1950s hope, floating in today’s sea of corruption and cynicism – that’s my impression of Bhutan. Surrounded by India and China, Bhutan makes my throat ache with the sincerity and risk of what they are trying to do. I hope they succeed, but I don’t know if anyone can pull it off. They want to do things right — to manage westernization successfully and to control influences that do not agree with their culture. Their unique culture seems naïve, straight-laced and absolutely exquisite as they stand against the huge, dripping maw of the vicious world outside.
We travelled to Bhutan via Bangkok, during the terrible Thai floods of 2011. The only way into Bhutan is via Druk Air, the tiny Bhutanese airline, and they only fly once a day. So we spent a day in Bangkok, in an old neighborhood looking for begging bowls handmade in the traditional way since 1700. We found the craftspeople working in tiny shops and saw high walls of sandbags everywhere. The airport had been protected by huge masses of sandbags, so our flights went well.
We started our trip in the city of Paro. There is one air strip that serves both the airplanes of the Bhutanese fleet. (Yes, that’s right, two airplanes!) It is cool at night and warm in the days. The town is in a long valley between mountains. The planes drop out of the clouds and land very quickly on the runway.
The people here look like Tibetans and 98 per cent wear the traditional Bhutanese dress, which is a short coat and knee socks for men and a long sarong skirt and jacket for women. The children also wear this. There are cars, but the few roads are single lane only. The drivers are extremely polite and there is no honking. The streets are quiet. On the streets we see horses, donkeys, cows and many, many barking, mangy dogs who fight and do doggy things. There are tourists too in the city, but only a few.
Buddhism permeates everything, even in the small convenience stores. Buddhist temples are everywhere, and there are Buddhist prayer wheels, prayer flags and symbols on the hillsides and in the squares. We visited various temples, including one from the 7th century. We reached another with a hike up a mountain – one astonishing view after another, views that made us weep, and the pure amazement that, centuries ago, ordinary monks did impossible work to build these temples on impossible cliffs.
Archery is a national sport, and there are many fields where men gather and shoot arrows in friendly, beer-fueled groups. They shoot 435 feet accurately with handmade wooden bows. Amazing!!! (In Olympic archery, people shoot 229 feet!) When someone wins they have traditional taunting songs and dances for the other team — kind of like a football thing. Burly men in knee socks link arms and chant songs that annoy the other team. They’ve all been drinking beer. It’s very fun and really amazing to watch.
In Bhutan, there are no public displays of affection. The King, who looks a bit like Elvis Presley, astonished people when he kissed his gorgeous bride after their wedding last month. On the streets, we made sure not to even hold hands.
In a high pass through the Himalayas, we were humbled by a shrine. A few years ago, while trying to stop outside invaders from rebel groups from India, Bhutanese soldiers killed several enemy soldiers. Bhutan repelled the invasion, but the Bhutanese government built dozens of stupas (Buddhist structures similar to towers) for the Indian dead. Buddhism forbids killing, and Buddhists believe that building these stupas expressed sorrow and compassion, relieving some of the bad karma and also creating the prayerful hope that the dead Indians will be reborn into a higher realm. The stupas look out over the high Himalayas—the white peaks, the blue sky, the horizon that reaches forever. To me it felt as gentle and wise as the peace museum at Hiroshima. I tried to imagine if the American government would ever do anything to express their spiritual sorrow about similar deaths. Once again, I felt the wisdom and gentleness of these Asian cultures today, compared to our bullying public image.
Centuries ago, a Buddhist monk named Drukba Cunley, also called the “divine madman,” taught that free love and abundant sex were part of God. In that part of Bhutan, people hang carved wood phalluses (penises) on the corners of their houses to invite the spirit of Drukba Cunley to bless them. His temple is renowned as a fertility shrine, and they maintain an album of successful births to couples from all over the world that happened after a visit to this shrine. It was wonderful to watch young couples smiling hopefully as they bowed to the monks. I was a bit worried because I got blessed there too– but I am hoping the fertility they refer to can be writing success! The temple is decorated with celebratory phalluses — not the standard thing we think of in temples.
In central Bhutan, it’s colder and higher, between 8000 and 12000 feet. Several of our group had a rough time with altitude sickness — that is, not sleeping well because of gasping, headaches, and nausea.
Imagine a country half the size of Australia crumpled up into mountains until it is the size of Switzerland. It’s high, rough, pine covered mountains and sweet valleys with cropland. Misty clouds drift by. Stony cliffs, waterfalls, high pines, condors and buzzards in the sky are the backdrop for houses of stone with roofs weighted down by rocks against the wind. This high, there are yaks and cows both. On most mountains there is a monastery. The roads crawl back and forth, in and out, running level midway along the sides of the mountains — like the ribbon candy at Christmas where the folds of candy are looped right on top of each other. There are rock slides often and lots of road construction. There is only one road from the east to west of the country– so what they do is to close the road most of the day for construction and then let people through only 30 minutes at a time, on a schedule. The schedule changes as the workers move, so the drivers ask each other when the road will be open.
We hiked up to a monastery at 12000 feet. There was snow along the road. Then in the afternoon we went to a festival in a tiny village. The monks there danced out holy stories for the villagers — monks in bright silk costumes and brightly painted, carved wooden masks that show the demons and deities — twisting and leaping as they show the battle between good and evil. The music was deep horns, huge drums, oboes and chanting done by other monks. The village women also did some circle dances where they sang. Some of the women were so full of beer and laughed so much while they danced that it was clear that they were singing some new lyrics.
