Bhutan Discovered

bhutan map

In October 2019, we spent a week or so in the last remaining kingdom of the Himalayas. Years ago, there had been three: Sikkim, Nepal, and Bhutan. Today only Bhutan remains

In 1975, Sikkim joined India as its 22nd state after anti-royalist riots took place in front of the palace.

The Nepal monarchy suffered a mass murder in 2001. Crown Prince Dipendra shot and killed ten people, including his father King Birendra, and was himself mortally wounded by what was allegedly a self-inflicted gunshot. Seven years later the monarchy was formally abolished on 28 May 2008.

The Bhutanese Royal family must have been worried and we were about to find out. Bhutan has a mere 750,000 people. It’s a bit of grit between the millstones of China to the north and India to the south. Even its flag, a struggling dragon crushed between two blocks of colour, seems to portray its predicament. Bhutan flag

Our visit was costly because each tourist has to pay $250 per day to include transport, guides, hotels and basic meals. Of this $65 goes directly to the government. Bhutan has a strategy of low volume, high value tourism, and it seems to be working. The International Monetary Fund has estimated Bhutan’s economic growth for 2019 at 5.5 percent, higher than the global growth forecast of three percent, but below a few countries in the region, including Bangladesh, Nepal, India, Maldives and China. Will we find good value there, we wondered as we left the Royal Singli Hotel, Kathmandu at 6.00 am on the 8 October 2019?

I hope these notes will help you make up your mind.

Kathmandu was quiet as we drove through the dusty ramshackle city. Many of the buildings have flaking paint, unfinished windows like blind eyes stare at me and crazy tangles and loops of black wires hang from every pole lining the street. Ravens hovered over rubbish dumped in heaps in the street awaiting collection, I hope.

The air is still and the sun is rising over dark distant hills defined clearly by the azure sky. Dogs lie sleeping and groups of men idly smoke their first cigarettes of the day saying little, but bound by the sense of group belonging.

The huddled mass of low buildings, many incomplete and most painted in now-dulled colours, remind me of a poor boy who has outgrown his clothes. Nothing fits, but he cannot afford to replace them.

At the airport, Katherine has been deputised to handle our group check in for Bhutan and soon we are in the air flying to Bhutan. On the port side are the highest mountains of the Himalayas. I am sitting on the aisle, but Andrei a friendly German from Dresden kindly lets me have his window seat for a while. I gaze in wonder at the rugged sharpness of the high peaks. Poking above the clouds, they are blindingly white and majestic.

Of course, I want to know which one is Everest. Andrei, or Prince Andrei as I call him after Tolstoy’s Prince Andrei Nikolayevich Bolkonsky on account of his kindness – he calls me Koenig Richard – points it out among the mountains like crumpled balls of paper. He had flown over it the day before in a small plane.

As we part he reminds me, oddly, ‘In der Ruhe liegt die Kraft’ or that in serenity there’s strength. It must be a reference to the greatest of mountains. IMG_0536.JPG

The Himalayan whiteness does not linger long and soon the plane is curving its way through the mountainous valleys into Bhutan’s only international airport at Paro.

The charm of the airport gives us a first and favourable impression of this unusual and isolated kingdom. No modern concrete and glass, but woodwork highly decorated with ornamental patterns and little security as we wander freely from the plane to the terminal building snapping photos.

The luggage carousel has a model village into its centre. Outside wait eager young guides dressed in the national gho costume, an all-in-one skirt-cum-jacket, among them our guide, Kunzang, holds an Exodus plaque and all sixteen of us assemble with the bubbling excitement of children about to start a big adventure. An 18-seat Toyota Coaster arrives, the luggage is  stowed, and introductions made. Kunzang our guide wears an Exodus cap as if to reassure us he is genuine. He offers everyone the gift of a thin white scarf or kera. It ends in loose threads which keep unravelling and most of the group soon abandon wearing it. However, we pose in them in front of our first destination, the Rinpung or Paro Dzong built in the seventeenth century. The picture will be later used on 30 ngultrum (Nu) stamps affixed to postcards for friends. Many of us are fascinated but the first phallus designs on the building opposite marked ‘Buddhist Art’. I note the use of bamboo poles for scaffolding used in the building of a five story block going on next door.

