Journey to Bhutan
Patrick Morgan Journey to Bhutan April 2007
Bhutan, The Kingdom of Happiness, is a fascinating jewel of a country, tucked into the Himalayan Mountains between India and Tibet (China). Also known as Druk Yul, Land of the Thunder Dragon, it is one of the most isolated countries in the world. Tourism is restricted by the government, and it is often described as the last surviving refuge of traditional Himalayan Buddhist culture
Last year I read an article about the proclamation from the King of Bhutan stating that the purpose of government is to promote the happiness of people. In Bhutan, where the culture is 97% Buddhist, a higher priority is placed on the Gross National Happiness over the Gross National Product. They study and measure the happiness of their people, based on the premise that true development of human society takes place when material and spiritual development occur side by side to complement and reinforce each other. I was fortunate to get the last spot in a tour visiting Bhutan in March and April of this year.
Our journey, sponsored by Far Fung Places in San Francisco, started in Bangkok. A group of eight, including several St. Mary’s College alumni and a Christian Brother, arrived at the only airport in the country, in Paro. We were just in time for the Paro Festival, a four-day event that celebrates Guru Rinpoche, the spiritual father of Bhutan.
A series of sacred dances was performed in colorful costumes and fierce masks to the sounds of clashing symbols, long horns and drums. The local people all dress up in their finest traditional wear.
The next day we hiked up to Tiger’s Nest, a beautiful monastary built into the rocky mountain cliffs. Ponies carried some people up the steep trail. Along the way spring flowers were just beginning to bloom, including rhododendrums and forsythia. I was surprised at how many plants were similar to ones we have in Nevada County.
Next on the schedule was a visit to Thimpu, the capital and largest city in Bhutan. A growing city of 100,000, Thimpu felt like a cross between an Asian and Swiss village in a setting similar to Durango, Colorado. In Thimpu we did a variety of things including a visit to a paper factory where they made parchment out of daphne plant fiber, and a trip to the National Post Office where the famous Bhutanese stamps are sold. Bhutan is famous for its creative and well-designed stamps, most of which are sold to collectors world wide. We went to the local farmers market where a variety of produce, hot chiles, yak and cow cheese, red rice, bricks of tea and heavy Tibetan turquoise was sold. We toured the Museum of Textiles and I was impressed with the quality of the unique textiles, especially the silk on silk fabrics. We also went to the School of Traditional Arts and Crafts to see sculpting, painting, wood carving, music and slate stone work. It was great to see the efforts made to educate the children and to maintain the traditional cultural arts. In the evening we had tea with a Dasho, or knight, one of the highest ranking people in the kingdom. He spoke about Buddhism as it related to the everyday life of the people. I learned that before it was called Buddhism (they did not want to worship the Buddha but to learn from him) it was called Nangpa, which means “inside”. This echoed my own religious training that the Kingdom of God lies within, so I felt that I bridged a gap in my own understanding of what seemed so foreign. Some of the Catholics in our group understood that the statues were not “idols” but symbols of the inner life. They appreciated that the Buddhist enjoyment of ritual was just a variation of the rituals used by Catholics to enhance their devotion.
Our next stop was Punakha. The monk body of Bhutan is in residence here from October through April. Winters are mild and the climate is somewhat dry. The Dzong (fortress) is set on a dramatic spit of land at the confluence of the Mo and Chu (Mother and Father) rivers. We received special permission to visit the interior of the main temple while the monks were chanting. Massive statues of Buddha, Guru Rinpoche and the future Buddha, Maitreya, were inside, surrounded by huge sandalwood pillars decorated with gold-plated etched bands. The painted murals were intricate and fascinating, depicting all stages of Buddha’s life.
On our way to Bumthang, the religious heart of the country, we saw yak herders, white monkeys, golden langors (monkeys) and many birds. There are more than 600 types of birds in Bhutan. White magnolias were blooming at 9,000 feet and pink azaleas were just beginning to blossom. In Bumthang we stayed at a new, deluxe hotel that made me feel like I was at Lake Tahoe. We toured two more famous temples and sampled the local buckwheat cakes and noodles. One day we visited the 17th century palace owned by Ashi Kunzang Choden, a noble woman and one of Bhutan’s most celebrated authors. The palace is also a museum with unique historical artifacts. A traditional way of life is still practiced by the local people. We witnessed this by watching women thresh early harvested wheat. Ms. Choden also had tea with us one evening and spoke to us about the unique cultural rights of women in Bhutan and the historical value of textiles. The next evening, while still in Bumthang our group had tea with a district judge. He spoke about the judicial system and the upcoming changes in Bhutanese government. The King has recently decided to move to a democracy from a constitutional monarchy. We asked why the change, when things seemed to be going so well? The country is clean and peaceful and the people have free medical care and education, but the judge replied that the King said he would rather change to a democracy during a time of peace, unlike most countries that evolve a democracy out of war.
Our remaining stops included a visit to Trongsa, another religious Dzong first built in 1648, set on a hillside in a deep river gorge. Waterfalls spilled out across the gorge and into the river below. Clouds drifted up and down the hillside forests and terraces. We crossed the Pele La pass at close to 11,000 feet and stopped in Gangtey, home of one of the oldest (13th century) monastaries. A restoration project is underway. The rare black-necked cranes stop in this high valley, also known for potato cultivation.
As we neared the end of our journey I reflected that Bhutan was what I expected and more. Religious life permeates the culture. Our hotels ranged from rustic to first class and were always clean. The food was much better than I expected. Our meals were usually served buffet style and always included red and white rice, chiles and cheese (the national dish) and a variety of eggs, tofu, beef, pork and vegetables. The most exotic food we tasted was yak meat, yak cheese, fern fronds cooked in garlic and butter, and butter tea. We were careful to drink bottled water, and no one got sick on our trip. The people were always friendly and courteous, and many of them were anxious to practice their English skills. Because there are four languages in the country, English is the standard language in school, modelled after the Indian education system. I was also impressed with the quality of the arts and handicrafts. The few stores contained high quality paintings, textiles, jewelry and religious artifacts. Many of these were museum quality, although one could still find reasonably priced gifts for friends and family.
Sixty percent of Bhutan’s land is held in National Parks. Architectural standards are in place so that all buildings are either built in the traditional style or modern buildings are adapted to the graceful and noble character. The pure air, diverse wildlife and healthy human population show that it is possible for people to live in balance with our environment. It is not perfect, but it certainly is pleasant — the rest of the world can learn a lot from Bhutan’s example.
Photos from my journey can viewed online at: