Monks, mask dances and the Dzongs

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October 24th 2012
Published: October 25th 2012
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As you fly into Bhutan you are quickly reminded that this is a country of mountains. Most of the towns are built in the valleys between the mountains but a few villages are perched high up in the clouds. This country is green and lush due to the many evergreen trees along with a smattering of deciduous trees that are now currently turning soft fall colors. It is such a treat. Not that much snow falls on most of the mountains due to the latitude of Bhutan and the current weather patterns. We are told if you come in April all the spring flowers will be in bloom and it is amazing.

This portion of our voyage brought us to some of the places that many westerners do not have the opportunity to visit, mainly due to time constraints. Travel within this country is exclusively by car on roads that rarely allow speeds above 25 mph (40 kph) due to many curves, uneven pavement and of course the fact that they are extremely narrow. This barely allows two vehicles to pass each other in opposite directions and many times has one of the vehicles partially off the road
Yak it upYak it upYak it up

Very cool animal
to allow this to happen. Traveling some 160 km in one day will take you seven hours plus.

We noticed that our guide and driver did not wear their seat belts so we asked about seat belt laws. They said they had them for about 3 months and no one would wear them so they cancelled the requirement. Sangey our guide said he didn’t wear one because he wanted an opportunity to be ejected from the car if it went tumbling down the mountain. He did not like the idea of being tied to the car until it hit the bottom of the ravine. Ok, not so re-assuring.

More good news! The mountain roads of Bhutan are in much better shape than the roads in Nepal, at least to this point. There is a caveat to that statement. There is far less traffic on the roads so even when they are narrow you often have the road to yourself. In Nepal, there was a steady stream of traffic flying in both directions and it was nerve wrecking. They do have some major repairs that are needed in some locations but we saw cranes and
Location is everythingLocation is everythingLocation is everything

Temple in Punakha
backhoes, so it gives one the impression they are actually going to do some repairs……someday.

We learned that all of the road workers are brought in from India. The Bhutanese are not doing this hard labor. The Indian road workers are being paid $120 a month. They used to pay them in rice and other staples but that changed in recent years. We did pass several camps in the mountains where the road crews were living and working.

And so, we set off and traveled over mountain passes to see the towns of Punakha, Phobjika, Trongsa and Bumthang. As we explored each one we found it prettier than the last. Each has things in common such as hotels, general stores and medicine shops, but they have a distinct personality.

In Punakha we hiked 45 minutes to the Temple of the Mind, Body and Speech. We ascended to the very top of the temple and were rewarded. It has one of the more outstanding views we have experienced in our lives. A river weaves through the floor of the valley, surrounded by amazing mountains and puffy white clouds. We stood atop the
Punakha ValleyPunakha ValleyPunakha Valley

a serene setting
shrine in awe and wonder. Truly this is an amazingly beautiful country.

Our favorite dzong sits on the riverbank in Punakha. They are all so uniquely different from the outside. This one sits at the confluence of two rivers. Actually, Punakha had two dzongs but one of the caught on fire and nearly burnt down in June of this year. When you build a dzong in the 17th century up on hill that is not easy to reach and without modern water pumping technology, a fire can be disastrous, and this one was. The locals were crushed by the fire, but renovation of this most sacred edifice will happen.

Also in Punakha we toured the temple and watched the young monks study and chant the mantras.

Another half-day drive took us to Phobjika. This area is known at the Phobjika Valley or Gantey Valley. Several local people told us not to leave Bhutan without seeing this area. This valley is most famous for being the winter home to more than 100 black neck cranes that migrate from Tibet for the winter. When you stop and think about this, the distance is
Misty MountainsMisty MountainsMisty Mountains

Gantey Valley
not so great, but they fly over the Himalayas, which are the tallest chain in the world. Sadly, we didn’t see any. They start their trek in mid-November and stay until March. While visiting the black-necked crane nature center we did watch an excellent video that told us more about these creatures and they would be fascinating to see. We are told they are on the endangered species list as there are only 800 remaining in the world.

As we drive the mountain roads we have enjoyed seeing yaks as we had only seen them in a zoo up to this point.

We ventured out and stood in the valley and slowly turned 360 degrees, taking in the beauty. It makes sense that the cranes would love this isolated area. Not to mention the fact that this area has all kind of roots and grubs for them to feed on. There are also no predators making their lives complicated. So they have a beautiful and safe place with lots to eat. Cool deal for them.

