Of all the countries in SE Asia, Bhutan is singularly intriguing. A land-locked mountain kingdom nestled between India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal and China, Bhutan, due to its impenetrable Himalayan topography, has developed for centuries without any significant foreign interference, influence or occupation. Though there were some skirmishes with Britain in the 19th century, with Bhutan losing the Duar war in the mid 1860’s and ceding the Bengal Duars to England, and though there was a brief period in the early part of the 20th century when Bhutan became a protectorate of the British Empire (terminating soon after the end of the Second World War) the country’s current borders and cultural identity have essentially remained unchanged for centuries.
Intensely Buddhist, Bhutan has evolved into a constitutional monarchy, with the current king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck (aka the 6th king), ruling in a mostly symbolic role since his father abdicated in 2006. Buddhist philosophies of reincarnation in order to attain higher status lie at the core of the society, instilling a non-materialistic atmosphere where personal advancement and wealth are not necessarily the measure of success. Indeed, for years Bhutan has boasted of having the highest GNH (Gross National Happiness) of any population in the world.
It wasn’t going to be easy to get to Bhutan, nor was it going to be an inexpensive trip. Just to be in the country, every person was charged around $270/day, however this was a fairly inclusive charge, covering food, lodging and the mandatory guide and driver. We were advised that autumn was the best time to see the country, just as the last of the verdantly green, terraced rice paddies were harvested, and just before the cold and snows of winter descended. We discovered the simplest way to go was via Bangkok, so in mid-October 2014 we were happily on our way.
After a 30-hour journey from New York City, first to Hong Kong and then onto Bangkok (with a recovery day of obligatory sightseeing), we headed off to Paro, a small city about an hour west of Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu. At the time I didn’t realize it, but apart from an archery field that we would visit in Thimphu, the Paro airport runway was to be the only stretch of flat land we would see in the country. The airport approach was electrifying, as we dipped in and out of several jagged, snow-capped mountains and bright green valleys before finally touching down. Greeting us at the airport were our guide, Sonam, a bespectacled young man in his 30s, immediately engaging and hospitable, and our driver, Harka, a shy, quite short and stocky younger man, who smiled a lot but spoke little. Both were dressed in the traditional Bhutan male dress of a gho (women wear a skirt version called a kira), a robe-like garment worn over shirt and trousers and tied with a belt (kera). The gho basically serves as a “business suit” for the workforce, with the design on the sleeve cuffs indicating your status in society, in a similar manner that military insignia on uniforms indicate rank. With the kera snugly tightened around the waist, a natural cavity would be formed between the chest and stomach, and we soon discovered that all kinds of things would come out of this pouch, like cellphones, wallets, notebooks and even snacks.
As we clambered into our Landcruiser jeep, which was to be practically our second home for the next two weeks, Sonam went through our itinerary. Unlike any other country, Bhutan strictly regulates the flow of tourists and mandates drivers and guides to follow government-approved itineraries. In some ways, there are positive aspects to this approach. For one, travel planning and working out details of transport, food and lodging are completely handled by the guide and driver, leaving the visitor free from navigating unfamiliar territory. Secondly, the system guarantees constant work for a large number of the population (both male and female) who assume these tourist-shepherding duties. But on the other hand, though travel planning can be fraught with stress and uncertainties in traversing foreign lands and customs, much of the wonderment of experiencing an unfamiliar country is literally by immersive diving and stumbling, trying to understand the local society, making halting attempts at communication, learning mysterious food names and how to eat them, and simply how to go from A to B. So while it was relatively easy to travel, in some ways I felt we were possibly less engaged with our surroundings because we were not required to work things out on our own.
