When I told friends I was headed to Bhutan, the common response was, “Where?” Bhutan is a small Buddhist country (population of approximately 700K) between India and Tibet. It's also the place that has stolen my heart.
Bhutan was settled before the tenth century but is thought to have been inhabited before that time. A Tibetan lama Ngawang Namgyel unified the country in 1616 and named the country Druk Yul, or Land of the Thunder Dragon. The main languages spoken are Dzongkha, Sharchhop, Nepali and English. English is taught in schools. Health care and education are free, but not all citizens have access to them. Marriage traditionally happened as a result of "night hunting," where a man would seek out a woman and if he was still at her house in the morning, they were married. They were divorced when one of them moved out. Today, marriage licenses are granted. The land and assets of the family usually go to the females in the family and the women of Bhutan are said to enjoy more equality with men than in other Asian countries. The main export of Bhutan is hydro-electricity and Bhutan currently exports electricity to India in exchange for military resources.
The local currency is the Nu. There are no ATMs in Bhutan where foreigners can withdraw cash, only the locals can. Many of the hotels, however, can change money at their front desks. The Internet is available everywhere and in fact you will often see monks on their cell phones. The culture is conservative and modest dress is always advised. In addition, because it is a Buddhist country, visitors should not touch a person’s head and refrain from pointing, wearing shoes or putting their feet up in temples. Further, some temples require that both men and women wear collared shirts, so it’s a good idea to bring at least one. Finally, all visitors are required to have a local guide.
I could go on and on. While it's a magical place, it's a country all the same with it's own share of issues. To get a good sense of the country, I highly recommend Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A Journey into Bhutan by Jaime Zeppa.
My local guide was Namgay Tshering of Namgay Adventure Travels . A more wonderful human being does not exist. I highly recommend him for any type of trip you might take to Bhutan. He knows everyone and can get you in everywhere.
I traveled the north of Bhutan, starting in Paro. Here is a summary of my itinerary:
Day One: I flew from Bangkok to Paro, Bhutan via Druk Air (very limited flights into the country). I checked out the Drukgyel Dzong (a fortress built in 1649 to protect Bhutan from invading Mongols) and then checked into the Zhiwa Ling Hotel. Later that evening, I saw locals filming a movie at the hotel. The film industry is just starting to take off in the country and is considered a “hot” way to make money.
Day Two: I visited the Paro Dzong and Kitchu Lahkang (one of the first monasteries built to subdue the demon and oppressor of Buddhism). Out among the country homes of Paro it’s hard to miss the interesting décor. What is it? It’s a phallus. Yep – large penises everywhere you look. The symbol is very important in Bhutanese rituals and celebrations. It is thought to be a holdover from Bonism, Bhutan’s religion before Buddhism. It is also thought to be from a popular deity, Lam Drukpa Kunley (the “Divine Madman”), who had an eye for the ladies. While it is funny to see phalluses painted on homes and hung in doorways, some Buddhists argue that the practice has a deeper meaning: keeping the male ego in check.
Day Three: I drove to Timphu (about a 1.5 hour trip) and stayed at the Taj Hotel. Timphu is the capital and considered the big city of Bhutan – it has about 40,000 people. There was a ton of construction going on and you can really see here how quickly the country is changing.
Did you know that smoking is banned in Bhutan? So is advertising. The country also doesn't have a single traffic light. They tried putting one up in Thimphu (the capitol) but it was ineffective so they took it down. They now have a traffic cop in Thimphu.
You can tell the Bhutanese by their traditional dress (required by the government – ghos for men and kiras for women). I’m in a full kira with a short silk jacket called a toego and my waist is tied with a kera below. The government just allowed women to start wearing a half-kira (where the skirt only comes to the waist) to save women time dressing in the morning. The rest of the city was full of Indian laborers who do most of the construction work and don’t wear traditional dress. Thimpu is also the site of Bhutan’s only golf course – all nine holes of it. Golf is an increasingly popular sport in Bhutan (but still behind archery – the country’s main sport) and argyle socks are all the rage.
