Bhutan In Five Movements

The Overture

Power Magazine – December 2008

At the remote 13th century Phajo Ding monastery, set high on a Himalayan ridge, Kencho Doji, a smiling 23 year old monk swathed in burgundy robes, holds a piece of a man’s skull. Not just any man’s. This skull fragment belongs to an enlightened Rinpoche, a Tantric master and the founder of this very monastery. “I found it in a cave nearby,” says Doji, “where Guru Rinpoche was cremated.” Fascinated and slightly disoriented, thanks to the altitude – we hiked up over 1200m just to get here – my eyes dart around the cramped room and notice it’s stacked with Buddhist texts, some bound, others hand inked and scrolled. Incense plumes rise into the few shafts of sunlight filtering through the tiny, smudged windows that overlook the Thimpu valley. Then Ding unfurls a zip-lock baggy filled with black balls that look like peppercorns. They aren’t. “This is the Rinpoche’s burned flesh,” says Chencho Tshalup, my guide. “When someone is the victim of black magic, they come see the lamas and eat one of these.” Both men smile wide. I offer a nervous smirk back. I’m no Buddhist scholar, but I know enough to realize that black magic and monk-ablism are not part of Siddhartha’s eight-fold path. The lesson: in Bhutan it’s best to forget what you think you know; to disregard fixed thoughts and ideas; to leave your mind slightly ajar. “Welcome to the Land of the Thunder Dragon,” said Chencho, 28, as I stumbled out of customs and into the daylight the day before. After a sleepless 4:30am flight from Bangkok via stormy Calcutta, I was a mess. Luckily Chencho was there to lead me, bloodshot, into my SUV bound for Amankora Thimpu. Sometimes it’s nice to be going five-star. As we pulled out of Paro International, I could see trucks idling, awaiting that days’ shipment of produce and supplies, which also flew from Thailand and India, and was destined for resort kitchens sprinkled across Bhutan, a nation the size of Switzerland yet home to just 620,000 people. Most of them live in high Himalayan valleys carved by 20 icy, foaming rivers. Aman resorts, God bless their luxurious souls, have lodges in five of those valleys, and over the next week Chencho and I would visit four of them in one stellar five-star road-trip, the only one of its kind in Bhutan. Along the way I would experience a monarchy in transition to democracy, an agrarian society moving off the farm, and a pulsing well of mystical mountain energy. Yet I arrived worn out by a relentless travel schedule, and recently separated from my beautiful girlfriend. After a summer of rambling bliss, she moved back home to London and I kept wandering for dollars. In other words, I was feeling sorry for myself. Now’s the part where you, the reader, tell me the moderately depressed travel writer, “Buck up! Live the dream with a smile on your face!” Which is exactly what I tell myself as I’m confronted by the undeniable beauty of the pine draped Himalayas for the first time. But the thing about sadness is you can’t always talk yourself out of it.