At any rate, our itinerary had been confirmed well in advance of our arrival and was set in stone. We would spend our first two nights in Thimphu before heading east, first to Punakha, then to Bumthang. From there we would slightly backtrack and start a 6-day walk called the “Nabji Trek”, which held my interest due to it being a fairly new option on the trekking menu (and likely less traveled) as well as featuring several different minority tribes. After completing the Nabji Trek, we would slowly work our way back to Paro and visit the legendary Tiger’s Nest Monastery, the typical last stop for all tourists in Bhutan before you fly out of Paro to your next destination. While the “as-the-crow-flies” distances between these places were incredibly small, the travel times were ridiculously long, mainly due to two factors:
1. Bhutan really has only one road, a single 2-lane road that links all the major towns and cities, and due to the topography, the road is frequently in need of major repair and requisite closures due to landslides.
2. With no flat roads, every trip entails climbing and descending narrowly snaking roads up and down steep mountains, and while your vehicle may be reasonably fast, often you will get stuck behind a convoy of crawling, impossible-to-pass, heavy industrial vehicles.
As we drove to Thimphu, the landscape and architecture were remarkably similar to areas of the Swiss Alps. Towering mountains in all directions, alpine meadows replete with grazing livestock, narrow gorges cascading down to fast-moving rivers and twee, wood chalets dotting the roadside. Sonam took us to our hotel and gave us a brief tour of the town before “releasing” us for the afternoon and evening as we were allowed to explore and dine on our own. After a disappointingly bland “tourist” lunch at our hotel we spent the afternoon touring the weekend market, the local zoo and our first Dzong, Thimphu’s Trashi Chhoe Dzong.
Dzongs lie at the essence of Bhutanese daily life, religion and culture. Every major town has a Dzong, a fortress type structure with interior courtyards and buildings housing civil, monastic and military offices. The actual allocation of real estate within the complex is split roughly 50-50 between administrative and religious, mirroring the division of power between the two branches on the national level. While they vary in size, Dzongs have remarkably similar architecture; whitewashed sloping exterior walls, often surrounded by a moat, with massive wood and wrought iron entry doors, huge, open pavilions framed by intricately carved buildings and temples with majestically flared ornamental roofs, not dissimilar to the Dong Drum Tower and Wind and Rain bridge roofs we had seen in Guizhou province, China. Their scale at times can be awesome and we wandered the labyrinth, allowing ourselves to get lost while enjoying our brief spate of freedom before being once again under Sonam and Harku’s earnest supervision.
Though a “capital” city, Thimphu was hardly a bustling metropolis. The town of about 20,000 residents did not even merit a single traffic light, and at the two intersections a policeman in white gloves would direct the “traffic” with hand gestures, incomprehensible to me but the drivers seemed to understand. The shops were refreshingly untouristy, mostly selling household goods, foods and necessities. The locals walked by you without gawking or hawking tacky souvenirs. The tallest building was maybe the equivalent of six stories.
Our dinner that evening was also a bit bland, the restaurant automatically giving us tourist menus with a mixture of western and very mild Bhutanese food. Unlike other SE Asian countries, where we are often in the older range of travelers and many young and adventurous backpackers make up the majority of the tourist crop, in Bhutan we seemed to be some of the youngest travelers, likely due to the tightly controlled itineraries and relatively expensive daily charges. It appeared that our dietary choices were being influenced and curtailed by this older set and our fiery hot, chili-laden dishes would have to wait for another place and another time.
The following day, Sonam and Harku took us to a number of Thimphu attractions, including the National Memorial Chorten, a Buddhist prayer site where elderly people circumambulated a stupa in a clockwise direction, reciting prayers and rotating red prayer wheels adjacent to the monument. Later that morning we visited a painting school, the studious artists replicating many typical Bhutanese scenes, with the finished works presumably heading for sale in the tourist market. After eating a packed lunch by a river, we hiked up to the Tango (meaning ‘horse head’) Goemba, a vertiginous monastery set in mountains a few miles outside of the city with sprawling views of Thimphu. Our last stop was the Thimphu archery field, a stretch of flat(!), grassy land approximately two football fields in length. At either end of the “pitch” were two “bulls-eye” targets, and teams took turns taking aim and firing their arrows. To be clear, this was no “bow and arrow” show. The archery equipment was imported from the US, all-titanium with scopes and laser pointers. Even at 200 yards, the poor targets didn’t stand a chance and were repeatedly bludgeoned in the dead middle.
