Bhutan: Could it Get any Better?

 

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Bhutan has to be one of my favorite places that I have ever been to. It could have to do with its strong culture of high-quality tourism: advocating for high quality, low impact, they make every tourist from the Western World spend at least $250 a day (including transport, food, accommodation, and a mandatory guide). This makes the people who come genuinely interested in the culture and respectful as the small country is not flooded with budget tourists (which I am most of the time). The country’s love for nature, culture, and peace embedded in Buddhism surpassed my already high expectations of this wonderful country.

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27 March 2018: Flight to Paro, Bhutan-

Only 8 pilots are qualified to make the landing into Paro – a relatively challenging trek, but with beautiful views of Mt. Everest on the way!

Transfer to airport for flight to Paro, upon arrival at Paro Airport, you will get your passport stamped with visa and claim your baggage and meet your guide outside the airport. After lunch at a local restaurant, we take half-day tour in Paro, visit National Museum, housed at Ta Dzong-the former Watch Tower. The museum has a wide variety of collections from fine arts, handcrafts, arms & armors, bamboo crafts, stuffed animals, stamp collections, bronze statues and also a fine chapel. From here, we visit Paro Rinpung Dzong-which means the fortress on a heap of Jewels. It was built during the reign of Shabdrung in1646. The Dzong, which houses the Paro Monastic School and office of the civil administration, is rich in architecture. The famous Paro Tsechu is held here in the courtyard of this Dzong every year in spring. Late afternoon we drive to Thimphu (1hrs)-the capital city of Bhutan. Overnight in Thimpu at Namgay Heritage

 

  • Saw Mount Everest from the plane!
  • Fortress visit: in the past, everyone lived in the same fortress, not in separate houses
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  • Fortress was built by the Buddha who came from Tibet and unified Bhutan
  • 700k population; 3 women to 1 man
  • More than 23 local languages spoken
  • Ladies and men work equally
  • Phalluses everywhere because they make people embarrassed when they see them, and the sense of embarrassment purges people of negative energy
  • Strong belief in natural medicine
  • Happened to  be here for the Paro festival, which started on the 27th. How awesome!
  • Coexistence with nature and natural beings, including rocks is key in Bhutan
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  • Picnic at the Paro fortress for the Paro festival – tradition for local families
  • Having lunch where I experienced a Bhutanese dog named the same as my dog, Bella
  • In Bhutan, you have to pay $250 a day for being there —  requires/includes a guide — takes you to 3+ star restaurants to avoid food poisoning. Government gives tour company 40% of this, only after the tourists leave and if they have no complaints from the company
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  • Elders worry about the future because youth is increasingly choosing to leave to cities and there is no one to look after their land – the government is motivating youth to return, but many are opting for work in Thimphu “in front of a computer”
  • Guide said there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the king/ royalty
  • Lama – chief monk, living Buddha- has lots of strict regulations, mainly 3 years, 3 months, 3 weeks and 3 days of meditation. During this time, he has no human interaction, no cutting of hair, nails, etc. He writes on a piece of paper what he wants/needs and he has a supplier leave it outside of his door on a weekly basis.
  • They drive on the left side of the road
  • Prayer flags – believe that when the wind blows, so does the prayer – so on bridges etc.
  • Big stupa represents the body of Buddha, little stupa represents the mind of Buddha
  • Must do thongs in odd numbers – blessings, offerings, walks around stuppa
  • Gross National Happiness: composed of good government, economic growth,  preservation of culture, preservation of agriculture
  • Buddhism at its basic: be good and help others and get rid of main three poisons – greed, jealousy, anger
  • When you pray in a temple, pray for others, not for yourself
  • Lamas make a living from agriculture on property given to them by the government & from visitors who offer them donations
  • People have an allegiance to their home — work outside, save money and bring back to Bhutan via businesses and remittances
  • When people are sick, the government sends them out of the country if they don’t have the necessary resources
  • Prayer flags placed near windy and clean places
  • Roads are great in Bhutan
  • Thimphu — new capital of Bhutan and only city in Bhutan, founded by the third king, called the father of modern Bhutan
  • Artimichia plant – beautiful smell!
  • Female monks can’t be lamas
  • Rare to see a traditional house in Thimphu
  • A traditional house on a plot of land: 3 floors, bottom for cattle, second for storage, top for living
  • Colors mean a lot — red for the government, green rooftops for the schools, red and   green rooftops are for government buildings

