Bhutan Trip 2013

Michael and Matthew Solomon Dan, Iris and Madison Winey

On May 27 my son Matthew, our friends Dan and Iris Winey and their daughter Madison and I traveled to Bhutan, a tiny country (700,000 people) bordering Tibet, India and Nepal.  Matthew and Madison were going to be in Thailand for two weeks in June doing volunteer work, which created a good time to visit.  We were led by our extremely knowledgeable guide Eldorgy.

I first heard of Bhutan in the late 1980’s while working at Aldus Corporation in Seattle, when I learned then that our software PageMaker, running on an early Macintosh enabled them to produce their first country newspaper.  Today, Bhutan is a vibrant, happy place with a rich culture, and strong underpinnings of Buddhism.  Bhutan has a Gross National Happiness index.  They do not measure GDP.  Decisions about environmental issues, economic issues, any sort of issue, are based on the impact on their citizen’s happiness.  Their fourth dragon King conceived and instituted this policy in 1972 to attempt to measure and preserve their culture and citizen’s well being.

The national sport is archery. On a Saturday morning, before leaving the small town of Paro we stumbled across the national sport being played on a field in a park, reminding me of where I met up with friends to play football on weekends growing up.  But these were not kids, they were local guys but real archers, using compound bows, targets 170 yards away--one foot wide, three feet high--with an 8” target circle.  When the five of us arrived, the crowd increased by about 50%.  If you can imagine, 170 yards--almost two football fields--and they were hitting their targets one out of five shots, missing by inches otherwise, singing traditional archery songs (I assume they were archery songs, they were not sung in English) after every few shots, and clearly moving up the happiness quotient.  Saturday morning in Bhutan, Happy Archery!

Traditional Bhutan clothing is called a Gho.  It is a robe wrapped in a specific way, with a belt, coming to the knees and worn with high socks and many different types of footwear.  A Gho is required Monday through Friday in the workplace, weekends optional, although it is worth noting them in the archery photos on Saturday.  This requirement was created to preserve the culture, part of maintaining happiness I assume.

Marijuana grows wild everywhere.  It is not widely used by people, but they do feed it to pigs so they sleep during the day to lessen their noise level, and wake up hungry so they will eat a lot and get fat.  This pot was growing in town along a street.

Dogs run wild in Bhutan.  They sleep in the street in the middle of the day, they run in packs, they run alone, they are mostly friendly except when it gets dark and they get a little edgy in the city. And, they do howl at night, a sound that probably does not impact locals, but it is like hearing sirens in NY when you first arrive there, disturbing.  People mostly ignore them but do treat them kindly.  Some of them are very nice looking, cute dogs, and some are quite scraggly.  They are not typically used as pets.  You have to be careful not to run over them in the streets.  There are also cows on the road in rural areas, and occasionally horses just walking around outside their homes in the street.  Animals are clearly respected and treated kindly, but it is a little disconcerting seeing them everywhere.

The temples are beautiful.  On our second day we hiked for three hours from 8000 to 10000 to reach the Tiger’s Nest Monastery, perched on a steep rock face.  The climb was difficult and we had to stop constantly to catch our breath and rest.  It was worth it as this building, literally is built into the side of a mountain.  I have no idea how this was accomplished in the 7th and 8th centuries, let alone remodeled and embellished 20 years ago.

Our first destination Paro, is a beautiful small city of about 20,000.  The food in Paro where we spent two days, was wonderful.  Bhutanese food is mostly vegetables cooked wonderfully with rice, and maybe some chicken or fatty pork.  Delicious soups too.  The spices they use are milder than Indian food, somewhat like Chinese but really very pure, simple, and tasty.  Not much battered or deep-fried food around, or anything too spicy.  The exception being the Central Bhutan specialty; peppers stuffed with cheese, a traditional dish, which left my tongue feeling as though it had needles sticking in it for minutes after tasting.

The flight from Paro to central Bumtang on our third day had been delayed for 3 ½ hours when I attempted to get something to eat.  I had to get the girl watching TV on one side of the waiting area to walk to the other side to wait on us, reluctantly.  Two cokes and two bags of local made delicious chips for $1.50.  The group of people from India across the way were much more impatient than our little group.  Internet was broken most of the morning.  The people working for Druk Air twice brought plates of pastries and coffee to serve us for free.  There really is a lightness of being in a paradoxical sort of way here. Iris and the kids read, Dan and I played gin rummy, and, the flight was cancelled so we changed plans and drove to Thimphu, capital of Bhutan, 100,000 people or so.  The drive was beautiful, little more than an hour, after stopping at a family run incense factory in a house.  Along the way, we stopped to note a family of monkeys on and behind the guardrail: three of these monkeys were just born and clinging to their Moms.  A large, older looking monkey sat on the guardrail checking us out.  I think he was father to all of these baby monkeys by three different mothers.