As we were watching the archery display, Sonam told us about the eastern Bhutanese custom of “night hunting”, a practice whereby an eligible bachelor tries to sneak into the home of an unmarried girl that he finds attractive. As with many Asian families, the family members tend to all sleep together in one room, so you can imagine the degree of difficulty for the “hunter” to succeed in seducing his prey. Some fathers would take up a guard position by the window, armed with a stick to beat back the would-be Casanovas. If the eligible man succeeded in making it into the home and waking up with the girl in the morning, he was deemed as married to that girl, and wedding preparations would begin in earnest.
Sue enjoys reading books set in the countries that we are visiting, and fortunately, this habit has rubbed off on me. When we were in Malaysia, we read Somerset Maugham’s Malaysian Stories, in Vietnam, it was Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri books in Laos, in Myanmar, Orwell’s Burmese Days. Before we left for Bhutan, my sister-in-law had just finished Jamie Zeppa’s Beyond the Sky and the Earth, A Journey into Bhutan, so I brought it along and started reading it as soon we got settled in Thimphu. Zeppa is a Canadian writer who was on an academic track to be an English professor in Toronto. She was engaged and she felt her life was moving in too predictable a manner and needed a shake-up, so she decided to temporarily abandon her PHD program and accept a job offer teaching future Bhutanese English teachers at a teacher’s training college at Kanglung College in Tashigang, eastern Bhutan. Her family and fiancé were alarmed at her impulsive decision, and just a few weeks before she was about to depart the dean of Kanglung contacted her and told her they were rescinding their offer due to concerns that she would be too similar in age to her future Bhutanese students. The college told her that if she was determined to teach in Bhutan, she could come and teach English at a primary school in the nearby town of Pema Gatshel. Though a major step down in prestige from Kanglung College, not only living in primitive circumstances in a backwater town but also teaching the equivalent of 2nd graders, Jamie was desperate and determined and instantly accepted. The book is a fascinating account of everyday life in the most rural parts of Bhutan, a moving story of cultural bewilderment, shock, and, ultimately, social acceptance and personal triumph as she conquered what she thought at first were incomprehensible customs and mores and successfully overcame daily lifestyle and health challenges, forming intensely profound and special relationships with her young students and their families. Ironically, one of the Kanglung teachers had to leave suddenly several months later, and Jamie accepted a transfer to take on the job that she initially applied for, though it was clear both she and her students were heartbroken at her departure. To add a further dose of irony, Jamie ended up having a relationship with one of her Kanglung students, exactly what the dean had feared, and eventually had a child with him.
The following day we said goodbye to Thimphu and said hello to roadblocks and road closures as we drove east to our first destination, Punakha. Along the way we summited the spectacular Dochu La pass (3,150m), which was impressive even under the thick cloud cover and drizzle. We inched our way down from Dochu La, ending up at the Buddhist monastery, Chimi Lhakhang, a temple built in honor of Drupka Kunley, aka the Divine Madman.
So let’s take a break from our travels and talk about the Divine Madman, who is a key figure in Bhutan’s Buddhist heritage, with his effigy (in the form of spectacularly large phalluses) frescoed all over Bhutan. Yes, you read that correctly. You can be walking in a quaint village, and you round the corner and splashed on the wall in front of you is the biggest piece of manhood that you’ve ever seen. It’s so common in Bhutan that after a few days in the country, even I was becoming oblivious to these well-endowed murals. Why a phallus? The Divine Madman was a 15th-16th century Buddhist monk and missionary from Tibet who was renowned for using his sexual powers to enlighten his subjects (many of whom were beautiful woman) on Buddhist teachings as well as to slay evil demons. As the legend goes, women would come to him for his blessing, and his blessing was given in the form of sexual intercourse. To help spread his fame, the Divine Madman began the practice of painting his phallus on the walls in villages and towns throughout the country, as well as placing wooden statues of his phallus on rooftops, all in the interests of warding off evil spirits. He is a much-revered legend in the country, women to this day will still go to Chimi Lhakhang and pray to him in the hope of increasing their fertility, and all houses in its surrounding villages have enormous phalluses painted on their walls.
