Six Days In Happy Land

We are now in Nepal; quirky Internet connectivity made it difficult to do justice to beautiful Bhutan, so this post will be a quick collection of photos and memories of Happy Land.

THIMPHU

A few years ago, Rio’s Christ the Redeemer was chosen as one of the seven new wonders of the world.  Thimphu’s gigantic Buddha didn’t exist at that time.  If it had, I’m convinced Buddha would be giving Rio’s statue some serious competition.

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Buddha sits atop a mountain overlooking Thimphu

The base of the statue contains a temple, filled with hundreds of thousands of smaller Buddhas, butter lamps and butter sculptures. Yes, you read that right–sculptures are made of colored butter!

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Just the artwork on the base would get MY vote

Dedicated to teaching Bhutanese arts and crafts, this school focuses on 18 traditional crafts including painting, woodcarving, metal work and embroidery.

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Whenever I visit a country, particularly one whose economy is dependent on the tourist trade, I like to drop some dollars by buying gifts, so a stop in the school’s small shop was a definite requirement.

Handmade paper is another traditional Bhutanese craft.  We watched the entire process: the raw materials being delivered, heated, compressed, made into sheets and dried.

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Notice how hard these young women are working?  They were all smiling as they were lifting those heavy bundles!  And yes, I most certainly did make a purchase at their tiny gift shop.

The modern world is rapidly creeping into Bhutan.  Construction is everywhere.  But it isn’t just new buildings and new technology.  Since the introduction of television in 1999, the western world has slowly been influencing Bhutan’s youth.

Thimphu’s clock tower plaza, right beside our hotel was the site of what looked like an  auto exhibit, but it was a whole lot more.image

Young Bhutanese shed their traditional clothes, donning jeans and tee shirts to dance to Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face”.   Unfortunately, my camera’s software is incompatible with my iPad, so you won’t be able to see the beautiful young girls I videoed dancing, but with any luck, I’ll be able to link a YouTube video of the boys doing their hip hop routine when I get back home.
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You may be wondering what kind of audience the entertainment drew. Well, wonder no more, because when my personal paparazzi used his long lens to capture me unawares, he also photographed the crowd.

A bit sparse, no?

PUNAKHA

Much of the road between Thimphu and Punakha is under construction, making travel slooooow and very dusty.  We stopped at the Dochula Pass on the way to and from Punakha.

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108 Stupas of the Dochula Pass

The Dochula Pass memorial honors the 15 Bhutanese that were killed fighting the Indian separatists from Assam.  The separatists were creeping across the Bhutanese border, creating training camps.  The fourth king actually led his troops into battle and was victorious.  No wonder he is so beloved!

The pass is 10,000 feet above sea level, so Tashi thought it would be good practice for the Tiger’s Nest if we took a hike in the Royal Botanical Park that adjoins the memorial.

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The rhododendron were in bloom–they weren’t bushes, they were trees.

The jacaranda were also in bloom, outside the Palace of Great Happiness.

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Notice the covered wooden bridge in the distance.

This is the entrance to the Palace’s temple.  Inside Tashi gave us a fantastic lecture about Buddhism, using the artwork that covered the temple walls as an ancient Power Point Presentation.image

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I was so glad to see these monks, enjoying themselves by the river bank outside the Palace of Great Happiness.

We also visited a nunnery located atop a mountain, where I purchased some bracelets from this sweet 21 year old nun, who spoke perfect English.

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Marilynn from San Francisco on the right, bracelets on the window sill on the left.

No visit to Punakha would be complete without a stop at the Chhimi Lhakhang Monastery.  To get there you need to hike through rice fields, a village and up a hill.

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The shingles on roofs are held down with stones instead of nails.
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These sweet villagers were happy to pose for me
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Christmas presents for everyone!

imageThis monastery was founded by Drupka Kinley, the Divine Madman, whose “Thunderbolt of Wisdom”, also known as his “Flaming Thunderbolt” , brought his own special form of enlightenment to local women.  Infertile couples visit the monastery where the woman is doinked on the head with a huge wooden “thunderbolt”.  Could that be the Bhutanese version of IVF?

The Divine Madman is the inspiration behind the artwork that festoons the area’s houses.

Although not part of the “official” itinerary, our wonderful guide thought we might enjoy a visit to the 17th century village of Rinchen Gong.  These villagers are definitely not used to having visitors!  Our arrival was quite an occasion, especially for the children, who chased our van up the steep dirt road.

Like me, Jim enjoys photographing the locals
Like me, Jim enjoys photographing the locals
These boys loved seeing their pictures
These boys loved seeing their pictures
Shy at first, they warmed up when they saw the shots.
Shy at first, they warmed up when they saw the shots.

Our last stop was in Paro, where we climbed to the Tiger’s Nest and visited Bhutan’s  very first temple.  It was built in the 7th century by Tibet’s great ruler, Songtsen Gampo, and it is where he pinned the left foot of an ogress who once covered all of Bhutan and part of Tibet.

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Jim, spinning the prayer wheel outside the sacred Kyichu Lakhang

 

 

The Cast of Characters

The Cast of Characters
For those of you who expressed concern about my traveling alone, after Mike and Greg had to cancel, have no fear. I now have five new friends. Here we are at the National Memorial Chorten, which was built to honor Bhutan’s third King, Jigme Dorji Wangchuk .

first row: Jim, Peter, Marilyn, Marie. Back row, Dick, me

Jim is a former hotel and restaurant owner from the greater San Diego area. His family used to own Marty’s restaurant and hotel, an establishment frequented by yestereyear’s stars, such as Lucy and Desi, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin.

Peter and Marie are from the greater Boston area. They retired from the financial industry, and have been traveling the world ever since. Prior to arriving in Delhi, they had taken another OAT tour through the Balkans, then spent a few days in Dubai. Jim, Peter and Marie will be heading home after Nepal.

Marilyn, a retired nurse from San Francisco, is like the little energizer bunny. She walks faster than I do!

Dick, from Seattle, retired from Boeing. He’s the most widely traveled of our group, having been on 27 OAT trips, plus tours with numerous other companies. Marilyn, Dick and I are the only members of the group that will be visiting all three countries. In Nepal, we will be joined by three new travelers.

Although not actually traveling with us, we see the royals EVERYWHERE.  Photos of them are on hotel and restaurant walls, on the sides of buildings, in museums and temples.   This official portrait is of the fourth King, known as the “Royal Fourth” with his four wives ( all sisters), the ten children they produced, (including the “Royal Fifth”) and the first grandchild. Since that photo was taken, the Royal Fifth has married.  He and his stunningly beautiful wife have produced an heir,  the Royal Sixth.

Tashi has identified which member of the royal family is in the motorcade when they go whizzing by.  So far, we have seen one of the four queens, and a royal uncle.

This photo of Tashi was taken at the Memorial Chorten.  He’s  instructing us on the proper way to circumambulate a prayer wheel.  Walking in a clockwise direction, you give each wheel a good spin as you pass by.  If we had been carrying rosaries, we would be using them to keep track of our prayers while we walked.

Tashi

As with all mountain roads, Bhutan’s have their fair share of hairpin turns.  What they don’t  have are guard rails.  This tour is NOT for the faint of heart or the queasy stomached.  We have come so close to passing vehicles, we could have flossed the other driver’s teeth.  What a relief to have an excellent driver like Gembo getting us to the top of the mountain and back down again.

Gembo, our very skillful driver

An unexpected delight was the owner of our hotel in Thimphu.  Her story deserves an entire post, but that will have to wait till I get home, or until YOU stay at the Thimphu Tower.

Jim and Tshering, the owner of Thimphu Tower

 

Druk Yul, Land of the Thunder Dragon

Bhutan’s airport looks like it was designed by Walt Disney.  The buildings are covered with carvings of dragons (Druk means dragon in Bhutanese) and the windows are highly decorative.  It is the country’s sole airport, because Paro is the only area flat enough to accommodate a runway.  It’s a very SHORT runway, but a runway nonetheless.


The mountains that surround the runway make landing quite exciting.  So exciting, that only 8 pilots are skilled enough to fly into and out of Paro.  Fortunately one of those 8 was flying our plane today.

The airport is on the left. Take a look at those mountains

Tashi, our guide, and Gembo, our driver were waiting for us outside the terminal, ready to get this party started. First stop, Paro’s dzong. Every city/community had its own dzong. Back in the day when the Tibetans’ favorite leisure activity was invading their neighbors, the dzongs were fortresses. Today they have been repurposed into administrative and religious buildings.  

the demon of the west
The dzong courtyard
Young monks

Anyone thinking about visiting Bhutan should take a close look at those stairs.  They are steep, uneven, and lacking handrails.  And they are everywhere!
 

good thing i spent time at the Y before this trip!

After touring the dzong and the national museum, we stopped for lunch at a typical farmhouse.   In a “typical farmhouse” the ground floor is where the cows sleep.  They are protected from predators, yes, but this arrangement is multipurpose.  They also act as the home’s furnace, generating heat (among other things) for the floors above.  The second floor is used for storage, mainly food.  The room we viewed was loaded with drying rice.  The top floor contains the bedrooms, the kitchen/gathering spot and the altar.  

check put the floor boards!

Our hostess served us a delicious meal, complete with butter tea, into which you tossed grains of toasted rice. Okay, so maybe that last part wasn’t so delicious–at least not to me–but the fresh spring asparagus was particularly wonderful.

Benches were provided for thise that didn’t want to sit on the floor
 

Our hotel, the Thimpu Tower, is smack dab in the center of town, right by the historic clock tower.  It was very easy to stroll through the capital city and check out  their version of a traffic light.  

Bhutanese traffic light
the rotary
 

By the way, that’s the ONLY “traffic light” in Thimphu.  Like Massachusetts and New Jersey, they DO have “rotaries”, but their traffic circles are a bit more decorative.  

My lovely room overlooks the “clock tower plaza” and from my window, you can see the largest Buddha (in that particular contemplation pose) in the world.  Tashi tells us its construction is being completely funded by Asian Buddhists from Singapore, Thailand, China and Indonesia.  A much more up close and personal view will follow.  


There is construction everywhere in Thimphu. I needed to watch my step at all times to avoid the uneven pavement and the frequent holes in the sidewalks.  (I sure was missing Mike, who normally does all the watching for me, making sure I don’t trip over my own feet or fall into one of those holes!)

i wouldnt want to depend on THAT scaffolding

The kids roam freely in the land of gross national happiness.  These two were moving so quickly, I couldn’t get a good shot, but you’ll get the idea.  What better toy than a box and paper bag?  They were having a blast!