28 March 2018:

After breakfast, we will embark on a tour of Thimphu. We visit Buddha Point at Kuensel Phodrang and then visit Memorial Chorten, a shrine built in the memory of the late king, Jigme Dorji Wangchuk. Many Bhutanese people gather here to pray every day. From here, we drive to visit a nunnery on the outskirts of Thimphu, followed by visit to Takin Zoo. Takin-the legendary animal, is the national animal of Bhutan, We also visit the Textile Museum, the School of Arts and Crafts, the Heritage Museum and Tasicho Dzong at the end of the day. The massive Tasicho Dzong is the seat of Bhutan1s administrative and religious center. Overnight in Thimpu at Namgay Heritage.

  • Old people who can’t walk around the big stupa will walk around prayer wheels – dropped off by the children in the morning to pray for their next life — those without kids will be fed by monks and the wealthy
  • Susceptibility to earthquakes leads people to not be able to build beyond 5 stories high
  • Picnics and packed lunches are common
  • Singapore and other Buddhist countries support Bhutan – i.e. assist to financially support the building of a Buddha statue
  •  Walk clockwise, not counter clockwise around things
  • Buddha was a prince / a Hindu who left royalty upon realizing human suffering – went to meditate and experience suffering without eating – his mom who died at age one came up to him and asked him why he did this to himself & he replied that she would join him soon. He went to heaven and came back as told by bodshisatvas to come back and teach the religion to the people, which he did
  • Buddha’s second reincarnation in the 8th century came to Nepal and then Tibet where they did not listen to him/accept his teachings so he went to Bhutan – telling the Tibetans that they would come under another rule if they did not listen – came under Chinese rule
  • Believe the current king of Bhutan, and all past ones, are a god
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  • Fourth king ruled that water could be offered as gifts to the gods so that the poor did not have to give up wheat and rice they could not afford to give up
  • Seemingly resolved challenge for Bhutan: Balance between tradition and modernity
  • Peacock and horses are revered animals, as they are in Hindi because it is a Hindu-born religion
  • 2008: first time voting in Bhutan for parliament. Voting for parliament and ministers every 5 years
  • Faculty of traditional medicine: Interesting didn’t have any meds for mental problems – maybe Buddhism and prayer is the way to alleviate them?
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  • 4-6 years — in embroidery school and each year they have exams
  • 4 friends: sculpture of a peacock standing on a rabbit standing on a monkey standing on an elephant — peacock lays seed for tree, rabbit plants, monkey waters and fertilizes, and elephant protects — represents peace and harmony
  • Most schools in Bhutan are boarding schools
  • Paper factory: Boil bark of tree, separating good ones from bad ones
    • Mix water with glue
    • Press down to squeeze water out
    • Then place on modern electric walk and dry
  • Takin believed to have been created by the Buddhist monk
  • Rare to see arguments, murders, etc. – only really when people get drunk
  • Don’t kill the animals – import everything to eat from India
  • Mining is not allowed
  • King lives in a small bungalow on the grounds of the palace/fortress where he works and where the monks live as well
  • June 2: planting day — all people must plant one tree or on flower

29 March 2018: Punakha and Wangdiphodrang

With my Amazing guide, Kinley, and his friend from high school.

