Kuzu Zangpo! – Hello!
It has been almost two months since I returned from my first ever trip abroad to Bhutan, a tiny country sandwiched between China and India and in the heart of the Himalayas. Choosing this Buddhist Kingdom as my first international experience felt like skipping the kiddie pool and jumping headfirst off the high dive. However, I am grateful for the random events that led me to stumble into the adventure of a lifetime. The opportunity took on added meaning when I learned that the late Anthony Bourdain, who I had only discovered two weeks before leaving and admired greatly, traveled to this remote nation for his last complete episode of Parts Unknown. While learning of his death in Bangkok on our way back home broke my heart, knowing that he lived to inspire so many to travel and connect with others (myself included) leaves me grateful and reassured.
Here, I will share some passages from my personal journal that I kept during my two weeks abroad. Gross National Happiness, Bhutan’s unique scale implemented as an alternative to GDP, pervades my descriptions of ancient Buddhist temples and mountainous landscapes as I ponder its roots, meaning, and the extent of its touch on the lives of Bhutanese.
Our second full day brought us to some of the highest altitudes and most ancient locations yet. At Tango Goemba, I was immersed in a religious tradition that was formerly unknown to me. Khempo Karchung and his students immediately made us feel at home, though, and it was an honor to be recognized as the first group of international students to vist the University. Khempo Karchung’s lecture entitled “Buddhism Medieval Theocratic Governance of Bhutan” described the religious scholars and authorities of medieval Bhutan that served as the region’s political leaders from the 8th century until Zhabdrung in the 1600s. My favorite trivia tidbit was the origin of Bhutan’s name– it means “good ending.” This clearly refers to Bhutan’s appeal to Tibetan monks as a final spiritual location. However, I think its meaning could go further and tie into Bhutan’s future concern for GNH and goal for its people in reaching in Enlightenment, the final and ultimate “good ending.”
Then, the hike up to Tango Monastery was definitely challenging but worth it. I was struck by the many signs featuring Buddhist wisdom and the trail’s commitment to cleanliness. Happiness and respect continues to be themes at the Tango Monastery on top. Monks went about their day alongside the wandering dogs and brief rain shower, two things that would have been inconveniences back home. Our visit grew surreal when we went upstairs to see some ancient wall murals. We were truly walking in the footsteps of powerful rulers. Despite the cracks and the dust, I could visualize the grandeur of this former epicenter of religious and political power.
Next, at Simtokha Dzong, I enjoyed Mr. Tshering Wangchuk’s discussion of the dzong’s strategic importance. Our near brush with royalty and the colorful remnants of her religious ceremony were a fitting finale to the day.
Our day began with a trip to Changangkha Lhakhang, a temple that happened to be bustling with spiritual activity as it was a holy day. This visit was the first time I had been amidst so many Bhutanese in a historical religious place and helped bridge my separate understandings of the country’s history, religion, and current daily life for the first time. The line into the inside of the temple wrapped around the large hill at its base. Our insider access allowed us to skip the line and head straight up and in, where we received holy water and a blessing from Buddhist monks. While I was grateful for the treatment, I felt like I missed out on the crucial feeling of anticipation and discipline that religion requires and I worried about its fairness. However, I sensed no anger or displeasure from anyone around us; perhaps they had enlightenment on their mind and made the choice resulting in positive karma in accommodating us. Something remarkable I noticed inside (which I touched on in an earlier entry) is the people’s coexistence with even the flies. A church in the U.S. would probably make haste to swat whatever insect that entered its doors. I may be making too much of this, but the Buddhist respect for all sentient beings seeps through even the smallest of observations about the country.
After enjoying the hilltop view, we left to explore one of my favorite destinations yet: the Royal Textile Museum. I was impressed by the variety and painstaking detail of the works, and I enjoyed the history tidbits that came with each plaque. In particular, I learned of a brooch necklace worn by women in medieval Bhutan that doubled as a swinging weapon in self-defense. I also learned about the patterns native to each region; hopefully I can appreciate the Kiras I see in the craft market next time I visit. The museum presented some of Bhutan’s greatest sources of beauty and made me feel more connected to the people and their unique traditional dress.
Back at campus, we had our second brush with royalty when Ashi Kesang Choden Tashi visited and presented some information on our Day 5 destination: Punakha Dzong. Surprisingly, I learned just as much about the Dzong’s history as I did about the Royal Family and their personal relations. The princess was down-to-earth yet regal. Her retelling of the stories around the building of Punakha Dzong and then about Zhabdrung’s theft and fake disposal of a Tibetan relic were my favorite part of her lecture because they involved the combination of history and legend like so much of Bhutan’s heritage does.
As our last activity of the day, we had a screening of “The Next Guardian” by Arun Bhattarai. For as much as I am learning about the medieval and religious history of Bhutan, I had been eager to discuss its current social and political affairs. This film offered me a taste of that in a highly personal and enjoyable way. In the struggles and identities of Tashi, Gyembo, and their father, the Bhutanese search for happiness was evident. Two quotes by the father, in particular, relate to our course subject matter and give insight into what the country prioritizes as legitimize paths to happiness: “Culture… it is the key to our happiness” and “Religious education is for the benefit of all human beings.” These statements did not surprise me, but I was surprised by Tashi’s father’s acceptance of her identity and his Buddhist reasoning behind it.