Bhutan is a Buddhist country and that is clear everywhere, all the time. On a mountain above the capital there is a giant gold Buddha, looming over the entire valley.  It is impossible to describe how imposing it is standing at its base.  It is at least 200 feet high.  It was cut out of a mountain with a huge plaza.  Dan and I pondered one day whether this was really what a Buddha would want, but would probably not be concerned, practicing non-attachment and all.

There are pictures and symbols of penises all over Bhutan to keep away evil spirits.  You can buy them as objects in many locations.  Our van had a small one on a keychain dangling from the rear view mirror.  On the road to our first hotel, the houses and stores had them painted on their walls.  You can buy them in many places made of rubber, wood, or other materials.  It turns out, this interest in penises comes from a saint, Drukpa Kunley, the Divine Madmen of the 15th century, who proclaimed “everything important lies below the waist”.  He brought humor to the Bhutanese culture and Buddhist monks, a bit of irreverence, and he is admired and worshipped still today for it.  There is a temple dedicated to him where couples go who are having fertility issues to be blessed.  Laughter is a big part of the Bhutanese culture and as best I can tell, it too comes from their Buddhist origins.

This is an excerpt from one of Drukpa Kunley’s writings.

I, the madman from Kyishodruk

I believe in lamas when it suits me

I practice the Dharma in my own way

I choose any qualities, they are all illusions

Any gods, they are all the Emptiness of the Mind

I use fair and foul words for Mantras, it’s all the same

My meditation practice is girls and wine

I do whatever I feel like, strolling around in the Void

I do not know exactly how to put this into words, but there is this sense of a freedom of spirit in Bhutan that I do not find in many other places.  They are a serious people who do not take themselves too seriously; a paradox of sorts, right?

The Himalayas are majestic.  People compare Bhutan to Switzerland. On the drive to Thimphu, we drove along hillside roads scattered with rocks from landslides caused by the rain that cancelled our flight.  These roads are hundreds of feet up these mountains.  It is remarkably beautiful, despite the rainy weather.  At many points, we overlooked recently planted, beautiful rice fields.  We pulled into the capital of Thimphu, population 100,000, where there are no traffic lights because the king does not like them and I suppose, because it makes people happier.

We went to a textile museum where we were able to watch how a weaving was made.  It is a slow laborious process, row after row of the beautiful colorful fabric in the most intricate design.  This particular weaving would take six months to make, yet go on the market for a just a few thousand dollars, despite the labor, fabric and design involved.  There are many shops on the street and in stores for textiles, especially scarves.  Even on a walk at the zoo, we found someone making and selling scarves from their home.

We visited an art school in Thimphu.  When we observed the senior painting class, we found many parts of women’s shoes on the table, and a couple of models of very high-end women’s shoes from France, with Paris on the insole.  The heels of some of these platform shoes, made of French oak were sitting all over the table in different sizes.  Students were painting some of these shoes using patterns as their guides.

By asking a few questions and looking around we determined that the students were working on Christian Loubitan shoes to be sold this fall in Paris.

The students were part of the production process for these shoes which triggered many questions.  Then in the next room over, I was reading the school’s vision, mission, and objective statements, prominently displayed.  The core of this school’s purpose is to promote both the traditional and new arts, to provide a place for students to learn and be able to create their own businesses or work in businesses.  This was a significant art school (we later learned it was one of several) we saw 10 of what appeared to be 20 or 30 classrooms.  What impressed me on the one hand was the thoughtfulness of the purpose of the school and the focus and dedication of the students.  On the other hand, I was baffled by the relationship between the school and the commercial endeavor of making very high-end French shoes; more paradox.

A day later, we find ourselves again in the Paro airport, still raining, wondering if we will fly to Bumtang today, or go to plan C.  The country is literally shut down this day as it is election day, the primary runoff to determine who will be the final two prime minister candidates for the July election.  All bars and restaurants closed last night at 8PM.  They let us eat late, but we had to have a police escort into the restaurant.  There was a political ad on TV one day during lunch and it was all about voting, music and singing, and watching happy people vote.  Nothing negative, just a reminder of each citizens’ responsibility to vote.  All businesses stay closed today except places like airports, not that that means we are going to fly anywhere.

