Bhutan

rsz_1tigers_nest_monasteryFluttering like the wings of the majestic dragon upon it, the fiery tones of the Bhutanese flag projects against the crispy clear blue November sky. In its wavy shadow a male dressed in the traditional Gho retouches the intricately painted wall tapestries at the entrance of the grand Tashichho dzong monastery in medieval metropolis of Thimphu. With every brush stroke he refines the richness in heritage that is embedded into the Bhutanese way of life.

Veiled by its lofty Himalayan coating, Bhutan revels in a mystic haze of timelessness. Where a fervour for religion and culture continues to fuse effortlessly with livelihoods. To learn to value one’s own time is to discover a world where time has stood still.

I gently sip the warming welcome drink, Ara, a fermented rice liquor with pieces of scrambled egg floating inside. It is warming, unfamiliar and energising all at once, like the last Himalayan kingdom before me.

A large golden Buddha statue peers over the mountainside through the lines of prayer flags, protecting the capital Thimphu below. The grid-like street pattern gives way to a Chorten, a large hemispherical structure containing Buddhist relics, with its encircling worshippers, rotating prayer wheels and burning embers. Its the only capital in the world without traffic lights, shunned by the Bhutanese for being too impersonal, instead wardens guide the traffic whilst standing in street central pagoda-like structures.

Through the windows of the capital’s gothic buildings at night, the transient glow of adverts upon television sets is almost non-existent. Young minds are not lost to chasing trends. Their pace of life, and appreciation of the present, derives from trending in Bhutanese values. Below a picture of their king, students in Thimpu’s Arts school redden their faces with an adept focus. They carve, weave and paint like established artists, each motion entrenching their culture and morals into every fibre of their being; into the lavish Ghos and Kiras that Bhutanese men and women wear every day, and into the majestic architecture of its Chortens and Dzongs.

Gross National Happiness, the hallmark of the Bhutanese way, eschews the complexities wrought by the metamorphosis of time, and offers an affinity with land and nature, which runs unabated in its people’s blood.

A melodic ebb and flow animates the vast rice plains of the Punakha valley with the rhythm of its farmers. Echoes of laughter erupt sporadically through the agricultural milieu as the residents of Ritsha village begin their day under the heat of the Himalayan sun. Behind me a herd of school children with oversized rucksacks giggle at the line of symbolic phalluses painted upon homes en route to the Chime Lhakang fertility temple. Their homes appear precarious, built from compacted mud and stone but the smiles on their faces are unwavering. I follow the Mo chu and Po chu glacial blue rivers like a royal pathway to the Punakha dzong. Its grand courtyards reverberate with the hum of Buddhist verses, and its inner temples glow with lavish decor, adorned with golden Buddhas.

Where a tigress is believed to have transported Guru Rinpoche, the second Buddha, to Bhutan, the white washed walls of the Tiger’s Nest Monastery now stands imperiously, clutching to the mountainside. Below, the lush greens of Bhutan’s preserved landscape causes the regal structure to emanate. It is the same earthy richness that highlights the drying red chillies emerging on roof-tops, and velvet red of a trio of adolescent monks chasing each other through the courtyards of the Gangtey monastery in the Phobijkha valley.

In the snappy cold at the base of the valley wilderness, the warmth of my homestay coats me. Above the wood burning stove, or bukhari, a large cauldron of bubbling water heats my western face, flushing it with realisation. As the speed of our lives increases, there is less time to savour the moments and values we hold within it.

In this Himalayan abode, each image of outstanding beauty seemingly stops time; and the authenticity and simple pace of life of its people, brings me back into the present.

About the Author: Tej Parikh is a freelance writer specialising in travel and international development. His travels have taken him to the Middle East, Colombia and the Himalayas, amongst others, and have been inspired by his passion for ‘off the beaten track’ travel, and learning about different cultures. Blog:

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter our next Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

 

bhutanI arrived in the painful, bitter cold of winter. It was far below freezing! It was the first day of snowfall of the year and school was cancelled. I walked my little Bhutanese students’ home as we shielded our wind-burned cheeks against the stinging frost. However, my layers upon layers of clothes couldn’t stop the piercing Himalayan chills of Bhutan from entering my bones.

I hurriedly followed my students down an unknown, curvy road pass pine trees brushed in whiteout when suddenly the path before us shifted to a depressing grayish-blue. We looked up to see a heavy mass move above us threatening to hurl more snow. The Himalaya wintry was fierce; it showed no mercy. There were no signs of life-no greenery, no animals, and no trace of sunrays, only a collapsing dome of thick, dark mist. I felt as though we were in an eerie black and white photo.

