11 days in Bhutan

Hello Everyone. Here we are, at the Kathmandu Guest House in Nepal. We’ve been running around like crazy for the past few days trying to arrange our flight back to Bangkok at the end of the month, as well as arranging what we’ll do here in Nepal. However, Shawn woke up with a bad cough and a fever yesterday morning, so we’ll spend another day or two down at lower altitude before we head up into the mountains. At least now we have time to write about our trip to Bhutan. Get ready- I’m covering a very interesting week and a half in one post, so this is going to be a long one!

First of all, the landing in Paro is probably the most exciting flight you can get in an airliner. After getting excellent views of the Bhutanese Himalayas, and seeing Everest in the distance, you have to follow this steep, narrow valley as it twists and turns down to the nation’s only airport (a second airport is under construction). Everyone on the plane seemed to have a sense of excitement you usually don’t find anymore on a simple airplane landing. For many of the passengers, ourselves included, this was a “trip of a lifetime”. For the Bhutanese…well…they were bringing enormous amounts of booty back from Bangkok- mostly flat-screen TVs.

After going through customs and meeting our guide outside (named “Karma”), we realized the landscape around Paro, while beautiful, looked a LOT like Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Many places in Bhutan reminded us of other places in the US. Some places looked like Colorado, others like the northwest, and the low areas looked like the jungles of northern Thailand- compete with 15-foot tall wild poinsettias. Other areas had prickly pear and hanging chilies, complete with adobe and carved, exposed timber construction. It looked like we could’ve been in Santa Fe.

Our first stop was the bank to get money. We were a bit surprised to learn there isn’t a single ATM in the whole country. Fortunately, most of the trip was prepaid. We exchanged enough “emergency money” to pay for souvenirs and extras. On the way out of town, we stopped by the local archery range. Archery in the national sport of Bhutan, and they take it to the extreme. The target is about 3’ tall and 1’ wide, and they shoot at it from about 140 yards away. As if that weren’t enough, the opposition stands right next to the target and yell taunts at the archer- quickly dodging the arrows when they miss their mark. Karma said that when they start drinking, injuries are common. On this day, they were shooting with traditional bamboo bows and arrows, so most arrows missed their mark. I couldn’t even see the arrows in flight, but the people standing next to the target seemed to have no problem dodging them.

After 20 minutes at the archery range, we hit the road for the capital city of Thimpu (about the size of Longview, WA). We bounced down a windy, rough, dusty road in a Hyundai Santa Fe (one of the nicest cars available) for a couple of hours. Indian laborers were rebuilding the road between these cities, so it was particularly bad. Before I go on, it is unbelievable how these roads are being built. While there is some mechanization, they are mostly constructed by manual labor. Indian men, and women with babies on their backs, line the roads digging, mixing concrete, boiling tar in a barrel over a wood fire, or making gravel by hand with a small hammer. Often, you see two women using one shovel- they tie a makeshift rope (made from a ripped gunny sack) to one end, and one woman pushes the shovel while the other pulls on the rope. Even when the roads are finished, they are only one lane wide and very twisty. Speeds seldom exceed 25 mph, so it takes a long time to get anywhere. Passing involves looking for a spot with a wide enough shoulder for two cars to inch past each other- often with a several hundred meter fall waiting for the person who gets over too far. It was nearly as common to have to dodge cattle as cars. Our driver was pretty skilled though- there was only one collision of side-mirrors the whole trip. If there is a stupa in the road, superstition dictates the stupa remain to your right, so in these instances the road will split into two divided lanes for a short time.

Our fist stop while approaching Thimpu was the “mini-zoo”. This “zoo” is dedicated to Bhutan’s national animal- the Takin. According to legend, a guru who visited Bhutan several hundred years ago created this animal by attaching the front of a mountain goat to the back of a cow. They essentially look like a small elk with horns instead of antlers. Here are a Yak and a Takin…

Yak Yak Yak

You Takin’ to me?

After the mini-zoo, we stopped by the countries only nunnery. The nuns inside were doing a sort of memorial ceremony for one of their members who died recently. It started with them chanting these Buddhist mantras in a quick, staccato manner. It sounded sort of like a cross between a Gregorian chant and an auctioneer’s fast rambling. Then, even though they all sounded like they were doing different things, in unison they’d pick up musical instruments and start playing. The instruments ranged from drums, woodwinds, and flutes to these 10-foot long Swiss-alpine looking trumpets. The sound was like nothing we’d ever heard before. At first it sounded like a random cacophony, but after a few seconds it came together into a beautifully complex music. Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to take video or photos in the nunnery, so we weren’t able to record this wonderful sound

That night, after we started eating, we realized it was Thanksgiving. We had our dinner with other travelers in the hotel. There were two older couples there- one working for a crane conservation organization, the other retired airline executives, a women, Kathie, about our age on an around the world trip, and a Canadian teacher from Baffin Island named Janice. She was on an around-the world of her own, and we had very similar itineraries while in Bhutan, so we shared a lot of meals with her over our trip.

