Friday, April 21, 2017

The Beauty of Bhutan Begins with Buddhism

Getting to Bhutan is no simple directive. Visitors only have the option of flying in from Bangkok or Delhi, or if you're really adventurous, you can drive from India. We opted to fly in from Bangkok, allowing us to spend a single night in Thailand on this trip. At the check-in counter at Suvarnabhumi Airport, I've never seen so many TVs being checked in as baggage at an airport counter. Apparently TVs in Thailand are half the cost of TVs purchased in Bhutan because the country does not produce these types of goods. As a result, many people bring in electronics from Bangkok. One piece can be transported tax free per person. If we had known, we'd have brought a TV too.

Pilots flying into Paro are pretty skillful with all the banks and turns just before touching down on the runway. There are only 8 pilots in the world that are qualified to land or take off from this International airport. It is considered one of the most dangerous in the world. It reminds me of the waterway in Argentina heading into and out of Ushuaia where a specific pilot is required to captain the ship and navigate through the narrow channels. If a pilot is unavailable, then ships must wait for one to become available before proceeding. It's a highly specialized and skilled job to have. Talk about job security.

We learned from a close family friend (who we call "Auntie" as a sign of respect), who is a tour operator and whose son is a newly minted pilot looking for employment in Bhutan, that pilots compete to fly for either the flagship carrier (DrukAir) or Bhutan Airlines to put the qualification on their resume. It's a gleaming indication of the caliber of pilot you are. In fact the airlines have a hard time deciding whether or not to hire nationals because hiring foreign pilots is more lucrative for them. What does that mean? It means that foreign pilots are willing to pay the airlines for employment (to get it on their resume), whereas the nationals must be paid be either the government or the private company. It's an amazing job to have apparently if you're a pilot.

Besides Auntie and Uncle, two other people really made this visit a majestic experience. Tshewang (whose name in Dzongkha means "blessed life") was our guide whom Auntie set us up with, and Tshering (whose name means "long life") our driver, who so happens to be an ex-monk.

Day 1 in Bhutan was just pure nature and peace. It's exactly what I imagined it to be. We had the good fortune to be here in time to attend the Paro festival where Guru Rinpoche is celebrated. He is credited with having brought Buddhism to Bhutan from Tibet. The celebration was filled with mask dances and people offering their praise and requesting forgiveness for their sins. Prayers all around. The setting of this beautiful festival was on the mountainside where a glance in any direction gave you a wonderful view of the town of Paro.

No photos are allowed of the king so that his image will not be redistributed around the world or sold for profit. We learned this the hard way when we tried to snap some photos of His Majesty while attending the Paro Festival. He visited on the last day for the annual unveiling of the Thongdrel (seen above).

On the last day of the Paro Tshechu, everyone celebrates this embroidery of Guru Rinpoche. It is believed that by witnessing this Thongdrel it will cleanse the viewer of sin (so that they can go on sinning again, haha, j/k). The Thongdrel is more than one hundred years old.

We learned so much from our hosts. Auntie is the mother of a dear friend of ours from home. Auntie and her husband are so well informed with answers to all our questions and have enough facts to fill a Jeopardy board.

Some interesting facts:
  • Bhutan has a population of less than 1 million people. 
  • Bhutan is about the size of Switzerland.
  • Gross National Happiness is real, and it is measured every so often by various metrics. 
  • Paro is a small town that houses the only international airport in the country. It is true countryside.
  • The military is composed of less than 10,000 people. 
  • There are more monks than military personnel.
  • Bhutan is a large producer of hydro electricity and a major exporter to India, the largest consumer. 
  • Marijuana is a real weed that grows wild in the months of June / July. It is illegal to consume.
  • No areas are off limits for tourism in Bhutan.
  • Fishing is by permit only and for personal consumption.
  • Hunting is absolutely prohibited.
  • Meats are all imported from India, merely a 6 hour drive away from the border.
  • Jesuits began the education system with the one condition that no one can be converted to Christianity. This is the reason that English is the medium of education. 
  • All windows for all buildings must keep the traditional design.
  • 60-70% of forests must be preserved by law. This probably helps with its carbon negative footprint.
  • Bhutan is bordered by India and China, however it is a closed border with China. It makes India a very important trading partner.
  • 4 seasons of weather but all are mild, none are extreme or harsh.
  • 80% of the country is connected with electricity. The remaining 20% are very remote villages, but soon those will also be wired.
  • In-home internet connection is not common. People access through their mobile phones mostly. Internet cafes are available. Businesses mostly have internet access.

Every tourist in Bhutan is a philanthropist. The cost of healthcare and education of the Bhutanese is practically subsidized by the tourism industry which the government strictly monitors to keep high value tourist coming and limit the low value (backpacker / professional tourist). So the Bhutanese do not pay for these things.

We visited the school of arts and crafts in Thimphu. The 13 traditional arts are taught. Many children take these courses that will give them skills to last a lifetime. Best of all, this education is free. I asked about modern art, but this school does not teach it. There are other private institutions that you can pay for to gain further insight.

When I asked Tshewang what he thought of the dynamic between science and religion (specifically Buddhism), he said, "Science is just a way of life. Buddhism is beyond the way of life, it is control of the mind." Fairly profound statement I think. What do you think?

Further into our conversation, he said something else that struck me as well. "Sufferings are self inflicted. No one else is the cause."

On the way to Thimphu the king and his entourage passed us on the road. Sometime down the road we encountered the caravan stopped on the roadside. We learned that a lay person was appealing to the king directly on some important matter. This person must have thought out his appeal and timed his approach of the royal car accurately. All he had to do was bow in the middle of the road and the king is obligated to stop and hear his plea. Normally, a layman would have to go through the Royal Court of Justice and if necessary, an appeal at the Supreme Court.

