First impressions of Bhutan
The only airline that currently flys to Bhutan, is Drukair, which is owned by the King of Bhutan.
There is also only one international airport in Bhutan, located in Paro.
This airport has one single runway which stretches down the valley between a wide river and rice fields.
It looks very picturesque, and how I idyllically imagined things to be, if people had not overpopulated the planet, and lived more in harmony with the earth.
Paro is not a big town.
It has a small center which is truly beautiful, and houses that are spread around the valley.
I am told that the soil in Paro is very rich and fertile, and so the farmers in Paro are very rich, and able to grow a rotation of cash crops per year.
The Himalayan mountains frame the valley of Paro, which is filled with rice paddies glowing in varying colors of green, yellow or gold, depending on whether they were freshly planted or are ready for harvest.
The most striking thing that I noticed as we walked through town, was that ALL the buildings, even the most humble farmhouses, are ornately decorated, and beautifully painted with patterns around the doors, windows, along beams, on supporting columns and around and under the roofs.
Those beautiful paintings decorating the exterior of the houses, depict dragons, flowers, deities and mythical birds and animals from Buddhist folklore.
It gives the town a most charming and endearing atmosphere….
I contemplated how beautiful a place can be, when art is given such a high priority in everyday life….
When even those who are farmers and low paid workers, live with art decorating their houses and adding color and tenderness to their living environment.
Later, as we walked into the remote countryside, I would see this again and again.
Remote houses and temples, decorated with amazing art.
I love nice architecture and I thought about how in many other rural parts of the world, people build simple and practical houses that are devoid of charm, with no design and art. I was charmed that here in Bhutan there is still priority given to beauty, color and the soul of living.
Bhutanese traditional farm houses, have a very practical design.
On the ground level, there is room to shelter the animals during the cold winters.
Nowadays they build an exterior shelter for the animals, and make different uses for the ground floor.
The second floor is usually the living area.
It has the kitchen, dining area and living room.
If the house is small, the second floor will also have the bedrooms.
In bigger homes, the third floor will have bedrooms.
On the top level, right under the roof, there is a ventilated storage room with no exterior walls, which is where they store the hay for the animals, the dried chillies and vegetables.
They dry their hot chillies on top of the metal roofs, which look very bright, glowing in red colors.
Another striking and endearing thing that I saw on the streets, is that Bhutanese men and women still wear their traditional clothing.
The female’s dress is called a “Kira,” and the male’s dress is called a “Gho.”
The clothing is made with local fabrics woven in colorful lines.
The male’s Gho looks like a short house robe which crosses over and is tightened with with a belt at the waist.
It is worn with either a pair of long socks, or with knee-length boots that are handmade and painted in elaborate designs, and look absolutely gorgeous.
Both the Kira and the Gho, have a large inner pocket in the front, above the stomach, which is where they keep their wallets, their cellphones, their packages of betel nuts to chew and everything else they wish to carry.
Paro is a place with much spiritual history.
Many ancient Buddhist masters came from India and Tibet and lived here to spread their teaching.
On the hill overlooking the small town and the river, there is an ancient circular watchtower and an amazing old “Dzong.”
A Dzong is a Bhutanese Fort that has a temple complex in the middle of it.
In Paro, the Dzong is big and it is divided into two sections; the political and administrative section, in which the local court and judging still take place, and a section that is used exclusively by the monks.
It is where they live and meditate and recite their prayers.
In the middle of the Dzong there is a temple.
Around the temple there is a row of prayer wheels, which one must circulate around while turning the prayer wheels clockwise, reciting wishes, prayers or mantras.
Our guide is a young and handsome Bhutanese man with a very sweet and gentle energy.
His name is Sonam which means a “Lucky Person.”
You cannot travel to Bhutan without arranging a tour with a government authorized tour company.
The government also sets up the price of the tours.
At low season it is $200 per person per day, and at the high season, the cost of visiting Bhutan is $250 US dollars per person per day.
It is October now, after the monsoon rains and before the cold winter sets in, so it is considered to be high season.
The price of visiting Bhutan is set at such a high level, in order to discourage too much tourism and to filter out the low budget backpackers.
Tourism does help the economy, but it also makes a big impact on a remote and fairly untouched place.
The government of Bhutan does not limit the amount of tourist visas it grants per year, but there is a natural selection when the price of seeing Bhutan is $500 for a couple per day.
