Around Thimpu

Thursday – After breakfast we visited the Bhutan Nuns Foundation, a charity Kutira supports. Dr. Tashi Zangmo, the executive director, gave us a tour of the center now under construction. The complex is on a hillside next to an ancient temple. Donations were received to build the new nunnery, using traditional rammed earth building techniques Kutira had insistently encouraged. It is very labor intensive; workers must bring and pack down the material by hand.

Next, we visited the small original temple, greeted by the resident monk. This building is set into the hillside with Buddha statues carved from earth. It had a great sense of authenticity.

After leaving, we took the bus around and uphill to the new Buddha Dordenma, a large statue/temple now in the final stages of construction with donations from the Singapore government. Its gold columns and vibrant artwork take in a view overlooking the entire Thimpu valley. It was interesting to see newly created art in the traditional style – craftsmanship is clearly still a very much alive in Bhutan.

Following lunch we were driven to the Tara temple north of town. Two monks gave most of the group astrology readings, which were a bit different than the familiar version of astrology. They used birth time, but not place information. It took a while to go through everyone who was interested in a reading and stroll through the temple grounds. Next was a visit with Rinzing Wangmo, the sister of the noted monk Yangsti Kalu Rimpoche. We had a very interesting conversation about Gross National Happiness, as she was preparing for an upcoming conference. We also visited her mother Dolkar Dorji, husband Sonam (who is in the construction business), and their son.

At this point most of the group left, while a few of us viewed the family temple behind the house. Another very unique experience – our hosts gave us a ride back to town to a restaurant called Cloud 9. Great hamburgers! Then it was back to the hotel. Meeting such welcoming and positive people was really the best part of this trip for me.

Punakha to Thimpu

Wednesday – We set out in the morning to visit the Chimi Lhakhang on the way out of town – just past the penis stores (hey, this place is the reason they’re here!). It was a very scenic and pleasant walk through rice fields to the temple and monastery, where young monks were taking music lessons. This is the temple of Drukpa Kunley, a sixteenth century monk known for his “crazy wisdom” and sexual exploits. His story explains the penis paintings on houses through out the town (and throughout the country as well). This is a very interesting culture.

Once in the temple, Winna donated a rose quartz crystal for the altar which the head monk accepted graciously. We again rolled dice (it was 17 for me this time, also a good number) and received a blessing from the sacred penis stick (this is, in fact, more than a bit hard to explain – and on this occasion it was probably a good thing photos weren’t allowed). The temple is of course a place focused on fertility. We met several young couples bringing their babies (conceived following the parents’ visit there) for blessings.

Afterwards we walked back, had tea in a restaurant and continued for two hours on the bus back to Thimpu, with another stop at the Dochu La restaurant for lunch (still too many clouds to see the Himalayas – bummer!). After checking in to the hotel, we began getting ready for the evening reception.

We arrived at the home of Ashi Sonam and her husband Dasho Wangdi. She is the younger sister of the four wives of the fourth king. The king married the second through fourth sisters in the family, not marrying the oldest and Ashi, the youngest. Her brother also joined the dinner, with his wife.

Dasho greeted us as we entered through the garden of the beautifully appointed home, filled with exceptional art pieces. A barefoot server brought us wine and arra, a rice spirit poured over egg. After spending time talking, we were served a fabulous buffet dinner. It was an honor to be there, really. The other guests included the Indian ambassador and his wife, and the international artist Olaf Van Cleef from Paris.

Dasho and Ashi were incredibly gracious hosts, making sure every guest was happy, engaging in wide ranging conversations with all. I also connected really well with their friend Benji and his wife Tandam. Benji is a businessman importing furniture from China, who was interested in music – we talked about Nashville country music, and also the Earthdance gatherings!

We left around midnight with gifts of rice. Growing up in Louisiana, I’d always thought “southern hospitality” was something famous, but this evening was so comfortable and welcoming, it went far beyond that standard.

Punakha

Tuesday – We began our day driving a short distance to the Punakha Dzong which is one of the biggest ones in Bhutan. Reached by walking across a scenic wooden bridge over the river, it was the seat of government for the country until the 1950s. There were several courtyards, and temples throughout the complex.

Through Kutira’s VIP access, we were taken up to the top of the Dzong, to the Machey Lhakhang, to the room outside a chamber holding the embalmed bodies of two important Buddhist teachers. One is the Shabdrung Namgyel, a lama who unified Bhutan in the 17th century. Only the king, and high lamas are allowed inside the actual chamber.

The royal wedding of the fifth king was held here in 2011. Before the ceremony, the fourth and fifth kings, accompanied by the Je Khenpo (the chief abbot) entered this chamber for blessings. According to this article about the wedding, during this time the bride remained in the small outer room we were in.

The views from the top, to the outside mountains were great. This was very much a special place to see.

