Bhutan: “The Land of the Thunder Dragon”

Visiting Bhutan is like taking a time machine back to the fourteenth century where time is measured by slow ticks of the heart…..

I first heard of Bhutan, a small Buddhist kingdom in the Himalayas, when I worked as a security guard at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. I met a doctor from Long Island, New York who sponsored the Bhutanese archers’ first Olympics competition. Archery is the national sport and the archers traditionally used bamboo bows. The doctor equipped the team with fiberglass compound bows so they could compete on an equal playing field.

The doctor’s description of Bhutan as a Shangri-La that hadn’t been invaded by many tourists piqued my interest to visit the country. I bought a book on Bhutan and held on to it like a dream that would come true.

I signed on with Bhutan Travel in New York City. Marie Brown, the owner, was the first American to work with the Bhutanese Tourist Bureau and instrumental in creating travel policies. I wanted a cultural tour with walks each day. Marie planned a flexible adventure, with options for small treks.

Known as Druk Yul—Land of the Thunder Dragon—Bhutan is sandwiched between Chinese-occupied Tibet to the north and the Indian states of Sikkim to the west, Assam/West Bengal to the south, and Arunachal Pradesh to the east. The Chomolhari range of the Himalayas, rising to over 24,000 feet and continually covered with glaciers and snow, form the northern border of Bhutan.

Bhutan is about the same size as Switzerland, and shares that country’s reputation for its majestic and pristine landscape. Over 70 percent of the land is still under forest cover. The country is under-populated with a little over one million people. Ninety percent of the population lives on subsistence farming scattered in sparsely populated villages. It is common for as many as 85 percent of the population to walk for several hours to reach a road.

You can’t enter Bhutan and travel around the country by yourself. Since Bhutan opened its borders and ended its self-imposed isolation, the government allows between five and seven thousand tourists in each year.

Bhutan needs hard currency for medical and manufactured products and has developed a trekking program that takes hikers into the northern part of the country where they experience untouched wilderness areas populated with rare Himalayan wildlife. It’s possible to spot animals such as the blue sheep, takin, golden langur, snow leopard, and Himalayan bear.

The Bhutanese government and tourist industry share an understanding: If tourists who hike these secluded and majestic areas disrupt the equilibrium of the beautiful and balanced environment, these activities for foreigners will cease regardless of the financial consequences. Bhutanese are strong, connected with nature, and self-reliant. If they choose to shut down their borders again, Bhutan would be able to control its own destiny and remain self-sufficient.

Once you purchase a pre-paid cultural trip or trek, or choose a combination of trek and cultural tour from an American travel company, they contract the Bhutanese company that will arrange your trip. You’re met when you fly into Bhutan and supplied with a guide and driver who immediately take over and organize your journey and adventure. Bhutan Travel in New York works with the Bhutanese company called Etho Metho.

I had the great fortune (or blessing depending on how you see life—for me it was both), to have no other people sign up on my 12-day cultural tour with a few days hiking option. I had my own guide and driver and the opportunity to improvise, fish, and relax when desired.

At night in some of the inns, I met groups of eight to twenty people from Switzerland, America, and France. Some of the groups appeared to have a comfortable rapport, while others displayed an air of discomfort. The size of the group and the relationship with the guide is very important for your journey.

Before the journey begins you purchase a pre-paid visa and fly Druk Air, the Bhutanese airline, to Paro, a small, beautiful valley town that has the only airport in the west of Bhutan. Paro is the country’s largest entry point and contains terraced gardens overlooking the Paro Chu River.

Druk Air flies only from Delhi, Calcutta, Bangkok (where I stayed and departed) and Katmandu. The plane holds about seventy-five people and flying into Paro is unforgettable, to say the least! The pilot suddenly banks the plane in what seems like a 180-degree turn between two large mountains. There is a strong illusion that if the plane was any larger the wings would hit the mountains. The surrounding hills make this a narrow landing and Druk Air never flies if it is cloudy or the visibility is otherwise impaired.

