chilling feet

chilling feet

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Bhutan: A Beautiful Visit to Punakha

(Posing for a pic at the Dochula Pass)
Bhutan just keeps getting more beautiful, or we just keep experiencing more and more of its beauty more likely. (Once again a massive reading of this blog was lost to not being saved, so if you see typos please ignore)

This past weekend we were able to get up and through the Dochula Pass on our way from Thimphu to the city of Punakha. A winding drive with amazing views, some of us had a little bit of trouble with motion sickness but I will not tell you who it was to protect the innocent. Those of you who know us at all will know which one of us suffers from this most terrible of maladies that should be eradicated from the human race. But alas.

We made it to the top and enjoyed walking around in a much cooler climate than the one we had left behind in Thimphu, and than the one we knew we were heading to down in Punakha. There are 108 memorial chortens built at the top of the pass, though we only walked through a few of them as it began to mist quite insistently on us while we were there. They were built to honor the Bhutanese soldiers who were killed fighting a battle with insurgents in 2003. It is a very interesting place and would definitely warrant some more time wandering around and exploring than we had time to give. There is only so much time in the day!

After winding our way down the mountain, again through very curvy roads, we made our way to our hotel for the night. Quite a wonderful little spot called the Eco Lodge. Not only did they have a knowledgable and friendly staff with fantastic accommodations, but just look at the view we got to enjoy from the balcony off our room! Such a treat and certainly one we enjoyed very much. After getting our things into our rooms Sarah went off for a walk and I took advantage of having been invited out for a run with Dave, a super cool New Zealander who also likes to run. We wandered off on some trails we saw and ventured into the unknown. Seldom can I remember enjoying a run more. We marveled over the mountainous vistas, worked our way through some dried up rice fields, worked out how to manage our way to certain points of interest, got tangled in brambles when we took some animal trails instead of people ones, and made our way to a little village up in the mountains. Such a treat! I think we only ran around just under three miles but it was quite fun. Unfortunately I did not take the camera but look at this shot Sarah took on her walk and just imagine running off into trails that blaze into the wilderness.

When we woke up the next morning I had to pinch myself. Oh ya, I'm in Bhutan and we have this wonderful hotel room overlooking a dzong. I made us some coffee with hot water kettle in our room and then went out and sat on the balcony and just absorbed the morning experience. Yes, I tried to take an artsy shot of my coffee, but it was so I could always remember just how wonderful the spot really was. One day I'll look back and think, "Dang, I had coffee there. How amazingly blessed I have been to live this life." And I will be more right than I will ever know, that is for certain.

Ok, pause for a moment. I have to try to explain something before we go on. Punakha is well known for a tradition that is linked to an intriguing person named Lama Drukpa Kunley, or also known as the Divine Madman. And yes, he lived up to his name quite well. In an effort to bring enlightenment to what he saw as a drab and legalistic system (all my words to explain what I think I have learned about him), the Madman used unorthodox techniques to get his point across. Sarcasm, jokes, blunt diatribes, poetry, and sex. Yes, a Buddhist monk traveled the countryside laughing at the celibate monks while claiming to bring others to enlightenment with many of the behaviors they had abstained from. He is credited with having performed the miraculous and often times won people over with his whit and humor. It is said no one in Bhutan can tell a joke without eventually having to mention Drukpa Kunley.

(One of the many stores where one can find
interesting handicrafts)
Having said all this, the tradition the people of Punakha work into to their daily lives is one of the phallus, especially near the monastery built in honor of Lama Drukpa Kunley. This comes from his insistent reference to his own "thunderbolt of flaming wisdom," a reference all but the most devout will understand immediately and needs no further explanation. Because of the traditions that have grown around the monastery and after his teachings, the phallus is a symbol of many different things and this symbol is everywhere - painted on almost every building nearby. Most commonly it is a symbol for phallic blessing and fertility. People come from all over the world to this particular temple in the hopes of the miraculous - a blessing that will enable them to have children. This is a natural outgrowth of the Divine Madman's teachings, and there are many reports of people who receive this blessing suddenly finding themselves capable of having children.

