Bhutan

This story covers my nineteen day December 2007 trip to Bhutan. This was the highlight of a three month trip covering India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bangladesh, and back to India again. Travel in Bhutan is only accessible as a tourist if you book a trip through one of the government’s recognized tour groups. Like myself, you can go by yourself but the daily rate is bumped up from the $200 dollar a day group rate to $240 a day. This is a lot of money but the rate includes virtually everything but souvenirs and beer. You will have a guide and driver with you the entire time, something strange for us independent travelers, but not bad once you get used to it.

Go to my Flickr to view all of my Bhutan photos!

Scenes from the Lhuentse Festival

Dancers of the Lhuentse Festival

Dec 9th

I was up by 6:00 AM to negotiate a ride in a broken down baby tuk tuk to the Dhaka, Bangladesh airport. No flight was listed on the electronic board and I found myself denied entry by some security flunky into the check-in area. After some deep breathing exercises to deal with a dread that the once-weekly Dhaka to Paro flight had been canceled, a Druk Air pilot magically appeared and assured me that the flight was still scheduled, and he set me on the correct path to the hidden check-in counter. With a view of Mt. Everest out the port side and one of the most beautiful flight stewardesses I have ever seen working the drink cart (I had a 9:00AM Heineken – and really needed it after four days in dry Bangladesh), it was a quick and enjoyable 45 min. flight to Paro, Bhutan’s only international airport. I was the first off the plane and first to receive my prearranged visa, but after a long wait for my one bag I found myself stuck behind the old folks in the National Geographic Expeditions tour group. As they all piled into a bus I was met in the terminal by my Blue Poppy tour company’s guide Sonam and driver Doje. We loaded into my personal new Kia 4×4 and, along with the change in altitude, I was struck by the realization that I really had made it to Bhutan, the top travel destination on my lifelong to-do list.

Being Sunday, the first thing I did in Bhutan was to check out the weekend market, followed by a relaxing riverside stop where I had a couple beers and watched a bit of Bhutan’s national sport, long range archery. We also visited an old ruined 16th -century dzong. A dzong is a Bhutanese monastery fortress complex which in the feudal days would have served the nobles as the seat of power over the valleys it commanded. In the present era, dzongs are provincial administrative centers even as they still continue to serve as important regional monasteries. This dzong guarded some of the western passes and the old trade routes into Tibet, and from its ruined ramparts you can gaze upon the Tibet/China border-straddling Mt. Jhomolari (7314m – and apparently not the third tallest mountain in the world as my guide had told me, but only the 80th.). It being Sunday, lots of locals were here at the ruined dzong enjoying the mountain views and eating picnic lunches. By now, 4 days of Dhaka pollution had caught up with me and my sinuses were all messed up, also the altitude was wreaking havoc, it was the perfect time to retreat back to my hillside cabin, take a hot bath, and get cleaned up for my first dinner at what, on a relative scale in Bhutan, is the heavily traveled western tour circuit (13,600 tourists visited in 2005). Dinner would be a buffet shared with the National Geographic Tour group. Sharing my space with groups like this was the only aspect of the trip that I wasn’t enthusiastic about.

Bhutan 2007

An example of typical Bhutanese woodwork and paintings commonly found on houses throughout the country

Dec 10

Today we made the high pass 68km journey to the newly accessible Haa Valley, which had long been closed to tourism due to several joint Bhutanese/Indian army bases in the area that guard the modern-day passes into China/Tibet. Haa town was nothing special, there were more archery tournaments to watch (tournaments were being held because it was a local 3-day holiday in the region), but the highlight of this region was the trip deep into the valley. Being winter, the ground vegetation was a shade of golden brown contrasted by the ever-present green of conifer trees, all crowned by the huge peaks of the high Himalayas in the distance. If I didn’t focus too hard, all the little traditional houses here gave me the impression that I could easily be in the Swiss Alps. I guess I wasn’t the only one to notice this similarity, later I read that that this was the same impression of the Lonely Planet guide book authors. Of course a close look shows otherwise, red chilies drying on the roof tops, tigers, dragons, and penises painted on the sides of houses, prayer flags fluttering around every bend of the road and topping even the smallest of hills, monks in red robes, and all other Bhutanese dressed in the lady’s kira or in the man’s gho – these are the complicated robe-like garments that are the national dress in Bhutan. I also don’t believe that the Swiss are so fanatical about archery (they even have cheerleading squads for the sport in Bhutan).

Bhutan 2007

Prayer wheels at a monastery along the route to Haa Valley

Dec 11

As a child I discovered an image in an encyclopedia that charged my imagination for world travel like no other. It was a picture of the Tiger’s Nest temple, a structure which seems to cling impossibly to the side of a sheer cliff in the Paro Valley. All I knew about Tiger’s Nest growing up was that this fantastic temple was located in some forbidden country high in the Himalayas. Not until my 1999 trip to Nepal did I become more familiar with Bhutan and its regulations limiting tourism there to only two or three thousand people a year at that time. Tragically, by then a butter lamp fire had completely destroyed Tiger’s Nest, and at 23 years of age, the $240 day rate was a little out of my range when countries like Nepal, Cambodia, and China could still be explored in luxury on 15 to 20 dollars a day. Being the most sacred site in Bhutan, reconstruction was quickly initiated and was finished in 2005.