Phurba, my tour guide , was waiting for me after getting the luggage. He was tall (unusual for Bhutanese men) and handsome—dressed in the traditional knee length, hand-woven robe called a “gho.” The gho is belted at the waist like a skirt and worn with knee-high socks. The belt creates a continuous pocket around the body and serves as a sort of compartment or pouch for valuables including a small rice bowl.

The women wear the traditional “kira,” which is an elaborately embellished, ankle-length robe. Bhutanese silk is often woven into the fabric used for a kira and other women’s garments giving them an added brilliance.

Phurba didn’t have a last name, and wasn’t quite sure of his age. He was born at home and brought to the local monastery for naming. All of this undated by any western calendar. Phurba had a tanned and slightly dark complexion and like the people in the western and central part of Bhutan, he was a descendant of the Drukpas or Ngalops whose ancestors arrived from Tibet in the ninth century. They are a hearty and good-looking people. Decades of self-sufficiency and hard work have made them strong and healthy. Statistically, unemployment, crime, and mental illness are negligible.

Phurba introduced me to Wang Chu, our driver, and loaded our bags into a Toyota van. My stomach hurt from food poisoning from my last night in Bangkok and our first unplanned stop was the local hospital. All medical care is free throughout the country. The doctor gave me several types of pills in plastic containers (like miniature baggies) and drew circles on the bag to let me know how many times a day I should take each pill.

Leaving the hospital and driving up to the inn I immediately noticed art on every building with tapestries hanging on the walls. Arts and crafts are intrinsic to the aesthetic of this beautiful country. Magnificant wall paintings illustrating Buddhist folklore are everywhere. During our travels I saw paintings such as “The Four Friends,” “The Old Man of Long Life, “ “The Wheel of Life,” and cosmic mandalas (beautiful circles that form geometric patterns without a beginning or end).

I visited Bhutan’s leading art school in Thimphu where young students translate from scripture the design and mathematical quadrants of Buddhist art.

There is no improvisational art during the first few years of study. Students must learn the same techniques as their ancestors in the 15th century. One reason for this discipline is to train artists who can duplicate on buildings as well as canvas the same Buddhist themes with accuracy.

After several years of painting, students choose between wood or slate carving, sculpture, painting, or elaborate masonry. It is common when a piece of art work from the 15th century needs repair to call upon the best artists who are dispensed to the monastery or government building to repair or replace it. On one occasion, I watched stone masons repairing the stone in front of an old monastery in the Himalayan town of Gantey.

As with Bhutanese art work, weaving and tapestries reflect the beauty and religious devotion that percolates throughout the country. Wherever we went, almost every household had a small wooden loom. In fact, few countries can compete with Bhutan’s textiles woven for local clothing. In remote villages I discovered sophisticated tapestries that combined elaborate designs with a variety of beautiful colors.

Two other immediate, outstanding visual impressions of Bhutan are the architecture and the sense that everything blends together. There are no burger joints jutting into the air. The homes, based on Tibetan-style architecture, are constructed of stone (or compressed earth) and wood, and often white washed. The roofs, however, are different from those in Tibet. They use pitched wooden slating held down by large stones (although more metal roofs are being used).

Most homes have terraced gardens that are ecologically balanced— growing rice, maize, buckwheat, wheat, potatoes, and the ever-present hot chilies. Wherever you look it is lovely and soothing to the eyes and mind.

Equally impressive are prayer flags that are everywhere: on top of every home, on hillsides, and overlooking each valley. These flags send scriptured prayers into the universe. It is common to find stupas (small shrines built originally to house sacred relics), at the junction between mountains and valleys. The stupass symbolize the five elements of the Buddhist cosmos: fire, water, earth, air and ether.

There are prayer wheels throughout the kingdom and in fortress-like monasteries called dzongs constructed at strategic points located at the head of each major valley. It is customary to turn the wheels clockwise and recite, “Om mani padme om,” that translates: “Homage to the jewel in the lotus.”

During one hike I found a medicine Buddha, carved and painted into stone, in the middle of a farmer’s field This is indicative of how the entire countryside manifests paintings, prayer flags, stupas, and art in its homes and lifestyle. This artistic rendering of spiritual themes reflects Bhutan’s strong Buddhist beliefs. For most Bhutanese there is no separation between spiritual reality and everyday reality.

Dzongs are the most impressive form of Bhutanese architecture. We visited many dzongs that contain a spiritual center for the monks who live and work there. Each dzong has a sanctuary with rare statues of Buddha or Guru Rimpoche mixed with old and beautiful religious artifacts. Townspeople visit these sanctuaries, numerous local temples, and monasteries for prayer and to discuss all family events from birth to death with an attending monk.

Things have changed in the last few years for tourists who visit the monasteries, temples and dzongs. I witnessed another tour group turned away from the inner sanctum of a monastery because certain religious artifacts were discovered in a Japanese museum. Theft and bribery for priceless religious artifacts have made the Bhutanese cautious.

As a result, certain sanctuaries within the temples are off limits to tourists. Since Phurba had a good relationship with the attending monk, I was invited into the shrine, blessed by the monk, and allowed to viewed 11th century religious artifacts including statues of Buddha and Guru Rimpoche

The dzongs are also designed to share space with government officials—an example of how government shares power between the spiritual and secular. The Drukpa School of Buddhism is such an integral part of Bhutanese daily life that there is little separation between sacred and secular.

Advanced planning is essential for any successful tour and all hotels and meals were pre-paid. Phurba knew the various restaurants and would often order the meals. Food is mostly served buffet-style. In some areas, there would be an Indian buffet alongside the Bhutanese dishes. India (Bhutan’s military ally and main trading partner), supplies Bhutan with meat, chicken, and pork in return for a wide variety of vegetables. Potatoes are currently Bhutan’s largest cash crop and wherever I traveled there were  fantastic-tasting potatoes.

My food generally contained a large variety of vegetables with a chicken, beef, or pork dish. The meat was hard and sinewy. I dined with Phurba and Wang Chu on occasion, but they usually ate in the kitchen with other tour guides. They introduced me to a very fatty pork dish that was instant cholesterol and very delicious.

Tourist food is blander than a typical Bhutanese meal. Bhutanese love chilies in all their food—the hotter the better. As one waitress explained to us, “People of Bhutan do not have a sweet tooth. They have a hot tooth.” By the end of the trip, I found a chocolate bar in a remote village that eased my craving. I paid cash for drinks (including soda or bottled water) in hotels or restaurants. Bhutanese homemade whiskey is delicious.

The word hotel doesn’t really describe the family atmosphere of the country inns. I often had a cottage overlooking a valley or river. At other times, the rooms were sparse. The bathroom in one inn had wooden planks over the cement floor.

Bhutanese hospitality is warm and uplifting and includes a genuine mixture of curiosity and good humor. The couple who owned the family inn in the Bumthang valley talked and joked. Afterwards, I helped one of the daughters with a school paper in English.

Phurba took great pride in educating me about his country. I learned that Bhutan is the only Buddhist kingdom in the world. In 1907 Ugyen Wangchuk united the country and was chosen as the Druk Gyalpo, “Precious Ruler of the Dragon People.” This act began a new hereditary, monarchical system of government. Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, the third monarch, began his reign in 1952 and is considered to be the architect of modern Bhutan. Under his guidance, the National Assembly was created and a democratic process introduced. Bhutan entered the United Nations in 1971.

The current king, Jigme Dorje Wangchuk, was crowned in 1974. Phurba played basketball with him years earlier in school. The king is married to four sisters who each have small palaces. Although much of his power is symbolic, he has increased the participation of the people in the country’s development and is well loved.

Bhutan has a long and important history with Tibet its northern neighbor. Tibet was converted to Buddhism from the indigenous animistic Bon religion in the seventh century. In the eighth century, Indian King Sindhu Raja ruled the district of Bumthang in central Bhutan. After the ravages of war among the different sects of Tibetan and Bhutanese Buddhism, King Sindhu Raja invited Padmasambhava (also known as Guru Rimpoche) the great Tantric mystic to come from India to help him. Guru Rimpoche was said to have flown on the back of a tiger and brought the teachings of Buddhist Dharms to Bhutan in the 8th century.