After breakfast, we attend Thimphu’s colorful weekend market where farmers sell their fresh produce. We can also take the opportunity to watch the archery match-the national sports of Bhutan. Late morning, we drive to Punakha and Wangdue Phodrang (3hrs). The road climbs up to Dochula pass (Alt. 3010m), where we stop to get a spectacular panoramic view of the snowcapped mountain range of Bhutan (weather permitting!). Near the pass there are many chortens (pagoda or stupas) and hundreds of prayers flags fluttering about in the wind. After the pass the road drops through changing vegetation into the semitropical lowland of Punakha – Wangdi valley. Punakha and Wangdue valleys are at a lower elevation, at around 1400m, therefore warmer with semi-tropical climate. Here we will seevegetation such as cactuses, bananas and orange groves. We visit Punakha Dzong, In fact,Punakha Dzong used to be the winter capital of Bhutan until 1958. Even today, the head of the Abbot and monks of the central monastic body reside in Punakha Dzongduring the winter months and in Thimphu during the summer. After lunch in Punakha, we drive to the village near the junction road between Punakha and Wangdi and take a 20 minute easy, pleasant hike to Chimi Lhakhang temple, dedicated to the Saint Drukpa Kuenley (1455-1529), also known the divine madman. Overnight in Punakha.

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  • Nepalis who work on the road are given (pretty rundown) housing
  • In order to join the UN, the Third King of Bhutan had to show a large enough population — asked Nepali king for people — gave them land in the south (not really arable due to foggy weather) for them to live and work; after some time, many of them did not want to wear the traditional clothing/follow the rules, so they sent them back to Nepal. Those who did follow the rules stayed and were given housing
  • Most people have their own houses, but rent in a city like Thimphu for a one or three bedroom house is $200-$300/month. Foreigners may not buy houses or stay here, unless they get married with a local person.
  • Saw a white monkey – symbol of good luck!
  • Poverty and hunger are not really issues here – community and/or government steps in, even for cremation purposes
  • Many people in the tourism industry were ex-guides who opened hotels etc. with foreigners who were on their tour and fell in love
  • No prostitution in Bhutan
  • Sex education from internet and friends, not in school
  •  British fighting for land – gave them Assam and parts that are now India to stop fighting
  • Fishing is illegal – people do at night
  • No death penalty
  • Cows and dogs in the middle of the street and they are not scared because cars will always stop for them – they’ll never purposefully hit them
  • People love painted houses/ colorful houses and will hire people to paint their houses, often with phalluses on them
  • People believe in hiking up to monasteries – that increasing the effort makes people more blessed, so the government is not allowed to build roads, etc
  • Rice popping, wheat, whisky, peach wine, druk lagger beer
  • Curries are common: usually with chile, a veggie, cheese, oil, & water – cooked for 5 minutes

30 March 2018: Sightseeing of Wangdue Valley and return drive to Paro

With my guide, Kinley’s family, at the Paro Festival

After early morning breakfast, we drive to the town of Wangdi Phodrang. Here again there is a very large fortress (Dzong) currently under renovation. Walk 20mins to Rinchengang Stones Masons village opposite to the Dzong. After sightseeing in Wangdi Phodrang, we retrace our drive back to the west across Dochula Pass,providing one more opportunity to view the peaks of the eastern Himalayas. At the pass, there is a small restaurant, where we can sip tea and enjoy the views. We descend from the pass in time for lunch at the restaurant in Thimphu and later in the evening, retrace drive to Paro. Overnight in Paro.

  • Send expats and foreigners to Bangkok Thailand if very sick
  • Why only nail polish on one hand? – not on right or left hand (whichever they use to eat) because they use it to eat
  • What happens if the king dies? – even if he’s a baby, he takes a throne, and prime minister. First child is the king, even if she’s a woman
  • Christmas is celebrated in Bhutan
  • New year is a special occasion
  • Wear nice shoes and purses to complement the traditional wear
  • Not a lot of grey hair – most people seem to die young
  • Festival: 9am-5pm – Paro Festival
  • Picnics are very popular
  • Bitter nut is common, as it is in parts of Nepal, India and Myanmar
  • Wanting and achieving is good, ok, as long as it is in your power and possible for you to achieve without much suffering — buying a big tv because you can afford it is ok, as long as your salary and work did not hurt anyone. Buying a big tv with someone else’s money because you wanted the big tv selfishly is not good
  • Fundraising for people who kill animals – giving them money for them to stop doing – primarily yak herders – alternate solution to the problem

