I have always wanted to visit Bhutan, for its secretiveness – the country didn’t open its door to the world until the late 1960s, until now operations of tourism are still on a tight leash; for its deep religious roots– the Kingdom is built on Buddhism beliefs and values; for its uniqueness – Bhutan is the only government in the world measures its growth by GNH (Gross National Happiness) rather than commonly practiced GDP.
According to a survey conducted by Business Week in 2006, Bhutan is rated the happiest country in Asia and the 8th happiest in the world.
Really? I wondered.
For years it was on my list of destinations, but the compulsory minimum spending of USD250 per day per head had put me off for a while. However when my travel plans of Iran and Sri Lanka fell apart, Bhutan came to rescue.
I boarded the plane half asleep, getting up at 3am to catch the flight tired me out before the journey even started. The lady at the Druk Air counter kindly gave me a window seat on the left side, “so you can see the mountains”, she said.
I was awaken by the captain’s announcement half hour before descending, I looked out of the window – there I saw the mountains – the Himalayas – in distance Mt. Everest covered in snow, austere yet elegant. The elderly lady sat next to me uttered – “Spectacular…”
30 minutes later, we landed at Paro airport, with only one runway I reckon it’s probably the smallest international airport in the world. What’s more, the cars passing by the airport have to stop during aircraft landing – sorry I digressed.
It was 8 degrees when I stepped outside the airplane, the change of temperature was drastic compare with Delhi, the chill in the air woke me up right away, and it was refreshing.
I was amazed by the colors – blue sky, green mountains, peach trees blossom in pink, and multi colored prayer flags… every color was of its maximum saturation, so rich, so bright.
Nice – I thought. The next I realized my blackberry didn’t work here – maybe not so nice, I thought again.
My journey started from Thimphu, the capital city since 1961, where one seventh Bhutan’s population lives, a city dotted with many hotels, restaurants, handicraft shops, and ongoing constructions.
The itinerary for Thimphu was packed – from the palace to several museums, from religious sites to institutions of heritages and cultures, from paper factory to takin reserve… Despite the fatigue I caught in the last two weeks, I whirled around Thimphu as a greedy tourist, in and out Dzongs and galleries, snapped photos from every possible angle… I wanted to take everything in; I wanted to make sure my hard earned money spent worthwhile (mind you I had to pay an extra of USD40 a day as a single traveler) …
Same as its counterparts in other Buddhism countries, Thimphu is facing challenges brought by foreign pop cultures and imported consumer commodities, while striving to remain the values it has inherited for thousands of years. Just like the way the people dressed in Thimphu – girls wear half Kiras while boys don adidas t-shirts underneath their Ghos – it’s mixed and match, a balance between the old and the new, a struggle of preserving traditions while accepting necessary changes of development.
The following day I was taken to Changankha Ihakhang the national meditation centre located on the outskirts of Thimphu. Kungzang the driver pointed out a cluster of white Dzong style buildings up on the cliff when we were approaching – that’s our destination. Across a bridge we entered in Jigme Dorji National Park, welcomed by a Tibetan style stupa on the left and a huge Buddhism painting on rock on the right. Changankha Ihakhang is the oldest temple in Thimphu, situated on a ridge overlooking the city, was constructed in 12th century. The trial took about two pleasant hours in return. I probably clicked another hundreds of photographs along the way, but none could do enough justice to the ancient beauty.
My second destination was Punakha, the city served as the country’s capital for 30 years before handing over power to Thimphu. Mani the tour guide asked if I would like to see a festival celebration in a village 40km outside Punakha, his youngest brother studies in the monastery there.
We set off in the crack of dawn hoping to reach Tola by mid morning, the Hyundai Tucson meandered along Dochula Pass, and I was delighted to know the day was also the National Day of Happiness in Bhutan. I was in the Kingdom of Happiness on the Day of Happiness; you can’t get a more auspicious sign than that!
Unfortunately the day wasn’t clear enough so I didn’t get to see the Himalaya Range from the highest point of the pass at altitude of 3,150m, nevertheless the 108 chortens at the peak was a sight so special that I’d never forget.
The drive from Thimphu to Punakha was not for faint hearted, heavily decorated TATA trucks bullied their way through, showed no sign of slowing down for the oncoming traffic, and only missed each other by fraction of a second. For those usually suffer from car sickness, please take extra measures for the journey, a turn would be expected every three hundred meters, and most of them are sharp ones…
We reached the village at around ten thirty, again the first thing I saw was a sea of colors – people in their finest clothes, prayer flags flying high, and the bright yellow tapestries surrounding the temple. Dancers in colorful costumes and animal shaped masks were getting ready for the performance.
Before the dance I went for tea with Mani and his monk brother, the boy is in his late teen, to my surprises the pin-ups in the young monks dorm were not only the images of religious leaders, but also football jerseys and pictures of pop stars. Mani’s brother supports Barcelona while his friend follows Manchester City. I spotted a water ladler painted in red and with a smiley face on the back, seeing me took a great interest in it, the young monk squeezed a shy smile, he made it. A butterfly made of matches hanging on the wall – he made that too. Whilst admiring his work I noticed a small picture of Kareena Kapoor, the Bollywood sensation, “you like her?” I asked. The young monk blushed – “yes”.