Day Four: I hiked along Thimphu Chuu and then on to Cheri Goemba (built in 1620, it’s where the first monk body was established). Later that night I went into town and ate at the city’s only pizza parlor. After, I checked out a bit of Bhutanese television, courtesy of the Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS). I was particularly interested because I have wanted to visit Bhutan ever since I saw a 60 Minutes episode on the country when I was young. I remember that at the time, 60 Minutes noted that Bhutan was a country without television. I thought to myself, “What kind of country doesn’t have television?” and promised myself I would find out one day. The country didn’t open up to travelers or foreigners until the mid-1970s. Television, via satellite, began to sneak in around the 1990s and the kingdom didn’t make it’s official television debut until 1998. Today, television is pretty regulated. While visitors see a whole host of cable shows in their hotels (did you know there is an Indian Judge Judy?), most locals do not. While Buddhist philosophy is based on adaptation and acceptance, it will be interesting to see how television and it’s growing encroachment will affect the country.
Here is a local grocery store open late into the night and where you would cook - a farmhouse kitchen.
Day Five: I shuttled to Dochu La (La means pass) en route to Punakha. In Punakha I stayed at the Meri Puensum Hotel (while spartan, it is currently the best hotel in the area). At the top of the pass, I visited the 108 chortens and tried Yak cheese. The cheese is pretty hard so locals suck on it for about an hour until it’s soft enough to chew. I couldn’t get past a few licks. Apparently, though, yak cheese is becoming popular in the gourmet world.
Because I made good time, I hit the Punakha Dzong. A gorgeous temple with the largest Buddha I had ever seen. Though, it should be noted that Bhutan is currently building The World’s largest Buddha (it will be larger than the Buddha in Hong Kong). Here is a picture of it underway.
In the temple I spun many prayer wheels. The custom is to spin them clockwise. And some folks spin them all day.
In the afternoon it was a hike to the Chimmi Lhakhang temple. It is devoted to the god of fertility, the Divine Madman. Those wanting children visit the temple, receive a blessing and choose their child’s name. There are only about 80 names total in all of Bhutan and the names can be for a male or female. I was blessed by a monk at the temple. He tapped my head with a 500-year old phallus carved by the Drukpa Kunley.
Day Six: I hiked to Chorten Nebu (built in 1650 and was the winter monastery for monks). Next to the monastery is an orphanage that my guide, Namgay Tshering, personally supports. The boys were exceptionally polite and extremely appreciative of the gifts Namgay brought. They are pictured below trying on our sunglasses.
Prayer flags are everywhere the wind blows. The wind whips through the flags and carries the prayers of those who put up the flags to the heavens. This flag has a Wind Horse at the center which represents good luck.
Day Seven: I shuttled back over Dochu La back to Paro. I stopped at the pass to see if the Himalayas were visible. While it was a nice day, there was just enough cloud cover to prevent a proper look. Back in Paro, I checked in at the Uma Hotel.
This is a Buddha that has recently been painted. The painter brought the Buddha, which is hollow inside, to a monastery to have it filled with rolled up prayers. Once it is, he can finish by painting the face.
Day Eight: I hiked to one of Bhutan’s most famous sites, the Takstang Monastery, also known as The Tiger’s Nest. It’s a steep hike, made just a bit tricky in parts by the sheer cliff you walk alongside, but a satisfying one. After, I had a traditional Bhutanese lunch at the tea house which is located half-way up on a ridge that looks across to the Tiger’s Nest.
The country is growing and infrastructure is under construction, but they have plenty of ways to get around, including suspension bridges.
The main thing, though, in Bhutan is to just be patient.
Day Nine: I participated in a prayer flag ceremony and then bid everyone goodbye through serious tears. It is truly the first time in my travels that I did not want to return home. There is so much more to report from my trip. The above is just a very high level summary and I am still unpacking all my experiences. But suffice it to say, Bhutan is a beautiful country with magnificent people and it will forever be in my heart.
Quick facts for those who might visit soon: