Gandhi once said that the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated. From this point of view, Bhutan is probably greater and more advanced than any other country in the world, although it can and needs to improve further.
Until the 1960s, Bhutan had no national currency, no telephones, no schools, no hospitals, no postal service and certainly no tourists. By now, there is an airport, roads, free national health care, internet, mobile phones, and luxury tourist hotels, but the country has maintained its unique culture and natural beauty, qualifying it as the last Shangri-La in the world.
Bhutan is a magical country, with beautiful unspoiled nature, friendly people, and Buddhist tradition at every corner. Called "Druk Yul" or "Land of the Thunder Dragon" by the Bhutanese, it's about the size of Switzerland with only 700,000 people, it's 72% covered in virgin forest and is almost entirely mountainous. The 4th King established the concept of "Gross National Happiness" to balance economic development with protection of nature and cultural values, and this concept is fully engrained in the thinking of the Bhutanese.
We left Bangkok early in the morning, made a stop-over in Calcutta and arrived at the small airport of Paro – which is in the only valley in Bhutan that was long enough for a landing strip. We were welcomed by our guide RB and driver Karma from Bhutan Majestic Travel, who would take us around Bhutan for the next 11 days.
After a quick lunch, we visited the National Museum which is housed in the Ta-Dzong above Paro Dzong. A dzong is a combined fortress / monastery / government office, typically around 400 years old and often accompanied by a smaller watch tower on a hill above (the ta-dzong). This ta-dzong has a unique circular shape (like a shell), and houses a nice collection of old artifacts, plus a large stamp collection (Bhutanese stamps are very elaborate, and some series can fetch huge sums at auctions).
Refreshed after a long night sleep and a good breakfast, we first went to the Taktshang Goemba. The "Tiger's Nest" Monastery is the most famous in Bhutan and is indeed very impressive. It has a spectacular location high on the side of a cliff, 900 meters above Paro Valley. It took almost two hours to walk up there, and we stopped all the time to take pictures of the stunning temple that looks like it's growing out of the rocks.
The monastery got its name from the legend that Guru Rinpoche (from the 8th century, one of the most important religious figures in Buddhism and seen as the second Buddha) flew on a tigress to this site to conquer a local demon. He subsequently meditated for three months in a cave there. The monastery was built in 1692 around the cave where he used to meditate, and inside are statues of Guru Rinpoche and beautiful paintings of the rock face. The site is considered as holy, and is visited by pilgrims from all over Bhutan.
Unfortunately, Taktshang was heavily damaged during a fire in 1998, but it was soon restored it in its old glory. Only since 2005 is it possible to visit this site, and only if the tour agency has previously arranged a permit (this applies to all major dzongs, or monasteries, in Bhutan).
We realized today that December is a good time to come, as these places can be too crowded with tourists during the peak season in November. During lunch, we had our first experience with "ema datse", a favorite local dish of chilies in cheese sauce (they eat chilies as vegetable here!).
Next on the schedule was Drukgyel Dzong, where are the impressive ruins of a fortress built in 1649 to control the strategic trade route with Tibet. Through the ruins, you could see what an impressive fortress this must have been. From the top, you had great views of the valley and the surrounding mountains covered with trees.
Afterwards we visited Kyichu Lhakhang. This is one of the oldest monasteries in the country, built in 659 by a Tibetan king who wanted to show his power and convert people to Buddhism by constructing 108 monasteries in Tibet and Bhutan (apparently in a single day!). Inside we met a nice young monk, who explained about his life and some religious practices. He joined at age 5, and will be a monk his entire life, rotating to different monasteries every three years.
The last stop of the day was at Paro's Rinpung Dzong, a very large and commanding building that now serves as monastery and government administration building. On the way down we walked over the beautiful Nyamai Zampa bridge, which offered some good views on the dzong and the National Museum higher up the hill.
We started the day with a one-hour drive to Thimphu, and on the way we passed by Tamshing Goemba (established by Pema Lingma, the treasure-hunting monk) with a famous iron bridge over the river below.
Once in Thimphu, our first stop was the Folk Heritage Museum, which is one of the oldest houses in Bhutan. We were surprised with how similar the rural life used to be compared to the ancient countryside of Romania or the Netherlands - cattle sleeping on the ground floor, storage space for equipment and grain, central kitchen that doubled as bedroom during winter, etc. The buildings are remarkably similar to Swiss chalets, but with Bhutanese decoration and wood sculptures.
The next stop was at the post office – we had to buy some of the elaborately decorated stamps. Diana bought some nice collections of dog and cat stamps (of course!). Afterwards we had a stroll around the Centenary Farmers Market, a bustling daily market for fresh fruits and vegetables where we tried some extremely hard, tasteless cheese that locals eat as snack. Following a nice lunch, we went up to the BBS Tower on a nearby hill to see Thimphu and the valley, and visited the Takin Preserve on the way down. The takin is Bhutan's national animal, and legend says that it was created by the "Divine Madman" Lama Drukpa Kunley by placing a goat's head on a cow's body... Scientists are puzzled as well - they've created a separate family just for this species!
The very old Changangkha Lhakhang features a giant statue of Chenresig, the bodhisattva of compassion with 11 heads and a thousands arms, as well as several large prayer wheels operated by some old Bhutanese men. We bought a white prayer flag to promote harmony, which we'll place on a hilltop or bridge in the next few days. Prayer flags are printed with various texts and Buddhists believe that the wind will carry the messages across the world.
Placed prominently in Thimphu, the Memorial Chorten was built in 1974 for the third King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, who died at age 44. People come here all day to walk around the chorten, spin a prayer wheel and get some blessings. Especially in the morning it's busy, as school kids swarm the site for a blessing before going to school.
The Trashi Chhoe Dzong is the largest dzong in the country, and is absolutely stunning. It is a special building that combines the King's office, some ministries and government administration with a monastery. We were truly impressed by the size and beautiful architecture of this building – It really seemed fit for the center of a Himalayan Kingdom.
In the evening, we had a walk around town, and we were happy to see that the street dogs were in good shape (that’s not the case everywhere). We also found a voluntary artist studio called VAST, run by some very passionate young Bhutanese who aim to expand traditional art with more modern and experimental touches. They'll have a street exhibition next week – we're looking forward to that!
We started with a steep 40-minute hike to Tango Goemba, north of Thimphu. This beautiful monastery was founded in the 12th century, although most buildings come from the 15th and 18th century. You could really see that this is an ancient, well-maintained monastery – especially the woodwork and paintings inside were very impressive. It is now mainly used as school for young monks, and it is also the residence of a young "trulku" (reincarnate lama), and home for a couple of fat and happy temple cats.
We had a great picnic lunch next to a river in Jigme Dorji National Park, and continued with a trek to the next monastery, Cheri Goemba. This goemba is mainly used for meditation, with around 25 resident monks. Typically, young monks first go to Tango to study, and then move to Cheri to do the typical Buddhist meditation session that lasts 3 years, 3 months and 3 days.
In the evening, we had dinner with Kipchu Tshering, CEO of Bhutan National Bank (the country's only private bank). It was very interesting to hear from one of the most important businessman in Bhutan, on how the country is developing while giving priority to preserving the environment and cultural traditions. We learnt that before a company can get a bank loan, it first needs permission from the Ministry of Environment for its planned operations. We wish other countries had a similar approach...
We first tried to visit the Traditional Medicine Institute, but it was not yet open. It was interesting, however, to see that people were lining up for a treatment with traditional herbal medicines – Bhutan is famous for this.
On the way to Punakha, we crossed the Dochu La Pass (3,140m), where we saw the first snow fall. At the pass itself where 108 chortens, built to compensate for the lives lost in the 2003 "flush-out" operation, when the Bhutanese army chased out separatist rebels from Asam (India) that were hiding in South-Bhutan.
The first destination was the famous Chimi Lhakhang, built in 1499 in honor of Lama Drukpa Kunley (the Divine Madman). This monastery is renowned for the blessings you can receive there... with the bow and arrow of the Lama, and his 10 inch wooden penis! We also met a nice young monk named Phup Khundu, who behaved just as naughty as the original lama must have 500 years ago... Childless women come to this temple to get a blessing, and pregnant women come here to pick the name of their child.
In Punakha, we visited the impressive Punakha Dzong, which was the seat of the government until the mid-1950s. It's built at the confluence of two rivers, and had its fair share of misfortune – it burnt down three times, was damaged in an earthquake and was flooded once. But each time it was skillfully restored, and they even restored the traditional cantilever bridge (with help from Germany). It's still the winter residence of the Je Kenpho, the head of Bhutan's monastic body. Inside the main prayer hall are giant statues of Guru Rinpoche, Lord Buddha and Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal (the Tibetan King who built most dzongs in Bhutan). We were lucky to see the afternoon prayers of the monks, accompanied by drums and trumpets, and supervised by a whip-carrying senior monk...
This is again a stunning monastery, and by now we are already struggling to name our favorite...
Today was reserved for the long drive from Punakha to Bumthang Valley. We started the day with a quick visit back to the Punakha Dzong for some early-morning pictures, and than it was time for the Big Trip... It was a long 270 km drive, most of it through endless forest, beautiful scenery and enormous altitude changes (Bhutan is almost entirely mountainous, and you typically drive from a valley to a high pass back into a valley, only to climb to the next pass again...). We also had a great snow fight close to the Pele La pass.
In the late afternoon, we arrived in Jakar town, the main village in Bumthang valley, where we checked into a great hotel with a fireplace in each room. It was fantastic to have such a warm room after the low temperature outside! The hotel also had some huge dogs, and an extremely friendly cat that we named Kinley Phuntso, a typical Bhutanese boy's name.
Right after breakfast, we realized that Kinley Phuntso had been injured in a fight the previous night... his ear was split in two. Some tea tree oil helped a bit, but the poor thing will always have a split ear.
We first visited Jakar Dzong, which was built in 1667. This is a very nice, well-maintained dzong which again is used as government office and monastery. We climbed up to the top floor of the utse (main tower) where we discovered life-size skins of two demons hanging upside down.