Speaking of running into people on our trip, Bhutan is so small that it was common to run into people who sat next to us on the airplane, or people we had dinner with a few days before, in all sorts of random places throughout our trip. The population of the entire nation is under 700,000- less than the city of Albuquerque.

On the second day we drove over 3500 meter Dochula pass, where we enjoyed amazing views of the mountains from a cozy little tea house. From there, we went to a place where two rivers- known as the Pho and Mo (or male and female), merge to form a larger river. The interesting thing about this place is that the rivers go across different types of terrain and, consequently, have distinctly different colors. On the spit of land between the rivers there is one of Bhutan’s most beautiful fortresses, or “Dzongs”. These places originally served the same function as medieval castles, but now most of them have a dual role of monastery and government administration building. As in the nunnery, photos are not allowed the monastery areas.

That evening, we arrived in Wangdu. This town was pretty low altitude, with an almost subtropical feel. Shortly after we checked into our hotel the power went out. As we expected, electricity is still somewhat of a novelty in Bhutan, so power outages were frequent. Fortunately, we brought headlights. Since the weather was so pleasant, we decided to walk around town. Our headlight practically made us into celebrities though. We were causing such a stir we eventually just turned them off and went by moonlight.

While wandering the town we peaked our heads into a shop and noticed a bottle that said “Dragon Rum – Product of Bhutan – A division of the Army welfare project”. Since we’re collecting beer labels as a nice lightweight souvenir, something this funny, and something that said “made in Bhutan” was too hard to resist. I thought it would be pretty spendy, but it was only 150 neustrum- about $3.50. I figured the rum would be pretty bad, but I wanted the label, so we decided to buy it anyway. To our surprise, it was as good or better than most rums I’ve tried back home, so we decided to sit out on the patio and have a rum & Coke (with two Cokes costing as much as the entire bottle of rum!) While there, we ran into three high school aged boys. They were waiting for the power to come back on so the could use the hotel’s PlayStation room, so we had quite an interesting conversation with them while they waited. These kids were wearing new western clothes (which they claim is “more comfortable” than the robe-like gho). They were very interested in the US, so we spent a long time telling them about, and showing photos of, the US and the rest of the world. Like most small-town kids, they seemed to feel a little isolated and wanted to see bigger and “better” things.

The next day we took a six hour drive to the region of Bhumtang. This drive took us over several high passes. Much of the route looked like the old Columbia River Gorge Highway (only narrower). It was filled with big trees and ferns and many small waterfalls. Along the way, we encountered what looked like a few of Bhutan’s many stray dogs crossing the road, but it turned out to be a large gathering of monkeys. This was a surprise since we didn’t know Bhutan had monkeys! They were causally hanging around the side of the road with some cows. We were able to take a few pictures, but they got shy and left. Our guide said these monkeys can be hard on crops, so they probably haven’t had the most pleasant encounters with people. We also began to see Yak grazing along the roads. Our guide stopped off at a place that specializes in Yak wool textiles. They were interesting, and the shopkeeper REALLY wanted us to buy something, but it was a little expensive, and really didn’t fit our décor.

For the next few nights we stayed at “The Swiss Guesthouse”. This was a nice alpine looking place (Bhutanese and Swiss architecture are similar looking). Our room was all local wood, with its own little wood stove and a backup solar system to deal with the frequent power outages. The name seemed a little ‘out of place’, however. At first we thought ‘what…Bhutan wasn’t exotic enough, so they were looking for more familiar mountain cachet’? It turns out the man who owns the place is Swiss. His wife is Bhutanese, and they met each other while studying at the university in Muenster, Germany (where we visited only a few weeks before). Not only does he run the guesthouse, but he also has businesses that make cheese, butter, brandy, apple juice, and most notably, beer. His beer is called “Red Panda”, named after a strange little weasel-like animal we never saw. It was an unfiltered beer, and was quite good. Now I know why- foreign recipe. Bhutan’s other beer, “Druk 11000”, has a strong butter taste to it. Interesting, but not my thing.