And, we do not fly anywhere.  Flight rained out again, so no visit to central Bhutan, the cultural heartland.  I wonder, that mosquito I killed a couple of mornings ago in my bathroom, smacked it with a towel on the mirror, fell into the sink, not quite dead, drowned it down the drain.  Is this my karmic payback, flights drowned out?  I mention this to Dan who says, could be the 8 or 10 flies I killed a few days ago in my room.  Dead flies kill flight, I get it.  But, no, I am in Bhutan and must see things through the light of happiness and I realize this is an invitation to return to see central Bhutan another time--a must visit but--will come in the fall when the leaves are changing and rain is out of the question.

So, what do you do when you can’t go where you want to go, have four days left in a little country like Bhutan?  Of course, you upgrade to a very nice hotel, settle in, wait for the rain to stop and buy more scarves and textiles. To get in the mood for lunch, we tour the farmer’s market.

Afterward, we went to a papermaking business and saw how they make parchment-type paper, used for beautifully designed paper products.  The little store there had  beautiful journals, notecards, and all sorts of unique paper products. There is a pattern here; you are shown an example of how things are made--a demonstration, then you have the opportunity to buy things from the attached store.  This has happened several times now.  It is also worth noting that to travel in Bhutan, it is government regulated, you pay through the government and must have a guide.

There is one 9-hole golf course in all of Bhutan, the Royal Thimphu Golf Club.  It is located right next to the Royal Palace, interestingly enough.  It is a nice little 2800 yard, par 35 layout and of course, Dan and I played there on Sunday.  Why not, we play every weekend when we are both at home.  It was a delightful experience, especially for Dan who was 3 over par for the nine.  I seemed to leave my game at home; I had to just enjoy the experience of being there that day, practicing my own form of golf non-attachment.

Over these few days, we did several things not on the original schedule that were wonderful experiences.  If our flights had not been cancelled, we would not have seen some of these places, had time for golf, and Iris would not have gone to a botanical garden and randomly met two International botanists with whom she had the opportunity to spend a couple of hours.  There is something to be said for not trying to do too much on vacation.  Our pace slowed, the kids (can not call them that for much longer) appreciated it, we were not filling every moment.  Sometimes, the less you do, the more can you see.  Which brings me to the subjects of color and texture.  The colors in Bhutan are vibrant.  The texture is rich.

The monks robes and sashes are rich, deep red and orange.  These are subtle not loud, but full of color, never tiresome to look at.  Such a contrast to the heaviness of black.

Prayer flags fly everywhere, and some of them are sublime in how they interact with nature.

The prayer wheels, which you spin and then say a prayer, are colorful and vibrant, most of which are small, some of which are huge.

Buildings use many colors in combination, somehow always blending together tastefully.

You almost see the colors in people’s faces, and you definitely see them in their clothes.

Yes, Bhutan was a trip.

Outtakes (created, plagiarized or paraphrased):

There is much to learn about life in Bhutan, you just have to be open to learning at all times.  One morning when I tried to flush the toilet it would not flush.  I thought that maybe I should call the front desk, but decided to finish getting ready and tell them when I went for breakfast.  A few minutes later, it simply flushed itself.  Practice patience.

In America, few people are happy, but everyone talks about happiness constantly.  In Bhutan, most people are happy, but no one talks about it.  They just practice it.  There are no psychologists in Bhutan, but it seems everyone prays and there are endless different books to read about Buddhism and you see people reading them everywhere you go.

Money sometimes buys happiness.  You have to break it down, though.  Money is a means to an end.  The problem is when you think it is an end in itself.  Happiness is about relationship, and people in the west think money is needed for relationships.  But it’s not.  It comes down to trustworthiness.  Trust is a prerequisite for happiness and may be the biggest factor whether in government, work, or personal life.  Not that a little money can’t buy some amount of happiness.

Stapled on the door jam where they were making the French shoes at the art school:

Small Story with lots of feelings….

A little girl and her father were crossing s a bridge. The father was kind of scared so he asked his little daughter, “Sweetheart, please hold my hand so that you don’t fall into the river.”  The little girl said, “No, Dad.  You hold my hand”.  “What’s the difference?” asked the puzzled Father. “There’s a big difference,” replied the little girl.  “If I hold your hand and something happens to me, chances are that I may let your hand go.  But if you hold my hand, I know for sure that no matter what happens, you will never let my hand go.”  In any relationship, the essence of trust is not in its bind, but in its bond.  So hold the hand of the person who loves you rather than expecting them to hold yours. 

At the bottom it said: The message is short…but carries a lot of feelings. 

And in the end there is friendship.  For me, friendship is happiness.  Thanks to Matthew, Dan, Iris, and Maddie for a great trip.

Photos by Dan and Matthew

Words by Michael or borrowed from others

Travel arrangements and making it all happen by Iris

Amusement by Maddie and Matthew

Eldorgy by way of Rainbow Tours

Thanks to the folks at for this great service.  Moving my text and pictures into this format was a breeze.