Movement 1: Becoming Bhutan

It didn’t take long to figure that Thimpu, the world’s only capital city without a traffic light, is in the midst of a growth spurt. Hundreds flood in from Southern and Eastern Bhutan daily looking for work, while new utilitarian concrete block apartments, dressed up with Bhutanese windows and moldings are being erected on government-purchased farmland, which flanks either side of the Thimpu River. Some of the youngest new residents attend arts and handicrafts classes at the School for Traditional Arts in Thimpu. This is our first stop, and I duck into studios where I watch 18-22 year olds learn to weave, sculpt, carve, and paint under the interested gaze of a dozen or so moneyed tourists – it costs a minimum of US$200 a day to visit Bhutan. The school is the brainchild of Jigme Singye Wangchuk, the nation’s fourth king – the one who recently ceded power to the people with historic elections last March, and who is handing over the still symbolically important monarchy business to his twenty-something son in November. It serves a dual purpose. To preserve Bhutan’s traditional art and crafts, and teach young people a trade they can use to earn money between harvests. At some point during my vague flirtations in the weaving room (where I learned that lovely Sonam was in her fourth and final year, and that she and every girl here were the first ones in their family off the farm), I began to put it all together. Rampant construction, fledgling democracy, migrant labor, cottage industries… Bhutan is developing, and fast. This realization reminded me of another, perhaps the greatest, recent contribution of the revered King Wangchuk. Gross National Happiness – his inspired policy, which is supposedly guiding all of this development. Fifteen minutes later I was at The Centre for Bhutan Studies, sitting across from their Chief Research Officer, Karma Galay. “Public policies based on happiness are far less arbitrary than those based on economics,” said Galay, 37. In the early 70s, a little more than a decade after Bhutan paved its first road, the king noticed his fellow ASEAN members embrace development with capitalist zeal at the cost of their culture and their environment (see: Thailand). 30 years later Bhutan is in the midst of their own development boom, but if the king’s vision is fulfilled it will come with equitable socio-economic development, cultural preservation, environmental conservation, and good governance – the four pillars of Gross National Happiness. Galay is an intellectual heavyweight with a post-graduate degree in economics from Stanford, eight local dialects and two languages on his tongue. It’s his job to assess how well this theory has been put into practice. He and his team have conducted hundreds of face-to-face interviews across the country. During which they’ve assessed individual income, health and education among other factors. On the whole, he is encouraged. And though this idea of legislated, collective happiness is absolutely an intellectual pursuit, it’s aided by the spiritual. “The concept of moderation, of not being driven by money, is a Buddhist principle.” Galay’s research shows that Siddhartha may have been onto something. “We’ve found that our wealthiest city, Thimpu, is the least ‘happy.’” He says. “And people who practice religious activities are happier than those who do not.”

Movement 2: Wangdue

36 monks sit cross-legged on the floor. Some hold their two-sided drums vertically and strike them with crooked mallets, two blow rhythmically into long brass trumpets and the rest intone an extended mantra that becomes a rumbling buzz. Incense saturates the room, butter lamps burn and cymbals rattle. In yet another demonstration of Bhutan’s Tantric Buddhist traditions, this 15-day ceremony is being performed in honor of the local deities that govern daily life in Wangdue. Roughly halfway between Thimpu and Gangtey, the Wangdue (pronounced: wang-dee; translation: empowerment) Dzong, is the gateway to Western Bhutan. Bhutan was never colonized, but it was once the domain of competing regional warrior kings who marked their territory with enormous mountain dzongs or forts – built with thick mud brick walls, outfitted with massive prayer wheels, expansive stone courtyards and only a handful of small windows. After the man considered the “first King” consolidated Bhutan the dzongs gradually became the domain of local monks. The Wangdue Dzong has stood for over 250 years, this particular Buddhist ritual is over 800 years old, and both will likely stand for the next several centuries. The same cannot be said for Wangdue proper. This interstate market town is slated for demolition in 2010. It takes a minute for my eyes to adjust when we leave the dzong’s dark halls, but soon I can see every detail of this bustling and sprawling huddle of shops and shacks that have sprung up along the roadside, and are surrounded by mountains. “The government talked to the village head. He did a survey of the local people,” said one local disgruntled shopkeeper with a shrug of her shoulders. “I guess the people agreed.” The poor seem happy because they will get brand new government housing in the “relocated” Wangdue, which is already plotted, planned, and paved. Compared to the winding, chaotic, living version, it looks like the soulless subdivision that it is. Meanwhile, business owners are losing their shops and must pay their own way. Wangdue appears to be a casualty of a democracy feeling its way. We duck into Kazang Hotel, a local dive with sticky floors, for some “Druk 11,000 Super Strong” beer, local cheese dumplings and fiery, deep-fried chilis. As Chencho and I drain bottles of beer, Kazang Choden, the shopkeeper fills used whiskey bottles with fresh milk. She’s taken Wangdue’s demise in stride, and plans to open shop in the new incarnation. Chencho has mixed feelings about the Wangdue situation, and considers it all part of Bhutan’s dynamic new age. “Since the election, life has changed drastically,” he explains.  “Before, when people talked it was all about the king. Now we talk about the new government, our political parties. We debate about selling natural resources to India, Thailand and Bangladesh, and talk about how that money will be used to develop Bhutan. Even in the remote areas the people can now look forward to some government services.