Since the Dzong was large complex, we took most of the day exploring it. I even met the accountants! After lunch we were running a bit late (the morning had been so fascinating) and split into two groups, one taking the steep climb to the Khamsum Yuelley Namgyal Chorten. It was a tough choice, but I went with the river rafting group. It was a fairly slow and very gentle ride down the river and past the Dzong. About this time, it began raining and we were very glad when the raft finally reached our hotel to change clothes.

After such an exciting day I was really getting tired. We had dinner, then it was great to use the hotel’s hot stone bath, more primitive than the earlier one, in a simple hut next to the river. Still the perfect ending to the day!

Thimpu to Punakha

Monday – We began our day in Thimpu with a scouting mission for the shopping, and also a trip to the post office where we had official Bhutan postage stamps made with our pictures! This was perhaps a bit touristic but a very funny thing to do. Bought some postcards at a shop – now I had a task to address and mail these (later they were quite the hit when people received them!).

Once again we were off on the bus, heading for Punakha – here as well they are upgrading the road. It was mostly dirt, blocked by construction crews in many places. So though it was very slow going, I liked it, the forests were quite scenic.

We reached the high pass at Dochu La, stopping to walk among the 108 chortens there. Cars and trucks traveling through the pass will drive around in a circle here, circumambulating without getting out of their vehicles! Although the day was clear, clouds covered the Himalayan mountains. Thus we missed the most spectacular view shown on the postcards for sale here. We hoped to be luckier on the return trip.

Kutira had arranged with her friend, Her Majesty the Queen Mother Ashi Dorjii Wangmo Wangchuck, wife of the fourth king, to give us access to a new temple built here in 2005, known as the Druk Wangyal Lhakhang. It was interesting that it was constructed in atonement after military action against rebels by Assam, near the border with India. I wish I lived in a country that atoned for its military actions.

Once again there was a bit of frustration not to be able to photograph – it is good we are respectful people. Inside, Kutira and a monk brought us to the upstairs walkway for a close look at murals depicting the history of Bhutan in the last 150 years. These started with the Trongsa Penlop who negotiated with the British, continuing through the following five kings. There’s a longer discussion of the country’s history in my Lonely Planet guidebook – it’s been a slow yet steady transition to the modern world, with accomplishments and challenges. Panels depicted events during the reign of each king, ending with modernization – monks on computers, starting the national airline, and with a cell phone displaying the text message, “Where’s my yak?”. Did I mention – it was quite frustrating not to photograph!

We had a nice lunch at the restaurant at the pass, with of course a great view. Then it was a two-hour slow drive further on through the mountains. We finally arrive at Punakha as it was getting dark. Our first stop was a store selling wooden penises – so of course I bought five of them, they make great gifts. Next we had tea at a restaurant near the store, showing off our purchases to much hilarity. And then onward to the Damchen Resort hotel for a nice meal and settling in for the night.

Bumthang to Thimpu

Sunday – Woke up early, did some writing and photo downloading, then on to breakfast at the hotel. After leaving we were driven to the “Burning Lake” not far out of town in the countryside. The “lake” was actually part of a mountain stream reached after a short walk. The area was draped with prayer flags; we crossed a short wooden bridge and scrambled down slippery rocks to release oil candles into the stream one by one. Auspiciously, some floated, some capsized. Such is the nature of life.

Nearby was a chanting forest hermit. After greeting him, we rolled dice and made our wishes. Of course I wished for Matthew Human’s great success in country music! The result of the toss was indeed also auspicious.

When we arrived at the airport, also waiting to board the plane were the parents of Khyentse Yangzte. Winna and Kutira made an appointment so we could visit their son after lunch. The father and another monk received a royal sendoff from accompanying monks and officials. Our group sat in the back of the plane while they sat in the front. Once we landed we stayed in our seats until they disembarked, a mix of the traditional and the modern for sure.

For lunch we stopped by the culinary school, the Bongde Institute of Hospitality and Tourism. Two instructors, Auke Thijssen from France and Adrien Rebord from Switzerland, work with local students here for an NGO, teaching hospitality skills. Bhutan’s high end tourism concentrates on five star hotels.  Thus there’s a need for staff to be well trained in giving a high level of service. It was a great meal, and really a worthwhile project.

Next we continued to our quickly planned visit with Khyentse Yangzte at his comfortable home and monastery. We all felt honored that he agreed to meet us. He is considered a reincarnation of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (recalling this teacher from our earlier visit to the temple in Bumthang). Khyentse had a peaceful air about him, and spoke to us articulately about authenticity and the need to know oneself.

On our way, we picked up the last member of our group, Darrin, who arrived late at the airport. Then it was time to drive onward to the hotel at Thimpu. By that time it was night which was not the most optimal time to make the drive on the two lane winding road, our bus being passed a bit dangerously by many small cars. Pema, our driver was great, so we made it safely. After checking in, we had dinner and gave introductions all around for the complete group – we are very interesting people!