Next we went to Jampay Lhakhang, a smaller temple north of Jakar dzong, built in 659. After passing 6 giant prayer wheels, we entered the main prayer hall that contains a huge statue of Guru Rinpoche, as well as three stone steps at the entrance. The middle step was almost at floor level and legend says that the world will end when it reaches the wooden floor...
The next stop was the large Kurjey Lhakhang, with three separate buildings (from 1652, 1900 and 1984). The oldest is built around a cave with the bodyprint of Guru Rinpoche, as a result of his intense meditation there ("kur" means body and "jey" means print"). It also has a small tunnel that virtuous people can crawl through – if your mind is not pure, you get stuck... Luckily we managed to get through unharmed :-)
We also visited Tamshing Goemba on the east side of the valley. This is the most important Nyingma monastery in the kingdom, and has an unusual design with a central prayer hall surrounded by a walkway (kora). Inside that kora is a 25 kg armor suit made by Pema Lingpa, which we carried three times around the kora - no small feat! On the balcony around the prayer hall are 100,000 paintings of the Buddha. We didn't count them, but there certainly were many. A bit below Tamshing is Konchogsum Lhakhang, which was unfortunately closed (in winter, most monks move to warmer valleys and only leave behind a few unruly junior monks...)
After a nice lunch we drove up to Membartsho (Burning Lake). This is a pool in the river, where the famous treasure hunter Pema Lingpa recovered some of treasures hidden by Guru Rinpoche. To prove that he was a 'genuine revealer of treasures' he plunged in the icy lake with a torch that was still burning when he resurfaced with the objects. It's a beautiful spot where nature, religion and mythology blur into one. There is a small bridge with many prayer flags, and we added our own prayer flag with a small ceremony of burning juniper branches to create nice-smelling smoke. If done with good intentions, the prayer flag and juniper smoke will help create more compassion for all living beings in this world.
In the evening we had great fun playing cards with our guide RB and driver Karma, and at night we thoroughly enjoyed the bukhari (fire place) in our room!
Today was reserved for visiting Ura Valley, a few hours drive further to the east on the small, hairpin-curve road called 'National Highway'. Ura itself is a medieval-looking village off the road, built in front of a large goemba. Inside the goemba were some of the best wall paintings we have seen – scary mahakalas painted in fresh, bright colors. During a walk in the village, we noticed that people here were poorer and less friendly than in other villages, possibly because all the young people leave for nearby towns for education and work. Hopefully the new school will change that...
We spent the evening playing cards with Karma and RB again, next to the fire place - with Kinley Phuntso happily purring on Diana's lap.
We started our return journey quite early, and arrived in Trongsa after a couple of hours. Trongsa is exactly in the middle of Bhutan, and has one of the country's largest and most magnificent dzongs. People were playing archery outside the fortress walls, while others where building stands for next week's festival. Somehow, it felt very authentic, and a scene that could have happened 500 years ago... Inside the dzong, people were busy practicing for the mask dance of the festival. Around 15 men from surrounding villages where dancing in a circle, supervised by a teacher. It was still a bit uncoordinated, but we're sure they'll do well at the festival!
On the way, we were driving high through the mountains, which were covered in thick snow - a fantastic winter wonderland! We built a nice snowman, and our joint project ended (of course) in a massive snow fight...
Late in the afternoon we arrived in Phobjikha Valley, where we went to see Gangte Goemba and the Black Neck Cranes. The goemba was not yet in use as it was being renovated, but the cranes were great to see. They come each winter from Tibet, flying over the Himalayas to arrive in this beautiful, well-protected valley. Each year they announce their arrival by flying three times around the goemba, and they do the same when leaving in the spring.
On the way back to Paro, we stopped to see the dzong of Wangdue Phodrang. This was a great experience, as we were allowed to join the monks during their morning prayers. We sat for an hour or so, listen to the chanting of the monks accompanied by drums and trumpets. They were starting a seven-day ceremony, to promote the well-being of all living beings in this world. It was very, very peaceful, and a memorable moment.
Later, back in Thimphu, we visited the National Textile Museum to learn about this craft (one of the most important of the 13 Traditional Crafts practiced widely in Bhutan). Later we checked the Handicraft Emporium for some samples, but most things were way too expensive. As planned, we went to the Clock Tower Square to watch the street exhibition of VAST (the volunteer artist group). It was a bustling event, and we had a chance meeting with Tshewang Wandi, a news reader and actor in Bhutan’s most famous movie “Travelers & Magicians”. When he heard that we were from the Netherlands, he immediately started speaking Dutch, with the accent from the Achterhoek! It turned out that he has visited the Netherlands a few times, to make a documentary about Normaal and its lead singer Bennie Jolink. When we said goodbye, he replied by saying “doei” – unbelievable!
Time to leave Bhutan and head back to Singapore. It has been an amazing trip, and again we realized how energizing the Himalayas can be – pure nature, friendly people, ancient culture, and the peace and tranquility that you only find in Buddhist societies. This was our fourth time in the Himalayas, and we’re sure we’ll come back!For more pictures, click here.