Waking up at the homestay, heading down the ladder, and enjoying a breakfast of egg and fried rice gave the day an authentic Bhutanese flavor from the start. After saying goodbye to our gracious hosts, we left for our Khamsum Valley Chorten Hike. I could sense the beauty of this location from the car window as I gazed at the stream we would soon cross. Prayer flags adorned the suspension bridge and indicated its sanctity. The hike up was beautiful and enjoyable despite my less-than-ideal footwear. At the top, Namgay explained that the purpose of this site was the protection of the Royal Family and their Buddhist tradition in case of internal conflict. It was finished in the early 1990s, but I did not realize that such a threat existed at the time. Would this tie in to the rapid modernization underway and the Royal Family’s fear of backlash?
Inside the Chorten, the artwork was beautifully detailed and new themes and images appeared as we ventured higher. Several interesting images I saw include the flayed man and a figure with a fish head. After soaking up the hilltop view we trekked back down and over the suspension bridge.
Next up was the Sangchen Dorji Lhedup Nunnery. Here, I was surprised to learn from Namgay that women have their own deities to pray to. So far, I found the artwork here the most engaging. One scene showed a birth, which is something I have not noticed being portrayed much in Buddhist art or legends (probably because many great Gurus and leaders have mythic origin stories involving them emerging from a lotus, for example).
Our last stop of the day was the Royal Botanical Garden. I was impressed by the country’s commitment to the preservation of and education pertaining to wildlife and the environment. The biological corridors connecting the nature reserves surprised me. While the U.S. has large national parks, it does not offer something as accessible and education-oriented on a small scale for its citizens. The concept of a state-funded nature reserve is not unique to Bhutan, but it sure does compliment the Buddhist respect for all sentient beings and create an environment conducive to good karma.
That bittersweet feeling of our near departure was almost overshadowed by the fatigue that overcame me waking up early on our last full day in Bhutan. I had been going from 8am to 8pm for almost two weeks, with little sleep, and an 11 hour time difference. Was saving THE hike (of 10,000 ft) up to Tiger’s Nest for the last day a blessing or a curse? The faculty at Royal Thimphu claimed that saving it for the end allowed us time to adjust to the altitude, but can anything truly prepare you for less oxygen than you’re used to functioning on daily?
At 8am we hit the road to Paro. The hour drive was just as majestic as the first time we witnessed it, 13 days ago. Leaving Thimphu revealed the truly rural, agriculture nature of the country. Cows often walked alongside our van on the twisting roads and Bhutanese carrying bundles of rice or wheat on their backs became a sight.
Paro. We passed the one-gate airport that we would be visiting in a little over 24 hours. But not before Bhutan’s most iconic and sacred trek. The van took us further outside the town than I expected, but before long, from miles away, a white dot on a mountain cliffside entered my view. Even from a distance, the severity of the drop from the monastery was clear. There was no path in sight, and I then understood why they estimated three hours hiking one-way.
At the base, vendors littered the space between the trees and donkeys lounged around available to ride halfway up. Looking back, the beginning, half-way point, and end of the hike stand out vividly, but everything in between is blurry. Except, I remember being out-of-breath and red-faced most of the time. Although, I still managed to keep at the front of the pack. I blame my excitement for that. And the breath-taking mountain vistas that would distract anyone from the task at hand.
On the way up, I connected with fellow tourists from India, who expressed genuine interest in our home state and study abroad experience. I saw native Bhutanese, young children, older men & women, and a handful of tourists from far-away places. I’ve never experienced a hike with so much traffic, and of such diversity. The site’s holy status for Buddhists and simple sightseeing value truly draws crowds.
At the top, we waited for the rest of our group while blasting some country music (although it was not my musical choice, I enjoyed it nonetheless). The temple, although architecturally mind-boggling, would have left me wanting more had McKenzie, Michael, and I not decided to wait in line in a narrow hallway for what strangers had described as a hidden altar. After fifteen minutes in line I wanted to give up (I knew the interior would be closing in minutes for lunch), but I caught a sight of an impossibly skinny plank of wood disappearing into darkness and told myself I would the worst for skipping out. I am not exaggerating when I say that this venture has taken the most agility, concentration, and constant mental reassurance of probably anything physical thing I have ever done. It was pitch black, except for the opening at the top serving as both entrance and exit, and I was barefoot navigating the nail-covered rocks and ladders. Also, I am slow and had to cope with adults, children, and monks behind me that were able to effortlessly fly down. At some point, I had to launch myself off of a horizontal, sloping ladder that I had barely managed to scoot down and onto a precariously perched rock. From there, only normal ladders were left going downwards, and those I could handle. Once my feet felt solid rock again, the walls tightened in front of me until they could only host one person at a time. McKenzie and Michael reappeared into the dim lighting to tell me to venture ahead to a beautiful sight. There, where the rock walls met, stood a tiny altar carved into the stone wall lit by a single candle. Offerings of candy, bread, and flowers were the only adornments to the beautifully bare space. The cold, radiating off the mountain walls, and the quiet calmed me, yet also evoked an unnameable emotion from deep inside me. Were the exhaustion and lack of oxygen playing a part in this? Almost certainly. But I think back now, to the isolation and antiquity of the site, its spiritual significance, and the hardship that it took to see and get teary-eyed. So few people have seen this tiny spot, there are no pictures of it online (at least none that I could find), and I think it may be the spot rumoured to have held the famous Guru Rinpoche in the 1600s when he brought Buddhism from Tibet to Bhutan. If I had to pick favorites, these two minutes alone in the altar crevice were my favorite of the whole trip.