After I saw my students off to hibernate in their mud homes, I headed home alone with death lurking in the chills. I felt mortality all around me – in the bare branches, in the frozen river, in the angry sky and in my heavy heart. I grieved the death of my old life; I was scared and nervous to be in a far away, frigid land for the first time. I wondered if the bleak, numbing darkness would ever go away.

But I learned that the darkest wintery hours of life always came to pass and I would survive winter to see the miraculous rebirths of springtime. All around me life was born from sprinkles of rain and the warmth of sunrays. Sprouting seedlings covered the forest floor, shooting ferns uncoiled, birds filled the sky and buckwheat fields turned pretty in pink.

The numbness of winter wore away breathing life into me, leaving no trace of darkness. I tore off my top layers of heavy clothes as well as my fears, skipping down my favorite road through the vast Himalayan Mountains. This time I had came to know the bends of the road and singing students followed me. My heart tingled with love!

I wondered if Bhutan could get any more beautiful. Needless to say, I discovered that when I asked life a question, it would always give me an answer; Bhutan became even more gorgeous during summer.

The summer monsoon rains had an agenda: To color the mountains neon green, to swell the rivers and to drape the sky with rainbows. Life was bursting everywhere – wild strawberries, bountiful crops, ripen fruit trees, flourishing wildlife…

I celebrated the abundance of life! I had a surplus of energy and my walks became longer as my laughter became louder. It was the happiest time of my life as my students took me off the paved road and into the forest to pick bouquets of red, exotic rhododendrons. The exquisite of summer made me wonder why life couldn’t always be so deliciously sweet.

And like the season before, fall came to teach me my last life lesson: Why summer had to leave!

Day by day the monsoon rains became less and less leaving the mountains to desiccate under the powerful rays. Everything transformed into a brilliant amber hue. Slowly the golden pine needles descended, twisting and turning above our heads before smothering the forest floor. As the air became thinner with traces of coldness, we walked slower noticing sings of alarming change everywhere; the leaves withered away, pinecones littered the forest, ferns shriveled up and birds retreated.

Under the last clear days, everyone was busy preparing for another transformation. Farmers plowed their fields bare, mothers dried mushrooms, villagers stored potatoes, men collected firewood and students studied for final exams.

As coldness approached, I yearned for summer and my heart cried out, “Why can’t things always stay the same?” Finally, among all the preparations, I realized that fall was here to prepare me not just for winter, but also for the hard times in life in order to make room for the new, such as the upcoming goodbye that I would have to say to my beloved walks and my dear students; it was time for another adventure, in another land, in another season.

On our last walk together down the winding road, I reflected on how blessed I was to have been able to witness the seasons transform the forests of The Kingdom of Happiness. I witnessed the nature of change, the cycle of life, the impermanence of all not only outside myself, but also inside myself.

Thus, I left Bhutan filled with joy and gratitude in the middle of a welcomed white winter. I had come full circle to see how the seasons of change could be found in the transitions of life.

About the Author: Sabrina Soares from California is an elementary teacher who loves adventures. She is currently self-publishing a book about fear, love and change based on her year long experience teaching in Bhutan, which was inspired by many requests from her blog.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter our next Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

 

bhutan“Om Mani Padme Hum, Om Mani Padme Hum . . . (Hail to the lotus one!).” For several months, every morning I blissfully woke up to the repeating hums passing outside my window; the beloved morning routine of a vibrant seventy-seven year old Buddhist nun circumambulating the nunnery with a prayer bead in her left hand and a spinning prayer wheel in her right, emanating waves of blessings for all sentient beings.

I would watch her passionately pray on by until her rich pomegranate robe flashed out of sight around a corner for another round along the most spectacular monastery in the world, The Pema Choling Nunnery, which is virtually unknown to the outside fast paced world. It’s hidden deep in the folds of the Himalayan Mountains perched on a flat mountaintop in the last tantric Buddhist Kingdom on earth; Bhutan!

The mystical nunnery can be reached by a jagged, dirt road. The long, bumpy ascent is worth the panoramic views of colossal mountains after mountains covered in pine trees that sparsely open up to scattered villages and variegated fields. The nunnery itself is equally breathtaking: A two story classical, white washed monastery with ornate edges and built by the loving hands of the nuns themselves.

Infused with love, the nunnery radiates tingling energy while walking through its motif-framed doorways leading to a beautiful stoned slab courtyard. The first time I entered it under an open sky and barricaded by mountain peaks, I became under a magical love spell as I did several slow 360 degree turns taking in its beauty: An array of colorful potted flowers outlining the perimeter, a glowing temple with hundreds of sparkling butter lamps, the smell of sweet incense drifting under doorways… Out of the dozens upon dozens of monasteries I had visited over the year, it was the most awe-provoking monastery of them all!

I was in heaven to be able to call this my new home when I became the monastery’s first foreign English teacher. However, I also came to be the nuns student; not necessarily a student studying Buddhism, but a student learning about the simplicity of life – something that’s not taught in the curriculum of Western schools; something that may be learned through deep reflection of life experiences or in my case, from living on a remote, peaceful mountain with over a hundred nuns ranging from age 6 to 77.

My first life lesson I learned at this magical place was easy to grasp as it smacked me in the face from the moment I arrived when plans seemed to always change. For instance, one minute there was class, but the next minute it was cancelled for a puja (ceremony); one minute there was a trip to the market, but the next minute it was on hold for collecting firewood. Unlike most Westerners, the nuns never seemed to be in a hurry, as though there was no such thing as time. They weren’t attached to schedules; as a result, they didn’t suffer when things abruptly changed. Slowly I learned to be like the nuns and accepted that “things are always changing,” which became my new motto. And weeks later, I added a second half to my motto that was the true gem of it: “… so go with the flow.”

However, my favorite and most valuable lesson came from admiring the pure sweetness of the nuns golden hearts. They demonstrated gentleness to every living creature, including the ones most people consider varmint: Mangy stray dogs, dirty rats, thirsty mosquitoes… I had never met people who were as compassionate as the nuns, as they educated me about the cause and effect of karma – ones accumulated merits from good and bad deeds resurfacing as positive or negative events in ones life.

They showed me how to gently remove an insect from my room without harming it, and they even urged me not to let my adopted, stray cat kill rats on sacred full moon nights in order to help my cat create less bad karma. I half laughed inside thinking about how my Western friends would have thought that these traditional bald nuns were insane, but the other half of me didn’t dare chuckle because I knew that they were the wisest group of women on earth. The nuns knew a simple secret to life, yet more importantly they practiced it wholeheartedly: Love every single organism, big or small, without discrimination!

The nuns became my greatest teachers showing me numerous simple secrets to a peaceful life that were in plain sight. The stunning nunnery hidden by the great Himalayas of Bhutan was more than my home, it was a mystical place that taught me to go with the flow of impermanence and love all creatures.

About the Author: Sabrina Soares from California is an elementary teacher who loves adventures. She is currently self-publishing a book about fear, love and change based on her year long experience teaching in Bhutan, which was inspired by many requests from her blog.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter our next Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

BhutanTrek to Taktsang monastery (Tiger’s nest)

“The road in front of you, which has been trodden by the feet of millions of pilgrims like you, is excessively steep and incredibly rough; and you, whose lungs have never breathed air above sea level, who have never have climbed anything higher than the roof of your house, and whose feet have never trodden anything harder than yielding sand will suffer greatly. Times there will be , a-many, when gasping for breath, you toil up the face of the steep mountains on feet torn and bleeding by passage over rough rocks, sharp shale, and frozen ground, when you will question whether the prospective reward you seek is worth the present price you are paying in suffering; but being a good Hindu, you will toil on, comforting yourself with the thought that merit is not gained without suffering, and the greater the suffering in this world, the greater the reward in the next.”
(From Jim Corbett’s “Man eating leopard of Rudraprayag”)
I had seen a picture of the monastery in the internet, some years ago and it had instantly captivated me prompting me that I should either paint it or make a model of it. I never imagined in my dreams that in a short while from then, I would be visiting and standing in that very place. During the recent visit to Bhutan, I decided that I should positively visit the monastery. The location is in Paro, a small town in a picturesque green valley surrounded by mountains. I made inquiries around about the prospects of climbing up to the monastery, perched on the edge of a precipitous cliff on top of a mountain. The replies were that the climb would be stiff if not impossible for a city dweller like me.
Ponies were available for climbing, but to me it had to be on foot. I glanced up at the monastery on top of the cliff and it was daunting whether the task I had taken on myself was achievable. Anyway, the die was cast and now there was no going back. The rough foot path gradually sloped upwards over gnarled tree trunks and over ground strewn with fallen pine cones. The narrow path soon got quite rough, very steep, with boulders and rocks and sharp bends. Birds of many varieties chirped all around, a cool wind blew and it started drizzling. All along the track, earlier climbers had built small cairns out of rocks and stones piled delicately one on top of the other.
Soon a pack of ponies crossed me carrying visitors to the monastery. An old man riding a pony, commiserated on my plight and commented that it was all for the enlightenment. I was strongly tempted to hold the tail of one of the ponies to ease my climbing. However, the pony shortly cocked its tail and deposited a load of steaming manure and I thanked myself for not having followed my instinct.
Views of the ground I left below could be seen through gaps in the trees and I found that things down there had got quite small in the past two hours that I had been climbing. The walking was for the most part alone, with only myself and nature to keep company with no human souls around. An hour more into the climb, I heard the most welcoming and wonderful sound of prayer chanting trickling down from the monastery somewhere high above my head. Then I had my first closer view of the most beautiful monastery, through a gap between tall cypress trees. The last stretch of the track was a huge U, the track first going above the level of the monastery and going down sharply hugging the perpendicular face of the cliff before raising sharply again to the monastery.
I was just in time to reach the prayer before it ended, sat with the group of monks clad in crimson robes, got the blessings from the head Lama who placed firmly on my head the Vajra for his blessing. The head Lama was the center of reverence and attention by those who surrounded him. After the prayer, I was proffered biscuits and a most welcoming cup of hot tea by a group of girl devotees, which helped me to recover my poise and bearings. All the exertions of the last two and half hours evaporated into thin air and I was filled with immense happiness and gratitude on having reached this most wonderful place in all of Bhutan. I also felt very humble reflecting on the immense dedication and faith that enabled those who had carried the huge, heavy rocks, timber and other building material to the tip of this precipitous cliff and built this most beautiful edifice of worship and prayer.

About the Author: Namachivayam: I am an engineering professional with a keen and insatiable appetite to visit places, meet people, and experience their culture and heritage. An associated passion is the sharing of such wonderful experiences with others. I believe that each such visit opens up new windows and makes one appreciate the most wonderful and amazing planet that we live in. I am on LinkedIn.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter our next Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

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Marianne and Bhutanese woman at National Memorial Chorten

Bhutan is a Buddhist country where religion is taken seriously,  one sees monasteries, temples, chortens, and prayer flags, across the country. The most ubiquitous of these are the chortens. Stone or earthen square structures, with proportions about twice as tall as wide, a sloped stone roof, the shape much like a cupola, as small as a dog house or large as a house. The structure is solid, with a relic or valuable object secreted somewhere in the base. Always white, with a rust red band running horizontally near the top. There are variations, subtle or extreme, in the design, but the overall look is such that new visitors are soon able to recognize a chorten notwithstanding the varying styles.

Marianne and Bhutanese woman at National Memorial Chorten
Marianne and Bhutanese woman at National Memorial Chorten

Biggest of all is the National Memorial Chorten in Bhutan’s small capital, Thimphu. Not a strict adherent to the traditional style, it’s 3 stories tall and not solid, the base houses a temple that can be entered and is home to altars and statues of the Buddha and other deities. This chorten is about 15 years old, centuries younger than most. It lacks the beauty and grace of many, and has a slightly gaudy look to it. My aesthetic critique aside, it is very heavily visited by Bhutanese. Elderly people spend much of the day there, circumnambulating in the proscribed clockwise direction, swinging prayer beads and holding prayer wheels they keep spinning with a motion of the wrist, each spin sending more prayers aloft. Others pay shorter visits to give thanks or pray for assistance or guidance.  Talkative students tell us their visit is due to upcoming exams. Tourists visit as it’s a significant site, and while one may not fathom Buddhism, its impact on locals is touching and profound, and I am always compelled to offer my own silent prayers.

 

This visit I’m carrying photographs taken by Marianne, who accompanied me to Bhutan some months ago. At the chorten her group met a number of elderly women. We approached these women, who looked like transplants from the 17th century and asked for permission to photograph them.  Elderly people typically dress in the traditional manner, women in ankle length skirts stitched from locally woven multicolored cloth. A tunic like top is fastened to the kira, with silver dollar size ornate brass or copper buttons and pins, which hold it in place. The resulting look is colorful yet restrained. These women were born long before the introduction of English as medium of education, so our requests were non-verbal, yet easily understood and granted. They enjoyed seeing the images of themselves, and indicated they wanted to be photographed with us. Dorji translated when our sign language failed, and we learned they come every day to pray. Devout as they may be, it was pretty clear there’s a good social component to their day. Marianne wanted to get them copies of the pictures, so Dorji suggested she give them to me to distribute upon my return.

Marianne photographs her new friends.
Marianne photographs her new friends.