The Swiss guest house was undergoing an expansion, so we got to take our first peek at Bhutanese building techniques. Instead of kiln drying, rough-cut boards are put into a well ventilated stack with a little roof on top to age for a while. Not fast, but at least it is energy efficient. The rough cut lumber is given its final dimensional cuts with simple hand tools- not saws. A few carpenters spend all day, every day hacking at the wood by hand with what looks like a curved machete. For the exposed finish pieces, a smooth finish is achieved by hand-planeing them smooth. It probably takes the men two or three hours to make a single 4”x6” board. The tops of posts and their capitals are often finished with elaborate carvings and flourishes. Houses seem to be mostly held together with notch-and-groove joints, so few nails are needed. Per government regulations, all permanent structures must use traditional Bhutanese architectural styles, and hey put some serious labor into their buildings (in several of our rooms, what we thought initially was wall paper was actually an elaborate hand-painted pattern!). They even go so far as pouring their own cinder blocks when they need some.

The next day, we hopped into an old, battered Toyota Landcruiser and went about two hours down what could loosely be described as a “road” at about 7 mph. It didn’t look like there’d be any sort of settlement out there, but we eventually arrived at a small town in the middle of nowhere. Since the houses are built from 90%+ of local wood, adobe, and slate, and since 80% of Bhutan’s population are subsistence farmers, settlements are often found in random, remote areas. From the edge of the village it was a 10 minute walk to their main square. This place was beautiful! There were large, pacific-northwest-looking forested mountains surrounding terraced rice paddies, small gardens, and fields where livestock lazily grazed. Curving paths wind their way under ancient trees and small stupas. In the town center, a tranquil brook runs down the steep hillside the settlement is built on, traversed by the occasional stone bridge. Further up the hill, the brook turns a waterwheel, which turns an enormous Buddhist prayer wheel. The place looked like something out of an idealized painting of what ancient, rural Asia is supposed to look like.

The purpose of our visit was to witness a festival, which included ceremonial dancing in elaborate costumes from dawn to dusk for three days. Janice’s guide had family members who lived right next to the main square, so we had the opportunity to spend some time inside an authentic Bhutanese house. While the outsides of the houses tend to look traditional yet almost contemporary, the insides look like 1800s era cabins- very rustic. The main living area is reached by a steep, slippery ladder-like staircase. These dangerous ladders are a holdover from ancient times, when they would be pulled up for defense from animals and raiders.

Inside, we got to watch the locals make their traditional butter tea using a butter turn and a large kettle. We also sampled a local snack that tasted like, and is prepared similarly to, Fritos corn chips. After tea we walked out onto a small balcony and began to watch the dancing. All the local inhabitants were wearing their finest, intricately woven clothes. This is the robe-like “gho” for men, and the “kira” dress for women (there is a law requiring people to wear these, which up until last year was strictly enforced. Now about half the people you see wear western clothes).

The dancers, however, were wearing far more elaborate costumes, as seen in the photos. Much of the dancing was very energetic- the dancers being clearly out of breath as they try to sing along. Every so often, the women would come out and do their dance routine, which was pretty low-energy, to give the guys a break. Once, a particularly drunk old man went out and joined them (he looked like he was really trying hard though ☺). The dancing was capped off with dances in various stylized demon and animal masks (which bear a remarkably resemblance to native American masks). Depending on whose explanation you listened to, these are either so you become accustomed to the scary creatures you see in the afterlife, or they are there to protect from settlement from evil. Either way, the masks and costumes were wonderfully detailed, and they did an excellent job staying upright through their wild gyrations while wearing all of this expensive gear- especially considering that they’d all been drinking heavily.

The festival is also something like Christmas for the children, and most of the kids were seen carrying around new toys. This area has only recently been reduced to packaging that isn’t biodegradable, to the one ugly part of this village was all of the candy wrappers, potato chip bags, and even batteries laying all over the main path.

After Bumthang, we headed to the Phobjikha valley- commonly referred to as the “valley of the cranes”. This valley is one of the wintering ground of the Tibetan black-necked crane. These birds are a threatened species, so the valley was not allowed to develop like much of the rest of the country. They aren’t even allowed to have electricity for fear of scaring the birds. The local inhabitants weren’t very happy about their reduced economic opportunities, so the valley has been developing ecotourism around the crane. It is all a bit contrived, but this place was sound-of-music beautiful, and the birds were fun to watch, too (and listen to…all, night, long).

Throughout our visit to Bhutan, we would usually visit several Dzongs and monasteries per day. These were really interesting, and most of them have amazing stories behind them, but after a while they all begin to look the same, much like all of the ancient ruins did in Turkey. A man we had dinner with one evening called this effect “AFT”, which stands for “Another Temple”.

There was one temple, however, that really stood out from the rest. This is the Taktsang, or “Tiger’s Nest” monastery, which is built into an enormous cliff outside of Paro. According to legend, the Guru Padmasambhava flew to a cave on this cliff from Tibet on the back of a Tiger in 747 AD. The monastery was built around this cave in 1684 and, like most monasteries, has been rebuilt several times since (most recently just a few years ago). The regular rebuilding is due to unattended candles on alters full of fluttering papers and fabrics- you’d think they’d learn. Anyway, it was about an hour and a half climb to the top, with a nice little tea-house break half way up.

