Turns out there is much to love about a country that measures its Gross National Happiness. The Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan, land of the thunder dragon, is between Tibetan China and India, in the Himalayas east of Nepal. It is the size of Switzerland and mostly mountains and woods, hence its legendary natural beauty.
On an Indagare Insider trip there earlier this month, we hiked to gorgeous river valleys, meandered through rice paddies, scrambled up rocky mountain paths, passed humble farmhouses, and visited magnificent temples.
Pink cosmos was in bloom everywhere.
And pink buckwheat, too. Did you know Buckwheat was pink? Me either.
We never knew whom we might meet. Everyone, by national decree, dresses in native dress. For the men, it is a robe-like garment called a gho.
Fortunately the dress decree leaves room for interpretation, as the addition of this leopard hat attests. It is faux leopard, of course, him being Buddhist and all.
We also were privileged to meet with a member of parliament discussing the challenges of his country’s nascent democracy; a doctor of Tibetan medicine talking about the integration of ancient practices with modern science; and the head lama of the storied Tiger’s Nest monastery, who received us in the same room reserved for the royal family. I had not thought that much yellow satin in one room was possible.
The children were precious.
The Bhutanese laugh easily and have a wonderful sense of humor. Even the wastebaskets are funny.
Some days we traveled by car. Was a snazzy ride, all right, complete with slipcovers and needlepoint neck pillows. In retrospect I believe this decorative interior was meant to distract us from the dreadful roads. Which it did not.
Like everywhere, one must share the road in Bhutan.
The only creature outnumbering cows in Bhutan is dogs. Note humongous Buddha in background. (This was a GOOD road, btw.)
The Buddha is one of tallest in the world, at 170 feet. Isn’t the face beautiful? Overlooking Thimpu, he radiates auspicious energy throughout the country and the world. I will remember that the next time I am stuck in traffic on the L.I.E.
There is a reason there were cows on the road above and not on the one below. Cows have more sense than to be on roads like this.
But the payoff is arriving somewhere like the Gangtey Valley, and all those bumps in the road are just that.
And if you’re lucky, you get one of these.
Some of us trekked to the Gangtey Goempa monastery at dawn to hear morning prayers and to be blessed by a 12-year-old monk who is the 36th reincarnation of a revered lama and spiritual master. When we spoke with him, he was shy and somewhat self-conscious, like any 12-year-old might be, bless his heart. His is a huge responsibility and a role that chose him and not the other way around. Asked about the biggest challenge of being a monk, he answered, in so many words, “the homework.”
So many beautiful temples and monasteries, also called dzongs. The reddish stripe around a building signifies it is a holy place.
The high point of our trip, literally and figuratively, was reaching the Taktsang Palphug, or Tiger’s Nest, monastery built in 1692 on the side of a cliff. The 8th century guru who brought Buddhism to Bhutan from Tibet reportedly flew here on the back of a tiger, whereupon he meditated in a cave for three years, three months, three weeks, three days, and three hours.
That is about how long it takes to hike there, absent flying tigers. Here is the lookout point. The tiny white speck in the distance, in about the middle of the photo, is the monastery. A ways to go yet…
The arrival is worth it. You cannot come upon this site without being moved by it and all it represents, from the sheer physical feat of constructing it to the profound spiritual devotion required to sustain it.
Because too many tourists ignored requests to avoid photographing temple interiors, cameras are not allowed inside the monastery, period, which in a way allows us to experience the place more fully, without the distraction of a camera or the competition of the next great Instagram post… (guilty…) Wrote our leader, friend, and Indagare founder Melissa Biggs Bradley, “It was a reminder to me that how we travel–responsibly and respectfully or irresponsibly and selfishly–has an impact on the whole community of travelers.” Read Melissa’s excellent account of our trip in Indagare Magazine here.
Coming up: More art and beauty from Bhutan, and an explanation of all those, ahem, phalluses painted everywhere. Blame it on the Divine Madman, they say. Meanwhile, more photos on my Instagram here, #bhutan (duh)