Sunshine breaks through in the Land of the Thunder Dragon
07/04/2019 - 07/04/2019 78 °F
Bhutan’s capital of Thimphu gleams in the sunshine
I couldn’t have asked for a more auspicious omen to begin my trip to the Himalayan Mountain Kingdom of Bhutan. As I sat in my window seat looking down, the sun was rising above the clouds. I suddenly spotted what I had fervently hoped to see - the white peaks of the Himalayas. I watched in awe as the dawn made them stand out more and more clearly. I snapped a few photos with my camera phone, then pulled out my digital SLR with its 300mm lens. All the way until we landed, I was either admiring, photographing, or video recording the view. We landed to a sunny, gorgeous morning in Paro, Bhutan. I had been worried about the weather, as it was supposed to be rainy season, and the forecast showed unending thunderstorms. But here it was, the mountain kingdom revealed in all its glory!
A lifelong dream come true - seeing the Himalayas
Visiting Bhutan is neither easy, nor cheap. The only way to be granted a visa is to sign up for a guided tour with one of their agencies. The fee is $250 a day, but that includes everything - hotels (or homestays, if you prefer), transportation, car, driver, and all your meals and site admissions. Plus, being off-season, my rate was dropped to $200 a day. And did I mention that I was receiving an individual tour - not a group one? Only a limited number of people are permitted to visit Bhutan, a fact I could tell by the emptiest flight I had ever flown. We had 16 passengers on a normal passenger jet designed to hold around 120.
The beautiful Bhutan countryside
I was met by my driver and guide, and the tour began right away. I let them know that I enjoy taking photos and they encouraged me to let them know whenever I wanted the car to pull over. This started right away when we halted at the river crossing guarded by Dungtse Lhakhang temple. It was originally begun as a bridge toll booth in 1421, when an iron bridge was built over the river by a man named Thangton Gyelpo - who was famous for building dozens of iron bridges in Tibet and Bhutan. A watchtower stands as a toll booth on either side of the river, and the temple is a short walk up from there.
Chain bridge stretching across the river between two watchtowers
It was cool to climb around inside one of the medieval watchtowers, though you can’t walk on the reconstructed iron bridge. When they say iron, they don’t mean beams of steel, but instead a chain link construction. Prayer flags adorn the modern chain link reconstruction of it, while next to it, a swaying wooden footbridge stands for people to cross today. The spot is incredibly scenic with the river rushing past, the colorful prayer flags, and the temple and watchtowers.
Traditional Bhutanese dwellings overlooking rice paddies
The rest of the 45-minute drive from the airport to the capital city of Thimphu was beautiful. I had to resist making the driver pull over around every bend. One of the coolest things about driving through Bhutan’s countryside is that nearly all buildings look like temples - even if they are just farmer’s dwellings. The king of Bhutan decreed that all new construction should be done in the traditional, highly decorative style. Most are three stories tall. In the old days, farmers brought in their animals at night into the ground floor to protect them from predators. The second floor was for the family’s living space, and the third held shrines for praying.
All new buildings in Bhutan must use traditional architecture
The buildings would cluster in groups of a half dozen or so, surrounded by rice paddies and pastureland. They would usually loom about a third of the way up a hillside, overlooking the fields. Honestly, it is hard to identify which are family homes, which are government administration buildings, and which are temples. They all look so ornate and gorgeous.
Traditional and modern, one in the same in Thimphu
As we arrived in Thimphu, Bhutan’s largest town - holding about 1/5th of the nation’s 750,000 or so residents - the buildings clustered closed and closer together. The palace fortresses, called Dzongs, were much larger, though. From hilltops, temples and monasteries looked over Thimphu’s modern sprawl along the valley floor. The capital is a relatively recent phenomenon, being nothing but scattered hamlets in the 1960s and 1970s. Still, even the stores, banks, hotels, and commercial buildings had the ornate Bhutanese roofs, decorated windows and trim, and carved wooden designs.
My guide dropped me at my hotel for an hour to check in and unpack, figuring I was tired and might need some rest. I was fired up to see more of this fascinating kingdom, though, and was back in the lobby early. We drove to the Memorial Chorten, built in honor of Bhutan’s long-reigning third king. Chorten is Bhutan’s word for stupa, which is a Buddhist memorial usually containing a relic of the deceased person, often a saint. This one apparently does not, but is supposed to be lavishly decorated on the inside, with paintings explaining the Buddhist faith. I was disappointed we could not go in, though. I was 0 for 2 today at seeing temple interiors, so far. The bright golden spire of the stupa shone in the day’s amazing sunshine. We circled the temple, my guide explaining and spinning the prayer wheels. I never knew that inside the drum shaped wheels were written Buddhist prayers. My guide explained that, by spinning them, illiterate worshippers earned the same blessings as if they had said them.
Memorial Chorten in Thimphu
We struck out on our next temple, Thimphu’s oldest, which was closed for restoration. However, we were in the Motihang neighborhood, which was where the Takin Preserve was located. He knew I wanted to see a takin, so we added that to the itinerary. What’s a takin? Well, it is Bhutan’s national animal - kind of a cross between a wildebeest, a cow, and a massive mountain goat. Bhutanese mythology says they were created by its most beloved saint, the Divine Madman, to prove his magical powers. Some remain in the wild, of course, but the preserve has a herd of about 20 or so, from the looks of it. There were also several varieties of deer particular to the Himalayas inside the preserve. My guide stressed it wasn’t a zoo, but it looked for all the world like one to me.
Bhutan’s national animal - the takin
Next up, was a visit to a nunnery perched on a hill with dramatic views of Thimphu. Thangthong Dewachen is relatively new, built in the 1960s, and is run privately rather than by the government (like most monasteries and nunneries in Bhutan). It was founded when a child was discovered to be the reincarnation of the iron bridge builder by Buddhist monks. Reincarnations of saints are a big part of Buddhist beliefs. I was happy that I was able to go inside the temple in the nunnery. The paintings were very interesting, and my guide identified the Who’s who of what I consider the very confusing Buddhist theology. Many of its benevolent gods look fearsome, and sport teeth and claws which look like they could rend a human limb from limb. Apparently, this is to cow and subdue demons, so you can’t judge a Buddhist deity by its cover.
Decorative windows at a Buddhist nunnery
It was lunch time next, and I have to admit that I was actually hungry. I was taken to a restaurant buffet and sampled most of what was being offered. Bhutanese food is definitely fiery, and I had to order a second drink to cool my scorched tongue. I liked the spicy beef best, and had a second helping. From there, we were off to a Thimphu landmark - a towering, 203’ tall golden statue of Buddha, on a hill overlooking the city.
A landmark in Thimphu - a towering Buddha statue atop a hill overlooking town
My guide explained that we were lucky because the senior priest in the kingdom was holding a service there all day to bless worshippers. That this would be popular was immediately obvious by the bumper-to-bumper string of cars, buses, and taxis headed up and up the six kilometer road to there. Our fine, sunny day was quickly turning into a scorcher. I felt myself nodding off as we inched along in the car. The road was lined with parked cars of worshippers who decided to hike the rest of the way up. Eventually we reached the summit, well kind of, as there were a lot of stone steps still to climb. As we ascended, it seemed fairly crowded. However, when we created the top of the staircase, I realized what an understatement “popular” had been. There were throngs there - many sitting cross-legged under umbrellas or in the hot sun. Others circled the statue, like we did, and still others seemed to be just enjoying the festive atmosphere.
Worshippers in the hot sun receiving their blessing
The voice of the Buddhist priest droned mantras over the loudspeakers, as my guide pointed out various features of the site. Senior government and religious figures sat together in a gallery to the left of the statue, while an immense number of red-robed monks sat directly in front. Behind them, were the throngs of worshippers patiently enduring the heat and sun. In the shadow of the towering Buddha, a dozen beautiful golden statues of Buddhist goddesses were placed around the platform. It was an impressive sight, and I did indeed feel lucky to be there on this special holy day. All day, the three of us (guide, driver, and myself) had great discussions about Bhutan, America, and what is truly important in life. In talking about my photography, I had said that every site tells its story in the pictures you take. Today’s story at Buddha Dordenma was about devotion. The devotion of those who sat in the hot sun to show their faith. Also the devotion of the Hong Kong and Singapore Buddhists whose donations had paid for this monstrous mark of their faith.
Built from donations by Buddhist abroad, this statue is one of the largest Buddhas in the world
Perhaps noticing my nodding off on the drive, my guide called an end to the day’s sightseeing. He encouraged me to rest a little, then explore Thimphu on my own. Honestly, I wanted to keep going, but once dropped off at the hotel, I did find myself napping for about an hour. I woke up incredibly disoriented, not sure where I really was. However, I soon got my head about me and ventured forth to find an ATM to finally withdraw some local currency. After that, I spent the afternoon wandering the area around my hotel. I watched archery practice (Bhutan’s national sport), checked out the soccer stadium, and took lots of pictures of ornately decorated buildings.
Eventually I wandered back to my hotel, and ordering a Bhutanese beer from the bar, spent the rest of the time until dinner looking over and editing my photos. My adventures in the Land of the Thunder Dragon were off to an incredible start. Despite my lack of sleep, I found myself looking forward to tomorrow’s sights.
Practicing their national sport - archery