archives

design photos illos contact
 


Bhutan

From the books and websites on it - it's a mystical, enchanted, hidden Kingdom which honors the balance of man and nature - a mysterious place that magically transmutes modern things into the seemingly lost in time appearance of it's culture.

Febuary 26th, 2003



We are headed for Bhutan. There are 10 of us. His Royal Highness (HRH) Crown Prince Tupouto'a of Tonga organized the venture. He and the Tongan Royal Beer members are having a meeting there. Pat, Soine, Eric and I are along for the fun.

Bhutan has strict regulations on tourism but in the past traveling to Bhutan kept many from coming. Flights used to stop in India and visiters had to go the rest of the way by land. Then Dornier produced the 228 Aircraft in the1980s and it "changed Bhutan's history" allowing tourists to fly the whole way.

We left Bangkok in the wee morning hours on Druk Air and touched down in Myamar for an hour but couldn't get off the plane, and touched down again in India where we also couldn't get off the plane and now's late afternoon our eyes are watchful out the window eyeing the high Himalyan peaks which get frighteningly closer and closer.

The plane only seats about 100 people. It is very small compared to the majestic landscape. Thoughts of 'being at the top of the world' add awe to the moment. The ride becomes action packed as the pilot has to dive and twist the plane to get inbetween the 16,000ft, um, hills, and deep down to the only land flat enough and long enough to land on, all this while using good old-fashioned "anyone see it?" visuals. The offical Royal Bhutan Airlines website describes it as "each flight is a mesmerising aeronautical feat and offers an exciting descent into the kingdom."

 

Paro Airport
Despite the partial clouds it is sunny and warm. There is little wind. The Himalayas tower skyward surrounding us but they are distant and the area is wide and open. The air is surprisingly soft and gentle, not hard and crispy. It is truly refreshing. HRH is whisked away and the rest of us go round up luggage and visit Paro's Ta Dzong (Museum of History).

 

View from Paro's Ta Dzong

 

Ta Dzong is Paro's only Museum.

It is a museum of history and does a great job of introducing strangers to the Bhutanese world. No pictures are allowed inside, OK, so you have to go there, or buy some book from Amazon.com if you want to see the cool stuff I saw but I can briefly tell you about it.

There is a dragon painted on the wall of the first floor which exactly resembles one our boatmate Sophia painted in the Vallejo bathroom. The word Bhutan means "Land of the Thunder Dragon" which is derived from the storms that sweep down the Himalayas.

The building is round and has 7 stories. Use to be a fortress. It houses armour and weapons that to the untrained eye of Heide Foley kinda look like Medival Europe stuff.


Four Friends
Another familiar picture, "Four Friends"- the elephant, the monkey, the rabit and the bird - is found on the 2nd floor. I first heard the story of the four friends in Mongolia. It changes a bit in Bhutan but the gist is still of 'cooperation.' One of the four animals has seeds and they all help plant and caring and a tree grows. But the tree grows very tall and the fruit is too high for any single one of them to reach so they pyramid on eachother's back and are able to reach the fruits and share the harvests. The imagery of this story is on almost every public building.




Rituals
The enclave in the museum with Buddhist ritual objects was very modest. This is all new stuff to me and I couldn't takle photos, but I did note a vajra (also called a thunderbolt and amoung other things represents the penis), a tingsha, crafted metal rice containers, yak butter lamps which look like bowls on stands, and color coded scarfs which denote rank and are worn to Court and offical things. Greenish for king and highest priest, red for religious men, white for commoners.

Varja Tingsh

Foot impressions
Buddhism was imported, after it arrived in Tibet, and the man who is famed for it's spread, Guru Rinpoche, is revered and they have an aweful lot of statues and pictures of him. Reincarnation of famous lamas is a very important belief in Bhutan and indeed so many times I was told, "Yes, he is a reincarnation" when I ask about anyone who was remotely famous.
The museum also houses lots of foot impressions. Usually only one foot, not both. I can't recall if it was the left or right foot and they didn't sell postcards of any of them the day I was there.

Buddha Room
On the 5th floor there is a chapel - a round room with wall to wall cubes of buddha statues and a few other dieties, too, all facing an alter in the middle. We learn to walk around the alter clockwise and in odd numbers, usually three times, and never in even numbers. The room has gold glit and red paint, a little carving, and lots of faux painted symbolism. It seems to have an antiquity about it but I wondered and wasn't sure. The focus of it draws all your thoughts to the pantheon of these gods. On that floor outside the chapel the catwalk around the edge takes you past about 40 hanging thangksas. Is seems pretty much all imagery in Bhutan is religious. Yet a cool graphic of the geometry of the Thangkas showed an underlying attention to realtiy.

Stairs
Stairs in Bhutan are not standardized. They tend to be steeper then most, not always uniform and the steps are more narrow than the foot. Patrica in our group is over 60 ( may be over 70) and sh was not impressed. Of course, impressing Pat is not easy. I did not get to go on the HRH trip down the Nile in Egypt last year and Pat told me, "I don't think you missed much."

