In the Land of the Thunder Dragon

Bhutan is a place where the landscape never ceases to amaze, where you receive a beautifully red smile from all, and the food burns with the intense sensation of flaming Bhutanese chilies. Our journey to Bhutan began with a flight from Kathmandu to Paro on March 5. We had the proper connections for securing our seats on the plane, thus the whole group was blessed with a view of the Himalayas that undoubtedly rivals any image you can find on the internet. Some of us might return to Bhutan simply to take the flight one more time. This imposing peak is the rooftop of the world. It is hard to believe we were flying at the same altitude as these mountains, staring into the snow-covered abyss of unpredictable weather and treacherous crevasses that draws the kind of thrill-seeker that some would say flirt with fine line between masochist and pure adrenaline junkie.

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After landing in Paro, the only international airport in Bhutan, we received our visas, put our baggage through security, then walked back out onto the tarmac to board the same plane. Druk Air is the only airline that flies in and out of Bhutan and their pilots are specifically trained to traverse this mountainous terrain and skillfully land on runways tucked deep inside the valleys. Feel free to look up “Landing in Paro” on YouTube for the full experience. Needless to say it was exciting as the plane wobbled back and forth. Thankfully the scenery was enough to distract most of us. The next flight was to a district in central Bhutan called Bumthang (boom-tāng), from which our journey would begin.

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This is us in Paro, experiencing the clean air and warm sun of Bhutan for the first time.

 

For the sake of clarity, I thought I would include a map of our journey. I have already mentioned Paro(1) and the district of Bumthang. We

were specifically in Jakar(2) for just a day or two. 

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Our brief stay near Jakar gave us a taste of Bhutanese food and hospitality. The guesthouse was more incredible than any of us could have guessed, complete with personal wood stoves, hot showers, and one complimentary hot stone, herbal bath. As I’m sure one can understand, we were reluctant to leave. 

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While in this part of Bhutan we visited a small Swiss brewery and were treated with a sample of their delicious Weiss Bier called Red Panda, as well as some of their very sweet apple juice. We really couldn’t have asked for a better way to start our stay in Bhutan. 

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The next day we headed to Öyen Choling palace and then the Institute for Language and Cultural Studies (ILCS) in a town called Taktse in Trongsa(3) district. Before getting to the institute we went on a hike that took us up to about 12,000 feet altitude. Some of us felt minor effects of altitude sickness (namely just bad headaches) and we were all quite out of breath. The views were breathtaking (no pun intended) and far worth the struggle. 

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This shows a few dorms at ILCS and the valley that it overlooks. 

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While at ILCS we had a few lectures and spent time eating meals and hanging out with the Bhutanese students. It is impossible to describe their genuine interest in our studies and our lives. Their generosity is incredible. Often times we were treated like royalty. But no matter how hard they tried to do our dishes or let us cut in line for dinner, we insisted on acting like regular students. By the end we made close friends over games of darts (pictured below), soccer, and light-hearted conversation. The soccer field was pretty rough, but the view was hard to beat. 

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We were also able to try on ghos and kiras, the traditional dress for men and women respectively. This brought even more attention our way, especially when we went to prayer with the students. We left ILCS with bittersweet feelings after a rousing cultural show, put on by us and the Bhutanese students. Next stop was the College of Natural Resources (CNR). Like ILCS, CNR is a part of the Royal University of Bhutan, headquartered in Thimpu, the capital. CNR is located in Punakha at a lower elevation than ILCS and surrounded by more infrastructure (ILCS was on top of a hill with more or less nothing around it). Before getting to CNR we made a stop at the most beautiful dzong in all of Bhutan (and the world). A dzong is a fortress, and this is the second one we visited up to this point in our journey west. This particular dzong is significant not only because of its grandeur, but in more recent history it is the place of the 5th (and current) king of Bhutan’s wedding. He and his wife are some of the most beautiful people on the planet – picture a Bhutanese Elvis and Mulan, and you’ve got them. Another fun fact about this dzong is that it was built without a single nail. Like other traditional Bhutanese architecture, this dzong is built out of timber from the surrounding forests, stone, and mud. Houses and dzongs are well built and, according to multiple people, will stand for 80-120 years if treated well. 

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Walking down the main walkway of CNR (it is very small). 

 

During our 5 days at CNR we had more lectures ranging from the importance of chillies in the Bhutanese diet (very important, by the way), to the significance of chicken in Bhutanese culture. On one day we ventured to a monastery that provided us with a great view of the gorgeous, emerald terraced fields and the river at their feet. 

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I even managed to make it into a picture…

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That same day we had a little excursion to a local village where we were able, with the help of CNR students, to ask questions for mini research projects we are undertaking while in Bhutan. I am most interested in Bhutanese architecture and the social and environmental implications of such building, so I made sure to take pictures of a house under construction. This is the traditional method with locals helping to build in exchange for food and a local carpenter who was trained through observation and a master-apprenticeship style. (If you are interested, ask me more about this. I have too much to write here.)

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This is an example of a finished house, supposedly 50 years young. 

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Finally, before leaving CNR, we made a point to explore the phallic culture in Bhutan. To clarify, the obsession with phalluses in Bhutan is derived from the popular saint of Bhutan named Drukpa Kunley, who, as the story goes, subdued many demons (and women) with his “thunderbolt.” Thus, the “thunderbolt” is painted on buildings and placed strategically on houses and other buildings as a sign of protection and fertility. We were lucky enough to visit his temple and be blessed by a bow and arrow and a large wooded phallus. As the joke goes, Bhutan is the land of dzongs and dongs. These pictures are for real, but may not be suitable for all audiences…

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But despite the phallus art, we did see more beautiful fields and had an enjoyable, yet very humble, stay at CNR. The next day we left for Thimpu, the capital. This is stop number 5 on our map. We will be here, in rooms pictured below, until Sunday, March 23. From here we go to Paro(6) again to visit the Paro College of Education and explore a little more. The city is amazing and we are having a blast. We have met some very intelligent people who have helped all of us explore our interests more than we could have imagined. From Paro we will return to Kathmandu for out last official week of class before we all part ways to conduct our Independent Research Projects in various locations. There will be much more to come on that. 

 

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I know this was quite long-winded, but I hope the pictures served as an aloe to the burn of my logorrhea (lots of word or word-vomit, if you will). Thank you once again for reading and please let me know what you think. All the best and I will update with more soon!

 

 

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