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Worlds Apart - More on the Kingdom of Bhutan

BHUTAN | Monday, 27 December 2010 | Views [270]

The more I travel, the more I realize two things: cultures are so different and people are so similar.  I marvel thinking that a few days ago I was on top of the mountains in Bhutan and now I'm seeing mountains come out straight from the ocean in Thailand.  Both cultures are so different, yet at the end, people are all the same.

Before writing any more about Thailand, I wanted to share some more experiences about Bhutan, since I was unable to write for most of the trip.  As you all know, one of my main reasons for visiting Bhutan was to see the bhuddist monasteries and observe for myself a little bit of the bhuddist lifestyle and temples.  I have to tell you, that I was, not only fascinated by what I saw, but surprised as well.

We visited the Punakha Dzong (fortress), which is now used as government offices, and as a major bhuddist monastery. This is where the dratshang (heads of the religion) spend the Winter, since it's warmer than Paro.  The spot was originally chosen around 1300, as it sits on a hill that looks like the trunk of an elephant. The actual dzong was built around 1600 and it is a huge, elaborate, gorgeous building with a gold dome and brass roof. We went a few days after a terrible tragedy, when 18 bhutanese died in a plane crash in nearby Nepal. The lonpons (master) was in Paro attending the ceremony.  Which meant that the young students had the day off.  Oh, what a treat that was for us!  The young monks, all dressed in their beautiful red garment, were out playing hackey sack and soccer, practicing archery, or playing games on their cell phones. Yes, they all have cell phones.  And they were quick with a smile and to pose for pictures. One gave us a fruit that is bitter when you chew it, but then you drink water, and the water is sweet.  A family who was watching an impromptu archery tournament invited me to join them for traditional bhutanese tea, with salt and butter.  They washed their plastics cups with vodka.  I confess, I've never been happier to be taking anti-diarrheal meds, because we all know how sensitive my stomach is. I was so happy to be able to say yes to all invitations!

The Punakha valley is seriously beautiful and I visited a rice patty for the first time, although it was already harvested, and for the life of me, I couldn't figure out where rice comes from.  All I know is that they eat red rice in Bhutan and it was delicious. Then we went to the monastery of the Divine Mad Man.  He's one of Bhutan's favorite saints and dare I say, one of the smartest men I've ever heard of. Born in Tibet, from what I can gather, he performed a lot of what we would call miracles, curing a lot of people from illnesses and chasing their evil spirits away. He was also a drunk and slept around with all women in town. For this, he is revered and many homes have painted flying phalluses on them, in honor of the Divine Mad Man!  Everywhere you go, the phallus is revered.  Stupas, which are many times built next to a river and have a little fountain running through them, sometimes have the fountain in the shape of a penis.  Bhutanese are, in general, quite open about sex and couples routinely live together before getting married.

Our visit to the Monastery of the Divine Mad Man coincided with an annual bhuddist ceremony.  Inside, several monks were chanting and playing instruments (long trumpets and cymballs).  I once was lucky enough to attend a singing ritual by Gregorian Monks in a cave cellar under a monastery in Florence, Italy, and the music was so beautiful it made my want to cry.  This was not it.  This reminded me more of a form of experimental jazz musicians call "dissonance".  It was really hard to hear! After a while, I did detect some form of rythm, but it was wild!

From Phunakha we went to Paro, and visited the Museum and the Dzong, which were also beautiful places to visit.  But the crown jewel of Paro is the Taktshang Goemba (Tigers Nest).  It is perched on a cliff, over 10,000 ft above sea level. It's called Tigers Nest because that's were Guru Rimpoche (who brought the bhuddist religion to Bhutan) flew on the back of a tigres to subdue a demon. He meditated there for 3 mos. It is a holy place and a place of pilgrimage for the bhutanese. Unfortunately, I didn't have a flying tiger to take me there, so I put on my hiking boots and set out walking the pretty grueling hike. This is the point where I can either lie to you, and tell you I made it all the way up, or tell you the truth and say I didn't. I couldn't.  

I made it over 8,000 ft (in about 1 hr) to a wooden tea house smartly perched on a mountain right across the monastery. I still had almost 3,000 ft and about 2 hrs to go and had already the beginnings of an asthma attach (persistent cough). I knew I was in trouble when, after getting ahead of my guide (who was, by the way, wearing dress shoes, the traditional skirt-like garmet, and talking on his cell phone) and losing track of him, suddenly I saw him walk up the mountain like a mountain goat and quickly reach me in a few strides.  "short cut" he said. The short cut was so steep, I couldn't take it. Yet, he reached me while still talking on his phone!

So hiking tall mountains is not my thing. Hey, I gave it a shot. Still, the view from 8,000 ft above was not bad! It was magnificent. And I had a lot of fun meeting the rest of the tourists who couldn't make it up and were getting over it over several cups of very hot tea and biscuits. I met a Japanese film maker, a solo English female traveler, a very nice couple from Texas, and some others. Generally, there were very few tourists in Bhutan. But I did meet some from Australia, another solo female traveler from Singapore, and a very obnoxious couple from New Jersey. Well, that's all I can remember from Bhutan right now, except that I hope that beautiful morning smell of sandalwood and juniper stays with me for a while longer.

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