Tiger’s Nest

Tiger’s Nest Temple

Tiger’s Nest

Tiger’s Nest Temple

The hike looked very challenging, especially considering the altitude, and many of the tour groups that consisted of retired old rich folks only hiked halfway to a teahouse viewpoint. But this was a childhood dream of mine and I was going all the way. Surprisingly I found the 1½-hr. hike easy, perhaps I was too stunned by the beautiful scenery to notice any fatigue or the effects of altitude. Unfortunately at the temple gate I had to hand my camera over to the guard so all my pictures are from a distance along the hike. Photos are never allowed by tourists inside the temples in Bhutan but normally the courtyard spaces within the compound are fine. From trips to Tibet and Nepal I was used to seeing old, sooty, temple interiors, but the newly crafted and repaired Tiger’s Nest displayed the Himalayan Mahayana art in a splendor that I had never seen before. On the fast hike down, better light conditions had me stopping to take the same pictures I had taken on my way up.

Tiger’s Nest got its name in honor of the flying tigress that Guru Rinpoche flew on to reach a mountain cave where he battled a local demon that had long plagued the Paro Valley. The tigress that Guru Rinpoche flew on was no ordinary tigress but the magically transformed manifestation of his consort Yeshe Tsogyal, Tibetan Princess and incarnation of the goddess of knowledge. The majority of temples in Bhutan will have a statute of Guru Rinphoche himself presented in a rather terrifying and demon-resembling form, riding his tigress consort who holds the demon under her paws and holds his heart in her mouth. Unfortunately, these statues are not allowed to be photographed. After defeating the demon Guru Rinpoche spent three months of mediation in the cave. The cave has remained an important site for pilgrims since, with the original temple built in 1692.

I had a few hours in the afternoon to rest at my cabin and at sundown Sonam and Doje picked me up to take me to a local farmhouse for a therapeutic post-hike hot stone bath. Having glowing, red hot stones the size of footballs dumped by a shovel into the foot of your bath is a little bit intimidating. I was afraid they would blow up and end my trip early, but instead they just hissed for a long time as I relaxed in the increasing heat of the bath. After the soak we had dinner with the family, sitting on the hardwood floor of their main room, warming up around the fireplace, and enjoying local delicacies such as arra, the sake-like rice wine that all families distill themselves. I had been staying at a posh hotel complex (actually I had a private hillside cabin off from the main building) overlooking the Paro Valley. A beautiful spot where I had been pampered in a style that was a great change from the three dollar a night roach pit I stayed at in Dhaka, Bangladesh. As nice as it all was, it’s a bit frustrating being isolated from the Bhutanese people. That’s why spending the evening with this family at their farmhouse was so nice. But I also knew that I should be enjoying the luxury while it lasts, as my trip moved further east I would be leaving the established tourist circuit and things would get rough very quickly.

Dec 12

I hit that arra a little too heavy the night before and paid the price for it most of the morning today. I shuffled around the national museum, a uniquely built old watch tower that had been converted to hold the nation’s treasures. The museum sits high in the Paro Valley far above the Dzong; it was constructed to resemble a conch shell, and surprisingly it does. Inside the building the floors all wrap around themselves like the spiral of a sea shell. From there it was a downhill walk to visit the Paro Dzong, and further down the hill we crossed an old bridge to meet up with the 4×4 for the 1.5 hour, swervy, bumpy, hangover-torturing drive to the capital of Thimpu (I’m told my fatal mistake was mixing the arra with several beers that I later had back at the hotel). I kept my eyes closed for most of the ride so I missed most of the scenery, but a big lunch at the Thimpu golf course club house, a hot shower at my hotel, and several more aspirin suddenly had me feeling like new for an afternoon spent visiting a checklist of the standard tourist attractions: the Voluntary Artists Studio (an interesting place), National Library (could have skipped), National Textile Museum (also surprisingly interesting), the National Chorten (a chorten being a Tibetan style pagoda or stupa), and then some free time to wander the city, take pictures, and visit the internet café.

Bhutan 2007

A young girl at the Thimpu playground

Evening of the 12th

Being Wednesday, tonight was a drinking night in the city (law has Tuesday as a countrywide dry day), so I called up Tashi, a guide I had met in Paro who had wanted to show me the underbelly of Thimpu. The night started at the Tiger Bar, a funky little Bhutanese karaoke bar, a place where one could rub shoulders with an archery star, or perhaps even a Bhutanese movie star while enjoying a Tiger beer imported from Singapore. Tashi knows everyone in the city and I had a steady stream of Bhutanese girls presented to me for conversation. Along with the girls I was given a never-ending supply of beers and never allowed to buy a round (I finally did but had to be sneaky about it). This is still Bhutan and Cinderella still has to be home for midnight, so at 11 PM we moved on to search out an underground disco. There were several discos listed in my Lonely Planet guide but these were dead, the one Tashi brought me to was located down several dark alleys and up a few flights of stairs in an abandoned-looking commercial building. Ducking through an unlabeled passageway we entered into what certainly had to be the most happening place this side of Kathmandu. The music was a mix of U.S. hip-hop, Hindi hits, and an electronic selection with a distinct but unidentifiable eastern influence. With an innocent but slightly seedy feel to it, local girls aplenty to dance with, and myself being the only tourist in the place, I definitely give this hotspot of the Thimpu underground party scene a thumbs up.

Dec 13th

A day spent in the upper Thimpu Valley and in further exploration often Capital. We made an early morning hike up to the 17th-century mountainside Cheri Goemba monastery. Nestled in the woods at this monastery are many little mediation buildings. Monks isolate themselves inside for the auspicious period of 3 years, 3 months, 3 days, and 3 hours. During this time the monks are cut off from all outside contact, with food and water left for them in a way that avoids contact. Nearby off the main road is a gold-gilded rock carving of whom the Lonely Planet guidebook says is Chenresig, a Bodhisattva of compassion, but to me it looks like a carving of Guru Rinpoche. Being winter and with all the major towns being located deep in valleys, it’s a pretty quick day when considering light for photography. The winter light in Bhutan is very harsh and you miss out on that soft golden light of dawn and dusk. But light is light, and yesterday I didn’t really have a chance to get photos in the city, so this afternoon I prowled around while I still had light to work with to try and capture some urban scenes. At 4 PM, after the sun had set behind the mountains, we made a trip out to the gigantic Trashi Chhoe Dzong, the official seat of power in Bhutan and location of the King’s offices. This dzong had been destroyed many times in its history by both fire and earthquakes, and was last restored using traditional methods in 1967. As I made my way for the entrance I had to be gently redirected, apparently I was heading for the King’s entrance.

Dec 14th

No one who visits Bhutan will fail to notice the ever-present penis paintings on the sides of houses. These are not just ordinary fertility phalluses, or even images to draw attention from the richness or poorness of the house (and thus the bad luck associated with such observations – a custom I observed in Sri Lanka with attention being diverted by a devil like scarecrows), these paintings are of the mystical tool of Bhutan’s favorite saint, Lama Drukpa Kunley, AKA – the Divine Madman. This eccentric Lama came from Tibet and spent many years teaching his own style of Buddhism. He scorned the local Lamas and their complicated and often secret rites and rituals. He used obscene poems and jokes to connect with the common illiterate people and teach them his interpretation of the Buddha’s teaching. Many of the penis paintings portray a ribbon tied around the sacred hard-on. It is said he once received a blessed string from a monk, but instead of tying it around his neck, he tied it to a place where he hoped luck would be delivered. Apparently this worked well and tradition says he seduced many a host’s wife during his stay in Bhutan.

Today we crossed the Dochu La Pass (3140m) on our three-hour drive to the old capital of Punakha. At Dochu La, there are 108 small chortens which were recently erected to atone for the fighting that was necessary to remove anti-Indian, pro-Assam independence militants and their bases from the jungles of southern Bhutan. On the way to Punakha we did a countryside hike out to a 15th-century temple that stood on land consecrated by the Divine Madman. All the penis paintings in Bhutan are associated with his demoness-subduing “magic thunderbolt of wisdom,” and at his temple you can be blessed by a 10-inch ivory penis, I passed on that honor. In the afternoon we visited the magnificent Punakha Dzong.

 Clown with a “magical thunderbolt of knowledge” stitched to the back of his jacket

Clown with a “magical thunderbolt of knowledge” stitched to the back of his jacket

At the Dzong, which commands the confluence of two rivers and is alive with activity, I saw a great opportunity for pictures as red-robed monks crossed a long open air wooden bridge. But something strange was going on with my camera, the view finder was showing a hazy scene. As I rushed to change the lens, pieces of interior lens parts fell out. This was not good! I had bought this camera just for this trip and if something stupid like this had to happen, why not ‘til after the festival. The Dzong was absolutely amazing but I walked around in a daze, unable to concentrate on my guide’s explanations of the murals and gigantic statues in what is the most impressive chapel in all of Bhutan. Back at my room that night I somehow got all the pieces to fit back together again and miraculously the camera worked fine. The piece that fell out is located up near the viewfinder and not only does it somehow focus the image I see , but also works with the computer to measure the autofocus and somehow sets the correct exposure. The only thing wrong now was that all these inside pieces were filthy and no matter how hard I tried I could never get them totally clean (I was finally able to do it with some of the equipment on the ship).

Bhutan 2007

The Wheel of Life, Punakha Dzong

Dec 15th

I missed some fantastic photos the day before, but luck was with me today, the weekend market was being held this morning at Punakha’s new town center of Khuruthang and I got the chance to spend a few hours clicking away. Sonam knew how disappointed I was yesterday so we went back to Punakha Dzong to snap some photos there too. Punakha is the winter monastery residence for monks from Thimpu and the fortress was a hive of activity again today. I hung out with some monks during their break from prayers and when one of the elders announced “break’s over” with a whip snapped on the dzong flagstones, I snuck up to the second floor where I could spy on their chants. In four rows the young monks sat wrapped in yellow robes, chanting mantras and tapping on drums, unfortunately (or I should say surprisingly) they didn’t behave quite as I expected. While the elder monks kept their noses in the holy books, the younger monks were busy checking text messages on their cell phones, throwing punches to the shoulders of their neighbors, and even spitting betelnut into cleverly hidden plastic bags, all the while not missing a beat in their chants.

Khuruthang, Bhutan

Weekend market, Khuruthang

That afternoon we headed east with a stop for lunch and a visit to a charmingly derelict old dzong located at the equally charming and decrepit old town of Wangdue Phodrang, where there was also a small weekend market being held at the town center. We continued on over a mountain pass until we reached that night’s destination, the winter roosting grounds of the endangered Tibetan black neck crane, located in the valley of Phobjika. I’m not much of a bird enthusiast, but it’s hard not to be impressed by a flock of 250 of the 5,000 endangered cranes that spend their winter here in this royally protected valley. Being under the protection of the King, the cranes can enjoy a valley that is not disturbed by power lines, instead all homes in this area are equipped with solar panels, and thus provide stunning unobstructed views for the lucky tourist who gets to hike the two hours from the local old ruined dzong down to the accommodation in the village a few miles away. During our hike we spied only four cranes, not many but still lucky considering that later in the trip I visited another winter ground and didn’t see any.

