Yes it really is that cool!
03.06.2010 - 08.06.2010 75 °F
We believe that Bhutan is one of the best kept secrets in the world. Thanks to some great research by Kym and some encouraging words from my aunt Sharon, we decided to go. It is rather expensive and this was almost a breaking point in the deal, but going might be the best decision we have ever made. The country is an amazing cultural and spiritual experience and I think everyone who visits there comes away a better person.
All the cards fell perfectly into place. We traveled in low season with the advantages of fewer tourists, a little cheaper cost, cloud cover that provided cooler temps, and the National Archery Tournament was in full swing. Once the rainy season begins, the rice has mostly all been planted, and tourism and transportation drops considerably and that allows more leisure for Bhutanese people to enjoy holidays and archery.
We descended into Paro International Airport like a falling rock, just clearing the mountainside and slamming into the runway like a bug on a windshield. We stepped out of the plane onto an empty tarmac, and at first we were a little surprised that there was no security, but one look around showed we were the only plane at the airport and there probably were no more flights for this day or the next! We were free to wander around, eventually finding the immigration counter and entering Bhutan.
We met our guide and driver and immediately felt that we got lucky. They were great. They took us first to the National Museum where we saw an eclectic collection of historical paintings, old artifacts, 19th and early 20th century weapons, taxidermy of local wildlife, historical dress and jewelry, cooking utensils, butterflies, and stamps. The museum was a renovated watchtower that overlooked the Paro valley. The ceilings tell that the Bhutanese army of the 17th century were quite short people!
The architecture of the buildings in Bhutan is amazing, different from anything we have seen. Lots of color is used and the trim and moldings are always carefully carved and detailed. Homes and buildings are traditionally made out of mud, and wood is used for the windows, and sometimes upper floors. As the country has become more developed recently, more concrete construction can also be seen.
Our first night we spent at the Hotel Riverside, a beautiful hotel in Thimpu that sat across from the National Stadium. It was the nicest room that we have ever stayed in. In the morning we went to the stadium to watch the archery tournament. They shoot at targets 140m away, very impressive.
We next visited the National Memorial Choeten. (The difference between a Choeten and a Stupa is that you can enter a Choeten and a Stupa is enclosed.) There were many people on pilgrimages to this Choeten from all over Bhutan and abroad. When praying, the prayer beads are held in the left hand and one bead is turned in a clockwise direction for each prayer and at the start of the next prayer, the hand moves to the next bead, very similar to a rosary. In the right hand a prayer wheel is held and the wheel is also spun in a clockwise direction. This action is to signify all of the sin moving through one’s body and being cast off by the prayer wheel. The person continues this action as they walk clockwise around the Choeten. It is very bad karma to spin a wheel in a counter-clockwise direction.
We also saw in Thimpu the Weaving Center, the Folk History Museum, the government-run Handicrafts Emporium, and the National School of Arts where students learn the 13 arts and crafts of traditional Bhutanese culture. Students are amazingly talented and study for 4-6 years depending on their craft.
The food in Bhutan is great. The main staples are rice and chilies (fresh or dried), but they also have buckwheat pasta, potatoes, many different vegetables, cheese, and some meat including beef and pork. Occasionally they get dried fish from India. Chilies and cheese is a dish that is served with every meal and we found it to be an excellent accompaniment. The food is very spicy, but we loved it. Kinley, our guide, eats raw fresh chilies (they look and taste like our jalapenos) as a snack!
After two nights in Thimphu, we headed to Punakha. We crossed over Dochula Pass at 3050m where there are 108 Stupas built to subdue the evil spirits that once were in the area.
In Punakha we visited the Temple of Divine Mad Man, a highly respected and revered religious figure with some very interesting stories that involve lots of wine and debauchery. We also visited the Temple built for the current King of Bhutan. It was a nice hike through rice fields and up a short hill.
Children at the Temple for the current king
The phallus symbol can be seen on many homes and buildings all throughout the country. It is believed to ward off evil spirits and is very important in the history of Buddhism.
Kym is shopping for a bachelorette party gift for Jeannie!
Also in Punakha we visited a Nepali Stupa:
The Stupa, like many other religious places in Bhutan had a large prayer wheel:
We also visited the Punakha Dzong, the former capitol of Bhutan before it was moved to Thimphu:
After Punakha, we traveled back to Paro where we stayed in a farmhouse as a homestay. It was a great experience and more intimate than a hotel room. The family was extremely kind and the food was the best of the trip. We even took a traditional hot stone bath, which is just as much a religious experience as a hygienic one.
The final full day we hiked up to Taktsang, the “Tiger’s Nest.” It was a beautiful hike to a temple that sat high above the valley on the side of a cliff. The experience was one of the best in my life. It was extremely moving to be there amongst the monks, see the view, the history, and the shrines. We were warmly accepted and were allowed to sit in on a religious blessing of a temple. We also talked to another monk for quite a while, another moving experience. I have never felt so welcomed and so accepted by strangers in my life. The culture of Bhutan is so different from anywhere else I have been. The general mentality of everyone we met was, “how can I be a better person.” Everyone was so kind, wanted to know who we were, welcome us inside, and talk to us. It is not the same tourist experience of anywhere else.
A happy family and a sad departure:
We really have to return to this country. Our six days were wonderful, but we really need to go back again. I hope this experience helps us become better people, kinder, more inviting, and more like the Bhutanese people.