February, 2002

Greetings from Bhutan!

I had originally intended to cover Bhutan as part of my Nepal newsletter, but this place is too special not to have its own.  Let me start with some background, for those of you who may not even know where Bhutan is.

Bhutan is a tiny Himalayan country sandwiched between India and China, and next door to Nepal, with a land mass roughly the size of Connecticut and a population between 600,000 and one million, depending on who you talk to.   It is the only Buddhist monarchy left in the world, and until 1974, the king did not allow any tourism at all.  When Bhutan’s doors were opened to visitors there was great concern that it not become another Nepal; overrun by trekkers, heavily influenced by Western consumerism, and rapidly losing its traditional culture.   But instead of setting a limit on the number of visitors per year, the king decided to keep a lid on it by making tourism very expensive and restrictive instead, and this system remains in place today.  In order to visit Bhutan, you must come with one of the country’s 89 licensed tourism offices and you must be on a pre-arranged itinerary with that office and be with a guide during your entire visit.  You must also pay $200 US per day, no exceptions, no way around it.  This per diem covers all your lodging, food, trekking and sightseeing expenses (everything except alcohol and souvenirs), and thus you pay the same amount whether you are staying in the nicest hotel in the country, or staying in a tent.  This system has so far limited the number of visitors in Bhutan to five thousand or so per year; the highest number ever was 7000 in the year 2000.

Now, some of you are aware that my budget for third world countries was $50 per day, and you are no doubt wondering how I managed to visit Bhutan.  It was not in my original itinerary, but while traveling in New Zealand with my friends Farrell and Mike they told me about their recent three-week trekking trip in Bhutan, and they raved about it so much that I decided I had to find a way to go.  I contacted the agency they had used, Yangphel Tours, and told them I could not afford to come for very long but since I was going to be right next door in Kathmandu in February I could take advantage of inexpensive flights from there.  I figured I would make up for it by cutting expenses in Nepal, which is easy to do when you’re trekking.  The company I contacted in Bhutan responded that it was not the right season for trekking, but if I could stand the cold there was one relatively low-altitude trek we could do for four days, and we would add in sightseeing days on either end.  So, I was to go for six days.

There are only two ways to get to Bhutan: you can hire a driver to take you across the Indian border at Puentsholing, or you can fly in from Kathmandu, Bangkok or Delhi on Druk Air, Bhutan’s national airline.  There are no trains or buses, and no other airlines are allowed into Bhutan.  Druk Air has two small jets, and when a flight arrives, particularly in the off-season, it is an event.  I noticed that when people in Bhutan hear a plane going overhead, they stop to look up at it.  And they don’t point at the sky and say, “Look, a plane!”  They say, “Look, Druk Air!”

I arrived at Paro Airport, Bhutan’s only airport, on Monday of last week and was met by my guide, Phurba.   As it was the off-season, I was a group of one, and I have since decided that if you can afford it, that is the best way to travel with a guide.

The first thing you notice flying into Paro is that it’s not just the mountains that are beautiful; the architecture is stunning as well.  Even the airport is a work of art.  There are no modern buildings in Bhutan, as the king requires all buildings to be in the traditional style.  I would describe the traditional style as Swiss chalet meets Tibetan monastery.  The Bhutanese build in wood, and they lavishly decorate everything with hand carving and hand painting.  The result is that even the corner market looks like a magnificent Buddhist temple

We spent my first day touring Paro, where I saw a monastery, several chortens (the Bhutanese equivalent of a Buddhist stupa, a round temple which one must circumambulate in a clockwise direction to show respect to the deities), and the Paro dzong.  Each region in Bhutan contains a dzong, which is a building originally intended as a military fort but which now serves a dual function of housing that region’s administrative government offices and housing the monks who live and work in that region.  Visitors typically are not allowed either in the dzongs or in the other monasteries that dot the country, but as I was soon to find out, being alone instead of in a group has its advantages.

My trek began on day two.  We were to follow a route called the Druk Path, which would be cold at night and possibly have a bit of snow but was passable because it did not exceed an elevation of 1250 feet.  The trekking party consisted of myself, my guide Phurba, my cook Sonam, five pack mules, and a mule herder.   After I got over the initial embarrassment of having this entourage all to myself, I decided I liked trekking by myself.  I could tell Sonam when I wanted to eat, I could set the trekking pace to suit myself, and I could bombard Phurba with an endless stream of questions about Bhutanese culture, religion, flora and fauna, all of which he answered very competently.  In fact, Phurba was a cut above any guide I had met on my trip thus far.  He had been guiding for eleven years, his English was excellent and his knowledge of the country very thorough.  Later I was invited to have dinner with another of Yangphel’s guides, Tshering, and found him to be even more impressive.

The Druk Path route summited a ridge, descended into a valley with a small rural village, then summited another ridge before descending into the capital city of Thimpu, so we were alternately climbing and descending for the four days of the trek.  It was indeed very cold at night and I worried about my crew, who did not have a down jacket and a zero-degree sleeping bag like I did.  I also worried about the mules, who kept stumbling on the steep icy paths, but fortunately none of them got hurt  On the last night, however, we decided it was going to be so cold we’d better camp next to a monastery so that Phurba, Sonam and the mule herder could sleep inside if necessary.  This turned out to be a good idea, since when I woke the next morning I found everything in my tent frozen solid.

On day two of the trek, we visited a typical Bhutanese home at the invitation of several women we saw in the village.  All Bhutanese homes are similar, with a stable for cows and grain storage downstairs and a kitchen and chapel upstairs.  The chapel is used to receive visitors as well as to honor the deities, and it contains a small altar decorated with clay statues and wall paintings of various deities.  The family usually sleeps in the kitchen where it’s warm.  There is no furniture to speak of in the more rural homes, and yet I wouldn’t describe them as poor homes; the family is typically self-sufficient and has enough food.  Most of the farming is subsistence farming (rice, wheat, various vegetables), but potatoes are often grown as a cash crop.