31 March 2018: Paro (Takstang Hike)

Morning, we hike to the Takstang Monastery. Taktsang Monastery (meaning Tiger’s nest), was tragically damaged in the fire of early 1998. The monastery, which has now been rebuilt, is perched some 2,000ft/600m up on a sheer cliff overlooking the valley and was said to be where the legendary Indian saint, Guru Padmasambhava, flew from Tibet on the back of a tiger to defeat five demons, who were opposing the spread of Buddhism in Bhutan. The hike is about one and half hours to the teahouse, from where we may either opt to go further uphill to the monastery for about 1 hour or return with a few snapshots of the monastery. Lunch is served at the teahouse with the majestic views of Taktsang above and the Paro valley below. The return trek to the road head is downhill almost all the way and takes about an hour. Late afternoon, we will visit the ruins of DrugyelDzong from where we can also enjoy the views of Mount Jhumolari. 

Overnight in Paro 

  • Most people come with a packed lunch – picnic – which is a big deal in Bhutan
  • Traditionally don’t believe in mental health/ psychology – but now some Lamas are encouraging it – as a combination of Buddhism and mental health
  • Tour guide associations come up to the monastery to clean up
  • One aspect of karma: because we met in our past life, we are meeting in this present life
  • Humans are still the best form of being reborn – know what to do/not to do to be reincarnated. Gods know when they are going to die, so is a cause of worry. Animals/devil = lower caste.
  • Buddha had many disciples who helped to write the story – one from Tibet and one from Nepal –  Buddhas – bodhisatvas – not as enlightened as the main Buddha
  • It is not firmly believed that all of the scriptures are 100% true
  • Saw one of the four queens on her way down from a hike
  • Popped rice – like popcorn
  • Whisky container
  • Most cars you see are hyundai, suzuki, etc.
  • Traditional farmhouse experience – love!

Interesting facts about Bhutan:

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  • Was never colonized
  • Notable for pioneering the concept of gross national happiness
  • Known as the Land of the Thunder Dragon
  • Primarily a Buddhist country
  • 1999 – when the ban on internet and television were abolished
  • Political system changed from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy recently
  • The takin is the national animal
  • Currency is fixed to the Indian rupee 
  • Forced over 100,000 people from an ethnic group to flee / neither being accepted in Nepal  or elsewhere; recently over 60,000 have been relocated 
  • Popped rice is common, and awesome!
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  • Great diplomatic relations with India, Japan and Bangladesh 
  • Primary export is hydroelectricity
  • There was trade before, but closed border with Tibet after an influx of refugees  
  • First nation in the world to ban smoking 
  • Inheritance traditionally passes through the female rather than through the name
  • Arranged marriages are common 
  • The previous king has four wives, all of which were sisters
  • Polygamy is uncommon but accepted – sometimes done to keep the inheritance intact 
  • To eat: ema datshi — national dish | dairy: butter, milk, cheese common
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  • Archery is the national sport
  • Only country in the world with a carbon negative footprint
  • Less people visit Bhutan in one year than they do on one Sunday for a football game
  • Homemade rye pancake, cheese from yaks and cows
  • Cordyceps whisky — cordyceps – whisky living on caterpillars in mountains in Bhutan
  • Wash hands by moving a ball of rice around their hands
  • Monks are covered by the government
  • If the monk dies, the government compensates the parents
  • They’re now learning computer science and English as a way to motivate children to join – it is up to them
  • They go to Singapore and other Buddhist countries to learn the practice
  • 1974 – tourism opened in Bhutan

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