Trongsa provided us yet another unique town and dzong. We stopped to take in an archery contest briefly. Archery is
Archery contestantArchery contestantArchery contestant

A study in concentration.
the national sport here and it is impressive when you consider the targets are some 150 meters ( 487 ft.) away and the idea is to hit them with an arrow.

The Trongsa dzong did not disappoint. Its architecture was unique as they all are. Its location next to the river and hundreds of marigolds in bloom was quite a site. Trongsa is important from a historical perspective as well and the governor is usually the son of the king (or in this case, the father of the king as his son has yet to bear children).

Our last stop was Bumthang where we struck the mother lode. We arrived by chance in time for their annual festival, which includes the monks performing the famous “mask dance.” Each dance can take hours and has a specific purpose. We witnessed the mask dance that drives off the evil spirits. It was impressive. The dzong was overflowing with locals and tourists alike, all taking in the ritual dance. The festival goes on for three days and that my friends, is a lot of dancing.

Some other observations is how clean everything is in this tiny nation. Most people are not wealthy, but they generally take pride in keeping the place clean. A most welcome sight after Nepal. We see little garbage along the roadways. We actually saw a garbage truck one day and both looked at each other. We didn’t expect to see that here. The rivers are clean and the minerals from the mountains make the waters a soft green color that is beautiful. Hydroelectric power is one the main source of income for this tiny nation. They currently have 4 power plants and are building 5 more, thanks in part to a partnership with neighboring India.

We had some great questions after the publication of our first Bhutan blog, so we have a few additional comments.

Gross National Happiness may be a great marketing ploy but it seems to have taken hold because many of the locals will talk with you about it. This is a small and isolated country that has work to do to make a better life for the residents but they seem to have identified a short list of important things to start work on and are ticking those items off the list. Bhutan “appears” to be doing better than many of the countries we have visited. It would take an extended stay to know that for sure.

It is our belief that in any country that has a King there is a lot of financial waste to support the royal family but we do think our tourist dollars are also being funneled into things that will make and better and safer life for the residents of this isolated mountain country.

We believe for a county to improve they must be able to articulate a plan and Bhutan has that identified. They are focused on a holistic development of the individual and society. Bhutan is seeking a sustainable balance between the economic, social, emotional, spiritual and cultural needs. The people we have encountered have a glint in their eye.

We have talked with many locals in the towns and villages and they truly “seem” content. Who can say for sure ? The people are clean and have smiles on their faces and we didn’t see much of that in Nepal. In Nepal, many people told us they believed their government
Beautiful rice fieldsBeautiful rice fieldsBeautiful rice fields

ready for harvest
was corrupt. The people we met in Nepal lacked hope for the future.

The government pays for education, medical care and assist in many other ways. They provide the mountain people with cows and basic needs.

Lots of work remains but the physicians at the hospital were happy with the money that has been invested in the hospital. They have a new wing that is less than 3 years old. They have a new MRI and CT scanner. The nursing superintendent is a neo-natologists and he is working to educate women on pre-natal care in hopes to decrease the infant mortality rate. It seems as if a genuine effort is being made to improve the health of local citizens.

Residents seem to love the King and his new bride. The King has a 5-year plan to improve the roads and a 3-year plan to improve telecommunications and the internet. They may have been sold a bill of goods, but from outward appearances they are content with all that is going on. This nation has made many leaps forward in the past ten years. Remember that this was a very isolated place
Hauling hayHauling hayHauling hay

hard work
(by choice) for many centuries.

A fellow travel blogger mentioned that the government requires the residents of Bhutan to wear the National dress. We can confirm this. They are required to wear the traditional dress while in public. Many seem proud to have a national dress and ask us what we think of it. This national dress started in the 7th century so it is rich in history and tradition. We find the people to be very proud of their country and traditions. I’m sure many would rather wear jeans and many do once they are at home. On the up side the national dress has some really cool pockets and allows them to carry many things.