The walk to Chimi Lhakhang was through acres and acres of rice fields, and it was in one of these fields where I photographed a group of four laborers hard at work harvesting rice. The image became one of my most memorable from Bhutan, the rice paddies stretching as far as the eye could see, framed by Himalayan mountains and a moody, somewhat stormy sky, the laborers busy in the center of the image performing various tasks.
After lunch, we continued on to the Punakha Dzong, a truly magnificent and massive edifice nestled between the Pho Chu (meaning male) and Mo Chu (meaning female) rivers with glorious mountain views in all directions. Set on the outskirts of the town proper, the Dzong is relatively low in altitude (1,200m) and becomes the winter home for the top Bhutanese clergy. Among other features, the Dzong is particularly noted for its murals depicting the life story of Buddha, with the theme of leading a charitable life in order to achieve enlightenment (via reincarnation), such a dominant theme in Bhutanese culture. As we toured the Dzong with Sonam, he would greet many of his compatriot guides, all similarly engaged, their tourist couples obediently lagging behind on the Bhutanese invisible guide leash.
After spending the night in a modern and nondescript hotel, we were back on the road, first to Trongsa and then to Bumthang. Along the way, we met Sonam’s sister who was studying near Trongsa at the college of Language and Culture. When we arrived in Trongsa, our activity, you might have guessed, was to visit the Trongsa Dzong, but I was Dzonged out and received permission to walk the town on my own(!), with strict instructions to meet up with Sue, Sonam and Harku one hour later. Sue raved about the Dzong, saying it was her favorite so far, as it was dramatically built on a cliff and much smaller in scale, providing a more intimate experience.
We arrived in Bumthang in the late afternoon, the quaint village resembling any one of numerous villages we have seen in the Swiss alps. It was a lovely afternoon, and we were allowed to roam the town on our own. I photographed many children on their way home from school and along our walk we visited a school and in one of the classrooms met a number of quite outgoing young teenagers, eager to show off their English-speaking skills. All the students of course were wearing small size versions of the gho and kira, the sleeve decorations indicating their academic level in school.
It bears mentioning that immediately noticeable in schools was the equal balance of boys and girls. In many Asian countries we have visited, particularly in smaller, hill-tribe villages, boys would vastly outnumber girls in schools because there was limited capacity and girls were expected to grow into becoming mothers, performing child rearing and household duties, light farming, cooking, water and wood gathering, so why was education all that important for females? It was refreshingly positive to see young Bhutanese women seemingly far more equally involved in daily society and the work force and clearly there did not seem to be any female education-stigmas in place.
Our Bumthang hotel was just outside town, an alpine lodge with pine rooms and a wood burning stove (bukhari) providing heat as it was quite chilly at night. We met some Slovakian guys and traded them beer for some reasonably good Bhutanese whiskey which helped keep us warm and toasty.
The next day we were driven out of Bumthang to the top of the next pass, then walked to the village of Ura, billed in the Lonely Planet as Bhutan’s most interesting village. It was a beautiful one-hour downhill walk; the town had a charming temple and cobblestone streets, the houses neatly adorned with lush fruit trees. We found a tiny restaurant for lunch and for the first time had local, Bhutanese food without a tourist filter, meaning spicy chilis and cheese… very appetizing but the salty and sour cow-butter tea was an acquired taste that we had not yet quite procured. We spent the rest of the day slowly working our way back to Bumthang with another dinner in our alpine hotel.
Our next destination involved backtracking west to Trongsa, then on to a village called Riotala to start the Nabji trek, a 6-day low-altitude hike through minority villages and farmlands. Billed as a “nature” walk versus the other high-mountain trekking options, the trek was categorized as “easy” and promised, along with minority villages, interesting wildlife sightings, including golden langur monkeys and rufous-necked hornbill birds. This sounded great to me because I was lugging cameras around and the easier the walking the better. Also, up to that point, most of my photographs had been typically touristy, and I was keen to visit the Monpa and Khangpa minority villages and document their lifestyle.
After a long and tedious car journey with frequent delays due to roadworks, around 2pm we reached the trek starting point and a lot of chaos. Several loud and even angry discussions ensued between Sonam and the Riotala villagers in Dzongkha (Bhutanese language) and though we of course couldn’t understand a word, you didn’t need to comprehend anything to realize that things were not quite in order. We needed about five horses and seven people to help transport our trekking supplies, mostly consisting of food, tents, cooking gas and pots/pans/utensils. But instead, we were being offered a ragtag group of a few men and women, some of them quite obviously drunk, and all of them seemingly unwilling to make the three-hour uphill trek to our first campsite, Nimshong. After some lengthy bargaining, Sonam and our motley crew moved about 15 bags of building cement from the roadside to the stoop of a house and with that chore completed, the group began the process of lading the horses with equipment. No one seemed to be in charge, and each time a horse was brought over, another large discussion/argument ensued, leaving the horse to trot away in obvious exasperation. But miraculously, the group got it together and by 3:30 all the horses were loaded up and we began the uphill slog. It was a steady, winding climb, and we reached the campsite just at dusk. Everything was quickly unpacked and within an hour we were all gathered around a fire eating a delicious dinner of chilis and cheese, prepared by our stylish chef Vitor, sporting a straw cowboy hat.
I was awake by 6:30 the next morning, so I gathered my cameras and headed out from the campsite. There was a primary school not far away and a few children were trickling in for extra-early studying. It was a Saturday morning and only a half-day of school. Interestingly, the Bhutanese schools teach subjects almost entirely in English; Dzongkha is only used in one class on national culture and literature. Posters all around the school were promoting National Handwashing Week, with pictures and advice about cleanliness and best hand-washing procedures. As I took a few photographs of the kids, a young female teacher sauntered over with wet hair in her pink bathrobe, brushing her teeth as she walked by and admonishing her students, through her foamy teeth, that it was not yet time for class.
I returned to the campsite for breakfast, then went back to the school for their morning assembly, prayers, national anthem and the reading of selected student essays. The kids were incredibly well-behaved, forming perfectly even-spaced rows, standing at attention, not saying a word. The assembly then adjourned for recess, and I met up with the five teachers (for 60 students, covering roughly the equivalent of grades 1-6). The teachers seemed a bit frustrated with the variety of the kids’ ability levels. I got the sense that they didn’t volunteer to teach here, that positions were likely assigned by an administrative office, and a remote village in Nimshong would not have been their first choice.
Sonam arrived a short while later and we headed off to Nabji. The trail had many twists and turns but was essentially flat, walking through beautiful oak and bamboo forests. Along the way we saw our first flight of the rufous-necked hornbills. Rufous is a reddish-brown color, somewhat resembling rusted/oxidized iron. The males head, neck and lower body were brilliantly colored and easy to spot. We had lunch by a river eating fish, tofu, rice and mushrooms and by mid-afternoon we were at our lush campsite on the outskirts of Nabji.
We had a two-day stay in Nabji, so the following morning we had the luxury of not packing our things up and after breakfast took a day hike to Korphu village, picking up a local female guide to lead us as Sonam and Harka did not know the area all that well. The walk featured several river crossings and some tricky hopping around on narrow pathways over well-irrigated rice paddies. Missing your mark, which happened to me once or twice, meant being submerged in a calf-high bath of water. When we got to Korphu, a group of men were playing a dart game, flinging darts from a range of about 50m to hit a small target. I tried my luck twice and failed miserably, the men heartily enjoying my haplessness.
Korphu was filled with building materials as many homes were destroyed during a recent fire. It was a Sunday, and the town was quiet, just a few people out and about, many of whom were washing clothes, dishes or themselves from the various outdoor taps that were dotted throughout the village. We had lunch at the home of our guide’s aunt, sampling local rice wine (ara) and some amazing tomato-like fruits called tamarillos that you peeled and ate like a lollipop, holding the rigid stem in your hand. The taste was completely unexpected; a mixture of typical tomato flavor with a sweet and citric tartness. Seeing how much we enjoyed them, our hostess gave us a bunch to take back to our campsite, which we returned to in late afternoon just as it started raining.
We awoke the next day to a glorious, cloudless morning, with a throng of local porters assembled at our campground. Not dissimilar to the horses in Riotala, the porters, both men and women, were gathered in a line and loaded up with supplies. With no horses on hand, it took about 12 people to carry all of our tents, bedding, food and cooking supplies, and we trudged off around 8am, knowing that we had a tough day ahead with lots of sharp climbs and river crossings. It was hard work and a bit demoralizing after climbing out of a steep riverbed to once again have to descend to another. This went on and on all morning. And to remind you all, this walk was rated as “easy”! To add to the challenge, the river crossings invariably meant fording over slippery and not necessarily firmly set rocks, and once you made it safely to the other side, you had to contend with the stinging nettle plants. As we would get to higher elevations we came across and had to walk through huge fields of marijuana, which apparently grows wild in the area. The Bhutanese don’t seem to cultivate the pot for personal use, Sonam said that the wild boars like to eat it, possibly accounting for the term “flying pigs”. At any rate, the fields were so overgrown that we literally had to use large sticks to beat down the plants so that we could then trample onward.
The cool morning had morphed into a searingly hot day, and by lunchtime we had drank almost all of our water and were looking forward to drinking tea from Vitor’s enormous thermos. But tragedy struck! The thermos had cracked, and the remaining tea was undrinkable, so for the last two hours we continued our undulating walk with basically no fluids. We reached our campsite at Kudra around 2:30, swiftly unpacking our supplies as the porters had to quickly return to Nabji to make it back before evening. This day has been one of the most difficult days of trekking I’d ever experienced, and I was told the next day would be much the same.
Before describing the following day’s walk to Jangbi, mention must first be made about the spectacular acrobatic show put on for us at dusk by a group of about 15 golden langur monkeys. Sonam had promised that we would see them at some point during our walk from Nabji to Kudra, but alas none were visible, and we had given up hope as we wearily made camp in the late afternoon. As we were sitting and rehydrating, Sue suddenly spotted movements in the trees right in front of us, and we were then treated to a thrilling display of aerial jumps through wispy branches. The langurs appeared to be feasting on the tree’s fruits, and their eating and movements were done in complete silence. Just as suddenly as they had appeared, about 15 minutes later they abruptly disappeared, leaving us mesmerized and wanting for more.
But back to the next day, which was another scorcher. I felt reasonably recovered at the start, and the first hour or so was relatively flat. We then reached a crossroads, and our Kudra porters went downhill while Sonam, Sue and I climbed up to the Monpa town of Phrumzur. The hike up was steep and fully exposed to the blazing sun. I saw that my water supplies were again getting dangerously low, and silently I cursed at myself for not bringing more water bottles from NYC. We reached the village and I realized that I was once again seriously dehydrated and probably did not drink enough after yesterday’s walk. I found a cool place in the shade and sat, without even the strength to visit with an old blind Monpa woman talking to Sue and Sonam. After about ten minutes, I snatched an orange growing from a nearby tree; the orange was fairly green, and not particularly tasty, but I nevertheless sucked every bit of juice out of it – which only seemed to make me thirstier!
Phrumzur was quite deserted. One of the main reasons was that many of the residents were under our employ, porting our supplies from Kudra to Jangbi. Before trudging back downhill, we stopped to admire the amazingly verdant and terraced rice paddies interspersed around the village huts. Coupled with the absence of people and the deep blue sky with puffy white clouds, it was all rather idyllic, no matter how thirsty I was.
Heading back downhill, we reconnected with our porters and took a break under a shade of trees. It was then that we realized what had happened to the rest of the Phrumzur residents; they were all there, greeting us with gifts of locally made ara and locally grown guava and walnuts. I dared not drink the ara as I knew alcohol would only dehydrate me further, and the walnuts were practically impossible to shell, but the guava proved momentarily refreshing. The gifts were not optional, and I politely ate as much guava as I could dare. We offered our thanks to the villagers and some money, and then pressed on, the remaining walk to lunch downhill and in the shade. But with each step downward, the undoubtable “Newton’s law” reality was that there would be an equally steep step to follow upwards, so any thanks or relief at the break in terrain was soberingly quelled.
Several times during our descent we were stopped dead in our tracks as herds of cows and horses went by us, the narrow path barely wide enough to accommodate the two-way traffic. The animals were oblivious to us, sauntering upward with certainly more determination than I could possibly muster. Sonam instructed us to stay on the “uphill” side of the path, so that if a cow inadvertently bumped into your body, you’d only fall into the hill and wouldn’t go tumbling down into a ravine.
We eventually reached a river and stopped for lunch, though I found it hard to eat out of sympathy for the Monpa porters, who slogged by without a break, often barefoot, and carrying impressively heavy loads of supplies in bundles strapped to their foreheads. I was trying to desperately savor and conserve the little amount of water that I had left. Vitor was using his emergency tea thermos, which was only half the size of the cracked one, and we all had to make do with a small ration of tea.
After a short break, it was time to set off for the long haul uphill to Jangbi. The climb was mostly in a breathtakingly beautiful pine forest and seemed to go on for an eternity. Finally, we reached our campsite, in a peaceful and shaded wood overlooking the Mangde Chhu river, just a few minutes outside a school. I was too tired to shoot anything that afternoon and vowed to get up early the next day to spend a couple of hours at the school with the kids. In the meantime, there was ample water and food and plenty of recovery time as we recharged from the tough day of trekking.
After a seriously good night’s sleep, I got up at 6am with a spring in my step, fully rehydrated, eager to take pictures and happy that this would be our last day of trekking. I grabbed a quick bite and headed to the Jangbi primary school. Due to its fairly remote location, it was mainly a boarding school, the students aged about 6-12. When I arrived, a few kids were already out and about and I started taking some pictures. I visited with them as they ate their breakfast (rice and vegetables), then I met the principal and the other teachers before morning prayers and assembly.
Like the school in Nimshong, the Jangbi assembly followed a similar pattern. After some opening words from the principal, a young girl came forward and read an essay in halting English about her family. After she was done, we all clapped enthusiastically, then a boy stood up and read something in Dzongkha. Again, more applause, followed by prayers and a solemn raising of the Bhutan flag, diagonally half yellow (representing the king) and half orange (representing the clergy), with a snarling white dragon in the middle clutching jewels in its paws. The principal ended the assembly surprisingly by introducing me and asking me to address the student body. I was definitely unprepared and muttered a few words about the value of education and how it is a gateway to career opportunities.
