Bhutan’s claim to fame is that it is said to be the happiest country in the world and measures its success by happiness instead of GDP. And as crazy as it sounds the Gross National Happiness takes priority over material wealth. Up until 1972, this remote Himalayan Kingdom was also one of the least visited by tourists. In fact, it was considered the Hermit Kingdom because its doors were closed to outsiders. Even today tourism is limited so as not to have an adverse effect on the natural environment or culture and heritage.
Unlike every other country, I have needed a Visa to visit, only Bhutan requires a tourist to hire a Bhutan resident as a tour guide and only the resident can apply for the Visa in the tourist’s name. The country also restricts how many tourists visit the country per year (only 200,000 in 2016).
A few other quirky things about Bhutan before I talk about my experiences there – first the country is primarily vegetarian and there is not a single slaughterhouse in the entire country. They import their slaughtered meat from India. Second, up until 2009 both TV and the internet were banned in Bhutan. Third, the highest unclimbed mountain in the world is Gangkhar Puensum (7,452meters) is in Bhutan and will remain unclimbed because it is a sacred mountain. Fourth, Bhutan is the only country in the world that bans the sale of tobacco. Fifth, Thimphu, the capital, doesn’t have a single traffic light. Sixth, the penalty for killing a sacred black-necked crane is life in prison. Seventh, Bhutan is the first country in the world to mandate specific constitutional obligations on its people to protect the environment. Eighth, most people in Bhutan continue to dress in traditional clothing.
Men wear a Goa – a knee-length robe that is tied at the waist by a cloth belt called a Kera. The Kera and Goa create a big pouch in the front which is used for carrying things like a food bowl, mobile phone, betel nuts or a small knife. Women wear a long brightly colored ankle-length skirt called a Kira and a long sleeve high neckline blouse called a Wonju. And women also use the cloth belt or sash (Kera) to tighten the outfit and accent the colors and patterns of the Kira and Wonju. For official occasions, both sexes also wear a sash/scarf and the color denotes status.
My arrival into Paro, Bhutan’s only international airport, from Katmandu was quite interesting. Paro sits in a small valley surrounded by mountains which required the pilot to execute a corkscrew landing. I had never experienced a landing like this where the plane is flown in a tight circle with each pass shedding altitude as the plane flew at a 45degree angle around and around.
Once on the ground in Paro you immediately know you are not in Kansas anymore. The first thing you notice is the beautifully decorated and colorful terminal. And the second thing you notice Is the beautiful bronze statue of a kneeling and smiling warrior with hands in the prayer position smiling in welcome. Once inside the terminal, you are greeted by a huge model of the royal palace in Thimphu in the center of the baggage retrieval belt.
You immediately pick up on the vibe that these people love bright colors and appreciate artistic talent. I quickly retrieved my bags and found my guide Sonam Gyelshen Thai and we headed directly out of Paro and drove the 50km (about an hour and 15minutes) to Thimphu. Thimphu is the capital of Bhutan and has a population of only 115,000 people.
On the drive to Thimphu, Sonam gave me a brief history of the country and explained some of their unique customs and traditions. The drive over was beautiful as we passed through mountains and valleys dotted with small farmsteads, Stupas, colorful billboards with smiling happy people in traditional dress extolling the virtues of happiness, and rushing rivers.
The only significant disadvantage of being forced to use a government approved guide to organize your trip is that you give up all freedom and decision making. The hotel I was assigned was miles from anything interesting to see or do at night and turned out to be totally vegetarian! And I was imprisoned here for two nights. The first night and next morning I passed on their buffets of grass, leaves, roots and sticks all spiced with tongue-numbing chilies and was starving by the time my guide showed up to take me to the Tshechu.
I grabbed some Oreos and a soft drink for breakfast on the way to the Dzong to enjoy the final day of the three-day Thimphu Tshechu. The Tshechu is an annual festival held across Bhutan on the 10th day of the month of the Lunar calendar. The centerpiece of the Tshechu are Chams or Mask Dances. The dances are moral vignettes based on the life of the Buddha Saint, Guru Padmasambhava.
The dances are designed to promote happiness and cultivate an enlightened mind of all in attendance. News flash – didn’t work on me! I very much enjoyed the dancing and the crowd but find myself no happier than before and definitely, not enlightened. Maybe I missed something in the translation.
For the Bhutanese, these sacred mask dances invoke the deities of the tantric teachings providing blessings and removing all misfortune. All the evil spirits are banished and the word of Buddha brings happiness to all living beings. For me, though it was enough that it offered a kaleidoscope of bright colors, interesting dancing, intricately designed costumes and masks, and monks dressed as clowns sporting two-foot wooden penises (More about this culture’s obsession with the penis later). (video and photos attached)
Stadium crowed for the Cham
Dance of the lords and ladies
As I understand it there were three separate sets of dancers throughout the day. There were an entire series of sacred dances performed by the monks, then a different series performed by local lay people and finally several dances toward the end of the day performed by members of the country’s military celebrating long ago victories in heroic battles.
While all the dancing is occurring two additional things are taking place in the stadium. First, the big-Kahuna Buddhist Monk is providing blessings to the many faithful in the stadium. So, there is a line of hundreds snaking through the stands waiting for their moment before the great man and his blessing. Second there are a half dozen monks dressed as clowns or Atsara entertaining the crowd and taking up a collection.