Places we stayed:

Punakha = Hotel Phunsum

Phobjika = Gakiling Guest house

Trongsa = Tashi ninjay G House

Bumthang = Swiss G House

Additional photos below
Photos: 38, Displayed: 29


Beautiful ValleyBeautiful Valley
Beautiful Valley

golden rice
Feeling festiveFeeling festive
Feeling festive

great dancers
The Fun MakersThe Fun Makers
The Fun Makers

Think of court jesters on the move
Twirling aboutTwirling about
Twirling about

chasing evil spirits
Lovely ladiesLovely ladies
Lovely ladies

watching the dancing monks
A posterA poster
A poster

Black necked cranes

25th October 2012

How I miss Bhutan!
Bhutan claims a very special place in my heart. I'm sure YOU understand how I feel. [:)] Those photos ESP of the dancers are beautiful! Happy birthday to both of you!
25th October 2012

Thanks for the birthday wishes.
Indeed Bumthang is special but we loved every place we went. Traditional is valued.
25th October 2012

Lucky you!
Beautiful..but i do believe from spending time with my bhutanese that happiness is real. Thanks..and glad you took the time to get to Bumthang ;)
25th October 2012

Happiness appears real.
I asked our guide if he would like to move to another country to live and he said no. He is excited about going to Brazil next year for a couple of months to study languages. Honest and decent people.
25th October 2012

Oh I am so jealous hee hee....
I really do think that you have found paradise. Your pictures are simply always. Rumour has it that it is Dave's birthday, so best wishes for to you sir! I couldn't think of a more marvellous place to spend your special day :)
26th October 2012

Bhutan is unique
Yes, Dave is aging. What a great place to do it. Beauty and serenity. 90 % Buddhist is a small, uncrowded country.
25th October 2012

Heaven on earth?
This looks like a place that could bring peace and contentment into one's life like no other. The pictures are absolutely breath taking.
26th October 2012

Lessons to be learned in Bhutan
It is like living in a postcard. We are surrounded by beauty. Each vista more stunning than the next. And the kindness.....
25th October 2012

I have the feeling that your next stop is really going to have to pull out its A-game after your time in Bhutan. It makes me so happy that you are able to spend the time to soak up all that this country has to offer. Your pictures are amazing and I wish I were there smiling and standing with you. Enjoy the rest of your trip.
26th October 2012

Always looking for the A game
Indeed you are correct but many we have met in our travels tell us that Myanmar is one of their we wait and see. India is next and then to Myanmar. We should see some interesting things. Today we climbed to the Tiger's Nest. What a place to build a temple.
26th October 2012
Yak it up

like a water buffalo but furry! very cute :)
26th October 2012
Yak it up

Yes, indeed wild hair
They use the wool to make all kinds of things and the cheese is very good.
26th October 2012

everything looks so clean and beautiful!
Bhutan sounds very appealing...glad you are having a great time.
26th October 2012

Painting pictures
This is a great blog, passionately painting pictures of the people, the place and your personal impressions. Wonderful! We can learn a lot from that. Methinks they're learning from the Peruvians who love to dress up for the tourist and wear the best smiles all day, and tourism brings real money into the country, so important, and hopefully for the benefit of the people. Sadly, Bhutan is not on our 'immediate to-do' list. If we're not there, we're likely to be somewhere else! David
26th October 2012

David & Janice
I know you were planning India and Nepal but have some reservations about Nepal. I was hoping you'd go to Bhutan instead. You would love it! I agree with your comments about Peru. One of our favorites. Good hearing from you.
27th October 2012

enjoy being with you and merry jo on your trek, love the photos and comments, looking forward to your next blog, very excited. All's well on Cape Cod!
28th October 2012

Greetings from Dehli, India
Great to hear from you! Hope you are prepared for the big storm headed your way. Very glad you are enjoying the blogs. We are having a great time. Please send my best to everyone. Best regards, Dave (and of course, MJ)
28th October 2012
Another amazing Dzong

Love that it it is clean, happy and remote...gotta say I hate rubbish in pristine places. Glad you took the plunge to explore the hinterland. Magic Himalayan country...seriously considering.
28th October 2012
Another amazing Dzong

We were happy about it being clean
When in Asia we don't have high expectations for the cleanliness but Bhutan was a surprise. They take pride in their country. The Himalayas truly are magical as you say. We are happy to have seen them.
28th October 2012

What a fantastic experience!
I'd love to see Bhutan one day, and reading this blog has made me want to travel there even more. Was interested in the time it takes to travel anywhere, a longer stay in Bhutan sounds the plan for any visitor.
28th October 2012

Bhutan is unique and charming.
We had a wonderful time there and are so glad we went. I hope you can add it to your travel plans. I think it is a location you would enjoy. They are attempting to increase travel at a rate they can handle so everyone can enjoy the experience.

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