A Serendipitous Trip to Bhutan

My heart was beating fast in excitement as we descended through the rainclouds in between the Himalayan peaks en route to the landing strip of Paro.  Just a few days back, my two sons and I were debating as to where we should spend our time together in India - Goa with its beaches and Portuguese cathedrals; Rajasthan with its magnificent forts, palaces and desert dunes; Ladakh with its high altitude Buddhist monasteries; Kerala with its rainforests, tea plantations and house boats in the backwaters; or Tamil Nadu with its ancient Hindu temples.   The only hitch being that I had visited these places already and was wanting a new place and a different exploration.   I then remembered that one of my friends in India whom I met in Pondicherry in the early 90’s is a friend to the Queen Mother of Bhutan.  I met Her Majesty the Queen Mother Ashi  Tshering Pem Wangchuk, in a conference in South India years back.   She had graciously invited me to visit her beautiful country.  I thought this was the right time to make use of her generous invitation.

Before our trip, we read articles on Bhutan, and watched documentaries to familiarize ourselves with the land and its people.  Some of my friends who had visited Bhutan had told me of its kind, gentle, polite and hospitable people living in one of the most picturesque places on earth.  It has been touted as the last Shangrila, regulating tourism to protect its people, culture, tradition and land from too abrupt outside influence. There is a ban on the use of plastic and smoking. Television and the internet were allowed only starting in 1999 making it the last country in the world to do so.  It has a stable ecosystem and a very robust environmental protection with 70 % of its land under forest cover.  Tourism is restricted with a fee of $250 a day per person (This fee includes a guide, land transport, meals and accommodation).   ‘Gross National Happiness’ (alongside Gross National Product) was coined by the fourth King, His Majesty, Jigme Singye Wangchuk and is considered an important component in the measuring the well-being and progress of the Bhutanese people.  Bhutan is the last standing Buddhist Kingdom on earth.

After being hosted at the VIP longue at the airport, our first stop was at the National Museum overlooking Paro showcasing different art works, artefacts and masks depicting spiritual teachings; vices and virtues; deities and spiritual teachers especially the patron of Bhutan, Guru Rinpoche Padmasambhava.  We drove down to the Ringpung Dzong to look at its magnificent architecture and observe the Buddhist monks living within its compound.  Dzongs are heavily fortified, massively built and beautifully painted structures housing monasteries, temples and administrative offices.  We watched the locals gather dressed in all their finery enjoying family time during the annual mask dance festival in honor of Guru Rinpoche Padmasambhava.

Our next stop was at a vegetarian restaurant to fuel us for the one hour drive through the winding road to Thimpu.  The scenery was a feast to the eyes with the magnificent Himalayas as the backdrop for farms, traditional village houses, Buddhist monasteries, and Bhutanese people garbed in their colourful traditional clothing. 

Day two started early with a trip to one of the largest Buddha statues in the world at 169 feet tall on top of a hill overlooking Thimpu valley.  We then went to a meditation and pranic healing center followed by one of the highlights of our trip - a private audience and lunch with the Queen Mother and her Princess daughter. The Queen Mother is passionate about their youth, empowering women, social and environmental welfare, health and spirituality. The Bhutanese cuisine is delicious and spicy with sumptuous use of chilies.

Day three was spent exploring Thimpu: a visit to a nunnery; circumnavigating a temple many times while quietly chanting the Om Mani Padme Hum mantra; watching traditional darts and archery competition out in the open field; hanging out at our guide’s home and meeting his family;  and an evening walk inside the Tashichho Dzong, one of the most impressive fortresses in Bhutan which houses the office of his Majesty, the King.

On day four, we headed to the direction of Punakha, the former capital of Bhutan.  We visited important monuments, temples and a nunnery.  We also spent time at a fertility temple, Chimi Lhaklang Monastery, visited by thousands of pilgrims, some of which are childless couples from all over Bhutan and from foreign countries who seek blessings for pregnancy.  The temple was established by Lama Drukpa Kuenly, the “Mad Saint” or the “Divine Madman” whose way of teaching Buddhism was eccentric and shocking with strong sexual overtones.  The surrounding village homes and stores had phallus wood carvings and paintings to drive away the evil eye.  We entered the temple where a monk was showing pictures of couples from foreign countries who could not get pregnant until after getting blessings at the temple.  We watched and listened to Buddhist monks chanting, playing drums and long trumpets.  On our way out, we spotted a woman saying her prayers, walking around the temple holding a big wooden phallus.  It was a shocking sight at first but to the Bhutanese, it is part of their faith and a sacred spiritual act.

The highlight of our day was a visit to the Punakha Dzong which is located in an island in between two rivers.  It is a beautiful and imposing structure which houses temples and a monastery inside.  We walked around the big compound, met young monks, walked quietly inside a temple with big Buddha statues while quietly listening to the powerful chanting of monks seated on the floor.  We also took time to observe how monks went on with their life outside the monastery after performing their rituals as they interacted with local shop owners and residents of the surrounding village.

Our fifth day was spent around Thimpu exploring another dzong, looking at local handicrafts, and watching an archery competition.  The Queen Mother generously invited us for an evening meal at her residence.  My children and I happily obliged.  She shared her thoughts and concerns about the youth and the women of her country and on some of the challenges they are facing.  Meanwhile, my children were very delighted playing basketball and football with Her Majesty’s grandchildren.

We started early on the sixth day for Taktshang Monastery.  The air was crisp, the early morning sun was lighting the Himalayan snow-capped peaks and the river below us reflecting the clear, blue sky as we drove back to Paro.  The hike from the mountain base to the monastery was a steep and arduous three-hour climb.  My children were happy riding on mules while the guide and myself climbed on foot.  The path could be treacherous were it not for the railings on the side of the trail.  Legend has it that Guru Padmasambhava, the patron spiritual teacher of Bhutan spent time meditating in a cave  (“the tiger’s nest”)  at about 10,240 feet above sea level up on a cliffside where a complex of temples is now built.  It is the most popular pilgrimage and tourist destination in all of Bhutan.  The view on top was exhilarating.  We had a fantastic quiet time meditating inside one of the temple caves.

It began to rain as we reached the base of the mountain on our return.  We drove back to Paro and checked in to our hotel where we spent the rest of the evening recovering from the hike.  We enjoyed a walk around Paro at night, exploring shops after dinner and reflecting on the beautiful and surreal few days we’ve spent in Bhutan.  There were talks of visiting again and exploring other parts of this pristine country.

Memories of Bhutan linger – the beautiful countryside; its kind, gentle, polite and hospitable people; its magnificent dzongs and colorful temples; and the Himalayan peaks.  I have often wondered how Bhutan is being impacted by globalization, how the mind of its people, their way of life and culture are being slowly altered by influences from other countries through the internet, tv and movies.  Formerly isolated, Bhutan is now an experiment of a country slowly integrating itself to the rest of the world while maintaining its rich heritage and unique identity.

It was a reluctant goodbye as we flew out of Paro.  My children and I talked about our trip for the next few days.  They kept asking me as to when we are going back to visit again.

Special thanks to Shakun Goyal; to Her Majesty Queen Mother Ashi Tshering Pem Wangchuk (who made the trip possible); to Dasho Palden; to Capt. Sonam; and to my sons, Valmiki and Joshua for the wonderful adventures we shared.

All photos taken on a Leica M-A and 35mm Summilux,  expired Fujifilm Acros 100 black and white film .  All Rights Reserved, Hector S. Ramos, 2018. 

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