Movement 3: Gourgeous Gangtey

Gangtey is one of those remote enclaves. Accessible by a single road and set at nearly 3,000m above sea-level where high mountains enclose a massive meadow and a quilt of green potato and pink buckwheat fields, Gangtey is home to just a few thousand people who live in clusters of farm houses sprinkled on the slopes. During the winter, Bhutan’s endangered and elegant black neck cranes descend here from higher altitudes, as do the nomadic herders who arrive with hundreds of wooly yaks, which lure predators (panthers and snow leopards) into the valley, as well. Amankora has a spectacular view of it all. From the dining room’s panoramic windows, Gangtey spills out in all its glory. Upon first glance, one guest said, “Its like something out of a movie.” But in today’s Bhutan, even a community like Gangtey with its ageless natural cycles and rural, ancient energy, is experiencing change. Which is why on my first Gangtey morning Chencho insists we visit the local primary school. We arrive during “morning break.” Kids aged 5-15 dressed in traditional plaid robes gather, run and play in a field surrounded by mountains (of course), and riddled with cow-pies. “We don’t have a very good fence, I’m afraid,” says principal Pema Dorji. Dorji is standing around a sheltered wooden table with his staff of 13 teachers – also dressed traditionally. While the kids play, the teachers sip chai and snack on chilis stewed in cheese sauce and folded into a light buckwheat nan. Classes are taught in English (national policy) in rooms located in three single story mud brick buildings that have taken a beating by weather and time. They’re drafty with cobwebs in the rafters, but they’re packed with children eager to learn. Some walk-two hours from home each way to attend. Dorji also manages a team of remote educators who travel to villagers further out, so every child within sight of Gangtey has the opportunity to learn. In a country where literacy still hovers around 60%, that’s a major commitment. “When I arrived last year I came from a very comfortable school with electricity and computers. We had none of that here,” says Dorji. He immediately got to work developing a relationship with Amankora and their guests who have funded the school’s generators, computers, printers, and a basketball court. Unfortunately, the school may soon lose their principal. A 20-year veteran of Bhutan schools, Dorji has grown weary of raising a family on just US$300 a month. “I have placed an order for a new Hyundai Santa Fe,” he tells me as I leave campus. “Next year, I will resign and begin driving guests like you around the country.” Development is one complicated beast.

Movement 4: Punakha Time

From Gangtey our journey takes us through the lowland red rice country of Punakha, where the sculpted terraces are drenched in that day-glow green reserved for young rice stalks. Thanks to the eternal spring climate, Punakha is one of Bhutan’s fastest growing cities. Young people are pouring in from the countryside to work in new riverside hotels. Amankora’s eight-room Punakha property is one of them. When we arrive, we cross a swaying, wooden bridge over the gushing river and are greeted by a cheerful bellhop in a golf cart who dives us up to the lodge. He just got this job. “My family are all farmers,” he says. It takes him two days by bus followed by a three-hour hike just to get home. The lodge’s lobby, dining room, and meditation room occupy a restored three-story farm house, while the soothing zenned-out guestrooms – which are nearly identical at all the lodges – are built into two dzong-like longhouses. Punakha’s best view can be found at a new monastery built by the queen – a strenuous hour hike from the lodge. “What’s the queen’s name,” I ask Chencho as we leap across irrigation canals, skirt waist deep rice paddies, and tip toe through thick mud before beginning the steady climb to the monastery. “Well, we have four queens, actually,” he replies rather sheepishly. “Really?” “Yes. They’re all beautiful and they’re all sisters.” With this we both can’t help but laugh. But our laughter fades into awe once we are on the roof of the monastery where we can see a jigsaw of rice fields climb the granite peaks that loom over Punakha valley. We bow, and sip holy water and enjoy the view for more than a few minutes before strolling back down hill.

