Postcard From Bhutan No. 1

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. 

Punahka Valley, Bhutan, as seen from Khamsum Yuelly Namgyal Chorten

 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.

Prayer flags, Bhutan
Singing bridge with prayer flags

Pink cosmos was in bloom everywhere.

House with cosmos in bloom, Bhutan

And pink buckwheat, too. Did you know Buckwheat was pink? Me either.

Buckwheat in bloom, Bhutan
Prayer flags en route to Tiger’s Nest Monastery, Bhutan. Expert archers use compound bows to shoot the flags across wide mountain gorges.

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.

Bhutanese man in 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. 

Bhutanese man in leopard hat

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.

Bhutanese child
Bhutanese child

The Bhutanese laugh easily and have a wonderful sense of humor. Even the wastebaskets are funny.

Wastebaskets in Bhutan

 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.

Our snazzy, slipcovered wheels in Bhutan

Like everywhere, one must share the road in Bhutan.

Cows on swinging bridge, Bhutan

The only creature outnumbering  cows in Bhutan is dogs. Note humongous Buddha in background. (This was a GOOD road, btw.)

Sharing the road with the cows in Bhutan

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.

Giant Golden Buddha, Bhutan

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.

Bhutan roads are not the best.

But the payoff is arriving somewhere like the Gangtey Valley, and all those bumps in the road are just that.

The Gangtey Valley, Bhutan

And if you’re lucky, you get one of these.

Bathtub at Gangtey Goenpa Lodge.

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.”

Gangtey Goempa Monastery
Young monks at the Temple of the Divine Madman

So many beautiful temples and monasteries, also called dzongs. The reddish stripe around a building signifies it is a holy place.

The Punakha Dzong, Bhutan

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…

Lookout point en route to Tiger’s Nest, Bhutan

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.

Tiger’s Nest Monastery, Bhutan

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

Happy Hikers Leslie Johnson and moi in Bhutan.                                      Photo, Melissa Biggs Bradley

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)


  1. WOW Frances! Spectacular – and looks like you had great weather. Good job at The Woman’s Club here in RVA on Monday – look forward to your new book!

  2. An Amazing adventure! Such a beautiful country. Let me know if you are ever interested in hunting for Rubies in Burma. The British Built the road from Mandalay to the ruby mines in Mogok so the ride is not bad:)

  3. WOW! What a great trip! How about the Ruby Road to Mogok?? I’ll bet a few of your readers would love to get together to go! Remember what Roberto Coin said about rubies……. πŸ™‚ Thank you for sharing these rarely seen pictures of an off- the-path
    place. Best wishes as always, Patti

  4. Wow. Love those prayer flags, beautiful photos, Ms. Frances! The monastery, just boggles the mind, I repeat, wow. And don’t you two look chic in the last photograph!

      1. I definitely agree with you deb. It casts a much needed light on the issue of self love, acnatpecce, and raises question on the definition of “beauty” “Healthy is beautiful” I hope that catches on…

  5. Did a very similar trip in Leh and Ladakh provinces in northern India about 16 years ago. Nothing has changed. The roads were horrendous, the children darling and the Buddhist monks were fun and very friendly. The scenery was gobsmacking

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *