Back in 2007 I traveled across Bhutan on my motorbike. I had kept those memories locked away for almost 4 years but here they are now. My most memorable moments in Bhutan.
A preview to the Kingdom in the Clouds.
The one thing the Bhutanese government seemed to have borrowed from their Indian counterparts is the love for excessive red tape and bureaucracy. Immediately after entering the country, i got my motorbike impounded for driving without a helmet. I had to run around town in order to get my bike released and to arrange for all the necessary permits to travel further. It was all very tiring and it was late afternoon by the time i started driving towards Thimphu.
A few minutes into the drive i was greeted with the most extraordinary sight. The plains of India were sprawled below in front of me. Golden sunlight was streaming in through the clouds and glistening off the rooftops and off the waters of a river that snaked its way across the plains. The sight gave me an unmistakable feel of leaving one world and entering another.
Soon, I was once again awestruck as i came upon a sea of clouds enveloping the hills around me with the sky colored fiery red by the setting sun. I was literally on cloud-9 and if these two sights were a preview of what is to come then this was going to be an amazing trip indeed.
Festive spirits.. lift me up.
After a few days in Bhutan I was all ‘Dzonged Out’ from visiting the numerous forts (dzongs) and temples (lakhangs). No doubt they were interesting, but i was tired of looking from the outside and longed for some human experience. The Nalakar Tsechu happening in Bumthang was just the ticket i needed to break the monotony of the Dzongs.
It was my first Buddhist festival and i immensely enjoyed the spectacle. The festival took place in a open field next to a small temple. The atmosphere was very jolly with many of the local villagers coming back home especially for the festival. I was lucky enough to be sitting next to a local official who knew English and explained to me the significance of the different dances that were taking place.
Lunch was an interesting experience. I bought a plate of dumplings and what looked like sausage. Normally i enjoy trying local food but not this time. The meat in the dumplings was very hard, chewy and frankly did not taste good. And the sausage thing was even worse. Fortunately, some Bhutanese men saw me struggling and invited me to share their food. Homemade pork curry and rice. It was delicious. Turns out these guys were tour operators from Thimphu. We chatted for a while and they even invited me to come along with them during the next snowman trek. All i had to do was to pay for a porter and they’ll take care of the rest. It was a generous gesture and i was pretty moved by the entire experience.
Breaking the ice.. enjoying the after-festival celebrations as a insider
Ah !! what a difference a small gesture makes. There i was watching a festival, taking photos and talking to the locals when one of them asked me to follow him to the temple. We entered a dimly lit room and in it were three lamas, each sitting behind a small table piled with money. Occasionally someone would go up to the lamas, and with an exaggerated gesture slap some money down on their table. This would accompanied by huge cheers from the people in the room and the donor would be whisked away to be given a generous swig of Ara.
Seeing me in the room, everyone gestured me to give some money to the lamas. I hesitated at first but soon relented and went around the room placing my offerings on the tables. It did not matter to them how much i gave, but what mattered was that i participated in their festive ritual and this seemed to break the ice between us. I no longer felt like an outsider. Everyone suddenly felt familiar and we all sure acted that way. It was a wonderful feeling, so much so that i decided to spend the night in the village.
I stayed in the home of the head lama, and all through the evening there was drinking and dancing in their home. I spent my evening talking to anyone and everyone who knew either English or Hindi and got to know quite a few interesting facts about the people.
For instance, the head lama is responsible for taking care of the young novice monks who study in the monastery. This obviously puts a lot of financial stress on his family, so during the festivals the entire village comes out to offer money to the lamas. This was the ritual i participated in the afternoon.
The next morning i fixed their computer, had a nice siesta with the family out in the sunshine and went off to enjoy the celebratory archery game that usually takes place the day after the festival gets over.
Bows + arrows + buckets of Ara = Pandemonium in the archery field
The day after a festival gets over, the village elders arrange a celebratory archery game for all the villagers who helped out with the festival. Its a day of ‘high-spirited’ fun and games and i was invited to come along.
The game took place in a clearing outside the village. The participants divided themselves into two teams, each team was assigned one end of the field (about 100 meters apart) and then took turns trying to shoot at the target placed in the territory of the opposite team. The target seemed impossibly small, especially considering the distance involved, it was a wooden board about 3 feet tall, 1 foot wide with the bullseye painted right in the center but yet, the archers frequently found their mark.
