October 2012. Bhutan

We had done our homework, knew the reputation of the the flight between Kathmandu and Paro – that the flightpath runs parallel to himalaya – and thus we made sure we arrived early, intent on sitting on the left side of a plane that’s seating is first come first serve.  Unfortunately, there were many likeminded travelers and we were relegated to the right side of the plane.  We ended up gazing south across the Nepali terai and the Indian plains while those on the opposite side of our plane furiously snapped photos of the passing himalaya.

The approach to the Paro International Airport in Bhutan is unique and its easy to see why only eight pilots in the world are certified to land a plane here. The mid-sized plane corkscrews downward into the steep-sided Paro valley and then s-curves up the valley floor with the foothills seemingly within arms reach on either side of the plane.  While this international airport is small, perhaps the size of something you might find in the rural middle US, the main terminal building instantly reminds you that you’re not in Kansas anymore.

Paro International Airport main terminal

The point is further driven home when we enter customs checkpoint waiting area, as the walls are decorated with that meticulously detailed and colorful painting style that we’ll soon learn to equate with Tibetan bhuddists and which is practiced, maintained and protected in Bhutan like nowhere else. After clearing customs, we exchange some USD for ngultrum, meet our driver, Tandin, and guide, Leela, and headed towards Paro.

Before continuing my account of our visit, its important to also point out and detail how traveling to and in Bhutan is perhaps like no other place on earth.  Bhutan strictly controls tourism, and there are tourist quotas and fees for all non-Indian tourists.  The quota is not a strict one, but the Bhutanese government roughly controls tourism by limiting international flights and certification of guides and drivers.  These limitations usually allow only about 29,000 tourists into the country each year, though those numbers are set to rise over the next few years as tourism is becoming a major source of income for the Bhutanese government, second only to that derived from the supply of hydroelectric power to India (and soon to Nepal as well).  Our guide indicated that numbers as high as 100,000 were being discussed, so our advice is to go sooner rather than later if you can.

The tariffs are also restrictive – the Bhutanese government requires $250 USD per person per day of visit.  We were in Bhutan for six days and probably spent more in that time than we did in over two months in Nepal.  It is expensive, no doubt, though your tariff payment does include a driver, guide, all hotels and meals and any entrance fees to attractions.   Beyond the tariff, you pay only for alcoholic beverages, souvenirs and any tip you may wish to provide to your guide and driver (and which is expected).

Our first stop was the main town street in Paro. Despite being the second largest ‘city’ in Bhutan, the Paro town center commercial district consists only of a few streets, though rice terraces and farm houses stretch out in all directions and blanket the entire Paro valley while the Paro Dzong and the National Museum sit perched on a steep hillside above the town.  We walked the town streets with Leela, our first exposure to Bhutanese architecture – whitewashed rammed earth buildings adorned with intricately carved and painted soft pine crowning and raised tin roofing.  Bright red bunches of recently harvested chilies tethered together hung drying from many of building windows.

Typical Bhutanese building with red (fresh) and white (boiled) chilies hang drying, Paro

We visited a local textile studio and store and observed a number of women weaving liras (traditional Bhutanese female dress) on traditional backstrap looms.   Textiles are perhaps Bhutan’s most well-known art and the persistent and tedious effort of the weavers was validated in the quality of the kiras, ghos (traditional Bhutanese male dress), rugs and other traditional textiles on display.

Weaving a kira on a Bhutanese backstrap loom

We dined at a local eatery for a late lunch. Our hopes of a Bhutanese meal were dashed, however, as we soon learned that most restaurants serve bland versions of western food in and attempt to appeal western tastes. Its at this point that I should mention that the Bhutanese diet is heavily reliant on chilies of all sorts, and that here chilies are not merely for flavoring food but are in fact the main focal point of the meal.  We later learned to ask for traditional dishes (or ask for ‘what the guides are having’) and Brett enjoyed many meals of ema datse (chillies in a cheesy curry).

After lunch, we walked around Paro a bit more before head to the Tigers Nest Resort on the outskirts of Paro and our accommodation for our first two nights in Bhutan.  Tigers Nest Resort was quite a luxury for us after the relatively rundown and somewhat roach-infested hostels of Kathmandu and our room looked out at the fabled Tigers Nest Monastery perched on a cliffside above the Paro Valley. Dinner consisted of a buffet meal which was not great, but Brett was able to get fresh chilies and their traditional chili and cheese dish, ema datse.

Life of luxury at Tigers Nest Resort

The next morning we woke early, met Leela and Tandin, and headed up the Paro valley to the ruins of Drukgyel Dzong, a fort built in the 1600s to defend against the invading Tibetans.  On our short drive to the dzong, we get great views of Jomolhari, which while not the highest mountain in Bhutan at ‘only’ 7,326 m (24,035 ft), it is probably the most famous mountain in the country (note: most of the tallest mountains in Bhutan, like in Nepal, lie along the border with Tibet and are therefore only half inside Bhutan.  Jomolhari is entirely within Bhutan’s borders).  We also visited the Kyichu Lhakhang, the oldest monastery in Bhutan, and Dumtse Lhakang, an odd three tiered monastery where each level represents a different realm of Bhuddism.  Its at this point that I’ll mention that we have no photos of the interiors of any religious buildings in Bhutan as it is illegal on the premise that international art thiefs may be enticed if they actually knew what was inside these buildings.  And I must concur, the paintings, tapestries, rugs, woodwork, metalwork, etc. on display inside these buildings not only puts to shame any other bhuddist art I’ve seen, but also rivals the best art in any museum.

The most interesting stop of the day was at the Paro Dzong, and elaborate complex that was built in the 1600s and still houses a monastery and government administrative center.  All dzongs in Bhutan house both the religious and governmental operations in a Bhutanese style of power checks and balances.  While we’re not permitted to photograph inside buildings, photography of some paintings on the interior walls was permitted.

Interior wall painting, Paro Dzong

Mandala of Life, Paro Dzong

We were able to enter the temples and monastic parts of the dzong, although Angie was not allowed in one temple that was for men only (and which was being completely renovated by about 6 monks at work on a large floor plank with a hand saw).  Perhaps my most memorable experience from this visit was the mantra study session for young monks which we were permitted to observe.

Monastic study, Paro Dzong

We finished off the day with a long walk through the rice terraces in the Paro valley, watching the rice harvest.  In actuality, most all of the rice had been harvested and was lain out on the terraces drying.  We watched the process by which the dried rice plant is beaten on a hard flat surface in order to dislodge the rice itself (and chuff) from the plant.

On our third day in Bhutan, we drove to Thimphu.  Our first stop on the way to Thimphu was at Tanchog Lhakang, a monastery built by and the former home of Thangtong Gyalpo.  Gyalpo, in addition to being a very important figure in Tibetan bhuddism, is the man responsible for building the first chain suspension bridges in the world.  In fact, there is a bridge across the river here that is constructed using his original iron chains, which the Bhutanses believe he forged with his bare hands.  Angie did not like this bridge at all. Gyalpo’s home/monastery is still maintained by his descendants and is, in my mind, the image of what I’d always expected Bhutan to be.

Tachog Monastery, between Paro and Thimphu. (note: those are tons of drying red chilies on the hillside below the lhakang. for scale, there are about 8 people harvesting in the field directly left of the chilies. thats a lot of chilis)

We continued our trip, passing over dochu la, a pass through the himalaya foothills at an elevation of 3,100m (10,200 ft). We were fortunate to have very clear views of the Bhutan himal, which were were told was very rare as it is usually cloudy (although we also had spectacularly clear views here on our way back to Paro, so maybe its not as rare as we were told).

In Thimpu, we visited the stupa built in honor of the 3rd king, the National Institute for Zorig Chusum (a trade school teaching cultural arts), and the folk heritage museum. The school was particularly interesting as we were able to walk through different classes, including those for different arts such as sculpting, painting, embroidery and sewing. Many of these courses run for four or five years, and we were also able to see the progression in different years of experience.  The patience and attention to detail was astounding – for instance the embroidery classes produce work with such detail that the students often work a month on a single tapestry the size of a letter style/A4 size paper (6 days a week, 8 hrs a day).  Its astounding for anyone, but considering that most of these students are 18-22 years of age, its hard to reconcile the patience and care they show on this work with that which a 18-22 year old student in western culture might be able to put forth (or really with anyone of any age in western culture).

