The Blessings of Bhutan
Last November, I enjoyed an intimate excursion into the Land of the Thunder Dragon on GeoEx’s Trek into Central Bhutan. In addition to adding plenty of miles to my hiking boots, I experienced spending time in villages that most people don’t get to see, being blessed by Buddhist monks, drinking Bhutanese moonshine and yak butter tea, milking a cow, pounding rice, churning butter, throwing bamboo spears in a competitive javelin game, dancing and singing with locals, spotting monkeys and yaks, trekking with horses (who were kind enough to carry my belongings so that I didn’t have to), visiting many temples, playing with children and attending classes in several schools, taking countless photos, reading one book, stargazing by the campfire, and watching a lively archery tournament (where the winning team was awarded microwaves!).
Here are some of my most vivid memories:
Wonderfully Personal Connections
Thanks to GeoEx’s long history in Bhutan, we were able to have two of their longtime friends guide us to their ancestral villages in a rarely visited region of Central Bhutan. (The five-day trekking portion of the trip took us there.) In the Takin village, we met Tashi’s grandparents, cousins, and nieces and nephews. It was clear they were so happy to have him home and were very proud of his work. Lots of smiles and hugs.
As we hiked to an even more remote community, we learned from Tashi that everyone was enthralled by the upcoming elections. The village did not have electricity and one of the candidates was running on a platform that he would electrify the village if he won. The Takin village had some electricity in the main community areas; we saw piles of cell phones by the outlets, waiting to be charged.
Later that day, after we’d crossed a river and traversed quiet trails, we encountered a large group of cows. Tashi began chatting with the man shepherding the cows. Tashi soon turned to us and said, “This is my uncle. ” We all laughed and said, “Of course he is.” Tashi seemed to know everyone! We truly were in his home area.
It was during our visits to these villages that I milked the cow, pounded rice, played the javelin game, learned how to make ara (the homemade fermented or distilled alcohol), and enjoyed home-cooked meals celebrating our visit.
On our final night, the Takin villagers dressed up and threw us a big party. Each household brought bottles of ara (they were very proud to share, as it’s the only resource they feel they can offer). The center of the room was filled with bottles. Each family would take a turn placing the bottle and would welcome us. I was invited to dance and we performed a song that Jigme had written for us. We all went to bed well before the villagers—they celebrated long into the evening!
Lovely Day Hiking
Hiking was another highlight of the trip. One day we hiked to a mountain pass at 10,000 feet, hoisted prayer flags, and sent our wishes to the skies above. Another day, after a morning hike in the Bumthang Valley, we had lunch at a farmhouse. We dined on pumpkin curry, dumplings and rice, buckwheat pancakes, sautéed radishes, buttered beans, creamy potatoes, and, of course, sliced chili peppers.
Meeting Students & Schoolchildren
Our trek route included visits to several schools, where we learned that all students are taught English and encouraged to develop practical skills. One highlight was in Thimphu, where we visited Choki Traditional Arts School. There students were engaged in honing a variety of cultural specialties, including painting, sculpting, sewing, carving, and metalwork. Our guides told us that the government is committed to growing the next generation of Bhutanese artists and perpetuating their country’s artistic traditions.
Learning About Buddhism
Another aspect of traditional Bhutan that especially fascinated me was Buddhism. After our group arrived in Paro, our first activity was to visit a temple. As we approached, we could hear the melodic chanting of the monks. At the doorway to the temple, we took off our shoes and entered.
While most of the monks were chanting or playing instruments, I was amused to see several who were quite playful with one another, trading quiet jokes and tugging on each other’s clothing. Several monks pulled out cell phones; one made a quiet phone call amidst the chanting, and others followed along electronically using a Buddhist app. So the past met the present in Bhutan.
Later in the trip, at the rural temple of the Divine Mad Monk, I chatted with an elder monk who was in charge of wrangling the younger boys. He said they are restless and sometimes get into trouble. He laughed when I told him boys in America could be the same way.
Another aspect of Bhutan’s Buddhism was that animals were allowed to roam freely. It was common to see cows walking along the roadside and dogs were everywhere. We were told that everyone takes care of these dogs. Once a dog is spayed or neutered, their ear is clipped, and they are returned to the streets.
Just the Right Amount of Trekking & Glamping
The trip combined touring and day hiking with just the right amount of trekking. During the five-day trek, the camp staff made it comfortable and horses carried our belongings. The views were scenic, especially the river crossings.
The camping during the trek was very comfortable. It was true glamping: The camp staff would arrive before us and set up the entire camp. They would come to our tents each morning and wake us with warm washing water and hot coffee. While our chef prepared dinner, we visited local sights and villages. We could relax in a hot stone bath before dinner. Our chef would buy produce from each village we visited for our next meal. Day after day, we feasted on fresh, organic Bhutanese veggies.
I loved our camping locations. One was at a monastery, another at a school, and we spend a couple of nights at the Takin village. It was a treat to wake up to the sounds of the monastery and experience a bit what it’s like to live in Bhutan.
The street markets of Paro were a feast as well, full of colorful textiles and organic produce.
Taking Part in Bhutanese Pastimes
I had heard that archery was a favorite pastime in Bhutan, so I was thrilled when our group got to participate in a competitive game of archery. My team was ahead for most of the match, but suffered a heartbreaking loss in the final round. Our consolation prize was that we were definitely better at celebrating good shots than the other team, with exuberant dancing and singing.
Hiking to the Iconic Tiger’s Nest
Bhutan’s iconic landmark is the Tiger’s Nest monastery, which we visited on our final hike of the trip. We arrived early to avoid the crowds on the dirt-packed path. The hike was arduous, but the reward was a precious moment of tranquility in that spectacular place.
Natural Beauty & Welcoming People
Looking back now, I recall so many riches: Bhutan was full of natural beauty. The people were inviting and warm, creating a lasting impression. And then there were our hospitable trip leaders and guides, Tashi and Jigme. On our first day together, when we all introduced ourselves, Jigme was humble with his remarks. Tashi then elaborated that Jigme had neglected to mention that he’s a professional singer and has produced an album. During the trip, as we drove from Paro to Thimphu, Jigme surprised us with a private performance on the coach. At the end of our journey, Tashi and Jigme treated me to a Saturday night out in Paro with their colleagues. After a stop at a friend’s bar, I was introduced to Bhutanese karaoke and dancing at a discotheque. What a night of revelry!
The next day, it was pure bliss to wake up surrounded by the beauty and serenity of the exquisite Zhiwa Ling hotel, and a final morning in the blessed country of Bhutan.
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To learn more about traveling to Bhutan with GeoEx on a group or custom Bhutan journey, call us at 888-570-7108.
Photos by Heather Cunningham