We saw a lot of tourists from Japan, Thailand, France, Germany and the USA.
This government’s set tour price, includes your accommodations, food, driver, entrance fees and a guide.
If you want to go hiking in Bhutan, (we’ve heard that it is the best way to see the real beauty of the country), the cost of hiking per day, is the same as if you were to stay in a hotel.
Instead of a hotel room a driver and a car, the cost of hiking includes the horses to carry supplies, a cook, a porter, the man who own the horses and a guide.
Sonam took us to our hotel and we checked into our comfortable room.
We are staying in a new resort in Paro, called the Tashi Namgay Resort.
It is built in the traditional Bhutanese architectural style, with beautifully carved and painted wood.
We had a lunch featuring some traditional Bhutanese food.
There was a dish of hot spicy chillies cooked with the local cheese, a dish of cheesy potatoes and a veg curry dish.
Rice is eaten with every meal.
After lunch we visited the round watchtower built in the 1600’s.
The watchtower was recently damaged in an earthquake and was closed for reconstruction work, so we were only able to see how beautiful it was on the outside.
We visited the small and wonderful national museum nearby, filled with beautiful expressive ceremonial masks, each connected to a spiritual or mythical story.
Similar masks are still used today in annual festivals, as a form of public theater, celebrated to teach and transfer oral knowledge of the religion and of the tradition of Bhutan, to the younger generation.
At the national museum, we also saw some old Thangkaso (scroll paintings), some dating back to the early 1500’s, yet still shining with vibrant colors.
We also saw a small collection of sculptures of Buddhist deities, tools and jewelry.
There was a display of Yak herders’ clothing, along with some amazing hats made of yak hair.
Those hair hats had five black braids, dripping down from the hat in equally spaced places.
The hat was designed this way to allow the rain to be guided down those braids, so the rain will not drip into the herder’s face.
Those hats looked very cool….
On the streets of Paro, I noticed that many of the columns of the buildings were marked in white colors, like dirty graffiti.
Sonam told me that those were lime marks, which were smeared by people chewing betel nut.
The Betel Nut leaves are imported in large baskets from India.
The green leaf is coated with a small amount of lime (not the lime fruit, as in the lemon family, but a limestone powder mixed with water).
The betel nut is cut and put on the lime inside the leaf.
The whole packet is folded and put in the mouth.
When chewed, it becomes crimson red and only the juices and saliva are swallowed.
The remains of the leaf and betel nut are spat out.
The locals believe that it has a sedative and high energy quality, and that it is also a cancer preventive remedy.
Meanwhile, those who chew betel nut regularly, have almost no teeth, and their mouths are permanently stained in a comical bright red color.
On the streets on Paro, I saw people playing board games, in which they pushed black or white disks around a flat surface table, marked with square lines.
Many of the shops sold crafts and jewelry, vegetables and clothing.
Every Tuesday is a dry day all around Bhutan, in which no alcohol is allowed to be consumed.
Every Tuesday the locals are also not allowed to drive..
This new rule was created to help keep the air of Bhutan clean of exhaust, but it exempts emergency vehicles and tourists taxis and cars.
Bhutan is predominantly a Buddhist country.
There are strict codes of dress and behavior in this tiny kingdom.
In order to enter government buildings, all Bhutanese have to wear the traditional clothing.
Sonam was already dressed in his traditional Gho and long socks, he only had to put on his scarf called a Kapne.
The women’s scarf is called a Rachu.
The Dzong is most impressive with huge rooms and beautiful walls painted with intricate murals of deities, mythical animals, mandalas and incarnations of enlightened teachers, Lamas, the Buddha and divine deities.
I love the wrathful deities which are painted dancing on lotus flowers, with long necklaces of heads, holding snakes and suppressing demons…. They captured my imagination and artistic vision to no end…..
I wanted to stay there in the beautiful Dzong and paint and paint until I became fully enlightened….
I noticed Monks in saffron robes sitting on the wooden floor studying from old texts written on narrow horizontal scroll books, chanting prayers.
Their humming voices sounded soothing and sweet….
All over the hills, across bridges and on high mountain passes in Bhutan, you can see prayer flags flapping in the wind, carrying the prayers and wishes of thousands of human souls.
That night I added my own heartfelt wishes to progress towards full enlightenment and to see the real world beyond the dream of illusions, created by my ego and my limited senses…