The Bhutanese people have many superstitions. They also rely on stories about saints and use wonderful parables. Phurba reiterated how the people do not intellectually study Buddhism—they just live it. They believe in the wheel of reincarnation. Before enlightenment there are eight possible incarnations from being reborn as an animal or a spirit. The goal is to get off the wheel of reincarnation and become enlightened. People are reborn according to their karma or the quality of life they have led. In order to have a higher incarnation, it’s important to be a righteous and good person. Bhutanese live with that intention rather than talk about it.

The second day of our journey Phurba and Wang Chu took me up a winding road to the Chalela Pass. From there, we hiked to the 12,000-foot elevation nunnery of Kila Gompa. The Buddhist nuns (called anims) live a life of prayer and contemplation. Numerous meditation huts surround the temple and many hidden caves lie inside the rocky cliffs. The path to the nunnery winds through lush forest dominated by tall firs and rhododendrons. The hike (over three hours) was really tiring, because I wasn’t used to the altitude.

The community is one of the oldest of seven nunneries in Bhutan and was initially established in the early 9th century as a meditation site. Kila Gompa is historically significant as a sacred meditation site and many famous Buddhist saints have gone there to find peace and seclusion.

The nunnery was built into stone and resembles the mysterious Anasazi cliff dwellings of New Mexico. Phurba and the attending monk took me into the temple where Phurba got down on his knees with his elbows on the ground and bowed. The bow was almost identical to the bow we use in my dojo where I study martial arts. I bowed and looked through a large glass encasement that contained an 8th century statue of Guru Rimpoche (Padmasambhava). It’s hard to describe how this room with ancient religious artifacts feels except to say that my mind cleared and I felt grateful to be alive.

I said a prayer and the monk poured water over me in a blessing. It began to rain and hail and the monk brought tea and cookies. Shortly later I went to the door, bowed again, put on my shoes, and walked outside.

Each day in Bhutan was an adventure where winding roads would reveal new sites to explore—from large, friendly farmhouses to hushed temples and dzongs. In the sacred Bumthang Valley I visited a very beautiful pool of water where Pemalingpa (known as a Spiritual Treasure-Finder) is said to have found treasures hidden by Guru Rimpoche. The story tells how Pemalingpa’s identity was questioned until he retrieved treasures while carrying an oil lamp that continued burning even after he plunged into the waters and surfaced again.

I love to fish and I brought my fly rod and some gear to Bhutan. One day I asked Phurba to take me fishing. We hiked upstream and were met by a group of school kids. They sat talking and laughing on the bank of a beautiful river. Phurba and Wang Chu chuckled at my equipment because they fish with a can that looks like an ordinary can of beans. Fishing line connected to a lure the size of a person’s thumb is tied around the can. You fling the lure into the river while turning the can so the line can unravel. To reel the line back in, you turn the can horizontal to your waist and continuously wrap the line around the can that pulls in the lure.

We went fishing several other times. I wasn’t very successful catching a trout, but Phurba always caught one with the can. We fished in Paro on our last night and I caught a trout. Wang Chu also caught a trout using my fly rod (which he cast perfectly the first time), and Phurba caught one with the can. That night Phurba asked the chef to cook the trout as my farewell dinner (breaking the tradition of throwing the fish back).

During our trip Wang Chu would go out every evening with his compound bow and practice archery with the other drivers. I asked him to teach me how to use the bow. He took me to a field where to my amazement the target was a three–foot-high stick that was a football field and a half away (about 150 yards) from where I stood. There was a circle drawn on the stick which couldn’t be seen from that distance.

The bow’s resistance was close to 70 pounds and it took awhile to develop the strength to pull the bow. I asked Wang Chu to reduce the pressure and he used a small ratchet to lessen the tension. Once I got the movement, I surprised everyone by consistently coming close to the target. (I came an arrow’s length from the target earning me a point.) I also overshot the target and almost hit a cow. On our way back to the capital of Thimpu, I went to an archery store and bought two arrows for Wang Chu out of gratitude for his lessons.