I arrive with a handful of her photos. There are thousands of people at the chorten. Dorji hands the pictures to our driver Pema, and in Dzongkha tells him to locate these women. From Pema’s response, it’s pretty obvious he’s said something like, “you’ve got to be kidding.” We sightsee for 10 minutes, and find Pema still searching for the needle(s) in the proverbial haystack. The women are not where they sat 4 months ago, and I’m ready to conclude that we gave it our best and let it go. Moments later Dorji spies one of the women. We look from picture to person and all of us agree that it is she. He hands me the photo, and I approach her. For a split second she seems to register puzzlement. Then she sees her picture and a grin erupts over her face, followed by a torrent of words. I show her the other pictures, and within seconds we have a crowd of elderly people around us. The others in the pictures are present, and all of them are smiling, gesticulating and shouting (or what passes for shouting in Bhutan, where voices are never raised). While there’s a language barrier, we cannot miss their excitement.  Dorji is fielding questions from the crowd, he says they are all asking for their photo, “where’s my picture, so many tourists take my picture, I want my picture.” He’s left explaining that one person took these photos and we have only these to distribute. As many do not hear he needs to repeat this numerous times. While disappointment might be expected, they all seem thrilled with the photos we have and the recipients pass them around for everyone else to see, and again language not needed to observe how much excitement and happiness the crowd shares.

Elderly Bhutanese Women at National Memorial Chorten, Thimphu
Elderly Bhutanese Women at National Memorial Chorten, Thimphu

While we might have made their day (very few Bhutanese seem to have actual photos of themselves), they’ve made a good part of our day, and it could only have been better had Marianne directly observed the delight her gesture provoked.

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Bhutan a Happier Place With Books

(co-authored with Laura Hubber)

When Claire Thomsen was 11, her parents pulled the rug out from her comfortable Malibu existence. They sold the family business, rented out the house, and spent the year roving the world, 27 countries in all, with Claire in tow. Instead of entering middle school with friends, flinging with fashions, immersing in social media, and generally avoiding adulthood, Claire spent sixth grade girdling the globe, homeschooling from eco-lodges and hotels through correspondence courses.

She found delight and insight in many countries over the course of the year, including China, Japan, Thailand, Egypt, Greece, Turkey, Cambodia, France and Italy. But one tiny, remote Himalayan kingdom — Bhutan — remained lodged in her consciousness and heart.

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After returning to Los Angeles and finishing seventh grade, Claire attended a party in honor of Public Radio reporter Lisa Napoli, author of Radio Shangri-La, a riveting book about setting up radio stations in Bhutan. Claire had many questions about the challenges of bringing novel communication to Bhutan, and Lisa saw in Claire a kindred spirit. So, Lisa introduced Claire to local Bhutanese friends, and to the Bay Area-based charity, Read Global, which builds community library and resource centers as vehicles for social and economic transformation.

For months afterwards Claire wondered how she might make a difference in Bhutan, which despite its abundance of mountain scenery, Buddhist temples, and warm, ready smiles, has less than a 50 percent literacy rate, and ranks 140 out of 186 in the global Human Development Index. Given its lack of roads, infrastructure, power, schools, and general shortage of materials, most ambitious improvement ideas are dead before arrival. She thought perhaps she could send a shipment of art and school supplies, but heard that very often freight doesn’t reach intended recipients. Then Read Global suggested she build a library, as most rural Bhutanese have little if any access to books. It seemed a crazy idea, but she was intrigued.

Claire needed to raise $50,000 dollars to build a library. She started passing the hat among friends and family, and held fundraisers in and around her hometown of Malibu. After a flush of early giving — $5,000 on her first go-around, and $10,000 more after she made a YouTube video — the going got tougher. She found it hard to find new people to ask, and harder to go back and ask original givers for more.

Stalling out at $25,000, after almost a year of appeals and events, Read Global, impressed by Claire’s passion and commitment, decided to step in and begin the project, even with the shortage of funds. But then after Claire showed her donors photos of the building taking shape, they were more willing to open pocketbooks, and the goal inched closer. The actress Linda Hamilton graciously donated the use of her home for a fundraiser, and made one of the largest financial donations to the library. The $50,000 target was reached several months ahead of the scheduled three-year mark.

The library was completed last fall, and this past spring Claire traveled to Bhutan to see the results. On the last hairpin turn of the 10-hour bus ride to the remote village of Chuzagang in Southern Bhutan, Claire found 40 adults lined up, waving a welcome, as the children beside sang and danced. They were the happiest people on earth.

The library has 3,000 books, a computer room, a television, a children’s play area, and a women’s hall, where Claire and the other teenagers sang Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber songs. “I probably had a two-minute period where I wasn’t crying,” she says. “It was crazy.”

After committing to the idea, it took two years for Claire to reach her goal. “I hope my example will inspire other people, other kids,” Claire says. “Fundraising and Bhutan will always be a part of my life now, and it’s really changed me. I hope this project will inspire other kids to volunteer somewhere and help out those less fortunate. It’s really a life-changing experience, for all involved. And you can’t imagine how much joy it brings.”

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To see Claire Thomsen’s dream in action, visit www.mybhutaneselibrary.com

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In Bhutan, Skateboarding is a Crime

Driving the other day we see 2 boys on a homemade skateboard, I remark to Dorji this is the first such one I’ve seen. Oh yes, he says, the government banned them a few years back, as hazardous, citing accidents involving skateboarders and cars.Also banned: tobacco and plastic bags. In 2004 Bhutan became the first, and is still the planet’s only non-smoking country. Again citing health hazards, and 4-century-old statements from the Shabdrung (the unifier of the country) warning of the perils of tobacco. One cannot grow, sell, buy or smoke tobacco. This ban is not popular, and much flouted, though most smoking takes place at home and in nightclubs popular with the young. The penalty is 3-years imprisonment, though enforcement now seems to be lax, yet a cop recently told me there are some 200 plus people in jail for smoking. Foreigners are permitted to import one carton, and taxed about fifty dollars for this.The plastic bag ban is more successful. Citing environmental hazard, the country simply banned them. Most Bhutanese already took a cloth bag for shopping. Shopkeepers wrap items in newspapers, or make bags by taping torn newspapers together, or most interestingly, they fold newspapers into origami type bags or boxes so pretty you don’t want to toss them out.

Trongsa Dzong
Trongsa Dzong
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Friendly kids, Trongsa, BHUTAN

Add not permitted: missionaries. The constitution provides for freedom of religion in this highly devout mostly Buddhist nation. There is a minority of Bhutanese descended from Nepali immigrants a century ago, and they are for the most part Hindu. They worship at home altars, as there are no Hindu temples, though Hinduism and Buddhism are so intertwined that most of my ethnic Nepali friends tell me they visit the temples and monasteries as well. It’s the Christians that are causing trouble. I’ve met a number of these people, as friendly as all Bhutanese, but quick to point out they are Christian, and ask if I am also Christian. While the answer is yes, I am not of the born again ilk they appear to belong to. The Bhutanese Christians have their churches in private homes, and apparently they have sent word out to their parent church abroad they are being persecuted in Bhutan (because they cannot build an actual church, and stateside missionaries are not permitted entry into Bhutan). I’m all for Christianity, practiced humbly and as it was intended. I have little sympathy for born agains trying to ply their murky trade in the only Himalayan Buddhist Kingdom still in existence.

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Father and son, Trongsa, BHUTAN

We’re now in Trongsa, one of the prettiest areas in a country that does not lack for pretty places. Our hotel is about a mile from town, an easy and pleasant walk. Each time I make this walk I am stopped multiple times to talk. Those that don’t stop to chat greet me, elder people speaking Dzongkha, say “kuzuzampola“, little kids yell out “good bye” (their way of greeting, as you are after all leaving them as you pass by), and high schoolers and young folks say, “hey man, how’s it going?” In town I find the shops sell wine, imported from India. Bhutanese have easy access to alcohol (unlike tobacco). Two varieties of great local beer always available, Red Panda and Druk 1100 (‘super strong beer’ reads the label). And the army makes the booze: four varieties of whiskey, gin, rum, and vodka. Make booze, not war, could easily be their motto.  Home brewed is a rice wine, called ara, not unlike sake. But wine is a rarity, and I’m in a cabernet mood.

As I wander the streets of Trongsa, with my 2 bottles of wine, making new friends I come across a truck with bars for windows. About 12 young men are inside and they call me over to talk. It’s what I come to expect from Bhutan. Now maybe the altitude has slowed my thought process, so I ask why the bars. “Because we are prisoners being transported to jail” comes the answer. I’ve just spent 5 minutes talking with these very friendly criminals, thinking the bars might merely be some window substitute. Then they ask for my e-mail. They motion to a cop standing a few feet away. I ask him if these guys are prisoners, and he nods. What did they do? I half expect the answer to be “skateboarding and smoking.” But no, murder, larceny, and robbery. At that moment I decide I am not going to have any prisoner pen pals, so say “no thanks” and walk away.

That night, Dorji and I polish off an unexpectedly good bottle of cabernet sauvignon. Who knew? Vineyards in India.

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John at Tiger's Nest Monastery
John at Tiger's nest Monastery

RETURN TO BHUTAN

Yet again I find myself at the Drukair check in counter of Bangkok’s Suvarnhabumhi airport, at the unreasonable hour of 4:30 a.m. Twelve Bhutan bound clients make up my entourage. The usual grumpy Thai staff processes our bags and tickets and scrutinizes visas, not the best introduction for the happiest place on earth. Last opportunity for good coffee I caution, as finding good coffee in Bhutan about at difficult as finding a good steak in India.

