Bhutan, Land of the Dragon
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We spent three weeks in Bhutan in November 2009. This report covers my general impressions of Bhutan. There is a link to the detailed trip report I wrote at the end of this article.
Bhutan is completely different – the architecture, religion, way of life and landscape. If you want to experience a traditional way of life, go soon before it disappears forever.
Foreign tourists have to book a package – either with a travel agent in their own country or direct with an agent in Bhutan. There is a set price per day which includes accommodation, all meals, driver, car and guide. Unless you are going as part of a group tour, your itinerary will be designed specially for you. It is important to let your agent know what you want to do and see.
All tourists have to fly at least one way into Bhutan (a way of controlling numbers). If wanting to visit the east there is an argument for flying into Paro and then leaving via Sandrup Jonkar and Guwahati to save driving back to Thimphu.
Buddhism is an integral part of daily life and impacts on everything they do. The Bhutanese have a register of Gross National Happiness and even though life is tough and hard work the Bhutanese accept and enjoy their way of life.Their history and religion is very important with many different gods, major monks and their reincarnations as well as the evil spirits which had to be ‘subdued’. The stories may seem like myths to Westerners but are an essential part of their history.
The King is very important and highly regarded by everyone.
Architecture is very different and new buildings still follow the traditional designs. A visit to the restored traditional farmhouse at the Folk Heritage Museum in Thimphu is well worth while. A traditional three storey rammed earth and timber built house has been restored and furnished as it would have been in the mid 19thC. The ground floor was used for animals. The first floor for storage. The family lived and slept on the second floor and crops were stored under the roof. It is set in a typical rural setting with paddy, wheat and millet fields, a watermill, prayer wheel, traditional style kitchen, gardens with traditional vegetables and hot stone bath. In smaller villages in the countryside many people still live in houses like this. Your guide will be able to arrange a visit for you.
Walls of all buildings are made of tamped earth. Soil is dug, the bigger stones are removed and it is carried to the building site. It is tipped into a wooden framework and beaten using sticks. This removes water. The hard packed earth is waterproof and will last for many years. The remains of old buildings can be seen scattered round the countryside. The buildings are still inhabited by the spirits of the ancestors so it is bad luck to pull them down. Walls are usually whitewashed and decorations painted on them. The penis is a good luck symbols. Woodwork (except in very poor households) is painted in yellows, browns and reds.
It is a matriarchal society and the house and land is owned by the woman and passes down through the daughters. It is split equally between all the daughters so some land holdings can be very small.
Sons leave home and settle with their wife’s family. Quite often the man marries all of his wife’s sisters and they live amicably as a family unit. This has the advantage of keeping the family unit together.
Fields are tiny and every available plot of land is terraced. Red rice (and it really is red when cooked ) is the main crop over most of Bhutan. Apart from a few farms who have a machine to plant and cut the rice, all work in the fields is done by hand. The rice is cut and left to dry in the fields before being threshed and winnowed. Straw is either made into big ricks in the fields or else carried on backs to the farmhouse for winter fodder for the cows. Ploughing is done using oxen and a wooden plough.
Everyone (except city dwellers) has a cow. These graze alongside the roads during the day or in the fields after harvesting. The cows have a bell round there necks. Cows are milked by hand in the fields.
Chillies are an essential part of the diet and grown everywhere. They are harvested and can be seen drying on house roofs in October. They are then strung up and hung in windows to keep. The national dish is Chilli cheese and is likely to feature on all menus.
Many different vegetables are grown – sweet corn, squashes, aubergine, tomatoes, broccoli, spinach, cauliflowers, all sorts of beans… Vegetarians will have no problems in Bhutan. Meat dishes can contain a lot of bones and the meat can be chewy.
Fruits include apples, pears, bananas, guava, papaya. pineapples.
In areas where rice can’t be grown the staples are buckwheat and barley with potatoes grown as a cash crop. These are exported to India by the lorry load.