Lunch calls and we head off down the valley to a hotel with the most polite staff, pretty young girls dressed in long ankle-length skirts (kiras) and red jackets (tdegos), who offer a vegetable buffet.  We will soon realise most lunches (and dinners!) are all the same, but for now the charm of the girls overcomes everything.

After lunch Kunzang lectures us for half an hour or so, but I doze off as I try to overcome the six-hour time zone difference. I’ll rely on others to tell me what’s what.

We drive to a hotel-cum-lodge of the edge of the Paro river for dinner at seven. On the way Kunzang stops the bus to show us, across the valley way up a distant mountain, a small white building. It’s the Tigers Nest. There’s a frisson of shock at the height and distance of the monastery as we will be walking up to it later in the holiday.

I watch a black dog lying in the middle of the road causing traffic to drive either side of him. In India, it’s cows in Bhutan dogs.IMG_0582.JPG

During an essential shopping stop in Paro, Marjorie buys a pink tdego with royal blue lapels for tomorrow’s religious festival at Thimphu.

Wednesday 9 October Rema Resort, Paro

I have a white night with wild dreams about so many different things including climate change and the pace of human industrialisation. Like a saturated solution, whose sediment of dormant youthful ideas has been stirred up, my mind is aflutter caused by the time difference and the new and unfamiliar surroundings.

We have breakfast at 6.00 and leave for Thimphu half an hour later in order to get good seats at the tshechu or festival. It’s now 8.50, and we are all seated in the half full tendey thang, or arena, with warm sun on our backs. The orderly Bhutanese have so many beautiful costumes, women in kiras and men in ghos. There’s a feast of colour all around. The crowd is awash with restless conversation as it constantly absorbs more incoming visitors.

To my left is the main building which overlooks the arena. It has so many windows, decorated with patterns and surmounted with spandrels and pediments. It says luxury and craftsmanship. The central window is decorated with black, red and yellow drapes. It is the throne room for the head of the monks, the Bhutanese ‘Pope’.

Friendly, unarmed troops in sandy fatigues and red berets, each with his or her name clearly embroidered above their left breast, help, guide and gently direct people to their hard granite seats. Wise visitors carry cushions, or carpets to soften the hours of watching.

This day two of the festival and due to start with the dance of the Twenty-one Black Hats (Zhana Nyerchig Cham).

The sun is getting higher and hotter, but the clouds are massing too. A procession of the monks in crimson cloaks headed by a jester walks diagonally across the arena, followed by ladies in striped dresses and sparkly jackets. Each person shows their pride in the face.

IMG_0613_1.jpgThree clowns wearing masks with droopy phalluses kneel before the ‘Pope’; the festival is about to begin. The clowns or jesters start to chant, their voices barely audible above the hubbub of the crowd. Now they dance and chant. Applause. Two lines of eighteen performers start a ritualised movement – dance would be too misleading a word – to the reverberating and amplified chanting of the monks. This is not the dance of the black hats, everyone is bareheaded, it is the Chozha, Tony Frail informs me.

IMG_0622.JPG

The forty-five minute Chozha is over, now its the turn of amplified bells and cymbals and monks in yellow skirts with coloured under-layers and speared headdresses to perform the athletic Raksha Mancham which involves them leaping about.

The crowd still flows in, merging ever closer to the dancers as fretful guides try to usher the late European guests to places in the crowd. The kindness and placidity of the Bhutanese police is most evident when they help ladies – bent double with age and tapping their walking sticks as if beating out a Morse code message – to favourable spots in the crowd.