Our last stop was at Trashicho Dzong, and like in Paro the dzong was easily the most impressive stop of our day.  This dzong is the center of Bhutans government, in fact the new parliament house can be seen across the river and the very modest palace of the king is located just next door (it would be dwarfed by many suburban houses in the US).  The art on display in the temple in this dzong significantly exceeded anything we had seen to this point, it was remarkable and stunning.  We probably circled the inside of this large room four or five times and such was the detail of the art that we probably could have done so another 20-30 times without a lapse in enthusiasm for the place.  It is the kind of place in which you could sit for hours without noticing every detail, but also a place where the attention to detail does not detract from the peacefulness of the room but in fact enhances it.  The heavy large floor boards rubbed to an incredible smoothness by centuries of bare feet absolutely plays into this feeling of peace, and its always something I’ve loved about old temples.

Monks outside the front of the temple, inside the walls of Trashicho Dzong, Thimphu

We walked around town in the evening, stopping into a bar at night which we’d been told was among the best of a very limited selection. The bar was pretty empty during a fairly unenthusiastic attempt at karaoke night (although it was band-backed, no machine).  However, as we were about to leave a young man got up and serenaded us with John Denver’s “Country Road” and Stevie Wonder’s “I just called to say I love you”, which was perhaps his entire English language repertoire. It was entertaining and really kind of him, and was yet another display the great nature and welcoming attitude of the Bhutanese people.

The fourth day we drove on to Punahka to view the Punakha Dzong.  But first, we stopped at the Thimphu Market – which was loaded with fresh chilies, dried chilies, pickled chilies, boiled chilies, dried fish, datse (Bhutanese cheese), dried meats, blood sausage and dried yeast paddies for making arra, the Bhutanese rice wine – and also at the Thimphu archery ground.  Archery is the national sport and these guys hit, with astounding frequency, targets placed 145m away – both with modern bows and with traditional bamboo bows. For reference, the olympic archers aim at targets only 70m away.

Dried meat and blood sausage, Thimphu market

Chilies!, Thimphu market

Archery, Thimphu

We continued on to the Punakha Dzong, easily the most impressive building/complex we saw in our brief time in Bhutan.  The Dzong is placed at the junction of two glacial rivers of slightly different shades of milky blue water and the Bhutanese himalaya are visible in the background.  This was undoubtedly the most dramatic location of any Dzong we’d seen, and there was more – the interior of the Dzong’s main temple was, in our estimation, even more beautiful than that of the main temple at Trashicho Dzong.  The body of Guru Rinpoche, the second modern Bhudda in Tibetan bhuddism, is also purportedly kept in one small temple behind gold plated doors – though only the high monk of Bhutan and the King are allowed to actual view his preserved body.  This dzong was simply stunning in every way.

Punakha Dzong, Punakha

Outside of the main temple, Punakha Dzong

The golden entrance, Punakha Dzong

Next we continued to the Phobjikha Valley, a secluded valley where the rare black neck cranes winter from Tibet.  To our luck, the cranes had arrived just the day before from Tibet – which was incredibly lucky because we’d get to see the cranes, thought the ‘glass-half-empty’ side of us also realized how fantastic it would have been to be there one day earlier and to have watch as the cranes spiraled down into the valley. The cranes are very important to the people in the valley and are becoming increasingly important to tourists and bird watchers – some who make the trip to Bhutan just to see these fabled birds. Speaking to the rise of tourism, that night we stayed in a farmers home, he and his family just having opened their doors to tourists that week, thus becoming only the second guesthouse in the valley.  This was by far the best place we stayed in Bhutan, the family was incredibly nice and the we had a nice dinner chatting with and indian family and their guide and driver, also staying at the house.  The owners were amazingly kind and caring, and the food was the best we had. Nothing beats home cooking!

The next morning we took a walk through the valley, which climbed the hill to one of the local monasteries.  Its amazing how in Bhutan there are monasteries everywhere – in remote valleys, clinging to seemingly impossibly steep ridge sides, in remote high-altitude mountains (so we were told and shown photos) – and they are always well cared for, maintained and vibrant places.  It was no different here, in this little sparsely populated valley, the hillside above housed a very nice monastery:

Gangtey Goemba, Phobjikha Valley

We had a long drive back to Paro the for the rest of the day, but the scenery easily distracted us – including another cloudless view of the himalaya from dochu la.

The next day was our last day in Bhutan, and they like to save the best for last – the walk up to Taktshang Goemba, also known as the Tigers Next Monastery.  This is undoubtedly the most famous attraction in Bhutan, it is a monastery built into a dimple on a sheer rock face that rises vertically from the floor of Paro Valley.  The monastery itself is 600 vertical meters above the valley floor.  The legend behind this placement is simple and profound: this is the place where Guru Rinpoche arrived from Tibet on the back of a flying tiger, arriving in Bhutan to fight against evil lords and to bring bhuddism to the Bhutanese people.  Considering the importance of such an event in Bhutanese history, this place would no doubt be a site of pilgrimage for the people no matter where it was located.  However, it becomes a place of pilgrimage for many non-Bhuddists as well, mainly because it looks like this:

Tigers Nest Monastery

Tigers Nest Monastery

It would be a bit of a steep hike for some, but its was not difficult at all for us.  No matter if its too steep or long (~2.5 hours not including a stop at the tea house half way up), they have horses.

After this, Angie asked to visit a school. We arrived right at the end of the school day, but we were able to see classrooms and the use of English and Dzongkha (classes are taught half in english, half in dzongkha).

end of the day, a school in Paro

The next morning we were on our way to the airport and on an early plane back to Kathmandu.

Summary and Opinions (Brett)

I had come to Bhutan as I’m sure many do, hoping to find some type of happy utopia.  I think the idea of a country focusing on Gross National Happiness instead of GDP lends itself to those expectations, as does the idea of a place where a king willfully transitioned to democracy despite the desire of his people to remain under a monarch.  There is probably no other place like this on earth, certainly not that I’ve heard of.  And the Bhutan I saw was a fantastic place, a mythical place where history, myth and legend are indiscernible from each other and where people are largely happy, optimistic, welcoming and, above all, excited to show off their customs, religion and art.  But it is not utopia – or if it is utopia it is a utopia that seeks only that status for its own citizens and seems to have little problem if that goal is achieved on the backs of others who can never hope for such a life.  In other words, it is a country acting as many wealthy countries act.  And Bhutan is indeed wealthy, especially when compared to its neighboring India, Bangladesh and Nepal.

As an example, the Bhutanese rely heavily on India for many things, including labor.  When Bhutan’s votes were counted following its first democratic election in 2005, the prevailing party was one that promised the spread of roads and electricity through the country.  Indeed most people seemed very happy with their progress in the last 7 years and the Phobjikha Valley had in fact just received power this year.  However, where road projects were underway, they were done by Indian laborers and those laborers and their families resided in roadside shantytowns during their stay in Bhutan, a stark contrast to the elaborate farm houses that stand everywhere.  This in itself is perhaps only mildly concerning – after all, these are likely to be Indian workers who might not have jobs if not for the progress in Bhutan -, but the fact that most of the Bhutanese people we spoke to thought nothing of the disparity and even seemed to accept it as justified by birth seemed to undercut the idea that Bhutan is a selfless place wheresuch questions are approached with unmatched humanity and social concern.

And this difference highlights another issue: the method by which Bhutan manages its progress and integration into the world, not to mention its own domestic issues, is perhaps very successful for them but is not a system that can be projected across the world.  Bhutan is wealthy compared to its neighbors and this is largely due to its being comparatively extremely sparsely populated.  It is also troubling that Bhutan’s eviction of some of its southern Hindu citizens in the early 1990s, refugees which Nepal has accepted, has in some ways made it more possible for Bhutan to be wealthy.  And most of all, Bhutan’s wealth in GNH is at least partially if not largely predicated on its monetary wealth.  The Bhutanese sell hydro power to India and Nepal and national industries also export many foodstuffs and other to its neighbors.  It is partially the government’s strong bookkeeping that has allowed it to focus on GNH, something that would be unimaginable in a place like India or Nepal.

That said, Bhutan is and incredible place.  If the words above sound harsh it is only because of my unfairly high expectations.  I’m actually not sure that I’ll ever visit a place I enjoy more and on as many levels as Bhutan – the people, the landscape, the mentality, etc are all top notch. The experience in Bhutan was awesome. We would love to return and visit more. We highly recommend others check it out, too.

Click here to see photos if flash doesn’t work

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