Any surplus food is sold in the markets or on the side of the road. Try and plan a visit to include either the weekend market at Thimphu or Paro.
Fish, especially dried fish, is popular and is imported from India. The fish lorry can be recognised immediately by the smell. The dried fish is delivered to the shops in huge sacks which are tipped onto the floor, sorted and bagged into smaller quantities for sale. It would be fried and eaten whole.
People wear traditional dress for work, although they may change into western clothes at night. The men wear a GHO which looks like a big baggy dressing gown. Socks are knee length and diamond pattern argyll socks are very popular. The women wear a KIRA. This is a long strip of material which was originally woven at home on a hand loom. It is worn over a T shirt and traditionally it was pinned at the shoulders using big broaches. School children still to do this and many of the older women in the villages. Most of the younger women wear it wrapped around the waist as a skirt. A beautiful jacket is always worn with it.
The children are delightful. All learn English at school and are desperate to practice. Foreign visitors will be greeted by greeted by " Hello. How are you? What is your name? How old are you?"
In Meri Puensum Hotel in Punaka there is a poster in reception asking guests to volunteer to join in “Advanced English Conversation classes” to give students a chance to practice their conversation skills. These are in a Buddhist monastery 10km up a narrow valley road. Not only do you have the chance of seeing a working monastery at work you will also meet and talk to the monks. Lessons are very different. The monks file in with notebook and pencil and sit on the floor. They are used to being talked to and making notes. The only resource is the blackboard.
If you have chance ask your guide if it is possible to visit one of the village schools. Education is still very traditional and very old fashioned with few resources.
Lessons are an hour and there are two lessons of English, maths and Dzongkha a day; one lesson of science and one which can best be described as social studies. In English lessons the children read a book aloud as a group. Many lack confidence to read aloud individually. They love to sound out letters written on the blackboard. They then answer questions in their books or fill in the missing word in a sentence. It is very quiet. No-one speaks and group work hasn’t arrived.
The children are desperately keen to learn. School hours are long and many children have to walk a long way to school. There is no ‘school run’ in Bhutan. Even the littlest children take themselves to school. You see them from 7am walking across the fields with their satchel and container of rice for the midday meal. Often it will be 5pm before they get back home.
Driving distances in Bhutan can be long, as maximum speeds are unlikely to get above 30kmph. There is just one road which winds its way across Bhutan. This can be hair raising in places as it winds its way on a narrow ledge cut out high above the valley.
Vegetation is lush an much is completely different to Europe although many of our garden plants are found growing wild. May is the month to go and see the rhododentrons. Poinsettias up to 10’tall and 6’ wide grow in hedgerows and were covered in red flowers in November. There were pink autumn flowering cherries growing along the sides of the mountains towards the east. There was lots of bamboo which varied from about 6" in height to about 20'.
There were crickets everywhere and as soon as you went outside you were aware of the sound of them singing. They are 1-2" long, black in colour and seem to live in the trees.
Bhutan is changing. Over the last few years a lot of the children have moved to the cities in search of work (and an easier life). In some of the more remote valleys only the old are left to work the land and it won’t be long until many of the more isolated villages and valleys are deserted.
They have only recently started to use the kilometre as a measure of distance. Before then it was days travel time.
There are concerns about the rate of development of the towns as provision of water, sewage disposal etc can’t keep up with rate of expansion. New hotels are being built everywhere.
Take photos of your family, home, garden and the place you live. The Bhutanese love to look at pictures and it is a great talking point if you visit a school.
The Bhutanese love to have their photo taken, especially the older women who will beckon you across if they see you have a camera. They crowd round to look at their photos and there will be much pointing and laughter. It may be one of the few chances they have to see themselves as mirrors are not common.
BE WARNED you are NOT allowed to take photos inside temples and of the Gods.
Pictures of our holiday can be seen here.
My detailed report can be read here.
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