IMG_0623.JPGIt’s 10:10 and thirteen women in red, tight in a single line sing a religious chant.

Half an hour has passed and still people flow in. The crowd swells, with the newcomers slowly and inexorably encroaching on the arena.

Now it’s thirteen dancers with swords. They swirl and twirls the swords while a black-headed jester collects paper money willingly thrust at him by the crowd.

Two hours on and the dances become less interesting although not less colourful. By way of divertissement, a jester with a giant phallus enters the crowd to be greeted by young men and women waiting to be photographed next to him with the phallus prominently displayed. He utters, ‘Hello, hip, hip, lucky, lucky, over here,’ and the willing spectators make room for him to sit next to them.

11.30. The crowd at its zenith claps as the thirteenth and final dancer whirls and hops his way off the arena.

Umbrellas spring up, but in response to the sun. It is hot. The Dance of the Noblemen and Noblewomen (the Pholey Moley) begins. The Noblemen wear yellow scarves across and around them and their Sèvres blue cuffs catch the eye. Next, the twenty Noblewomen dance, using clear and precise hand gestures, emphasised by their upturned lime green cuffs. They welcome and bow to the Noblemen, only later to reject them with total politeness and a catching smile.

The crowd laughs at a jester chased by a man dressed as a dog who tries to hit him with a large white ball on a string A man dressed as a stag jumps for joy in this light-hearted dance of the stag and hound.

There’s ceaseless movement in the colourful crowd, new arrivals search for seats as the first leavers depart; lunchtime is close. Our lunch is scheduled in town and reluctantly we must leave a most fascinating scene. The festival has two more days to run, but we will not return.

Lunch is at the Gakyil Hotel in town. It’s another buffet, chicken, but tasty if you avoid the small bits of chicken surround by bones or is it the other way around?

After lunch Kunzang slips into another long parole about something – upcoming plans, I think. He has a slow and quiet way of speaking except when he comes the words “But” and “Because”. He says those words with emphasis followed by a pause before going on to explain with everyone hanging on his next words.

We check into the Pedling Hotel. At 4.00 pm we go out into Thimphu in an attempt to get our body clocks onto Bhutan time. At lunch, people had speculated that the 2300 m, or 7545 ft, altitude made things worse.

Thimphu is a long slender town which stretches along the river Wangchu. The sound of construction – hammers, angle grinders and electric saws – fills the air as Bhutan rushes into the twenty first century. New four and five story blocks supported by bamboo scaffolding stare with empty eyes at passers-by. Yet somehow I keep thinking that the country is only building problems, not houses. No one seems to learn from the past about the dangers of the drift to the city at the expense of the village. Money talks, even in poor Bhutan. And Gross National Happiness seems little match for Gross National Product.

There’s a festival atmosphere in the town. The main street is closed and busy with pedestrians. A man-powered Ferris wheel and a bouncy castle mean screams of joy from the young children and happy families. The shopkeepers prosper at festival time, too. We walk up past a long line of artisan huts offering woven goods – bags, scarves and table runners in Jacob’s coat of many colours. The festival at the tendey thang is over and waves of Bhutanese wash down the long main street as we head upstream into the flow. We pass four (the only remaining?) old-fashioned houses with long unkempt grass lawns. How long before the bulldozers will replace them? But for the moment five young children play a happy game of chase shrieking with joy and crying, ‘Out!’ when they touch.

IMG_0672.JPGFurther downtown a living statue covered in gold holds the attention of a fascinated crowd, we could be on Barcelona’s Las Ramblas. Children chalk messages on the pavement while the shops do brisk business. Marjorie buys another three tdegos.

Dinner at the Pedling hotel is the best yet.

Thursday 10 October Pedling Hotel Thimphu.

I wake at 7.15 to the sound of jackhammers and pneumatic drills. From the windows of our corner room, sympathetically decorated with floral designs and geometric patterns, I can see five separate blocks of flats or hotels being built by hard-working Indian labourers in scanty, torn clothing.