3-D Mandal
On the top floor is another chapel (tshogshing) but with a three dimensional Mandala in the middle of it. You take off your shoes before entering. It was cold here and dim. The roof was very low so we had to bend a little. I could see my breath. The only light came from a slit window and seven bowls with wicks on one side of the 3-D alter. A group of young girls came in just after us. They all bowed and put $10s and $20s ngultrums in a bowl on each of the four sides of the huge sculpture. They walked clockwisde and at each side put their hands together above the head and touched them to their forhead, mouth, chest and in a graceful flow tucked in the long traditional skirt to the back of their knees as they kneeled to the ground. The oldest girl had to urge the others on not to be shy and to continue even with all of us white skinned adults watching. Her fabric made the loudest sound as her hands raced down her sides and quickly, abruptly pulled her skirt folds up to the back of her knee as she knelt to the floor. It was lovely. They all wore bright colors. Varda would have LOVED the fabrics!

Forced Dress
Bhutan has a law enforcing traditional dress during business hours and the locals all wear colorful patterns. The men's short kimo type cloaks come to the knee and are assessorized with knee-high socks. At first I thought it cute in a silly way, but then I couldn't help but notice the occassional kneecap, and the suggestive way the 'robe' rests across the lap while they are sitting. It took on a whole new meaning. The women wear full length skirts and a double layered blouse held closed in the front with a broche. The sleeves of both sexes are super long, like twice arms lenght, and they fold them up into big cuffs.

Yes, I Don't, No
Usually when I arrive to a new destination I walk around, met a few locals, read a bit of it's history and arrive at a feeling for the place. Bangkok is dynamic, Tonga is mellow, the USA is energic, etc. But I am not sure what I feel about Bhutan? The people seem stable and serene. They deal with emotion on the level that it simpy 'is' and go on knowing no matter how big something is, there is it's balance at the other extreme. It made me realized a place, a collective, must have extemes on both sides if all are to have balance.

I ask my guide in Bhutan, Robin, who has been in tourism in Bhutan since it's beginning in1974, about the influence of Western culture? He says that as he understands it, youth have no responsibilities and they therefore can be readily influenced by Western culture. But once they are of age, once they have to 'provide' for their families, they change. Traditional ways become important. "Of course some drop off," he grins at me in a kind, understanding way, "that is their Karma."

Robin believes that one of the best promotions for retaining the traditional values of his country is when locals travel to foreign places. Even the Bhutanese who study abroad all come back. He believes they realize how special Bhutan is, and prefer it.

Gross National Happiness
I could be wrong, but I think Bhutan is the only country in the world with an official GNH (Gross National Happiness). It is also the last place in the world to have Tantric Bhuddism - which espouses that samsara is nirvana and indulges in worldly pleasures - as an official religion. But their brand of Buddhism is not to be taken as a free rein to excess and abuse. "If you can't help yourself, who can help you?" asks the King's brother. In their reality the concensual hallucienation expects all people to be good. How many people in the rest of the world really and truly trust their neighgors?

The truth is Bhutan is small. Everyone knows everyone. Cities and villages are scattered in the gorges of the fucking huge and daunting Himalayas and life is difficult. The pressures to doing the right thing hold the kingdom in balance. "You just don't do crazy things for long," Robin laughs, "because someone is going to say to you - Hey, cut it out!"

2 Hour Drive to Thimphu
It is late in the day, the sun is about to go down and we are in a 6 seater people mover swirling around corners on the very windy roads. The driver honks at approriate times to warn oncoming traffic around particaularly dangerous bends that we are about to emerge in front of them. It is very affective, lke a friendly little toot hello. Constantly below us is the fast waters of the river. The house are in traditional style, the fields are terraced, the mountains are magestic. Our guide mentioned the importance of the phallic symbol on he houses (a huge penis and hairyballs) obviously as fertility signs, but he didn't contribute anything about the unobvious. He only added that airplanes are also commonly painted on the four corners of the hous to ward off evil. Airplanes?

 

Hotel Riverview, Thimphu

At the hotel we are greeted by Lha-Yul Tours & Travel which is owned by a wonderful Bhutanese woman named Tshering (Sharon). They arranged a friendly welcoming tea ceremony for us which involved bowing and receiving tradtional white scarfs, pleasantries and the introduciton of Sharon's lovely daughter, Karma.

The rooms are quite standard with bath, toilet and a little balcony with a very big view.

There are conformity laws for buildings in Bhutan. They must resemble ancient tradtional structures. One of the easiest motifs to retain is the shape of the windows. They also paint them very brightly. I noticed at night, light through the window frames throw shapes onto the ceiling which form watchful spirits and the shadows between the frames also form equally watchful spirits!

next

 
Maraen Foley's Quicktime video
 
photos from HRH's party
 
ecofemme pics
 
 
 
 
 
"Reality is that, which if not dealt with properly, will kill you" -Dan Foley

heide foley
P.O. Box 3126
Sausalito, CA 94965
415-331-6203 (voice)

heide@heide.to