A portion of our group flew to Bhutan today with two new friends from the US! On the way, we flew along the Himalayas and were blessed with extraordinary views of Mt Everest! Wow! Words are inadequate.
Did you know the only airport in Bhutan (in the city of Paro, at 2100 meters above sea level) is listed as having the most dangerous approach in the world? Only the most skilled pilots are allowed to fly planes here because the aircraft needs to fit between tight mountains and must bank back and forth at angles to squeeze between them. If this makes you nervous, try to get an aisle seat for the flight in. The flight out of Bhutan is more straightforward. Both offer breathtaking views. For more on this, click here. The Paro airport is most beautiful I’ve ever seen inside and out.
Upon arrival, our guide, Sangeh (pronounced sahn-gay, meaning “enlightened one”) met us and draped white silk scarves around our necks to welcome us. You must have a guide while in Bhutan and your guide will carry out the itinerary that the government sets for you. They have some leeway but you will largely stick to Bhutan’s plan for you.
Bhutan is gorgeous and the people are incredibly friendly (even when they ask you to get in line, ask you to stop taking photos, etc, it is done with a smile, a bow, and prayer hands.)
The country prides itself on its Gross National Happiness, claiming the happiest people in the world. The entire country’s population is a mere 700,000. People pay no income tax…the country runs on income from selling electricity from hydropower to India and fees from tourism. It is the only country that is carbon neutral (it is more than 70% forested and 3 trees are planted for each one cut). There is a prime minister as well as a king and queen, who are well-liked.
The majority of people are poor but self sufficient, receive free education and free or low cost medical coverage, and there is essentially no violent crime due to the concentration of Buddhists and Hindus who eschew violence and practice peace (80% and 10% respectively).
We drove to Thimphu, stopping on the way to see the Tachog Lhakhang (Temple of the Hill of the Excellent Horse) and neighboring suspension bridge, both built in 1433 by a man from Tibet (known to be an engineer, architect, and spiritual master. That man had #lifegoals). Then we viewed a junction of the Wang Chhu and Pachu Rivers. River intersections are auspicious here and considered places of good luck. Always at the intersection of rivers you will find stupas from Bhutan, Tibet, and Nepal as well as prayer wheels which are said to accumulate merits and compassion and prayer flags which encourage love and compassion.
Along the way were rice paddie terraces tucked into hillsides; prayer flags decorating every turn and slope, slung on poles or through the cypress trees; an expanse of nature with trees and mountains in every direction; and the most polite road signs I’ve ever seen with sayings like “no hurry no worry.”
Our last stop was the Memory Stupa and the temple in Thimphu. The stupa was built in 1974 by the third king. Walking clockwise around the building is said to remove obstacles and protect from disasters. When going to a temple it is an important custom for women to cover their shoulders and legs. Many modern women from western cultures roil at this but comply out of respect. There are guards carefully watching for this at the entrance in some cases. At this particular temple I was surprised to see a security officer screening bags through an airport-type scanner. I took an arm out of my jacket to remove my crossbody purse that had been underneath (and briefly revealing a naked shoulder as a result) and not 1.5 seconds later a man was draping my jacket back over my shoulder. I wasn’t technically even inside the temple yet. This is how seriously they follow this custom.
A quick stop at a nearby Folk Museum provided a look into life of a typical farm family: archery, water-powered grain mill and prayer wheel, roasted rice (a classic snack), and the inside of a house where heat from animals on the ground floor warmed the upper 2-3 floors where cooking, sleeping, and weaving were done.
Did you know:
✅ There is no drinking on Tuesdays?
✅ The national animal is the takin, which is found only in Nepal, China, Mongolia, and Bhutan and looks like a composite of several animals glued together? This is an extremely rare member of the goat family. Found in herds in the very high altitudes (13,125ft and over). They live on a diet of grass and bamboo. It can weigh as much as 550kg.
✅ Traditional dress is worn regularly by men and women for anything except very casual occasions?
After settling into our hotel and having dinner, we explored the town, visiting rows of shops featuring handmade woven fabrics, often used for women’s sarongs, bags, or blankets. Each pattern has its own meaning like the celts having tartans to represent clans.
New words: (written phonetically)
✅ Ku zu zempola = hello (with respect)
✅ Garden Che-la = thank you
✅ When toasting =Chay chay chay
This begins the week in Bhutan. Stay tuned.
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