The food is excellent at the hotel much better than the Rema Resort, to which we will return, unfortunately. But today we are heading for the Dochula Pass again. The weather looks fine at least in Thimphu and I’m putting on sun cream. Just outside Thimphu we stop at the Tibetan-style National Memorial Chorten. A granite wall topped with slates defines the stupa’s boundary. We enter through a decorated gate along with other small groups of tourists and elderly Thimphu residents who spend many hours there. We are about to discover good karma!

The chorten or stupa is photogenic. Neatly mown green grass surrounds white walls topped by a golden spire set against a cloudless azure sky. We pass to the bell hall. Eight large bells each pulled by an old Bhutanese sitting on a threadbare cushion ring out treble tones.

In the stupa a giant Buddha faces east. Outside Bhutanese perform the prayer ritual raising the hands, palms closed, above their head then to their forehead, to the chest before kneeling then lying and finally prostrating themselves on the wooden plank which faces the chorten. The process looks not only spiritual but also like a good exercise.

IMG_0724.JPGI take the opportunity for a group photo of all the women on tour.

We resume our travels by following the Wangchu river downstream. Kunzang stops the bus to show us the Simtokha Dzong (1639) which now sits uncomfortably surrounded by new apartments which creep up the hillside like a rash and challenge its authority. In the distance on a hillside a giant golden Buddha glints in the sunlight. Buddha Dordenma is one of the biggest in the world. We will visit it another day.

At the Dochula Pass (10171 ft) clouds drift in thin and loose and the temperature demands we add a layer of clothing to combat the damp coldness. The large car park is full of Japanese SUVs and Toyota Coaster buses. The stupa has many small temples, 108 someone says, and it is good karma to walk around it seven times, clockwise. We take the shortest circumference around the highest small temple, before heading for a cup of tea in a comfortable cafe away from the car park which Kunzang has reserved for us. On the wall hangs a picture of the Royal Family. The old king, who stepped down in favour of his son, had married four daughters of the same family. Kunzang beaming with pride recounts that he attended the same school in Punakha as that attended by the sons of the old king. He becomes a little indiscreet revealing schoolboy stories of fights, bullying and even smoking cigars sent to the king by Fidel Castro and brought to school by the king’s son. Nevertheless he is a devoted monarchist, seemingly like most of the population.

Tinzing, our reliable driver, twists, bumps and wriggles the rattling bus over potholes down from the high pass deep into the valley below. We stop for a buffet lunch overlooking mustard green paddy fields with the Chimi Lhakhang (Bhutan’s fertility temple) in the distance up a low flat hill.

IMG_0743_1.jpgWe enter the land of the phallus. From the smallest (for key rings) to largest like giant Communion Candles. They are everywhere and painted on walls too. They are a symbol of good luck.

Through the ripe paddy fields and up a beaten-earth track, we arrive before the monastery of the notorious 15th century guru known as Drukpa Kunley, or the Divine Madman, who used shock, sarcasm, sex and outrageous methods to explain Buddha’s teachings to the masses. There are many funny stories about him.

Inside the temple in a long crimson robe a lama chants in a low tone. In front of him and cross-legged sits another monk reading prayers to the statue of large Buddha opposite. With their backs against a wall, several young novices sit and fidget as the chanting continues seeping into every crevice and bone in the body of everyone crowded into the small temple chamber. It’s a moving experience, yet made human by the antics of the little boys who try to flick the ear of the youngest who is nodding off to sleep.

Outside we wait under a giant peepal tree, tied with karas on the lower large boughs, Alison and Catherine sit on a bench swinging their legs like little girls at school without a care in the world. The visit has been uplifting, although I hear whispers of the indoctrination of young boys.

