Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Surpassing Expectations- Why Bhutan Shouldn't Be Missed

The only thing I knew about Bhutan prior to going there is that it had within its borders the very famous Taktsang Monastery, better known as Tiger's Nest. Very few people go to Bhutan, on account of the fact that it is rather hard to get to (it's a small country in the eastern Himalaya) and that going there as a foreigner is very restricted and compared to neighboring countries quite expensive. Last year only 27,000 dollar or euro spending tourists arrived in Bhutan, compare that to Nepal which is also a small Himalayan country that received over half a million tourists and you begin to understand how few people visit this nation. This small nation stands apart from its neighbors from its unique form of Buddhism to the fact that they measure development in terms of GNH (gross national happiness) as opposed to the normal GNP (gross national product). It is also a very small country in population having just over half a million people, a very small number when you consider both its neighbors count billions and even Nepal has around twenty million. These peculiarities and its inaccessibility to most of the outside world have led many people to declare Bhutan as the last Shangri La.

Bhutan is a little different from everywhere else.

Our four day travel through the country started with a flight out of Kathmandu that brought us just south of Mt. Everest and as the sky was very clear we got a great view of it and the other Himalayan ranges. The landing in Paro was one of the most bizarre airport landings I have ever experienced, and keep in mind that I've been on many flights in many out of the way places. The decent sized plane we were in flew low into the Parro valley and navigated between the large mountains on either side of us. It was kind of like flying into Lukla, but in a much larger plane. Thankfully the airport itself was much less exciting to land at than Lukla and after landing we quickly collected our bags, made it through immigration and customs and met up with our guide and driver.

Hotel Lobby in Parro

Now after traveling to Tibet I had no idea what the accommodation would be like, even though we had forked over a decent amount of cash for each day, I wasn't sure how much of it was a government tax, how much went to the guide and driver and what the remainder would get us for a place to stay. As we pulled up to our first hotel just outside of the Paro airport I was very pleasantly surprised at what we were given. This would hold up through the trip, and all the places we stayed at were quite nice, the food was very good, and prices were for additional drinks (food and lodging were included) were very reasonable.

Tiger's Nest

As the flight to Paro only took an hour from Kathmandu we still had half the day to sight see, and our guide brought us to see Tiger's Nest. Situated at the north end of the Paro valley, the drive to the base of the cliff that the monastery sits on only took about half an hour. From there we had to walk up the trail that wound around the ridge and eventually up onto the cliff that sat just under 3000 feet above the valley floor. I'm cautious of getting too excited about places that photograph well, because often the photograph is better than the reality, and what makes a good photo doesn't always translate into a good first hand experience. Tiger's Nest delivers though, and I felt that it was even more incredible in real life than the photos convey. The cliff it sits on is hard to really capture, and the drop is massive. Nearby is a waterfall that runs down the small cleft in the cliff just as you round the corner and ascend to the monastery proper. Best of all it is a functioning monastery whose building are built onto the cliff and make use of the terrain in how the buildings interact with each other. I really enjoyed walking around these structures. Due to strict prohibitions on the use of cameras I was unable to get any shots within the monastery or at the national museum that we would go to the next morning.

Drugyal Dzong

The next morning we visited the first of what would be many Dzongs, or forts, almost all built at the confluence of two rivers in order to control access to the valleys and to act as a bulwark against invasions from Tibet. Drugyal Dzong however had burned down in the not too distant past, though it was still interesting to walk around. after this we went to the National Museum which had once been a lookout tower for the Paro valley and then to the Rinpung Dzong which currently acts as the government administration head for the region. After this and a quick lunch we headed onto the road toward the town of Punakha crossing over the Dochu La pass which sits just under 10,000 feet.

Ta Dzong- Now the National Museum

Once settled into our hotel and having eaten dinner we headed into town to check out what the local night life was like in Bhutan. The bar we attended was playing a mix of south Asian music, had bad green and red laser lighting, a computer with a karaoke set up and a stage where someone could sing or dance. Despite the abundant penis imagery found through out the country (I'll get to that in a minute), the people of Bhutan seem very conservative in their attitudes toward at least public displays of sexuality. The woman preforming at this bar were almost completely covered and the dancing was anything but provocative, yet the males in the crowd hooted and hollered like they were about to throw their tops off. At one point some Indian men got on stage and started their best versions of Bollywood style dancing- much of it directed to the lady on stage, who seemed quite mortified by the whole experience and got off the stage about as fast as she could as soon as the music stopped. This did not stop these men from doing this at least two or three more times while we were there and the whole spectacle bordered on the surreal.

This massive Thanka is only displayed during this festival once each year.

The next day we attended a large festival at the Punakha Dzong which is the one time during the year that they display a massive thanka that is the size of the central tower along with ritual dancing, blessings and some clown like guys who wear large masks, blown up condoms on their head and proceed to pass out condoms to everyone in the crowd. First though we attended a local store where the members of our group could buy local clothing for the event. This was interesting to watch and attracted some attention of passing curious locals. Once those who wanted to purchase local clothes were all dressed up we headed over to the festival proper, where everyone in the region was attending dressed in their Sunday best.

Hinesh and Donnie get all dressed up in local garb.

The spiritual leader of Bhutan was in attendance, as was several ministers and local VIPs. An mix of village folk, city folk, monks and foreigners filled the crowd and all surrounded the main courtyard to get a look at the main attraction which was the several dance performances through the day. Occasionally you'd see the clown guys dancing around a wooden penis, or harassing some cute girls by dancing near them or trying to give them condoms...this was good for a laugh. The more ritualistic dances were tightly choreographed and included a range of very elaborate outfits all with symbolic meanings that play some role in a Buddhist lesson. In fact many Bhutanese believe that to watch the dances in their entirety confers a blessing upon those in the crowd. The celebration also included some historical reenactments including blessings from the king that unified Bhutan and held off waves of Tibetan invaders.
Dancers at the Punakha Festival

Before it got dark we headed over to see the fertility temple of Chimi Lhakhang, one that sits on a hill shaped like a woman's breast. This is also a good time to bring up all the phallic images that are all over this country. There is a popular Buddhist saint known as Lama Drukpa Kuenley, or the Divine Madman. From what we were this guy was an enlightened Buddhist monk who traveled to Bhutan from Tibet and went about teaching Buddhism in a very unconventional way- and he is said to have been a fan of drinking and the ladies. In many stories he seems to subdue evil spirits with his manhood. This guy seems very popular in Bhutan, and as such many people paint penises on their houses, not only as signs of fertility and growth, but also to ward off the evil spirits. What a pick up line this guy got to use- promising enlightenment to woman through his pecker...I love it. Anyway here is a poem he is credited with having written;

A hill shaped like a woman's breast- Temple of the Divine Madman

I am happy that I am a free Yogi.
So I grow more and more into my inner happiness.
I can have sex with many women,
because I help them to go the path of enlightenment.

Outwardly I'm a fool
and inwardly I live with a clear spiritual system.
Outwardly, I enjoy wine, women and song.
And inwardly I work for the benefit of all beings.

Outwardly, I live for my pleasure
and inwardly I do everything in the right moment.
Outwardly I am a ragged beggar
and inwardly a blissful Buddha.

Penises everywhere- and no the sign isn't advertising the type of bar!

Once we arrived at the temple there were quite a few roosters and cats....coincidence? I'm not sure. Anyway inside we listened to the chanting of a monk and took a look at the shrine which was surprisingly devoid of a massive amount of phallic imagery, as I counted only three. After sitting for a bit a monk came around to bless us with a bamboo phallus supposedly from Drukpa Kuenley himself. I held my hand up to declare I really didn't want to be any more fertile, but the monk ignored my protest and a wooden dildo landed on my head. Oh well.

Big Buddha- Above Thimphu

The next day we visited the old Dzong at Wangdue and took a quick look around the local market, and after this headed back up over the pass and on to the capital city of Thimphu. Here we stopped into a few craft shops, but many of the crafts, outside of the woven items looked conspicuously like things that are manufactured for tourists here in Nepal. We also got a chance to visit a large 160' tall Buddha statue that is being built just on a hill over the town, which was impressive I thought. We also briefly visited a nunnery and the Dzong where the King and the administrative staff of the city meet and work. All good stuff.

South Koreans, shots of local alcohol and dancing make for good entertainment.

Our last night we spent in another very nice hotel and were treated to some cultural dancing, though the dancing of the South Korean delegation that the dance was in honor of after they had thrown back more than a few shots may have been the highlight of the show. The next morning came very early as we had to drive about an hour to Paro Airport for our 7:50AM flight (which we had to be two hours early for). Arriving back in Kathmandu we returned to the normal silliness that marks travel here with one single immigration desk open for a flight of over 160 people. Tourism year in full swing.

Visit Bhutan! I mean who doesn't want to hang out with this guy?

Bhutan was an awesome destination, and though the price tag is a bit high for the region, it possesses all the best things places like Nepal has to offer without many of the drawbacks. In many ways it was like visiting the villages up in the Tamang and Sherpa regions of Nepal (my favorite) without having to walk for days to get there, and having nice paved roads connecting you to many destinations. The air was clean, the streets were much cleaner than most of south Asia, the accommodation was very nice for the price, the food I thought was very good, the people were always very pleasant to deal with, and the culture was fairly authentic without too much of it being fabricated just for tourists. Above all the sites didn't let us down, and everything in my opinion, lived up to the hype. Great trip, and thanks to Donnie, Kym, and Hinesh for being great companions along for the ride!

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