Movement 5: Catharsis on the Cliffs

Happiness is an elusive gift. Sometimes it hits you in waves, one after another for days, months, even years. Then when it’s gone you can barely remember what it felt like… until it comes back again. And for all it’s Gross National Happiness ambition, after nearly a week of traveling here, I still couldn’t call Bhutan a “happy” place. There was too much change, poverty, uncertainty for that. At least, that’s what I thought before Chencho and I hiked up to the fabled Tiger’s Nest monastery. Looking back, however, perhaps my point of view was still clouded by my own sadness and uncertainty. Thankfully, that too would soon fade like clouds in the afternoon sun after hiking to Bhutan’s most famous and potent spiritual site. Buddhism didn’t land in Bhutan until the 8th century, when an enlightened Indian Rinpoche arrived in the Paro valley and meditated in a cave in the clouds. Soon thereafter he left for Tibet where he built and ran a major monastery. Then, legend has it, he turned his wife into a flying tiger and soared back to the Paro cave where he’d spend the next several years teaching and meditating. After an initial burst of popularity, Buddhism fell out of favor in the 9th and tenth century and Bhutan reverted to its more popular animist belief systems. Interest in Buddha’s teachings was revived in the 12th century when the Tibetan master, Gelsey Tenzin Rabgay arrived. Tibetan Tantric traditions merged animism – including a belief in black magic and local deities  – with the eight-fold path. This solidified Buddhism in Bhutan. “It is said that Rabgay was reincarnated in Bhutan in the 17th century,” says Chencho. “When he built Tiger’s Nest around the caves where the Inidan Rinpoche lived and taught.” The trail to Tigers Nest is steep and muddy. Crowded with tourists and monks alike, it winds through coniferous forests draped in light green moss, past creek side prayer wheels until it finally planes out on a plateau streaming with colorful prayer flags. From there it’s a short decline to a bridge that skirts a powerful waterfall and spans a steep ravine, and suddenly we arrive at a massive monastery that is literally built into the granite cliff face. We make our way past the obligatory military checkpoint, where guests must leave their cameras (photos are not allowed at Bhutan’s holy sites), and climb the stairs to a top floor altar where a resident monk leads us through the ritual of six bows, and fills our palms with holy water. Just as we finish the sanctuary is deluged with a flock of Bhutanese pilgrims who fill the room with their smiles and chatter, and Chencho leads me to a different – much less visited altar on the bottom floor. Only there is no floor, just the cold stone cliff. Inside a young monk tends the altar, while an older one sits on the floor, cross-legged, chanting from memory, next to a heavy-set European woman who also chants, following along to a Buddhist text originally written by Rabgay. Their mantra fills the small space. Chencho and I sit along the opposite wall, next to a gated cave where money is strewn on the cave floor below yet another altar with flickering candles and butter lamps. Later Chencho would tell me that this was the mythical cave where Bhutanese Buddhism was born in the 8th century. But he didn’t have to. Yogis often say that if you sit in a room where a great master once lived, you can feel his uplifting life force. That’s what this feels like. Over the next 30 minutes, the mantra washes over us along with waves of nourishing energy. It’s like a drug… like a dream. Chencho and I look at each other in wonder. The young monk falls into a sweet, shallow trance. Finally their chanting ends and we all soak in the silence. For the first time in weeks my head is clear. My mind is completely open and I am in tune once again. After a few minutes, Chencho and I step out onto the edge of the cliff above Paro. The crowds, the military guards, everyone is gone. He turns and says; “Now you know the power of Bhutan.”