The family-run Meri Puensam Resort is composed of little houses which make me think of being on a safari. It overlooks the wide Punatschangchu valley with the gently curving dark ribbon of water. Dusk is falling and in the crepuscular light square-jawed Kunzang goes over the next day’s events while we sip our usual cup of welcoming tea or coffee. He seems to take twice as long as necessary, yet no one wants to offend as he is doing an excellent job and he is so nice. Half the women want to take him home!

Friday 11th October Meri Puensam Resort

Once again I couldn’t sleep. At 3.00 am and stark naked, I stand outside the room, to avoid waking Marjorie, and scribble down erratic thoughts: no vendors at the Thimphu festival, the relaxed – or total lack of – security at Paro airport, the trusting nature of Kunzang who so far lent me 1000 Nu, along with thoughts of this unknown country, closed till 1974 and only open to TV since 1997. It is not cold and I stand for ten minutes or so before trying to resume my sleep.

At 7.30 am, I sit for a while before breakfast and let the gentle morning wash over me in the silent valley of green paddy fields stacked up the hillside like billiard tables.

Over the gentle susurration of two turquoise rivers flecked with white and beneath towering eucalyptus trees, we view the Punakha Dzong (1637). At the confluence of the Male (Pho Chu) and Female (Mo Chu) rivers, it is idyllic.

On a tree is a quotation from Lord Buddha, ‘Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates: Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?’

I hope these notes pass the test.

We cross a bridge into the dzong whose white walls are softened by red hibiscus. Kunzang prepares himself for entry by tying a symbolic white scarf (kabney) around his body. In the courtyard underneath a giant tree and surrounded by old whitewashed stone walls two or three stories high, we listen to Kunzang’s explanation of the four friends – the elephant, the monkey, the rabbit and the bird who through friendship and co-operation reach an unobtainable apple. It’s a good story for today’s troubled times. IMG_0815.JPG

We enter the temple. It is cool and the polished floor welcomes my bare feet. Gilded square columns support the high roof from which many coloured cylindrical banners (gyeltshen) symbolizing the victory over ignorance and death hang. Kunzang performs his prayer ritual before telling us in lowered respectful tones that the three giant statues are of the bearded Zhabdrung Rinpoche (the founder of the nation in 1616, as Kunzang repeatedly reminds us) Lord Buddha, and Drupka Kunley, the Divine Madman.

However, perhaps the most remarkable thing is the lack of tourists. Only one other group shares our experience in the most glorious weather.

We picnic in warm sunshine on tables laid with white cloths beside the fast flowing Mo Chu. Overhead three ravens caw for food. It reminds me of the poem we learned as schoolboys:

As I was walking all alane,
I heard twa corbies making a mane;
The tane unto the t’other say,
‘Where sall we gang and dine to-day?’

After lunch, we drive towards Gangtey with a short tea break at the Kuenphen Restaurant in the village of Nobding, a loose association of huts, shacks, and houses with plenty of chopped wood stored outside each one.

Over tea, with the worst of the drive completed, Kunzang tells of the former difficulties driving up the narrow twisting road. ‘I’m telling you honestly now… It was a little scary,’ and ‘I was telling the driver to speed up! …’ I fail to catch more of his soft voice. There’s a general feeling of relief, with nervous laughter about the sections of collapsed road, but little do we know that worse is to come. Soon we will drive in darkness on the unmade road to the Dewachen Hotel, Gangtey!

Finally, to general relief, we enter through narrow iron gates and Kunzang tells us that Cameron Diaz and Eva Mendes once stayed here. It sounds good.

However, there’s no shampoo in our room and I go to reception to ask for some. Initially I am refused, but I protest, mildly, and finally, the man returns with a sachet. On handing it to Marjorie in the shower, she says, ‘I bet Cameron Diaz never had that problem!’

Dinner by a flaming wood burner in the centre of a dining room that could be in the Swiss Alps is excellent, but I need another 1000 Nu from Kunzang for drinks. They don’t take credit cards.