Dec 16th

Today we had a very cold departure at the start of our long drive into the center of the country (did I mention that it’s winter in the Himalayas- not bad in the sun of the day but brutal at night and in the shadow of the day in the high passes). At midday we stopped at Trongsa Dzong. Located in the exact middle of the country and perched on a high hill, this dzong had commanded the old trade routes from its position at the confluence of several river valleys. This area is the ancestral home of the Royal Family and even today the heir to the throne must spend time governing the province from this dzong before being allowed to ascend to the throne. The Trongsa festival was only two days away and the dzong was a hive of activity, as a tent city of food stalls and markets was being erected and as men competed in nearby archery tournaments. During my trip planning I had inquired about visiting both the Trongsa festival and the Lhuentse festival as they are held back to back, but while the distance as the crow flies is short, the drive through the mountains is long and hitting both festivals wasn’t really feasible. Instead we would continue east for a several day stop at Jakar, the main town in the Bumthang Valley region and spiritual heartland of Bhutan. I would miss the Trongsa festival but to my delight I would be surprised in Jakar by an unexpected festival that was not on my itinerary.

Trongsa Dzong, Bhutan

Paintings at the Trongsa Dzong

Dec 17th

Jakar, Bhutan

A cold morning in Jakar

Today’s big surprise was our arrival in Jakar for the country’s 100th National Day, or more precisely the 100th Anniversary of the Royal Family’s rule over Bhutan. While the King would be presiding over festivities in the Capital, Jakar would be honored as the only other town in the country that a member of the Royal Family would be visiting. My guide wanted to know if I wanted to stay and see the Princess and the festival or take off and view some monasteries. Umm, that was a no brainer, Princess here I come! We arrived early at the frigid festival grounds and only the homeless and several truck drivers who were warming their diesel tanks with fires were there. But people trickled in and by 11 AM several thousand villagers, nobles, and monks had gathered when finally the Princess made her fashionably late arrival (she had been watching the live broadcast of her father the King at ceremonies in the Capital). I had earlier staked out a pretty good viewpoint and the Princess and her procession made their way past me about five feet away. Unfortunately, pictures of the Princess are forbidden (I did sneak a couple until I got a policeman waving his finger at me) but I got plenty of the rest of day’s festivities which included dances by Girl Scouts, older high school girls, the official provincial dancers, and religious dances performed by masked clowns.

A Princess of Bhutan at the 100th National Day celebration in Jakar

A Princess of Bhutan at the 100th National Day celebration in Jakar

The highlight of the day for the villagers was when the Princess “takes care of her people” by feeding them. Everyone was invited to line up to personally receive a lunch of rice cakes and butter tea. The King also performed this ceremony in the Capital today. Since I’m not Bhutanese I decided not to try to get a free lunch, but instead returned to the guest house for my own lunch. That afternoon we tried to visit some historically significant temples associated with Guru Rinpoche, but unfortunately all the chapel caretakers were in town at the ceremony and we couldn’t get much access. We finally gave up and hit a local bar, a lively place since everyone in town was out having post-festivities drinks. Doje my driver is quite the Casanova, or at least he likes to think he is, and all of us at the bar had a great laugh as he got shot down by the cute little bar maid.

Dec 18th

We spent today making further explorations into some of the rural villages in the Bumthang area. In the nearby Tang Valley, a 45 min. climb up a commanding hill brought us to an old 16th-century country palace now converted into a museum and center of study for the large collection of religious texts stored there. I enjoyed their display of artifacts dealing with the ancient trade routes that passed through Bhutan from Tibet to India and vice versa. I even found myself daydreaming about the adventures of the yak caravans plying the high Himalayas, loaded with western luxury goods and rice for Lhasa, and returning with Tibetan salt – I can’t imagine anything more exotic.

 Monks from a Bumthang Valley Monastery at Tea Time

A monk at a monastery in the Bumthang Valley

We also checked out Burning Lake and later stopped at a private monastery where I got some good pictures in the afternoon light. Burning Lake is an important site associated with Pema Lingpa, Bhutan’s famous mystical treasure finder and a 15th-century reincarnation of Guru Rinpoche. Legend has it that during Guru Rinpoche’s Bhutan travels he had hidden religious treasures throughout the land, intending them to be found at auspicious times in the future. The illiterate Pema Lingpa discovered in a vision that he was destined to find these treasures, the first of which he retrieved from a temple located deep in a river pool that only he could access. This treasure was a mysterious scroll to which he had to devote years of study to decipher. He achieved fame for this discovery but unfortunately he was forced into making further treasure finds at the pool by a local king. Because he made these finds at an inauspicious time and at the demand of the king who was not of pure heart, he only found a total of 34 treasures instead of the 100 or so that he was prophesied to find if he had proceeded in making the discoveries at an auspicious pace. The pool of water is called Burning Lake because before his dive at the command of the king, he proclaimed to the multitudes who had gathered that if he was of true heart and if his teachings of Buddhism were of the correct path, he would dive into the pool with a lit butter lamp and emerge with the treasure and the lamp still aflame. But if his teachings were false and if his heart was bad like the king’s, then the flame would be extinguished and he would drown in the waters. Pema Lingpa was successful in his underwater quest, and emerged from the pool with his butter lamp still burning and the treasure he had been tasked to discover.

Again that afternoon we stopped at the local bar where Doje made a second try for the bar maid but again found no luck, perhaps the Divine Madman’s method of a strategically tied, blessed string was just the necessary, missing trick.

