Bhutan: Land of the Thunder Dragon

Posted by on May 27, 2013 in Asia, Bhutan, Play-by-plays, Summaries | 0 comments

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Bhutan, a tiny Himalayan country nestled between India and China, has spent centuries closed off from the world.  Only in the middle of the 20th century did its king finally open the boundaries up to foreigners and from then on, the country has been on a modernization “streak”. It allowed television and Internet in 1999 (yup, rampant modernization). Despite the changes, Bhutan prizes its focus on GNH, or Gross National Happiness, the only country to do so. It values economic and physical wellness along with environmental wellness, preservation of traditions, and political freedoms.

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Everywhere you go, you see the juxtaposition of the traditional and the modern. Thimpu is the largest city with a population of under 700,000 but it is getting increasingly urbanized. Even though all the architecture has the intricate, traditional features, there are now cafes, bars, and local kids hanging out in their “gangs”. The government takes care of education and health care, and even sends and pays for the best students to study abroad. Those who aren’t as accomplished can attend state-funded art schools and pursue other trades (see below re: live entertainment). Even though the administrative monarchy is separated from the Buddhist clergy, the two are deeply intertwined and influence the whole population.

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Jen and I spent just under a week in the kingdom, and explored many temples, monasteries, dzongs, markets, etc. We went to  Thimpu, Paro, and Punakha towns. We also did a small trek to Tiger’s Nest monastery, the most important in the kingdom. Had we had more time, we could have explored more of the Eastern side of the country (the less traveled part), the Southern (more jungly), and done more trekking. One caveat though is that Bhutan imposes strict travel laws on the tourists, where you have to spend at least $200/day in low season and $250/day in high season. That is per person and doesn’t include the flights to and from Bhutan, on which Druk Air, the local airline, has a total monopoly. So inevitably you have to go through a travel agency and pay a lump sump for a trip that includes everything (except tips and drinks and souvenirs). Oh and as a side note, on a clear day you can even see Mount Everest when you are landing in Paro!

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Because we were tight on time and didn’t have enough days for a long trek, we did a more cultural route. While Bhutan is prohibitively expensive for most people, I do think the trek to Tiger’s Nest alone makes the trip worth the money. The temples and dzongs are excellent as well, but I hear Nepal has many similarly styled buildings. The hike we did though was the back of the mountain, which meant that we were the only ones there (with our guides), so it truly was getting away from everything and everyone, which is so rare these days! And after the sweltering heat of Singapore, the snow at our campsite on the mountain was a  welcome change!

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During the course of the trip, we learned a lot about Bhutanese Buddhism and the traditions, but I will only point out the unorthodox and fun bits.

First of all, one of the deities worshiped in Bhutan is the Divine Madman, who himself worships good wine and good woman (not a bad MO). In a pretty conservative society, he pulled off some pretty crazy stunts, all highly lascivious in nature, like getting his mom to sleep with him. Sounds a bit Oedipal, so maybe Bhutan’s not so different from the rest of the world.  And the temple dedicated to the Divine Madman has a wooden penis standing along prayer beads, candles, and other traditional objects. The surroundings have phallic paintings, souvenirs, and the like. We giggled a lot when passed them. I still chuckle when I look at my photos.

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Second, we got to witness a Friday night in Paro, the second biggest town in Bhutan and what a bar/live entertainment is like in the country. I think this is how all smutty establishments start. But this particular venue, which serves up 50 cent beers also lets you request a dance number from one of the young ladies for the equivalent of $1. Mind you, the girls are fully clothed in traditional clothing and the dancing, although looked down upon in Bhutanese society, is a far cry from Ping Pong shows in Bangkok, but I guess you have to start somewhere. And you certainly get what you pay for.

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Third, chili cheese is a popular food. Actually, cheese and/or chilis are added to everything which sometimes yields interesting results. Butter is also used to make tea, which tastes as disgusting as it sounds. On a brighter note, yak meat is delicious. More expensive, but still affordable by Western standards and yummy.

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Sadly Bhutan was the end of my Round the World tour. Yus, the lucky duck, is continuing to gallivant through Asia. But I get to spend two months in Russia for school, so the posts will continue from all over the world! Stay tuned!

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