Saturday 12 October Dewachen Hotel & Spa

We sleep at about 3000m, the highest I have ever slept. I feel fine after a good night’s sleep, at last. We breakfast with Clare from Scotland and her bonny demeanour is accelerated by her third cup of coffee. She is supercharged for the day ahead,

In the warm sunshine, the weather has beaten all my gloomy expectations, we amble towards the Gangtey monastery where another festival is being held. The countryside is studded with grazing cattle, naught but dots in the distance. There are no pylons or any man-made structures to destroy the beauty of this magical high valley.

On our two to three-mile stroll to Gangtey, we pass new three-story whitewashed houses with decorated woodwork worthy of any Swiss valley, but we also see poverty. Run down ramshackle wooden shacks inhabited not by cattle but by humans have pairs of shoes outside an opening, door would be too misleading a word.

IMG_0852.JPGA trailer pulled by a tractor, full of happy women and children waving and laughing, passes us bound for the festival. There is happiness in the air. It is remarkable how many people smile and wave at us.

IMG_0868.JPGGangtey festival has a mediaeval feel. A single story elaborate balcony, which reminds of Romeo and Juliet staging, runs around three sides of the arena. The small square below is jammed with chattering Bhutanese families all en dimanché. Reds, greens, golds and blues are everywhere. This is a big occasion and some people have travelled for possibly a day or more to get here. There is an intense village atmosphere, but the crowd, although still considerable, is much smaller than in Thimphu. Women carry offerings of rice in large saucer-shaped plates while dancers to the accompaniment of bells, cymbals, and drums convey stories of life and goodness to the next generation. The festival will last for hours but we must again leave at 12.15. Exodus has planned everything to a fine tee.

After lunch, we drive over the Pelela pass (11,000 ft) stopping at the top for views and to patronise the few shacks selling tourist nick-knacks: yak wool scarves, cowbells and knitted blankets in the cold thin air.

Driving down from the pass the mountains are breathtaking in the splendour. Crumpled by some giant unseen hand, they have sharp irregular ridges covered in trees which from a distance seem like a tufted carpet below a grey sky.

I ponder the comparison between the Thimphu and Gangtey festivals.

Thimpu                                                                   Gangtey

Some security visible                                               No security noticeable

No vendors                                                              Many vendors, a big fair

Grand, official feeling                                               Intimate, village and more friendly feel

Video/ live TV streaming                                          No video or TV.

At 5.50 we finally arrive at our next hotel, the Punatschangchu, on the banks of the eponymous river.

Sunday 13 October Punatschangchu Hotel

Another sunny morning. From our room we look out onto corrugated foreboding mountains cut by rivers and shrouded in green. Once again in the early morning, I am reminded of the peace and beauty of Bhutan. It has seeped into the soul of everyone in our group, I believe.

Today, we will drive back to Thimphu over the Dochula Pass once again. Kunzang is hopeful we’ll see the Himalayas from there given today’s fine weather. However, I think he always says that!

The Dochula Pass is cloudy, no big surprise, and from there it’s downhill to the Simtokha Dzong. We’ll need long sleeves, no hats, and long trousers to enter. Kunzang winds his kabney around his body, with an ease bourne out of practice. Built in 1629 by Zhabdrung Rinpoche, a Tibetan Lama of royal birth, the dzong has a narrow entrance up a flight of steep steps in the thick whitewashed walls. Beyond, we come to the temple and we take off our shoes. Ornate columns and four large heavy-hanging victory banners (gyeltshen) greet us. Once again, the walls are decorated with stories, lessons for life. We pass through a decorated curtain into an inner room. The concrete floor is cold, but a cone of seventy or so butter lamps burn before the brass statue of the bearded Zhabdrung. There’s an ominous heaviness about the dim room, hung with many patchwork drapes and gyeltshen. Eighteen tapestries of Lord Buddha occupy another wall and in a long low glass case lie hundreds of ancient handwritten prayers on parchment. We finally arrive in the smallest chamber dominated by a statue of Lord Buddha clothed in red and yellow drapes. I have the feeling that I’ve delved deep into a pharaoh’s pyramid. Once again butter lamps glow, aided by low wattage electric bulbs. It’s very moving.