The ritual dance was long, I tried to make out the animal each mask represented, and there were a pig, a bird, a dog, a monkey, a stag, and few others. A couple of days later in the Bhutan National Museum I learnt that each animal mask symbolizes a human feeling and emotion – arrogance, hatred, laziness, shrewdness, haughtiness, humiliations… and there’s an Atsara who rises above all emotions at every scene. As per the narration in the Museum, one’s mind can be purified by watching the mask dance.
After lunch we departed for the Punakha Dzong, the second largest and also the second oldest fortress in the country, built in 1638. Although I had already visited grand Tashichho Dzong in Thimphu, the architectural exquisiteness and solemnity of Buddhism ritual still caught my eyes and heart instantly. The hidden doors and narrow corridors on the exterior walls were ingenious designs of Shapdrunwho the Unifier of the Kingdom to defeat the invading Tibetan army. The elaborated paintings on the wall and ceiling tell Buddhism stories in a vivid manner. The most precious relic in the country (a figuring of Buddha made of Buddha’s backbone after cremation) is kept here. It was in display until few years ago someone tried to steal it.
The statue of Buddha in Punakha Dzong is 600 years old, has survived three severe floods and is still intact; it is believed any wish made in front of the statue will be fulfilled. When I learnt this piece of information, somehow my mind went blank, I couldn’t think of anything in particular I really wanted or need… Eventually I stammered – happiness, dear Buddha, please bring me happiness… I know it sounded lame, but to my defense what else can be more appropriate than asking for happiness on the Day of Happiness?!
Outside the main prayer hall a colorful thangka caught my attention – The Wheel of Life, a Buddhism painting that I have seen many times in Bhutan. Mani explained to me that the three animals in the innermost circle represented three fires of life, or otherwise the three poisons. The fact that these are positioned at the very centre of the Wheel of Life indicates how fundamental they are in sustaining the cycle of birth and death with all its attendant suffering. The pig represents delusion, the rooster greed and the snake hatred. How true…
It was also in Punakha that I was struck by a ten-inch ivory phallus on my head as a form of blessing. After a pleasant twenty minutes walk through paddy field, I reached Chimi Lhakang, the sacred temple of fertility deeply connected to the Saint Divine Madman, the temple is visited by parents of sickly children and couples waiting on conceiving all over the country, although neither profile fits me, the blessing was granted before I could even say no thanks… Again Mani told me stories of legendary Saint Drukpa Kinley, aka Saint Divine Madman due to his unorthodox methods of teaching via songs, humor and sometimes bizarre and shocking behavior with deep sexual overtones. In the first couple of days of my travel, I was shocked to see that together with many other auspicious symbols, lots of houses are decorated with paintings of the male reproduction organ. Chimi Lhakang revealed to me that in Bhutan erected penis is said to ward off evil… same as the Linga in Hinduism. Phew… no need to look away anymore!
On the fourth day of the trip I was back to Paro again, paid a visit the oldest temple in the Kingdom built by Chinese Princess Wencheng in Tang Dynasty so as to help her husband, Tibetan King Tsongsten Gambo, to conquer demons and enemies. But the absolute highlight of the trip was going up to Takshang Monastery that hanging magically on a steep cliff at altitude of 3180m. It is probably the most photographed temple in Bhutan, an iconic site of the Kingdom.
If it was not for a group of Tibetan pilgrims arrived at the monastery before the gate opening, I would have become the first tourist reached the Tiger’s Nest of the day… I even made a mental note on the way to include it in my annual appraisal… but since I was the first tourist returned to the starting point, I reckon it still deserve a mention in my appraisal… The hill was steep and the footpath was rough, on my way down I ran into a total stranger, literally. We both laughed and I gave the elderly gentleman a proper hug, I would still be running if it was for him… so why not?
Besides the accommodation and three meals, coming within the package of minimum USD250 per day are a car, a driver and a tour guide who accompany you throughout the trip. It could be a daunting thought that you have to spend most of the trip in a confined environment with someone you don’t really know. I was relieved to meet Mani and Kungzang at the airport; they both were courteous and went out their ways to please. Later I noticed almost all tour guides and drivers process the similar qualities as these two. Their witty conversations left no space for dull moment.
Kentu, the first tour guide in Bhutan has inspired many of those who followed his steps. Mani is obviously a big fan. When travelling in Bhutan you’d see animals wandering casually on the road, most common ones are goats, cows, and dogs. One of Kentu’s stories is about them – once upon a time a dog, a cow and a goat were travelling on bus, the fare was 5 nu, dog paid 10 nu, cow paid 5, and goat didn’t buy the ticket, ever since, whenever there’s a vehicle coming, goat ran away as it thought the bus was coming after it; cow couldn’t be bothered as it paid its due; dog runs after bus because he wants his change back…
Another time when Kentu was accompanying guests on the bridge to the Punakha Dzong, guests saw fish swarming in the river, so they teased Kentu if he knew how many fish were in the river, Kentu replied – “at the moment our country is doing the census of people, once this is done we shall start the census of fish, I shall let you know the answer after that.”