What I was really fascinated with, however, was the religion of the country, and I spent most of my time trying to figure it out.  Most Bhutanese practice a particular school of Himalayan Buddhism called Drukpa Kagyu (for you religious scholars out there, this is a form of Mahayana Buddhism containing Tantric influence), and as my Lonely Planet guidebook describes it, it contains a “perfectly bewildering medley of gods and goddesses, Buddhas and bodhisattvas, guardian deities and canonized saints, ghouls, goblins and demons, deified kings and spirits of every conceivable description, paradises, earths and hells.”  Bewildering indeed it was.  One of the highlights of my religious exploration was the night we built a campfire and Phurba and Sonam told me stories about the Divine Madman.  I had wondered about the giant phalluses and swords I saw painted on some houses and they explained that they were symbols of this Divine Madman, a 17th century shaman of sorts who was very powerful in subduing demons and other noxious creatures, including a witch who ate villagers for dinner and reminded me of the Blair Witch.  But the Madman’s true claim to fame is that he appears to have had spent most of his time drinking and having sex with any and every female creature he came in contact with, including his own mother.  Hmmm…

The real highlight was my visits to various monasteries.  Had I been in a large group during tourist season this would not have been possible, but since I was alone, the monks did not mind having me around.   The typical mountain monastery contains a kitchen, a courtyard, the chapel, and some stark little chambers with no furniture for the monk’s living quarters.  The chapels were most interesting, and sometimes if I was lucky I might catch the monks while they were performing a ceremony.  If you have ever seen a movie featuring ancient Tibetan monasteries, that’s pretty much what the chapel of a Bhutanese monastery looks like; dark, cavernous, and ornately decorated.  There is typically an altar lined with bowls of rice and butter lamps and other offerings to the deities, and behind the altar there will be many clay statues of various gods and goddesses.  In some of the larger monasteries these may be huge, reaching up to a second or third story in the building.  The walls are colorfully hand-painted with more deities, and richly brocaded tapestries hang from the ceiling.  There is a large cushioned chaise where the head monk sits, and then an expanse of bare wooden floor where the monks sit in a circle around him.  Phurba taught me how to prostrate before the altar in Buddhist fashion, which I did, despite feeling very silly, and how to make an offering to the deities.  Once you have made an offering a monk pours water from a chalice into your hand, which you sip from and then pour over your head.  Most of the time I felt as if I had stepped back in time 200 years or walked onto a movie set.  But occasionally I would be met with a singular incongruity, like the time Phurba introduced me to an older monk who pulled a satellite phone out of the pocket of his robe and handed it to Phurba so he could call his office.

On the last night of the trek, I was invited to sit in the kitchen of the medicine Buddha’s monastery.  There were four young monks living there and their teacher was away on a pilgrimage.  The kitchen was a tiny room with a wood stove in the middle and two cupboards lined with pots and pans; sleeping mats circling the stove indicated this must be where the monks slept.  The monks were children, really; one was only 10 years old.  With Phurba acting as translator I was allowed to question them about their lives as monks.  They told me how they rose every day at 5:00 am, studied and prayed, did household chores, studied and prayed some more.  They were allowed to visit their families for one month per year, and when they had free time they often hitched up their robes and played a game similar to horseshoes, in which they threw stones into a hole.  Sometimes they thought about quitting (like when they saw a pretty girl on the street, Phurba added with a grin), but it was very difficult to do these days, as you would be required to pay a hefty fine.  Three of the four had been sent to the monastery at a very young age by their families; the fourth had made the decision himself at the age of 17.  When I had run out of questions, the monks surprised me by revealing a little cassette player in a cupboard, on which they played me some contemporary Bhutanese pop music.

After the trek, I had a day and a half of sightseeing in the capital city of Thimpu before leaving Bhutan.  Thimpu boasts being the only capital city in the world without a street light; one was installed several years ago, but the residents complained that it was too impersonal and they missed the two traffic cops that used to be posted at opposite ends of town, so the government took the traffic lights back out and reinstated the traffic cops.  I stayed at the Druk hotel, the nicest hotel in town, and toured the city’s dzong, nunnery, paper factory, weekend market, craft shops, and archery range.   The archery range was particularly interesting, as it is Bhutan’s national sport.   Many archers use primitive wooden bows, but those who can afford it have expensive compound Hoyts which happen to be imported from Salt Lake City by Yangphel Tours.  I also visited Bhutan’s national animal, the takin, several of which are held in a small mountainside zoo.  The zoo once contained other animals, but the king decided that keeping animals in captivity was not in line with Bhutan’s environmental philosophy, so they were let go.  The takin, however, wondered the streets of Thimpu looking for food, until finally the government was forced to lock them back up.  The takin has a long face like a moose and a curved back that gives them a funny, stooped walk. They are only found in Bhutan and have baffled scientist’s attempts to classify the species for years.

Bhutan is facing a very real struggle these days, one that I think must keep the king awake at night: how do they balance the need for development with the desire to retain their traditional culture?  Internet was introduced two years ago, and television has become popular within the last few years.  Many Bhutanese still wear traditional dress (men in a kho and women in a kira, complicated wraps which defy my attempts to describe them), but I visited an internet café in Thimpu that was crowded with teenagers wearing jeans and American sweatshirts and playing Nintendo games.  It would be interesting to go back and visit again in a few years and see how much has changed; and this I certainly would like to do, as it was the most fascinating place I have ever been.

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