We have a late lunch at 2.30 in the Pedling Hotel in Thimphu. It’s a fine hotel and the food is the best we have sampled. However, over lunch Kunzang, keen to show us local food, suggests we go to a momo (dumpling) restaurant rather than stay in the hotel for dinner. Everyone agrees.

IMG_0943.JPGBy chance, it’s the national archery finals today. Archery is big in this mediaeval kingdom. The archery field is long and the targets are small white wooden tombstone-like objects barely two feet high and one foot wide. Technology has arrived in the guise of American carbon-fibre bows. The arrows zoom across the field so fast I cannot see them but I can hear the thud of a successful outcome. We watch as archer after archer in national costume fires one arrow the 150 metres, judging, from the fluttering flags, the effect of the wind and ignoring the hostile chanting of a group of seven or eight jeering women immediately at his elbow. The substantial crowd is almost exclusively male.

In a shop, I manage to change some money with minimal fuss and can repay Kunzang the 3000 Nu I owe him. He confesses he can’t remember how much he has loaned to whom!

At seven o’clock, we leave for Kunzang’s momo restaurant on the main street in Thimphu, the only capital in the world without traffic lights! Kunzang tells us the restaurant is run by people originally from Tibet. The few desultory diners ignore the influx of sixteen Europeans and the owner makes one long table for us. Kunzang explains some options and menus are studied. Choices settle around cheese or fried beef momos with side dishes like egg fried or chicken fried rice. Our meal – two plates of momos, egg fried rice, iced tea and lime soda – comes to 380 Nu (about £4.50) and it’s in the centre of a capital city!

Monday 14 October Pedling Hotel

Wild dogs keep me awake and I have another poor night’s sleep. Rock hard pillows (everywhere) have not helped.

After breakfast, we are off to the Central Post Office. I have cards to post and have heard you can put your image on a Bhutanese stamp. Bhutan derives some additional revenue by this offering. We pay 500 Nu for 480 Nu-worth of stamps. So we pay an extra 20 Nu for our picture on the stamp. We hope our correspondents will notice. We pop the postcards in the red pillar box marked ‘Next collection 11.00 am’. Delivery when? I wonder.

IMG_0965.JPGUp in the hills, a circular smooth piazza of granite flagstones is hot to the touch. Above me is the giant gleaming Dordenma Buddha. Golden acolytes with harps surround him glinting in the sunshine. Everything says luxury, expense and respect. Kunzang tells me the Buddha faces east and 400 km away to the east and similar Buddha faces west. We go inside. It is dim. Everywhere I look I see more gold – golden columns and a golden Buddha. Bowls of gold-looking, saffron-stained water have been placed before Lord Buddha as an offering. They are changed every night at 3.00 am. It is awe inspiring, again..

IMG_0975.JPGWe drive to the Tachog Lhakhang bridge which crosses the Paro river. It was the first to be built in Bhutan but the suspension bridge is unfortunately closed for repair. However, we can still cross the raging river cascading down the mountain at a nearby more modern suspension bridge. The noise is ceaseless and the crystal clear waters show the riverbed rocks which have historically attempted to block its progress. Prayer flags are everywhere tied to the bridge. I read the coloured square flags: OM MANI PADME HUNG. This six-syllable mantra is the essence of all Dharma which it upholds the natural order of the universe. It is the mantra of compassion, says Kunzang.

After a while we resume our journey to Paro for shopping. Dogs lie everywhere in the streets. We purchase nothing.

Dinner is decidedly poor in a restaurant more resembling a scout hut.

With the walk to the Tiger’s Nest on the next and last day, I think we have had a wonderful experience in a country with mores and customs, I am unlikely to find anywhere else in the world.

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