Unlike Thimphu, where the participants were dead serious about the sport and used high-end imported bows and arrows, here the atmosphere was festive and jolly. The villagers used traditional wooden bows and arrows and the Ara kept flowing. The arrows wobble dramatically as they tear through the air in search of their targets and occasionally, the spectators. Teams would break into song and dance whenever someone from their team hit the mark and they never miss an opportunity to taunt the opposition archer whenever he missed.
We were sitting just a few feet away from the target and it was not uncommon for an arrow to come whizzing by. We had a (hopefully sober) spotter whose job was to shout out loudly whenever an arrow came our way and everyone would scramble for our lives. It was all good fun and probably the best memory of my entire Bhutan trip.
Phobjikha : A lap around nature
I landed in Phobjikha by mistake. I had planned to visit Gantey (some 10km before Phobjikha) but i was driving in the dark without really knowing where i was going and ended up in Phobjikha. And I’m so glad i did.
The Phobjikha valley is wide and marshy and every winter it plays host to a large population of migratory black necked cranes. Known locally as Thrung Thrung, the birds are revered and their arrival every winter is considered as a good omen. The echoey calls of the birds are a source of spiritual happiness to the people and it was wonderful to see such close ties between people and nature.
The valley was beautiful. I woke up to a frosty morning and spent the morning walking along the edges of the marshes, observing the birds (you are not allowed to walk through the marshes and disturb the birds). Seeing the Black Necked Cranes from so close was another memorable Bhutan experience.
Lesser known monasteries = More fun and More Memories
During the last leg of my journey through Eastern Bhutan i visited a couple of monasteries in Sengor and Trashigang. And this is where the monastery experience came alive for me. These lesser known monasteries see very little tourist traffic and as a result the monks are more welcoming to visitors and happy to show them around.
The Sengor monastery is no bigger than a small house and it hosts a couple of lamas along with about 20 students. As i walked in, the lama was giving music (trumpet) lessons to a few students. I stood quietly in the corner and continued observing the lessons. It was interesting to see how the kids practiced improving their lung capacity by blowing bubbles into a bottle of water. Later i was invited for some tea and biscuits with the Lama and through a translator he told me a bit about the monastery and asked me if i could sponsor it !!.
Apparently they require about 2500Rs (~50$) per month to feed everyone. I couldn’t say no directly, so i told him that i would think about it. If anyone is interested in sponsoring the Sengor monastery in Bhutan let me know and i will give you details on how to send money to them.
A few days later, i visited the Dramtse monastery near Trashigang. The place was closed but a few of the young monks took it upon themselves to show me around. They all absolutely loved the camera and couldn’t stop posing for it. I even gave my camera to the little monks and they ran around the place shooting pictures of all their friends. It was smiles and laughter all around and thinking about it brings a smile to my face even now.
Keeping traditions alive… Kudos to the King
One of the most impressive things about Bhutan is their commitment to keeping their tradition and unique way of life alive. The mural paintings i saw in Bhutan are some of the most intricate works of art that I’ve ever come across in my travels across the Buddhist Himalaya. Especially the works in the Tatsang monastery were quite impressive.
The people i met were all fiercely proud of their country and its heritage. There was little or no indication of ‘Tourist Envy’, the condition where the locals express a desire for a more material lifestyle after seeing the tourists.
It is the people who make the memories
Finally a few impressions of the Bhutanese themselves. I will let the incidents speak for themselves..
Courteous Drivers: Everywhere, on the roads of Bhutan i had truck drivers pulling over to make way for my motorcycle to pass. They’ll just see me coming and automatically slowdown to less me pass. Such a far cry from the drivers in India.
Responsible Citizens: Walking along the streets of Paro, i noticed many shopkeepers regularly picking up trash on the street outside their shops (even from the gutters). Similarly, the day after a village festival, i noticed the village women gathering to collect the trash littered around the festive grounds and burn them. Impressive civic sense.
Proud and Generous: Once, while watching the night lights of Thimphu, i was talking to someone about begging in the country. He proudly stated that there were no beggars in Bhutan and added that when he traveled to Delhi he used to give away 50 Rs notes to the beggars there. When i asked him why, he said.. “We may live modestly here. But when we travel, we travel like Kings”.