On the way to Punakha, just after the Douchla Pass, we encountered the Queen Mother and Queen on the road passing us in the direction of Thimphu.

The king of Bhutan and the late King of Thailand were very close. When the King of Thailand passed away, the King of Bhutan immediately rushed to Thailand to pay his respects to someone considered a teacher, friend, and mentor.

The king, the spiritual head, and the parliament are all equal in importance. The king does not really participate in how the government rules. Instead, as a figurehead, he works more with the community and the improvement of society. Only to that extent will he involve himself in government affairs.

Hydroelectric power is heavily used. They are now also experimenting with wind power. We have seen a couple of windmills in operation. I'm sure they will find it to be a good source as well as it gets fairly windy here in the mountains.

The power of the phallus. Wards off evil spirits. Hung on the corner of the roofs of houses or on the door or painted on the walls.

We drove over 3 hours to the village of Gasa to soak in a natural hot spring. We were surrounded by locals, who I'm sure were curious about us. Only one woman cared to ask us, and her English was flawless. Turns out she is from Thimphu and her husband was a former DrunkAir pilot. The 3+ hr journey home was over the same gravel roadway that was so bad we could not exceed 15kmph for nearly the entire drive. Once we got back into the village area, we were fortunate enough to pass an archery ground. Although people still play with the traditional bow and arrow, these friendly matches were using compound bows. The target is situated 150 meters away and seems so far. I don't think I'd be able to hit the target, let alone see the center of it.

We spent a day in the Phobjika Valley. We visited a very nice temple and followed that with a 4km nature trek down to the valley floor. The area is so scenic and peaceful. The horses, cows, and sheep all roam freely. The valley floor is mostly marsh land making walking across it difficult but also making it lush for the grazing animals. Apparently there are many other animals that call this area home, including fox, leopards, and various birds.

In the Phobjika Valley the electrical wires are hidden to preserve the natural habitat and roosting grounds of the black neck cranes who live here during the harsh Tibetan winters where they come from. These birds are considered birds of heaven and specifically protected here.

We did 2 more treks through the Himalayan mountain range. The first was to visit a monastery atop the Chumpu trail. We rose to an altitude of 3400 meters over the course of nearly 4 hours. We followed the newly installed electrical lines which follow the old trail way. These lines power the monastery solely. However, the power still fails at times, as it did while we were In the temple. The monastery and the pools and waterfalls behind the monastery are said to be sacred. Supposedly, the second Buddha, Guru Rimpoche, bathed in these pools and spent some time meditating in this area. For sure, the scenery is apt for meditation. This was a trek less traveled. We were the only people on the trail. So as you can imagine, the solitude can be eerie but at the same time calming. Most people opt for the more famous of the treks to the Tiger's Nest. The real attraction here though is amazing. There is an image, a statue, of the female Buddha that seems as if it is floating in the air. It is enclosed in a glass case but the bottom portion is accessible by a small door. Once this door is opened, you can see where all the donations have been deposited and amongst the paper money, you can see the feet of the female Buddha. The keeper of the temple uses some of these bills to pass under the feet of the image proving that the statue is In fact floating. It is said that it is not suspended by any wires or string but that cannot be seen as the Buddha is clothed and many decorations adorn the figure. You almost have to just believe in the story and take the proof given by the passing of the paper money below its feet. How was it possible?

On our way down, we encountered a blockage in the trail route. A tree has fallen on the power lines and started a fire. This was the reason for the power outage while we were up top. It was necessary for us to find al alternative route through the bush to circumvent the downed tree and fire. That was an adventure in itself. Our guide and driver ensured to call the Bhutan Power Corp and the fire department to inform them of the situation and try to prevent the fire from spreading and to shut off the power on the lines. Our total round trip on the trek took up much of the day and made us pretty tired. But we can say that we trekked through the Himalayas for the second time in our lives now. This trek prepared us for the next day's trek to Tiger's Nest.

The more touristic of the treks in Paro is to Tiger's Nest. It is believed that Guru Rimpoche meditated here for 3 months and arrived on the back of a flying tiger, hence the name Tiger's Nest. The trail is more developed with a clearer path to the top. There are even horses available for you to ride to the halfway point if you so choose. We decided to just walk it, keeping with our trekking nature. Along the way, we had marvelous views of the Paro Valley and the Tiger's Nest itself. Perched on the cliffside, the Nest is an amazing structure. It almost seems to be etched into the stone wall. It's walls fit almost perfectly in place. The zig zag of the path leading up to the temples are steep and follow the topography of the mountain side, sometimes descending before ascending to the next level. The hike itself is not as difficult as the climb to Chumpu but the reward at the end is certainly more satisfying. There are so many little temple rooms in the Tiger's Nest as well as meditation caves where numerous spiritual masters have spent their time. You can almost kind of feel something in the air of this place.

Bhutan is not a country to just tick off your bucket list. Bhutan is not a country where you will see impressive sights. Bhutan is not a country that will impress you at first glance.

The beauty in Bhutan lies in the people you meet. And you must talk to them to get anything out of your trip. The beauty in Bhutan is hearing what these people have to say from deep down in their hearts, from their religious beliefs and how they incorporate it into their daily lives, and watching them succeed and prosper in everything they do because of how they believe. The beauty in Bhutan is in the landscapes designed by following the ways of the Buddha. The beauty in Bhutan roams with the animals that freely live without fear of capture or execution. The beauty in Bhutan is the natural state of a kingdom ruled without prejudice but with care for the people, their education, and their well-being. The beauty in Bhutan is in the temples, stupas, and pagodas that house the essence of their religion, the peoples' beliefs, the mantras, the sayings, the memories, and the hope of a better life for this and the next.

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