with my actual trek in Bhutan. Until next time, Adventure On!
Bhutan Cultural Adventure by Active Travel Adventures – Kit Parks is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://activetraveladventures.com/bhutan.
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Title: Thunder Strike 1
License: Attribution 3.0
Recorded by Mike Koenig
File Size: 5.65 MB