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Published: October 31st 2017
We have been so busy on this trip that there's hardly any time to write. This has been our second full day in Bhutan, first exploring the delights of Thimphu, and today travelling to Bhutan's former capital of Punakha. On our first full day here, yesterday, we visited the Jungshi Handmade Paper Factory, the National Textile Museum, the Traditional Medicine (herbal) Clinic, the Arts and Crafts School, and Tashicho Dzong, an historic fortress and monastery. We also stopped at the Takin Preserve, takins being Bhutan's national animal, a heavier and more solid form of antelope. Added to all that, we had a dinner date with a Bhutanese family in their home, and were treated to a cultural performance beforehand, enjoying Bhutanese singing and dancing sitting in the cold Thimphu night air. Our days seem to be jam-packed full of excitement, education, and culture; our guide, Dorji, is an energetic marvel, giving us exactly the kind of tour I've been wishing for!
I love visiting dzongs; these monasteries remind me very much of all the wats (temples) I entered in Thailand. The rituals are similar: walking clockwise turning the banks of prayer wheels before entering, walking one or three times (always an odd number) around the monastery/wat/temple/dzong, kicking off shoes before entering, admiring the colorful and intricate carvings, statues, and artwork inside the dzong, and, as in churches from my childhood, smelling the ever-present and all pervading scent of incense. But here we also hear discordant (to Western ears) sounds of loud horns being played, and feel the physical impact of drums, many many different types of drums, reverberating within us. Except for taste, all the senses are engaged when visiting a dzong. I know of nothing similar to this experience in our own country; small wonder I have missed all this.
Today we enjoyed another very full day, starting by visiting the Memorial Chorten (stupa) located in the heart of Thimphu. Thimphu is the capital of Bhutan, and is the only capital in the world without any traffic lights. (Remember this for your Trivia games!) There are a few policemen who direct traffic in some places, but mostly driving here reminds me of the helter-skelter of Cairo, although in a much slower and kinder tempo. Bhutan, the Dragon Kingdom, is very well known for being the happiest country on earth, and in my short time here I have already found this to be true. For example, on the backs of Thimphu's public busses is an official written sign: "Ride the bus. Be happy." This is extraordinary! What other city encourages its people to relax and be happy? Also, this country does not allow public smoking, or GMOs; it focusses on organic foods, healthy living, and protection of the environment. And such a beautiful environment! Green, green everywhere; unless it is raining the skies are cloud-free, the deep, very deep clear blue color of a Maine sky. Dogs lie down and sleep wherever they want, and cows sometimes wander into the streets, but no one honks his horn; drivers just swerve around the animals and continue on their unflappable ways. It feels very peaceful and accepting here, and, ultimately, happy.
As we travelled to Punakha we stopped at Kunselphodrang, Buddha Point, to see one of the largest Buddhas in the world. The Big Buddha in Hong Kong seems larger, but it is much higher up by hundreds of stairs so it is hard to visually compare their sizes. Both are awe-inspiring creations. Luckily for us, the Chief Abbot was here, teaching thousands of people the 84,000 ways to reach enlightenment; we could not understand a word of his melodious chanting, but our guide Dorji said he could only understand about half of the words. Thousands upon thousands of people were here, listening to the Chief Abbot's teachings, which last for three months, from August through late October, 8AM to 6PM every day. But all was calm; the square did not seem crowded, as most followers were seated under enormous tents, listening. I felt blessed just being beside them, although we were not allowed under the covering tarps. Buddha Point was built to promote peace, not only between countries, but between and among people as well, a very noble undertaking.
Next we drove to Dochula Pass, at 10,000 feet altitude. Looking out at the magnificent greater Himalayan range of mountains is a gift of a sight. We took our pleasure gazing at panoramic views of snow-capped beauty. How lucky we are to be here on a cloudless day. How lucky we are to be here! As if they might disappear at any moment, I could not stop looking at the mightly Himalayas. They won't leave, but I must.
A few miles after Dochula Pass, down the twisting, curving road, our van pulled over onto a little triangle of grass and rock. We climbed out, and Dorji handed out several packs of prayer flags for us to unfurl. In the name of peace and compassion, the Bhutanese -- and many other countries too -- follow the sacred tradition of hanging strings of prayer flags above or alongside roads or over bridges. Sonam, our driver and a very good friend of Dorji's, is another marvel. Not only does he navigate our van through all the twisting, turning, narrow switchback roads, but as a former commando he carries a useful machete which came in very handily here. So there was Sonam, with his machete, already high in a tree, waiting for us to tie the ends of our strings of prayer flags together. He tied one at a treetop on our side of the road, and then after crossing the two lane highway, carefully carrying along one end of the prayer flags with him, he scaled a precipitous slope, pulling himself up by roots and rocks. He found another good tree and climbed up higher and higher, holding the string of prayer flags in his mouth. At one point he slipped, paused to rub his arm, and then began to climb again. As high as possible in the tree he tied his end of the string, pulled the prayer flags taut, and then slipped and slid down the slippery slope. Our group cheered and applauded his mighty strength, seeing our lovely prayer flags now flying high above the road. All who pass beneath here will be blessed by the prayers we offered along with these flags. And we will be too.
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