Mani and Kungzang told me sometimes during the peak season they had to stay in “Korea Guest House” or “Japanese Guest House” for hotels would be fully booked, they laughed when I commented the services must be very good for knowing the impeccable hospitalities of these two countries. It turned out the Guest House was the car they travelling with, depends on the maker it could be either Korean or Japanese.
When we had extra time Mani and Kungzang took me to archery ranges to watch friendly competitions between villagers. If cricket is the national sport of India, then archery is definitely the one for Bhutan. Wherever there’s an open space, there is an archery range. Different from the Olympic archery, target is 145m away when play in Bhutanese style. Both ends of the range are circulated with colorful flags, friends sing to encourage each other or trash talk in a fun way to distract the other team.
We went to see darts competition too, unlike the game played in the West, Bhutanese darts are much bigger and heavier while the target is much smaller, and the distance is much further. Same as archery, dart is an outdoor game exclusively for men. Contestant throws darts at the target 50 meters away, his team mates would dance to celebrate a hit and chant encouragement for a miss.
I got on with Mani and Kungzang so well that Mani asked if I’d like to go to a bar in Paro, it’s not in our itinerary. I was curious what the night life scene would be in this Buddhism kingdom. The entertainment centre of Paro is a three-storey building, the bar is on the ground level. It is a room of 150 square meters, with six rows of chairs lined up in classroom setting, facing a stage. When we entered a boy and girl in their early twenties were dancing to the music on stage, it was a modern Bhutanese song, but the steps and moves were clearly Bollywood, only the beats were much slower. There was no band on stage, music was played on a mp3.
Kungzang ordered tea and Mani ordered a bottle of Druk Beer each for himself and me; it was a big bottle – 675ml, and it was strong – 8% of alcohol, although I liked the taste, I could hardly finish a glass, the rest all went to Mani. While we were drinking a girl in Kira came to take request of songs, Mani requested a traditional Bhutanese song for my sake, and each song cost 100NU, about 2 dollars. At the second floor a Hindi Bollywood movie was screening.
The question about happiness occurred to me again; I asked Kungzang and Mani if they were happy. Kungzang replied he’s happy he has a job, and everyone in Bhutan has a job, whether it’s studying religion in monasteries, taking white collar positions in cities, or being a shop assistant or waiting in restaurants, or farming in villages. Everyone has a job, has a way of making a living, and has a way to contribute. During my stay in Bhutan, I didn’t see a single beggar. Everyone works with their own hands, every family is self reliance. You wake up in the morning knowing what needs to be done, and go to bed in the night feeling fulfilled, wouldn’t you be happy?
Like all the good times, my lovely holiday has come to an end, on the opening day of Dzongdrakha Festival I packed up my bags and ready to leave, out there Dzongs and Chortens are packed with worshipers. Oh how much I loved the last few days! Every site I visited has a beautiful story attached to it. Myths and history intertwined with each other. Truths of life are embedded in colorful Thangkas waiting to be discovered.
In the last few days I bowed many times in front of various deities, the bezoars water I drank is enough to keep evils away from me for a long long time. Although I still struggle to pronounce the names of important legendary figures, Koozoo Zangpo (hello) and Ga Deng Che (thank you) had won me many smiles and opened many locked doors. Although I missed Guru Rinpuche’s treasure box up in the Tiger’s Nest, and I haven’t been able to check emails for a week (which had never happened before), I don’t have any anxiety, and I feel happy.
Tomorrow I would be back to a city where lights outshine stars, blackberry works, and skyline keeps growing… Will the happiness fade away as time goes by? The outer circle of the Wheel of Life shows six realms of Samsara, the circle of birth and death. The realm of Human is regarded the best among the six in Buddhism, for it offers opportunities of moral actions and spiritual advancement, it is eventually down to every individual to decide which path one shall follow, what deed one shall do. Ultimately we are the results of our own choices. I am not a Buddhist, but this theory makes sense to me. While the whole world is bustling and advancing, I come to realize that my happiness is decided by me, it is my choice, I could keep my own pace, live by my values, it’s down to my judgment whether a situation is a challenge or an opportunity, a problem or a new experience, eventually they are like fleeting views outside windows, they will pass, they will all pass, I shall enjoy whatever comes along the way, whatever they are, they add spices to my life, they make my life richer.
I am happy with that.
Tashi Telek Bhutan, thank you for showing the place, it’s called – Happiness.
Fast Facts of Bhutan:
Area: 38,394 square km
Political System: Constitutional Monarchy
Religion: Buddhism, Hinduism
Location: surrounded by China, India, and Nepal.