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Febuary 27th, 2003

Sleep til 7:00am
The view from our room shows the city climbing up the mountains and the snow & the fog decscending. Sorta like Sausaltio.

Breakfast at the hotel became the pattern. The waiter came and asked how I would like my eggs and I answered, "Do you have a traditional Bhutanese breakfast?" He nodded and brought me a bowl of Bhutanese soup. Rice-like stuff with some fresh diced carrots and a few green slivers of chiles & onions (not spicy). Very good. Repeated this the second day and on the third day the waiter came and asked, "the usual?"

 

Chorten Lam
After breakfast Eric and I went for a walk without the group. We crossed the river and went uphill towards a golden spectra. I noticed lots of garbage in the canal/stream along the sidewalk. Many locals greeted us or returned out greeting. We seemed to surprised others by addressing them.

The gold glit spire turned out to be the Chorten Lam, a religous structure with an entrance lined with trees trimmed in triangle shapes. The walkway leads to a mini-moat and stone path around a building iIn whose roof there is a statue of buddha which you can easily see from the ground through the glass wall.

We are greeted by a toothless grey-haired beetlenutter (I first tried beetlenut in Pakistan in 1998 it makes your saliva red). The enthusiastic local encourages us to walk around 4 huge prayer wheels housed in a side hut. We do. 3 times as told to us via sign language by another man burning incense. I tired to turn one of the prayer wheels by pulling the leather strap at the bottom. It was much heavier than I anticipated and only made one clink (one full rotation).

We walked around the building too. I noticed most of the others there were all pretty old, carrying prayer wheels and rosaries-like beads. There were some monks in another hut off to the side who were chanting, rumbling, grunting. It was really weird.

 

Thimphu cinema

While driving through town I noticed the local theatre house and that a Bhutanese language film playing.

I want to know more about Bhutanese films. Robin tells me, 'yes, there is a budding film industry here." He indicated that the government spends a lot of money on the filim industry because it helps fight unemployment. He added, "They are, you know, not very well made, just budget films."

I hope to see one!

Asking around, the locals all said the cinema is rundown. One girl said, "It is better to buy one and watch it at home." But I didn't see any Bhutanese films for sale anywhere. They are not in the handi-craft shops or at the outdoor market. Robin says he will try to find one for me.

 

Trip to Traditional Medicine Institute

From the hotel the whole group embarked in cars, jeeps or minivan. We arrived at what ends up being a mini medicine factory, a plant collection & tea manufacturer, and a school. Here, for me, it felt like 'West Peeks at East' as I stepped into a very different view of health.


The Bhutan Medical Institute teaches all things are made of 5 elements (earth, wind, air, fire, and 'space') very simular to the Ayurveda holistic health system based on Vedic writings of harmony with nature. Going along the lines of the Ayureda way at looking at illness, all sickness comes from imbalance of the three humors which in Bhutan are represented in art as the Boar/Ignorance, the Pheasant/Greed & Lust, and the Snake/Anger & Hate.

The tour starts with pill polishing. Then we sorta do a flash-back by passing by about 20 fifty-five gallon plastic drums full of different raw herbs; buttercup, safflower, rhodedendrons, rapseed mustard, cardamon, edelweiss, juniper, giant rhubarb, sandlewood, etc. We continue past cubicles for identification & storage, quarantine, purity check, steroid extridation, quality control, measuring and dosage formulation, and a secret room full of unrevealed tryptamine plants unknow elsewhere.

The need to standardize dosages is the hearld of pills, capsules and tablets. The old powders had built in human error potentials and as well as a shorter shelf life. The United Nations, Europe and India are the key players in Bhutan providing equipment in 1998. Part of the deal was that Bhutan would unveil some of it's secret ritual herbs, which apparently they did in 2000. However, we were told that there are many many more still unshared.

More Secrets
Since you can't patent herbal remedies the Medical Institute of Bhutan has a division for the methodolgy of extractions. There are 123 people working in the plant collection & tea producing part of the Medical Institute, 70 in the medicine making part.

Base 3
There are over 600 plants used in Bhutanese herbal cures (some say up to 3000) but I was most interested in the three that form the base of all of them.