Arrival in Paro, BHUTAN
Arrival in Paro, BHUTAN

Caffeine craving temporarily satisfied, we board the daily flight from Bangkok to Bhutan. Drukair is the only airline to service Bhutan, and does so with a handful of flights from Thailand, India and Nepal.  As befits an airline serving a country known as the last Shangri La, and the land of Gross National Happiness the staff try hard to please, with abundant smiles and food and even booze for those with want it with breakfast. I hear a curious sound as we taxi, a sort of pumping sound and ask a flight attendant the source of it. I am not alarmed, though am surprised when not long after take off the purser asks me to come with her to explain the problem to the pilot. I’m hustled up through business class cabin into the cockpit. “No problem” I hasten to say as pilot and I introduce ourselves, just curious about the sound. It’s a hydraulic pump at work; sometimes the duration is longer so passengers notice it, but very standard procedure. The friendly pilot and mechanic (they carry a mechanic in case they need to make unscheduled landing in area where there may not be mechanic) provide me with so much detail about this I’m unable to absorb it all, but I’m more than satisfied we are flying with a tiptop airline. Drukair pilots need special training to land in Paro, Bhutan the world’s most challenging runway and the planes engines have additional power to get them off the ground at the airport’s 7400’ elevation.

17th century Paro Dzong, fortress/monastery
17th century Paro Dzong, fortress/monastery

We fly 3 uneventful hours, and then land for refueling in Bagdogra, India. Only 35 air minutes separate Bagdogra from Paro, and this is the leg of the flight where you really get good value for your money in terms of ticket price. Shortly after take of the pilot points out Everest, Kangchenjunga and K2 of the left side of the plane, the spine of the Himalayas like a jagged saw, as pointy white peaks jut above a bank of soft cumulus clouds. Despite the lit seatbelt sign, all the passengers stand and move to the left side of the plane, so that I almost expect the plane to list, which of course it does not do.  Not too many minutes later, the plane in descends into cottony clouds and the view is lost, while simultaneously soft and melodic chanting music emerges from the PA system. When the plane emerges below the cloud cover, it is soon apparent we are flying down a long narrow and curving valley. Green forested mountains studded with 3 story stone and timber houses and vertical clusters of 108 white prayer flags appear right below or more alarmingly to the right or left of the plane.  There is not any flat land to be seen, as the folds and creases of the mountainsides undulate far as the eye can see. The entire cabin is transfixed, people murmuring “oh my” and “how lovely” as the plane continues to seemingly float down the valley at what appears to be a slow speed, so fine is the view.  Bhutan is about as verdant as it ever gets now, after the summer rains, and this lush terrain is all around the plane, or so it appears. The homes are now level with the plane, and many even above the plane, a most unusual feeling for those of us inside this metal tube, where the expectation is to look down to view these sights, not crane ones neck upward to see them.

When finally is seems we can get no closer to the ground without touching it, Bhutan’s sole runway appears and the wheels of the plane make smooth contact with it and all 170 passengers begin to applaud. The applause of those who just appreciated a virtuoso performance, rather than the applause of thanks they are still alive I have at times witnessed and participated in elsewhere in the world. Of all my many landings in Bhutan, this was by far the most sublime, and without a doubt most memorable. For the rest of the day my clients talk about this, what a grand introduction.

As always, I am thrilled to have returned to the real Magic Kingdom.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

John Leupold owns and operates Champaca Journeys, offering small groups cultural tours to Bhutan, Laos, Cambodia and Mexico. Mr. Leupold worked as a landscape designer until the travel bug took over his professional life, now his commute to work takes much longer, though he has absolutely no regrets about life as a tour operator.

John at Tiger's Nest Monastery
John at Tiger’s Nest Monastery

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Bhutan: Seduced By A Country

I’ll admit it’s unusual, but have you ever flirted with a country? Been tempted to toss everything and start over, by a sovereign nation? Felt weak in the knees, butterflies in the stomach and knew that you were smitten, all by a place and not another person? In my case, the tiny seductress is the Kingdom of Bhutan, and she is now one of the most important parts of my life. I’ve seen Bhutan make grown men and women cry, when upon departure at the airport they hug their Bhutanese guides, tears welling up in their eyes and say “I will never forget you or your country.” I see this time and time again, and the only reason I am not crying about Bhutan is that I’ve arranged our love affair so that I repeatedly return.  Yes it’s a long distance relationship, but it works, and here’s how it began.

Some six years ago my travel agent friend arranged a trip to Bhutan. One fine spring morning seven of us met at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport, boarded the Drukair, Royal Bhutan Airlines flight, and hours later stepped onto the tarmac in Paro, Bhutan. First-timers to Bhutan are noticeable as they do not walk to the terminal, rather they twirl about as they take in the view, including the Paro Dzong, a 17th-century fortress/monastery to one side and the snowy peaks beyond this; tree-covered mountains and enormous stone and timber houses in other directions; and the small terminal itself, a mostly white building, partially clad in timbers with elaborate carvings and embellishments, arrestingly compelling upon first sight, though one soon learns this is the Bhutanese architectural vernacular seen throughout the country.