Dec 20th

It’s been a busy few days and this is the first chance I have had to write. I’m now in the far east, sitting in a local bar in the funky little town of Trashigang, but for the previous two days I have been roughing it in the remote town of Lhuentse. Lhuentse has only one tourist guesthouse, but it was filled with nobles who like me had come for the dzong’s three day festival. So we had to fall back on Plan B, which was to freeze our asses off in tents. Lhuentse is not much of a town, it’s basically a row of road worker restaurants and a dzong like most others, perched high on a defensible hill that guards the valleys along the ancient trade routes to Tibet. Coming from Jakar was a 7 hour journey along some very dangerous roads which seemed to have been impossibly cut into the mountainsides. Our arrival was greeted by a small tent city of market shops and eating and drinking stalls set up to cater to the many villagers who had come for the festival. No tourist standard restaurants in this small town, so instead we found a seat next to a fireplace and enjoyed momos, strips of pork fat, and home distilled fried egg arra at one of the tents.

We should have arrived for the last day of the festival but things can be a bit easy- going in Bhutan, and due to the delay in its start we arrived on the night of the first day. That next morning we arrived at the dzong early, when just a few villagers were in attendance being entertained by some masked clowns. But the crowds quickly filled up the small dzong courtyard and I found myself pushed to the back with everyone else who decided to stand instead of spend the next eight hours sitting in one spot. I wanted to be a good tourist so I was patient about getting the excellent viewing spots, but was I really disappointed to see the only two other western tourists, a fat old couple from Europe, barging their way through the crowd and waddling through the performance area, making monks move for them so they could take the best seats up by the altar. Lhuentse is a very remote destination in Bhutan and I had really hoped to be the only tourist at this festival. Although I wasn’t, I was delighted when this rude couple departed only after a stay of half an hour. Sonam did a little investigating and it seems that they had been fortunate enough to have gotten a room at the guesthouse, but the room and the local food had not been up to their standards so they had moved on. It baffled me, why people would come so far for something so special if they didn’t know what they were getting into in the first place. During my travels in the east I would go eight days without a hot shower, eat some pretty nasty food, and live in dirty clothes that hadn’t been properly washed since Thailand. This tourist who froze in the tent the night before was happy to see these pampered Europeans depart – I now had the Lhuentse festival all to myself.

Scenes from the Lhuentse Festival

A young monk at the Lhuentse Festival, Eastern Bhutan

The focus of the festival’s middle day was the judgment of the soul upon death. During the entire day a troop of clowns provided entertainment by committing various antics such as falling into the crowd, molesting the bashful maidens, begging for small money, throwing a severed hog’s head around, pantomiming ejaculations on yours truly, and even pinching my ass when I crouched down and tried to unobtrusively make an exit. They even spent a good portion of the morning showing the proper use of condoms (safe sex being a big campaign here as Bhutan modernizes). As ridiculous as these clowns are, the honor of being the chief clown goes to the monk who was the most senior dancer from the sacred religious mask dances.

The first dance I saw wasn’t very religious in nature but on more of a folk theme. A wild boar and a white lion danced as the clowns ineptly tried to hunt him with bows and arrows and with various traps. Following this were masked dancers representing what I believe was one of the forms of Guru Rinpoche. I say “believe” because it seemed that every time I asked someone at the festival I received a different answer. The masks are certainly frightening and several locals told me that these were evil spirits. But Guru Rinpoche was a good guy and that’s who Sonam said that the dancers represented, so I’m going with that. Maybe the confusion with the explanations was because in this scary form, the Guru fought and subdued evil spirits. In this dance the masked men spun and twirled around repeatedly for what must have been two very long and exhausting hours. This was followed by an hour or two of dancing by men wearing the masks of different animals. The elephant-masked dancer of this ceremony is unique to the Lhuentse festival, as are the acrobatic skills of the Lhuentse dancers who are considered the best by countrywide consensus.

The afternoon dance was the main lesson on the day’s theme of death and judgment. Having been a feudal county (until very recently) with an illiterate villager population for much of its history, Bhutan, along with Tibet, depended on these dances to teach the people the foundations of Buddhist philosophy in an entertaining and easily understood way. That afternoon two dancers were fated to die, one was a particularly bad clown (the one with a black mask and a woven basket with a severed hog’s head in it), and the other a virtuous farmer of good heart. Both were led to the middle of the courtyard to have their souls weighed and to await their fate. Then with a great commotion of trumpets and drums, monks and nobles appeared in procession supporting what I can only describe as a giant Guru Rinpoche. A masked demon and a masked angel also appeared to plead the cases for the souls of the two dead men in what was an afterlife courthouse. As expected the scales balanced true and the giant Guru Rinpoche sentenced the bad man to a lower level in the wheel of life and rewarded the good man with advancement. Following this scene the altar was set up and blessings were given by the monks to the people. I decided that this would be a great was to finish my day at the festival so I lined up and received my palm full of holy water. That day Sonam had been out working and was able to secure me a bed at a Nepali road workers hotel. It was a very rustic place but it did the trick. We of course made rounds of the tent city that evening, eating momos, drinking egg arra, and getting shot down by the pretty girls.