This was easily the most amazing place we saw in all of Bhutan, and we almost missed it. You see, our ticket out of Bhutan left on 2 December, but our itinerary had us leaving on 3 December. Not us, or our guide, or Goldenfish Travel who sold us the tickets and itinerary, nor Yak adventures who wrote the itinerary, noticed the discrepancy until 1 December! Close call, but I think it was for the best. While the country was an amazing place to see, it is terribly expensive. We were refunded for the missing day in cash, on the spot, which replenished our emergency money. The only thing we missed was the national museum, so I think it all worked out for the best.

Ok…well here I am at the end of the post, and I keep thinking of more things to say, but I don’t feel like editing them into all of the text above, so I’ll just put them down here.

Bhutan is a Buddhist kingdom. The king is the world’s last absolute monarch. He seems relatively benevolent, and claims to put the happiness of his people above mere economics. He even coined the term “Gross National Happiness”. Happiness is hard to measure, but according the kings definition, it involves preserving culture and customs, preventing the place from becoming overwhelmed with foreign influences, and protecting the environment. The people of Bhutan are poor, with a per capita income of about $1600. That said, most houses seemed nice and large, and we saw NO beggers or people who looked starving the entire trip. Maybe there is something to GNH?

Next month, the king will step down and give the throne to his son. His son will NOT have absolute power- he’ll be more of a figurehead since the government is going to a parliamentary democracy.

I expected the people of Bhutan to be excited about democracy and GNH, but they seemed to be skeptical. First of all, it is hard to measure happiness, and the king’s definition doesn’t suit everyone. While I thought it was beautiful that they have their traditional architecture and wore their traditional clothes, I know I would be very angry if the government told me what I had to wear and what sort of house I had to build. They’re even skeptical about democracy, and the reason why is a long story. I’ll give ‘er a go though.

400 years ago, one of Bhutan’s favorite gurus, the “madman”, prophesized there would only be four kings in the line. The present king is the fourth king of Bhutan. His wives (there are four- all sisters) are the decedents of this guru, which is thought to have played a large role in the king’s decision to marry them. The eldest brother of these sisters is the most likely candidate to become prime minister. Some people think the king, while fulfilling the prophecy, will have almost as much political influence as he does today through family ties. Since Bhutan has always been a feudal society, people are also afraid that corruption the upper castes will worsen their situation.

It is strange how religion and politics were tied together there. After spending some time in Bhutan, my opinions about Mahayana Buddhism have changed somewhat. The first Buddha practiced what could more accurately be called a philosophy than a religion. Theravada Buddhism still more or less practices this, but the majority of Buddhists are Mahayanian, which is accessible to everyone. This is DEFINITELY a religion, complete with afterlives deities, magical powers, and PLENTY of superstitions and ceremonies. There seem to be many basic similarities to Hinduism. You can easily see how it has assimilated parts of other religions and been embellished to suit peoples wishes. The original Buddha didn’t espouse any of this so most modern Buddhists, including those in Bhutan, don’t really seem to follow the teachings of Buddha. But still- it seems to be a peaceful religion today, not to mention endlessly interesting and visually stunning. I think my overall level of awe and respect for this religion has been somewhat reduced through this extended exposure though.

Overall, Bhutan was an amazing trip. There are so many more things to show and tell about this trip, so were looking forward to talking more about it when we get home (or now if you have any questions in the comment section). I’m getting tired now, but I’ll try to get a post with my first impressions of Nepal up soon.



6 responses to “11 days in Bhutan

  1. Bhutan is stunning and your pictures are fantastic! We kept on checking your page for an update and it’s well worth it!! Good to know that you’re safe and seeing such beautiful places..

  2. hi how r u doing?
    i am damcho, janice guide in Bhutan.
    hope u all ahad a nice time here.
    Everything fine here.
    have a nice time and all the best wishes to you two.
    Have a nice trekking in nepal.

  3. Met you at Bhutan at the pass Dochula . Nive meeting you and we wish you all the sucess for your tour . Keep smiling .God bless Deep Garg

  4. Amazing! Shawn looks like she might be eating again… Your pictures are fantastic and the landscape is stunning. I think we need to figure out a way to import the Archery! I would actually watch this! We could start the Archery Channel and sell clothing sponsered by the most popular Archers, at least the ones that survived. Everything is good here.
    Miss you guys,
    Mike and Staci.

  5. vanessa and jonathan(from coffeeshop in Pokara


    Wonderful trip! We want to go to Bhutan now. Amazing pics!!!
    Safe travel

  6. Wow!! What more can you say? What an amazing place. Shawn, I hope you feel better. Of course, the two of you are always in our thoughts. Love, MOM

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