The food in Bhutan is delicious. Meat such as pork or beef in a stew, veggies in butter, noodles or rice, wonderful soups are the usual. The local delicacy is hot peppers in a fondue –very very hot but delicious. People drink beer too.
We hiked up a mountain to get to a mountaintop monastery that supports a tiny orphanage. Five Buddhist monks use their tiny stipends to support (currently) 27 orphans. To be accepted for care, there must not be any family who can help out, and some of the boys are also handicapped in various ways from birth or from malnutrition. Ages range from 6 to about 17; it costs $1000/year to support a boy. Getting him clothed and cared for when he first arrives costs $35. They have to turn away boys if their budget can’t manage it. The central government board monitors them closely. The monks teaching and caring for the boys are good-natured young men — one wore levis and T shirt beneath his cranberry-colored monks’ robes. The boys wear monks’ robes and study scripture. They take preliminary vows but are not required to become full monks when they grow up. If they choose to leave and start a family, that is fine. Some do choose to become full monks. After completing a monks’ education, their status in their home villages goes up. There are also convents run by nuns for orphan girls — on other mountaintops.
We hiked several hours up the mountain and came out at a tiny village. The monastery has a gorgeous old chapel/shrine and a big house where the boys and teachers live and study. It is of old stone. There was an earthquake here in October, and the walls were badly damaged and not yet repaired. The monastery looks out over the Himalayas, and the boys can play in the huge sunny yard inside the monastery’s walls. They lined up and sat cross legged, and we gave them gifts — pens, pencils, markers — and Frisbees and balloons! What a scene! Bright sun, boys shouting and running and jumping in the monks’ robes as they learned how to play Frisbee. We played with them. One of the teachers — a young man himself– could barely hold himself back, but, alas, felt he had to be dignified. It was an hour of jumping and laughing in the bright sun.
Later we drove down the mountain just as school was letting out. We had brought pens and fancy hair ties as gifts. The small children were wearing their school uniforms of blue robes. One little girl’s face twisted in wild, amazed joy when she realized that this bus of strange-looking foreigners was stopping to simply give her a sparkly gift. Her face said “I never even knew anything like this happened!” It was a moment to remember forever– just touching the people and hoping that they see us as more than old, fat, rich, strange-looking foreigners.
We came down out of the villages in the higher mountains. It’s slow going on the roads here. The national speed limit is 25 mph — really! The roads are so twisty and narrow as they snake across the sides of the mountains that no one would want to go faster.
One morning we saw about 50 black-necked cranes. There are only about 2000 in the world, and the marshes here are where they spend the winters, migrating here from Tibet and Ladakh, India. Oddly they look a bit like sheep from a distance because they are round and white except for their black necks. They make a wonderful calling sound, and up close, they remind me of turkeys because of their big bodies, but they have lovely long legs and necks. The bird watching here is phenomenal.
All of Bhutan is like a wildlife refuge– there is no hunting or fishing in the whole country. One client brought his fishing rod, intending to catch and release, but the Bhutanese feel this is a way of torturing fish, and they feel a fish may be a sentient being who was once human. Once there was a proposal to neuter dogs (there are many strays) and it was opposed partly on the grounds that dogs are the last reincarnation step before human, so people felt it was wrong to interfere with that dog soul’s natural progress.
We attended a village fair — very crowded, everyone in their best traditional clothes, lots of priests doing dances, lots of traditional music. Many of the oldest men in the villages do not wear shoes, ever, even though it is about 30-34 degrees F. There were some old-fashioned gambling games. The highlight, as we left, was that a family was leaving, going home in a 2-ton dump truck. About 8-12 kids were already standing in the back. The grandma and mom had been standing next to me. Grandma was going to ride in the back with all the kids, so mom and a friend shoved her up, pushing her up by the bottom, and the kids pulled from the top on her arms, and eventually she got her leg over the top and toppled into the back where all the kids were. Everyone laughed.
Some farmers have made their homes into guest houses and small restaurants. We ate at one. The menu was veggie dumplings, homemade buckwheat noodles, red rice, beef, carrots in butter, beans in cheese sauce, green beans, hot peppers in fondue, and apples. The farmer was the cook and his wife makes the local moonshine, which was a strong barley liquor. The family has a shrine room which was wonderfully warm and personal, with beautiful handmade wooden furniture and a gorgeous handmade display for their sacred objects.
We also stayed in a farmhouse cabin overnight — tiny wood stoves in tiny rooms, great food, and, in a frigid cold bathroom, a steaming HOT bucket bath. When I doused myself with that hot water, it was ecstasy.
A Swiss farmer moved here and has taught cheese making and animal husbandry. We got some excellent cheese and honey. They have brought in Guernsey and Holstein cows to increase the local herd’s milk production, but the hybrids do poorly on the steep mountain slopes. Yaks are best at the higher altitudes. I tried Yak Butter tea and decided that I do not need to try that again in this lifetime.
We did several long hikes through the farm fields. Marijuana grows wild here as a weed. It is not illegal, but if someone is using it, they are put into a program to lose the habit. However, the farmers found that if they keep marijuana growing around their rice paddies, the pigs eat it and sleep instead of bothering the crops. So the pigs are high and the farmers are happy.
For me the highlight of the trip was a Buddhist puja (worship service) we went to one morning. It was in a monastery’s chapel/shrine from the 7th century. The monks played horns five feet long, oboes, and huge round drums, and chanted in the deep, resonant, eerie bass that they use. We stayed a long time. Local people came and prostrated themselves and left. It felt like the deep throbbing chants were the pulsing of all life in bodies as souls try to do the dance they were born to do. I could have stayed there forever.
–by Jean Gendreau