Sue and Sonam showed up just as the assembly ended, and we said our goodbyes and headed steeply downhill, reaching the Mangde Chhu river around noon, then climbed slightly up to Harku’s Landcruiser in the town of Tomptophey. Fleetingly I was happy to be off my feet, but then came the ubiquitous closures, with lengthy delays on the road back to Trongsa, and again on the way to Phobjikha, our overnight destination and famous for being a breeding ground for Bhutan’s black-necked cranes. Unfortunately, we were too early in the season to see the cranes, but we did spot loads of hopeful binocular-clad tourists, as the cranes were obviously a big attraction. We reached our hotel, another pine-clad affair, and eagerly headed to the shower, our first clean-up in 6 days. But the clean-up was only half in the cards, as the hot water lasted for about five minutes, just enough for Sue to look and feel like a new woman. My rejuvenation would have to wait for a few hours.
Our last Bhutan segment meant completely retracing our tracks west, all the way to Paro, where we would visit the famous Tiger’s Nest Monastery before flying back to Bangkok. As you might imagine, while the linear distance was relatively short, by car it was going to take all day at least, and that would imply reasonably good fortune with avoiding road closures. We left right after breakfast, but our luck began poorly as the road to Punakha was closed ahead of schedule, forcing us to have an early (and quite unexpectedly good) lunch while I practiced my mandarin with a group of Chinese tourists. By mid-afternoon we were headed back to Dochu La, but again were thwarted by an earlier than expected road closure. Sonam came to the rescue, convincing the local authorities that we had a plane to catch, and by early evening we arrived in Paro.
The Tiger’s Nest Monastery is without doubt Bhutan’s most iconic attraction, an intricately carved, astoundingly beautiful, multi-level monastery built into sheer rock, towering impressively at 3,100m over the Paro valley. The source of the name is not clear. One legend has it that the wife of a former empress transformed herself into a tigress, allowing Guru Rinpoche, the father of Bhutanese Buddhism, to ride on her back to the site of the monastery, where he tamed the tiger demons. At any rate, it is impossible to go to Bhutan and not visit the monastery, and we spent much of the following morning trekking up from the trailhead (2,600m), accompanied by a veritable army of fellow tourists and their guides.
My words really can’t do justice to this staggeringly awesome and vertiginous structure. Many of the monastery’s levels were precipitously cantilevered over sheer rock faces, eliciting dual feelings of wonderment and fear. While there was a throng of tourists everywhere, there were also seas of orange clad monks performing various tasks. Coupled with colorful prayer flags crisscrossing the entire complex, and the deep blue sky and cumulus white clouds, it all made for quite the visual extravaganza. We spent several hours clambering around, then had lunch in their cafeteria before heading back down, stopping at the quieter and much less physically impressive Kyichu Lhakhang, an older monastery reputed to be built directly on the left foot of an ogress.
Our day ended with yet another Bhutanese tourist must, the taking of a hot stone bath - basically entering a wooden shack and submerging into a partitioned bathtub filled with warm water, and half-filled with sizzling rocks straight out of a furnace. While you sat in one compartment of the tub, attendants came in periodically and removed cooler rocks from the partitioned side, replacing them with buckets of freshly blazing ones, the water instantly bubbling and steaming and quickly enveloping your body. An interesting experience to be sure, but most likely a one-off! Later than evening, we had our farewell dinner with Sonam and Harku, eating a traditional Bhutanese dinner with our fingers and drinking lots of ara.
Our two weeks in Bhutan had been eye-opening and fascinating. Even though the vehicular travel was tedious, and the trekking was arduous, the physical beauty of the landscape more than made up for the extended travel times and challenging terrain. Certainly this trip was far more touristy than any other place we had been to in SE Asia, and the mandatory chaperoning only emphasized that experience, but Sonam and Harku were incredibly kind, patient and helpful to us throughout, and taught us many things about Bhutanese daily life that we otherwise would likely not have learned. While two weeks is hardly enough time to understand a culture, it was quite clear that the local population had bought into the idea of leading a charitable life in the present in order to have a better life in the future. As I write this chapter in 2021, in an America still reeling from racist and populist division, and with the world still significantly in jeopardy from the pandemic, it seems to me that we could all learn from the Bhutanese way.