1-Terminalia Chebula know by the Tibetans as "the King of Herbs" it is from a fruit on a big tree. It nourishes the brain and nerves. more info

2-Nuts on another big tree give Terminalia Belerica, another of the famous myrabolan fruits of Ayurveda. It excels at removing stones and accumulations of toxins (mucus, cholesterol, mineral deposits) in the digestive, urinary, and respiratory tracts.

3- Ironically the Museum section of the Institute did not have a visual of the third ingredient (and hence I couldn't copy down the name), but they told me it comes from the fruits of a very common small shrub - chi?/Juria? - which are sweet and sour with lots of vitamin C.

Treatment
Each village has it's local shaman but obviously Bhutan is incorporating modernizations. The Medical Institue has just recently become a viable training center. Right now there are 6 men training as doctors at the institute, which is a 6 year program. Next year there will be 23. The institue has been gathering herbs from the wild, but currently there are only two guys who do this and so locals are employed, mostly yak herders. There has been lots of recent encouragement of farming plants, especially rare and endangered species. Medicine and treatment is free to Bhutan citizens but western style remedies are imported for hospital use only and typical western pharmacuticals are not sold on the streets.

Questions
They asked us if we wanted to be examined? It would be free. "Please save your morning pee and bring it in when you come to do the exam" we are told. I can only regret that I did not feel I had any ailment worthy of the offer. An exam in Bhutan, after urine analysis, is started with inquiries into your lifestyle that, amoung other things, include questions of diet, exercise, temperment, dreams and libido activity. Your astrology is observed, your palms are read.

Depending on what is wrong with you, you might be told to go to a cold climate and sit with friends, or stay inside in warmth near fire, etc. Massage is also a form of cure, as is meditation, so is blood-letting and accupuncture. The Bhutanese have their own form of accupuncture. They only use gold or silver needles and (if I understood right) they don't actually prick the skin. Performing rituals was not talked about, but then I didn't think to ask.

Tea
The institute sells it's own tea. It's their first commercial product. I bought 3 packages. They said it has two ingredients, Safflower and Cinnamin, and is best for digestion but like all herbal fixes, it works best when used over a long period. Safflower is good for the liver, cinnamin is a general tonic but here with Safflower it is espcially good for high blood pressue.

Saving the ‘Valley of Medicinal Herbs’
I am told it is recorded since ancient times in historical records that the Kingdom of Bhutan has been well known for its herbs. All of the tourism websites claim "For centuries, Bhutanese have treasured the natural environment and have looked upon it as the source of all life." This really piqued my interest. What exactly is the Bhutanese idea of the source of life? I can't help but wonder about that on a more metaphysical level given the potential properties of some plants. Bhutan is practically a Bio-Zone and the government has managed to retain over 70% of it's forests but they see their success at preserving the land also a cause for concern. They say, "As time goes on controlling poachers will become a problem."I don't think they are thinking only of timber.

 

View from Telecom Tower

Place of the Flowers & Place of the Gems
Below Thimphu is divided into two. The Common people live along the river and are spreading amoung it's banks in what is called the "Place of the Flowers." And up this valley (to the right in the picture) is the area where the Royalty live in what is called the "Place of the Gems."

Further up the river there is a growing village nearby which has recently been converted to become part of Thimphu. It's status has changed. Now a school will be built, roads improved, people hired for government duties, etc. but the taxes will be higher. "With luxury comes a price" Robin informs me.

Windflags at the Telecom Station

The Bhutanese have wind flags and prayer flags everywhere. The 5 colors represent the 5 elements. People are born under the different elements and when they die the Bhutanese put up prayer flags in their color.

Red = Sun, Green = Water, Yellow = Earth, Blue = Sky and White = Wind.

 

Swiss Cafe
Our group has lunch at this 'famous' place. Good coffee and great hot sauce. I noticed cacti around the window and the entrance had two huge fake aminita muscaria mushrooms and a 'witch' gaurding it. Eric noticed a large fungus had been place over the door inside. I think the Swiss man who came to Bhutan and opened this bakery and stayed and never left liked the special plants here and he probably learned many Bhutanese secrets.


Trip to Folk Heritage Museum

It was like visiting someone's antique house. The brochure informed me that it was founded about a year ago. By the Queen. By the Queen named Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck. Wonder what the other Queens have founded? The Swiss NGO Helvatis is also noted as a sponsor. Kinda reasemble a Swiss chalet now that you mention it.

Did I say sexual innuendo was not obvious to the eye? Who was I kidding? Most houses have a huge penis with big hairy balls painted on them. The Folk Heritage Museum has this little carving above the door. It's at least a foot and a half long!

Robin also mentioned that airplanes are painted on the four corners of houses to ward off evil. Airplanes?



The lady above, in traditional style dress, is a caretaker of the museum who performs tradtional, seasonal, activities as part of the Museum's showcase. Since it was not planting or harvesting time and the fields were empty, she was making Arag. Local hooche from fermented rice. She used the massive machette to splinter wood for the fire.

Arag can be made from rice or wheat, but the one from wheat is really strong. Her's is made from rice. She grinds it in either a stone hand mill (pictured) or a stone water mill.

She said the whole process to make Arag only takes a couple of hours. The rice is in a pot inside the pot on the fire.

Tashi said this stove is used to burn incense while working in the courtyard. Did I hear him right? It is a pretty big oven for only burning incense.

Again no pictures allowed inside, but the brochure offered this one of the 'kitchen.'

The inside had that 'hand-made' quality and oozed communal warmth. Usually several generations live together. There was a room with huge rice storage bins, a room with many other kinds of smaller storage containers, a room with an alter and scriptures and drums and 'luxury' things, a room with clothes, a room with weapons and armour, a room with riding gear and saddles, a room with archery bows and arrows and other games, and a balcony and loft. Eric noted that the Bhutanese have many more possessions than say, the nomadic Mongols or the South Pacific Island societies.

Beds
I didn't see any beds. I really want to know more about this Tantric Buddhism thing. Does it have anything to do with why I didn't see any beds?

Stone Bath

Instructions: Heat rocks (on right) in fire. Put hot rocks in small section of wooden box (bottom left). Water is heated for your bath. I am told the best water to use has sulfur in it.

Stupas
Each Bhutanese house has a stupa, a religious house, outside. The stupa has old religious relics and scriptures walled up inside it. They are not torn down or moved after being built.

Cremation
All Bhutanese are cremated. Traditionally this is done by fire,. but since 2000 they can now choose. Fire or Electric. Our guide, Robin says he is choosing an electric cremation. When queried why, he said, "Why not?"

 

Dinner at 'Benji's Kitchen' Resturant
Benji is the King's brother and he has invited us all to his resturant for dinner. He is very energetic and laughs & jokes even if he is serious. A long time ago, I don't know how long, maybe 5 or 10 years, he made a film called Rashoman. Benji used a lot of Government Officals in key rols. "Ey Sooc (?) was the Savage. Oracle was from the Dance Troupe. Robert from Unicef did the sets and directed." I vaguely recall he said it is a Shaksperian story? Six months ago he had a reunion and watched the film. It was old and dirty. Benji gave it to an actor, nicknamed Hitler, to clean and make copies. That is how the table got to talking abou films in Bhutan.

Benji laughts, "The word of the Buddha wil fly on silver wings!"

He begins to tell us about a Lama who became interested in filmmaking after being in a Hollywood bit part. It is a very big Lama, "he is an incarnation of Rimboche" Benji says. The film is called "The Cup." It is monks who want to watch the World Cup on tv but can't afford it.

Eric breaks in asking "What about denial and celebacy and those other Buddhist things?" Benji smiles that big smile of his and says, "Austerity is not part of our Buddhism." The Bhutanese sect allows monks to marry and follows Tantras that concern the ritualistic manipulation of one’s nature (body, speech, and mind) in order to appease the deities, or attain Buddhahood all within a single lifetime.

Benji then tells the story that several years ago Steven Segal came to Bhutan. He thought he was the reincarnation of a Buddhist monk. He walked around wearing monk's robes and stuf. The people of Bhutan didn't really buy it. He asked Benji about the situation. Benji told him whether it was true or not, "you must earn it."


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