Lhuentse Festival - Dancers

Masked Guru Rinpoche dancer at the Lhuentse Festival

Dec 21st

We were up early this morning so we would be sure not to miss the highlight of the Lhuentse festival, the unveiling of the 16th-century, three story tall, Guru Rinpoche silk thangka. Perhaps we were a little too cautious; when we arrived at the dzong at 5:30 AM the only ones present were the dancers, unmasked and practicing their routines in thermal underwear. Normally this part of the ceremony happens so early because the unveiling of the thangka and blessings under it must be performed before the sun hits the courtyard in order to preserve the pristine quality of the 500-year-old silk. But this is rural Lhuentse, the festival itself started a day late and today it looked like we had plenty of time. I had the chance to leisurely observe the waking up of the dzong, very young monks making their cleaning rounds, shuttling thermoses of butter tea, and when possible getting in some rough house play time. Soon villagers started arriving to stake out the best seats, and quickly I started to get company at my own choice spot. I gazed in amazement at how people could be barefoot at 6 AM, by this time my feet already felt like blocks of ice. It was a good reminder that here in Bhutan life in these mountains is still a struggle at the subsistence level. With the sun quickly rising at 7 AM the monks appeared with the large wrapped up thangka and proceeded in preparing the rigging. By 7:30 the courtyard of the dzong was filled with people and the thangka was raised but hidden behind a protective silk sheet. With all the monks and the abbot assembled before the altar, and a fanfare from trumpets and drums, suddenly the sheet was pulled away and there hung the 500-year-old silk Guru in all his glory, seemingly holding court in front of 2,000 prostrating Bhutanese, it was a sight I will never forget. Then the sun broke over the wall of dzong and after a quick blessing and some chants the protective sheet was closed again. The thangka was only viewed for about 20 min. and would not be seen again until next year’s festival.

With the Guru wrapped back up it was also time for me to depart, so I headed back to the campsite to help Doje and Sonam pack their tents. The rest of the day was spent on the drive to the funky little town of Trashigang. Along the way while Doje was washing the 4×4 at a stream I had my second encounter with a Bhutanese Princess (there are twelve children in the Royal Family and four Queens – lucky King). This time as I was stretching my legs by the road I was almost run down as her motorcade came tearing down the road. Later we made a stop at the important Gom Kora temple, a site where Guru Rinpoche finally trapped and defeated a demon which he had chased down the river valleys from Tibet. We also passed another small monastery where the monks were out preparing for their local festival. Once arriving at our destination of Trashigang, we relaxed by making rounds of the town’s large number of bars, and I caught up on writing this journal.

The official Provincial Dance Troop

A clown with the official Provincial Dance Troop at the Lhuentse Festival

Scenes from the Lhuentse Festival

Masked animal dancer at the Lhuentse Festival

Lhuntse Festival – People

Young girl at the Lhuentse Festival

Animal Mask Dancers - Lhuentse Festival

Masked animal dancer at the Lhuentse Festival

Lhuentse Festival, Bhutan

Dancer at the Lhuentse Festival

Lhuentse Festival - Guru Rinpoche Thangka

Guru Rinpoche silk thangka

Dec 22nd

A day less interesting for the places I visited than for the people I met. This morning at my hotel in Trashigang I met Teshewang, a Tibetan Belgian who had come over from Europe to assist his younger brother, a recognized reincarnated Lama who had fed Tibet and crossed the passes into Bhutan looking for exile. As his brother’s case was being handled in Thimpu, Teshewang, who due to the circumstances of his visit was exempt from the normal tourist requirements, was off on a few days holiday in Eastern Bhutan. We had an interesting conversation and I was invited that night for dinner with a group of highly important Bhutanese industrialists. That day Sonam, Doje, and I took off into the peaks to visit some remote villages and interesting monasteries. On our return drive we got stuck behind a motorcade of one of the Princes. Passing roadside villagers, we received formal bows as we were mistaken as the fourth and final 4×4 in the Prince’s entourage. Back in Trashigang that afternoon I happened to encounter the Prince’s group as he was making rounds of the town, and after noticing the bow I gave him, the Prince came over and we engaged in a few minutes of conversation. This young prince had been put in charge of $20 million to be distributed to local projects in the rural areas. I had been hearing a lot about a Bangladeshi Noble Prize winner who had developed a theory for small loans to local people and I’m betting the Prince’s project has something to do with that theory.

That night as promised I met up with Teshewang, his friends, and their beautiful wives. We had a wonderful dinner and I enjoyed the conversation with one of Bhutan’s only female police captains. I have some great contacts now in Bhutan and I’m going to make sure I follow through on the promise to email them the pictures of the Lhuentse festival clowns teaching safe sex with condom demonstrations (something none of them believed until I showed the pictures on my camera).

Dec 23rd and 24th

Today we made our arrival in Yangtse, Bhutan’s most remote town and hometown to Sonam, Doje, and their boss and Blue Poppy Tours owner, Chokki. My original itinerary had me staying at Chokki’s family’s guest accommodation, but it was suggested instead that we make a one-hour mountain hike and stay at Doje’s family house. This had been mentioned to me several days before but I must have been dozing when I was told the details because I was completely surprised to be greeted at Doje’s house by religious chanting, trumpets, and drumming. It was the family’s annual blessing of the house and tonight was to be a big party. Inside the house seven monks were dutifully reciting prayers, while outside I received shy greetings from everyone in the family as we sat around the bonfire. This was the first time in three years that Doje, who is always off driving tourists somewhere, was able to attend this family ceremony. Everyone seemed very shy in my presence, but when I decided to pull out my book to enjoy a little reading in the sunshine, I was suddenly swamped by the women and girls of the household, all fighting to get their questions heard. It all went something like this:

Q – Sir you married?
A – I’m not married, but that can be considered normal where I come from.

G – Sir would you like to be married to a Bhutanese woman?!?!
A – Well uh sure, I would be honored to marry a Bhutanese woman, actually I would love to live here.

Remark – Sir, good for you, we have pretty girl coming tonight, she is expert in Bhutanese dance and song!
Thought to myself – Uh oh, what am I getting myself into?

Q – Uncle, what is your book?
A – This book? Well it’s about the Reformation, uh religious wars in Europe in the 16th-century – well never mind it’s hard to explain.

Q – Sir, what is that?
A – This? It’s a photo I’m using as a bookmark, it’s of a young girl from a long neck tribe in North Thailand. She is wearing a pumpkin as a hat and a tomato necklace.