These clowns are all dressed in bright multi-colored costumes, red wooden masks, and sporting a two-foot-long wooden phallus tied with a rope hanging from their necks. Throughout the day, the clowns circulate through the crowd acting the fool, singing lewd songs, executing crazy dance moves, collecting donations and using their big red penises to taunt and tease the crowd. They will shamelessly shove the penis into the faces of men and women alike. They will use the head phallus to gently tap a lady’s cheek or press to her lips or lay upon her husband’s shoulder – all to the uproarious laughter of the crowd. And I’m told this somehow shows the true path to enlightenment.
The instruments that provide the music for the dances includes lots of cymbals, long trumpets called dungchens, oboes (gyaling), double sided drum (nga) beaten with a curved drumstick, a trumpet made from a human femur (kandgling) a conch-shell, dungkar, a small double faced hand held drum called a damaru that is beaten with hard pellets attached by strings the drum and small bells (drilbu) which are used by the dancers.
Band with musical instruments
After a full morning of watching mask dance after mask dance and failing to achieve personal enlightenment, I decided it was time to give my numb butt a reprieve and took a brief tour of the Palace and lunch before returning to an afternoon of dances performed my local women and the military. Photos and videos of many of the dances, musical instruments, clowns, and the faithful receiving blessings are attached.
After the day of dance, I enjoyed a fantastic dinner at a restaurant owned and operated by a Swiss ex-pat with a western meat-based menu! Sonam invited Mr. Nima, a member of the National Council (Bhutan’s upper chamber of Parliament) to dine with me. And for the first time since March, I thought and talked about politics! And I admit I enjoyed learning about Bhutan’s politics and transition from a kingdom to a democracy.
Bhutan’s transition to democracy was actually the King’s idea. He set up the commission that wrote the country’s constitution and turned over power voluntarily to the newly organized parliament. The upper house of Parliament has 20 elected members serving five-year terms and 5 members appointed by the King. Mr. Nima and I covered a lot of subjects over dinner but one interesting policy that sticks in my mind is that the Bhutanese constitution requires that 60% of all land remain held in a state of unspoiled forest and nature. An incredible commitment to protecting the environment.
Day 2: Thimphu & Paro
My second full day in Thimphu was spent visiting several Pagodas, a museum that focused on traditional daily life in Bhutan, and a visit to the Royal Taken Preserve. The first Pagoda was this giant statue of Buddha atop a high mountain overlooking the city. The skyscraper version of Buddha is so huge that you can see it perched atop the mountain from anywhere in the city and for miles up and down the valley. Sonam said the entire project which is still under construction is being funded by a billionaire from Singapore.
The museum was very interesting and included exhibits on traditional weapons, saddles, musical instruments, winemaking, butter making, masks, dances, and a penis garden.
Butter making and dance demonstration
Yes, you read that right! A penis garden. The Chinese may have their Rock Gardens, the Japanese their Sand Gardens, the Indonesians their Water Gardens and the English their flower gardens – but the Bhutanese enjoy their Penis Gardens.
You will note in the attached photo that this particular garden has at least a dozen carved brightly painted erect wooden penises of various sizes displayed in a very neat and tidy garden. The young lady conducting my tour of the museum explained that the Phallus is a very powerful symbol of not only fertility but good luck and the Penis Garden guarantees good luck. Then she pointed to the eave below the roof of the two-story museum house and wouldn’t you know it there was another penis hanging from the eave but this one had wings for some reason. And again, according to the young lady, this penis brings the house good fortune.
My last stop in Thimphu was to the Taken Preserve. The Taken is a strange-looking animal with the body of a cow and head of a goat. The animal only exists in Bhutan and a small section of China. Unfortunately, I visited the preserve during the Taken’s nap time so not much was going on but Taken sleeping in the shade at a distance. One photo is included.
And from there we moved back to Paro to visit an ancient fort and watchtower, monastery, and very quaint little town of 11,000 people. Interestingly, all of these ancient buildings; the palace in Thimphu, the Fort, and Watchtower in Paro, the Monastery in Paro and the Tiger’s Nest Monastery high above Paro were all built without the use of a single nail. All of these great archaeological wonders built 1000 years ago were fitted together with tongue and groove like giant wooden Lego sets long before the Swedes ever dreamed of making toy erector sets. Photos of the Fort, Watchtower, Monastery and town attached.
Bridge into Paro
Paro Watch Tower
Day 3: Tiger’s Nest Monastery
My last full day was dedicated to hiking up the 2,700 vertical feet above the valley floor to the famed Tiger’s Nest Monastery. The 12km round trip takes about three hours plus the time spent in the monastery in either prayer, meditation or simply soaking in the spiritual aura of a place of pure beauty and grace.
The legend is that the great Buddhist Saint Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche) flew to this lofty perch on the back of a tigress back in the 8th century. And once there meditated in a cave for three years, three months, three weeks, three days, and three hours without food or water. Once he concluded his meditation he then brought Buddhism to Bhutan. The monastery was built over and around the saint’s cave centuries later. It is amazing that such an elaborate complex could be built on this narrow ledge. Every piece of lumber, every bell, every statue of Buddha, every butter lamp, every prayer wheel all had to be carried up 2,700 vertical feet on the backs of the faithful. Now that is a lever of faith and commitment that seems supernatural to me.
Photos of the hike up and down, as well as the time I spent in the monastery lighting a butter lamp and receiving a blessing for Jackie Barksdale’s healthy recovery, are attached.
And with my successful hike to the Tiger’s Nest behind me, I packed my bags and headed for a month in India…