Chortens at Dochula
Chortens at Dochula

We were met by Dorji our guide, he draped white prayer shawls over our shoulder, and greeted us with the words “welcome to Bhutan.” Then we climbed into a van, and set off for downtown Paro, Bhutan’s second largest city, home to 20,000 people. The buildings—mostly two and three-story structures and all made of rammed earth painted mostly white and interlaced with timbers all ornately carved and painted— looked vaguely Tudor, though the walls with painted dragons, Garudas, and giant phalluses erased any notion of Tudor England. None of this made any sense, though this is the wonder of travel, seeing sights so different they delight with their strange beauty. The pedestrians on these streets were red robed monks, heads shaved and feet clad in sandals, and women in ankle length skirts and men in what appeared to be knee-length dresses, the traditional clothing, kira for women, gho for men. Most of the garments were made in colors and patterns that you’d see when gazing into a kaleidoscope, an eruption of color, yet neither gaudy nor garish. Our group appeared dull and drab next to the Bhutanese.

I love to travel, just the idea gets me excited, and the actual process is one of the most thrilling activities I can imagine. After a few days I could easily say Bhutan was the most remarkable place I’d visited. Everything was so different and unusual, an aesthetic so foreign yet so comfortable. Towards the end of our trip a sad thought appeared in my mind: we’d soon be leaving.  The Bhutanese government limits the number of visitors by adopting a policy of high-end, low-impact tourism, making an extended stay in Bhutan costly.

Did you ever have one of those proverbial light bulbs goes off in your head? I had my first one in Bhutan. It went like this: “I’ll start a business bringing people to Bhutan.” I ran this idea by Dorji, and his comment was: “No problem, just find the people and tell me where you want to go.”

Monks in Trongsa
Monks in Trongsa

 

Since then, I have led sixteen trips to Bhutan and I will be departing for trip number 17 in two weeks. After all this time, my love affair with Bhutan has not diminished, only grown stronger. Dorji is now my business partner, and all those that I’ve brought to Bhutan have only fond memories of the country and its people, and many left with tears in their eyes.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

John Leupold owns and operates Champaca Journeys, offering small groups cultural tours to Bhutan, Laos, Cambodia and Mexico. Mr. Leupold worked as a landscape designer until the travel bug took over his professional life, now his commute to work takes much longer, though he has absolutely no regrets about life as a tour operator.

By Lee Abbamonte

Travel opens your eyes and your mind to a whole new world.

Travel enables you to see the world through other peoples eyes and from other points of view.

Travel increases your awareness of other cultures and people.

Travel makes you smarter.

Travel is the best education you can receive.

Travel enables you to speak intelligently on a variety of global topics.

Travel shows you how global policy effects different countries and different types of people.

Travel brings you to places you’ve only dreamed about seeing.

Travel shows you landscapes you never thought were possible.

Travel shows you what real beauty is.

Travel shows you that everything is beautiful in its own way.

Travel makes books and television come to life.

Travel makes adventures happen everyday.

Travel makes dreams come true.

Travel gives you a sense of enormous accomplishment.

Travel gives you something to look forward to to.

Travel gives you options.

Travel is a lifetime journey that is never the same twice.

Travel makes the big world small.

Travel humbles you.

Travel puts things into perspective.

Travel shows you what poor is.

Travel shows you how unfair this world can be.

Travel shows you people overcoming the longest odds to live their life to the fullest.

Travel shows you triumphs of the human spirit.

Travel teaches you how to say “Cheers” in 30 different languages.

Travel teaches you the International language of beer.

Travel teaches you to appreciate wine and the beauty of vineyards.

Travel teaches you to try new things.

Travel makes you yearn to do new things.

Travel teaches you the difference between a traveler and a tourist.

Travel teaches you to become a traveler and not just a tourist.

Lee Abbamonte is the youngest American to visit every country in the world. I am a travel writer, travel expert, global adventurer and have appeared on NBC, CNN, ESPN, GBTV, Fox News, Jetset Social and have been featured in the New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, Bloomberg, Smart Money, Slate, OK! Magazine, Peter Greenberg radio and many others. I’ve visited 306 countries and am one of the world’s most-traveled people.

“I believe in globalization of everything including people. I believe that I am a citizen of Earth. I believe that people around the world are at their core, basically good and the same. I believe that more people should experience the world and the way traveling can open their eyes and minds to different and exciting things. I believe in just being myself. I believe in life.” – Lee Abbamonte