Q – Uncle, do all people in Thailand wear pumpkin hats and have long necks?
A – I’m pretty sure not, I think the pumpkin is just to be funny to sell pictures to the tourists and only that tribe wears the brass rings around their necks.

Q – Sir, do you want to play volleyball?

Like that I was part of the family and was rushed off to play games of jump rope, the Bhutanese version of volleyball, and Duck Duck Goose. There were tons of kids and they all seemed to expect me to remember their names, the only one who I could remember was a little boy named Chilli, that name was easy so I came up with the idea of naming the kids after the different foods of Bhutan and soon kids were running around yelling “I’m Chilli Cheese, or I’m Cheese Momo”. Even several days later one of the kids ran up to me in Yangtse Town yelling “I’m Butter Tea!”

Doje’s Family’s Ceremony - Doje Jumping Rope With His Sisters and Cousins

Jump rope with Doje and his sisters

Everyone expressed their gratitude that I was willing to come and thus allow a complete family reunion but they were concerned I was bored. Of course I loved every second of my stay at Doje’s mountainside farm. Eventually the entire family and I were called into the house to participate in one of the ceremonies. We were all given handfuls of corn kernels and at the appropriate time during monks’ chants we were to throw these representations of bad luck out the door. Of course as we waited all the children started throwing the kernels at each other and soon even the family elders got involved in the game. Later that night families from other nearby farms arrived (including the young song and dance expert that the youngsters wanted to set me up with for marriage) and food and home distilled arra was generously served out. Even the monks started hitting the beer and arra and eventually that night we had some drunk but ever so peaceful monks hunched over in their prayer positions. At one point the family elders were blessed and made prostrations in front of the main altar, and later during another ceremony, visitors were required to give token donations to the family shrine. As I hadn’t as is custom brought a gift when I arrived (Sonam brought the beer), I made a big hit by leaving a crisp $10 dollar bill. With all the ceremonies finished it was time for the song and dance. Of course I wasn’t going to get out of dancing tonight, but that was fine, by this time I was flush with beer and arra and was ready for anything. The dancing was arranged in a circle with basic steps in one direction, sweeps of the arms, and then changes of direction. Of course I couldn’t get it correct but everyone enjoyed my effort. After a time I was getting tired, I didn’t want to sleep but just lie down and take a rest. When I asked where was a good place, all the kids were told to scatter and I was made to lie on the only bed in house, located in the corner of main room where the dancing was taking place. Despite my best intentions to just take a rest and to get back up, soon I was out cold, but I did faintly remember about ten people that night coming over to tuck me into my blankets, including one of the drunken monks.

Doje’s Family’s Ceremony - Drunk Monks

Drunken monks

I suppose it was a good thing I knocked off early, I’m not sure how long the dancing and drinking went on but Sonam and Doje were suffering from hangovers while I was quite fine. After being served about three breakfasts of pig fat and skin and saying our goodbyes, we started a five-hour round trip hike up to another Black-necked Crane nesting area. Since we were not heading there by the normal trail, but by trailblazing from Doje’s house, we had to ask directions from many a startled rural villager, for whom I’m sure having a big foreigner hike into their remote farm was the last thing they had expected that day. Unfortunately floods several years back had destroyed much of the habitat and lately the Cranes had not been sighted in the numbers that are normally expected; we saw none. Back in Yangtse that night I celebrated Christmas Eve by watching Narnia with two young boys of Chokki’s family. The two youngsters were cuddled together in absolute fascination with the film and their repeated whispers of “Lion King” were absolutely precious.

Dec 25

Christmas was scheduled as a rest day on my itinerary, but I didn’t get much rest the night before. The dogs are famous in Bhutan for barking all night long. I heard someone call them “solar dogs” because they charge their power by lazing around in the sun all day and discharge it in nightlong barking frenzies. This hadn’t really affected me until now, when a dog opened shop directly under my window at 3 AM and started his nonstop song to the moon. Braving the cold I ran outside and sent the dog running with a well-aimed toss of a hefty candle. Without any more disturbances I was able to get back to sleep and soon I was up on a cold Christmas morning. I have spent many a holiday out on the ships so being here in the remote east of Bhutan on this day was no big deal. We checked out the old dzong, no longer used for administrative purposes, now solely dedicated as a monastery. Being the hometown of Sonam and Doje, I got unprecedented permission to take some special pictures in the chapel. There was a special ceremony in preparation, and effigies of the four Kings of Bhutan were on display and being blessed by the monks in attendance. There were the several lines of older monks reciting prayers, and off in the corner there were the younger (6-12 years old) monks, all smiles and climbing over each other to get a glimpse of me. The light was great on this scene but I didn’t want to push my luck with pictures of the kids, I was allowed to get pictures of the statues of the Kings and I was happy enough with that.

After the monastery visit it was time for my official Christmas relaxation so we headed over to the Indian-run snooker hall for a couple of rounds and later over to a local bar for some afternoon beer. At the bar I got control of the remote and decided that The Sound of Music would be an appropriate holiday movie. I hadn’t seen this for years, and I enjoyed it. The local Bhutanese also seemed to be enjoying it, or perhaps they were just bewildered. Doje especially liked the “I am 16 you are 17” song, and for the rest of the trip it was his new theme song although we managed to mangle the lyrics all to hell. Unfortunately at the point when the Captain rediscovers music in his household, the power cut out in the town. I had little time to be disappointed over this as I was quickly informed that there was a motorcycle for me to ride around on. I told Sonam that in my country drinking and driving was a big no no, but I was feeling ok and would take it slow. With Doje on the back I drove up the hills and out of town to a farmhouse where Doje informed me that “some pretty girls we went to high school with will serve us arra.” On the drive I got into the Christmas spirit by proclaiming “HO HO HO, Merry Christmas!!!” to astonished snot- nosed kids and the frightened livestock they were leading. Doje spoke the truth, his high school friends were pretty, but the fried egg arra was just as disgusting as ever and I was pretty grateful that this probably would be the last time I would have to partake.