Bhutan is famous for its festivals that usually last for days. Dancers wear elaborate costumes and hand-painted masks that correspond with religious holidays and everyone in the village attends. There are three types of religious dance: instructive dances which tell a moral tale, dances intended to purify a place and to protect it from evil spirits, and dances that proclaim the victory of Buddhism and the glory of Guru Rimpoche.

One misty day we drove out of Jakar (in the Bumthang Valley) to the village of Ura to attend the annual Yak festival. During the Blessing of the Yaks, villagers bring their animals to be blessed and receive protection for the trek up the summer meadows where they remain until the fall brings cold weather. Dancers in brilliant silk costumes re-enact legendary events accompanied by blaring horns, booming drums, and clashing cymbals. The dancers wear heavy, exquisitely detailed masks representing human forms and manifestations of Guru Rimpoche.

Everyone was invited into the monastery after the dances and the monks walked around feeding everyone rice and tea. Following the meal, a government official offered me some beetle nut to chew with lime. Bhutanese are addicted to lime and beetle nut that creates a mild burst of energy and turns teeth and mouth bright red. Years ago, I lived with Indians in the mountains of Peru. Their chewing of cocoa leaves resembled the use of beetle nut in Bhutan.

After nine days we headed west from central Bhutan back towards the city of Punakha (and eventually to Paro to depart). Punakha has a tropical and lush environment known for its papayas and other exotic fruit. As we neared Punakha, Phurba heard that His Holiness Je Khenpo—the Chief Abbot who is equivalent in stature to the Dalai Lama or the Pope—was blessing people in a nearby field. We went to the field and watched the monks prepare for the blessing with long horns, dancing, and prayers. People of all ages were seated on the ground in this huge field under the hot sun.

A man in a mask and costume, holding a flame in one hand that looked like a dragon’s breath and phosphorus powder in the other hand, danced up and down the field. He would do a strange dance and throw the phosphorus on the flame that made it bellow out. The fire and dance symbolized scaring away negative deities.

A high school student next to me explained how I should bow and hold my hands when I received my blessing. His Holiness came out of a tent with monks on each side after the dancing and preparation were over. He went up and down the rows of people touching everyone on the head and offering a blessing.

When it was my turn, His Holiness touched my head and a monk recited a blessing and gave me a colored string to wear. I felt that it was a great honor to be in the right place when Bhutan’s holiest religious leader was blessing people. His touch was tangible and humbling after visiting so many temples and dzongs, walking clockwise around prayer wheels, and learning about this special sect of Buddhism. I left Punaka and drove back to the capital of Thimpu (not really a city but a large town–they don’t have one traffic light). I had caught a cold from Phurba and was increasingly uncomfortable with sinus problems. Phurba took us to the herbal hospital and teaching school in Thimpu where we met with a good-natured and talkative doctor. He prescribed herbs that he said tasted extremely bitter.

The doctor explained that Bhutan believes in mixing conventional medicine when necessary, but has a long history of herbal medicine along with Tibet and India. Again, treatment and the herbal medicine were free.

It felt like a long and wonderful dream was ending when I arrived back in Paro with two days left. I didn’t want to wake up. Bhutan touched me in many, deep ways. Visiting Bhutan was like taking a time machine and going back to the fourteenth century where time is measured by slow ticks of the heart.

I experienced a mirror reflection of a quality of life. In Bhutan, people value community and spiritual livelihood. They combine this with hard work and love of the land. This lifestyle emphasizes priorities and values that exude moral common sense with genuine compassion—values which seem to be slipping away in our fast-paced commercial society.

Phurba stood silently at the airport as I got ready to depart. Suddenly he called me over and gave each me a beautiful white scarf. I gave him and Wang Chu our thank you gift and said goodbye.

I hope Bhutan can maintain its identity. After purchasing al silk jacket from a shopkeeper in a remote mountain village, he  sent me an e-mail several weeks after I returned home. Bhutan is aware of the world that surrounds its tiny kingdom. Hopefully the next generation will continue to protect its unique culture.