Bhutan 2007

A painter at work in Yangtse, Eastern Bhutan

Back at my guest accommodation dinner was served by candlelight as the power was still out. That night several high school girls were also in attendance for dinner, they were probably relations of Chokki’s family and they were super shy. All Bhutanese schoolchildren study English but having the courage to speak it with a foreigner is pretty scary for them. Asking their names, all I got were the girls doubling over and hiding their faces in laughter, alright, so I named them “He He, Ha Ha, and Ho Ho”. That loosened them up a little and after explaining that tonight was a big holiday for me, they agreed to sing and dance on the condition that I displayed my dancing skills first. So I got up with the young boys that I had watched Narnia with the night before and gave a pretty sorry display of the Bhutanese classics. This had Chokki’s mother laughing and soon we were all singing and dancing by candlelight – a pretty cool way to finish off Christmas.

Bhutan 2007

Details of a house in Eastern Bhutan

Dec 26-27-28

My last two days involved a bit of driving and a final stay on the Bhutanese side of the Indian border so I could make the early train to Varanasi. During these last days we visited several monasteries where the chapel paintings were done in their own distinct style unlike anything I had seen elsewhere – too bad no pictures allowed. Also at the chapels I spied AK-47s tucked in nooks and crannies, I suppose they were for emergency defense as this area had been plagued by Assam pro-independence guerillas who had made their bases in Bhutan, out of reach of the Indians. Just a few years ago the Bhutanese army decided to flush out these bases and consequently the Bhutanese are now subject to retaliations when in India. In fact Doje and Sonam needed to drive in the daily military escorted caravan deployed specially for Bhutanese vehicles returning by the fast mountainless southern route into West Bhutan. I have arranged my own Indian driver to take me the 140 km to the nearest train station, no armed escort required.

Bhutan 2007

A young monk and dog at the last monastery visit of my trip

My final night in the Himalayas was spent in the hill station of Pemagatschel, yet another remote place with not much to do. We had snacks and beers at a local bar and returned to play pool and snooker at our guesthouse. The next morning we departed the Himalayas. It was a fast and treacherous descent into the flat steamy lands of India. There is even an Indian temple situated at one risky bend, manned by a sadhu who gives the passing vehicles tikkas if the drivers desire the luck. Since we were leaving the Himalayas and we assumed our luck would hold for just a few more kilometers we didn’t bother. By lunchtime we reached the planes of Assam and I finally had a chance to get online and verify that my plane tickets and work orders for South Africa were ready. The border town of Samdrup Jongkhar was an interesting place, Indian women bathing and doing laundry in the river, a local orange market, and all the hustle and bustle associated with a border town were on display. I did a hand wash of some laundry and enjoyed my first hot shower in days. I also enjoyed some satellite TV, had a haircut, and even connected back home on my cell phone for some late Christmas well wishes. Basically my Bhutan trip was over. As Sonam, Doje, and I enjoyed a few last rounds of beers I was suddenly stuck by the realization that after being catered to for three weeks I would have to fend for myself again. And of course I made it though India, had a great time in Varanasi, and made my flight to South Africa where I met my ship in Durban. I am writing this from a position approximately 200 miles southeast of Madagascar as we conduct oceanographic research. Next month we depart on a 6 week cruise to Antarctica for global warming studies, so for me as always the adventure never ends.

Go to my Flickr to view all of my Bhutan photos!

10 responses

  1. Pingback: Children of North Korea « An American in North Korea

  2. lovely set . I’ll read the reportage after. I’ll follow you. bravo

    November 27, 2011 at 2:43 pm

  3. Thanks!

    November 28, 2011 at 6:48 am

  4. willwander

    I enjoyed reading your trip report. Bhutan has always been my dream travel destination

    February 6, 2012 at 6:52 pm

  5. Amazing photography, great story.

    May 5, 2012 at 3:27 am

  6. jacky

    intresting /Сонирхолтой юм/

    May 15, 2012 at 4:59 am

  7. Lovely post. I’ve been looking into going to Bhutan myself (because as an Indian, I’m actually one of the lucky people to get to go there independently. This post has given some ideas of where else I can go there.
    Love the photographs! I wish they’d make it easier for people to get in and not attach that huge fee per person per day to see the country.

    November 24, 2012 at 5:25 am

  8. Thomas

    MSounds like a lovely trip! I spent 2 weeks in Bhutan between September and October together with my bhutanese wife (we actually got married while in Bhutan) and her family. Obviously I didn’t have to get the guided visa but instead got invited to the country by my girlfriend at the time which of course made things more free and cheap.

    I can not recommend Bhutan enough, it’s a trip I think anyone would enjoy and something you’ll remember for the rest of your life for sure. You just can’t put a price on an experience like that.

    Being married to a bhutanese I am now free to come and go as I like and since my wife still have most of her family in Bhutan there will surely be plenty of trips to this wonderful country in the future. Who knows maybe we’ll even settle down there someday, but for now we’re living together in Sweden which is my own home country.

    March 1, 2013 at 2:29 am

  9. Gaurav

    Joseph you have made fantastic journey… and u hv narrated it in even better…. i myself went to bhutan 6 times n every journey in its own way had been fantastic.

    November 8, 2013 at 12:46 pm

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