(The walk to Chimi Lhakhang Monastery was
very beautiful, even if a little odd) 
We watched as a Bhutanese woman went through this ceremony. Surely there are not many greater hopes in this world than for a mother who can bear no children. We were quite fortunate to have experienced the solemnity of the ceremony, though how awkward such a ritual would be for someone outside of these traditions. Lama Drukpa Kunley used the phallus and constant reference to his own genitalia for the same reason this ceremony felt so unusual. People do not feel comfortable with such references and it forces them to consider things they otherwise might otherwise avoid. This is certainly true of the American culture I am used to operating within. While I might have a different set of beliefs, it was easy to see the beauty of a blessing designed to help with fertility. Trying to explain all of what we saw would be difficult as I understood so little, but seeing the look of hope on her face as she left was truly special.

(In front of Chimi Lhakhang Monastery - the monasteries are so intricate and beautiful)
After visiting the monastery we walked back towards the town and shops, making sure to see all of what they had to offer. Picking up souvenirs here is definitely different. Most of them are of the phallic nature, and the ones that are not kind of seem like stuff you should get somewhere else. It has always been in our nature to buy things from areas that remind us of the particular spot, so when in Punakha there is a gift of another kind. But who does one give it to? Most people are not going to put this sort of carving on display are they. So we made our choices wisely and then moved on to then next part of our journey. There was one gift we should mention however. The Nixons, or the Kiwis I keep mentioning in our posts, bought us a gift as seen in the group picture. With all the talk of fertility, we talked a little about our probable future plans for a wee-Baddorf at some point in time. They figured our time table would inevitably move up after a visit to this particular temple, so they bought us something to hang in our future nursery. How sweet of them! Thanks.

(Our hosts for a day - so amazing)
The next stop in our journey was planned amazingly well by Pema our guide, though he described it simply as lunch at a farm house. To be honest I pictured a restaurant called The Farm House for some reason. In reality we drove high up into the mountains until we reached a small village, one our van could barely make the last leg of, and arrived at the farm house of the most generous Dorji family. Not only did they invite us into their home for a fabulous home cooked meal (seriously this was so good and we got to experience more of a traditional Bhutanese way of eating), but our host was so open to conversation about their lives and anything we were interested in learning about life there. He talked of his previous life and vocation, the transition into the rural life of living in the mountains, and showed us how he made Tsa-Tsas (or small offerings that are left all over the country in various holy places). Such a wonderfully enriching experience.

(From modest farm houses to ornately designed
small palaces, the countryside was truly a sight
to see)
After we finished lunch we walked outside and our host asked us if we would like to take a short walk. No longer than an hour he promised. Feeling slightly sluggish from lunch I will admit this was not my first thought, especially as it was quite hot outside. But a chance to explore the rural part of the Bhutanese countryside should not be missed. Off we went, purple umbrella in hand for shade or sudden rainfall, following our new local guide around his village and surroundings. Woah, if only we knew what we would have seen there would have been no hesitation! Our eyes were about to be wowed by some amazing sites of lush rice fields, sprawling mountain countryside, and even a visit from our host's mother!

(Don't hate. I'm stylin')
I'm going to go into full picture mode here. Most of these need to be seen at a larger size than putting writing around them. Then I'll be back to continue explaining more about our visit to a famous dzong in a few moments. Please enjoy the wondrous photos we caught during this short hike. If you have not fallen in love with Bhutan yet (seriously what's your problem) you just might while looking at these.             

(Our host points out some sites around his village and countryside. From his home, to other small villages, to the far off religious sites... so much to behold)
(This one needed two photos because this came out so well. The prayer flags were swooshing around our heads and the wind was making an eerie sound as it blew through the tiny cracks of the bamboo poles, almost playing their own somber death instruments)

(Color mode was the only way to get a picture of these fields as they actually looked to our eyes - yes they were this green!)

(And one more... yes)
(And then our host's mother walked by and he said, "This is my mother!" So we asked them to pose for a few pictures of course. FYI, I loved his shirt with a picture of the King on it. So cool)
(And one with Sarah too)
(When we finished our hike we found these gentlemen hanging out with this baby. They seemed to be having a blast and were more than happy to pose for Sarah as she took their picture. Their expressions were fabulous!)
(Sarah spotted these cows and had some fun talking to them and taking their photographs. The one let her pet it a little bit. She loved them) 
(This wonderful woman owned the cows, we think. She came out to talk to us/smile while we took pictures of her. Actually she would have this wonderful smile and then it would disappear as soon as the camera went up)

(Such a wonderful experience seeing this village. Homes varied quite a bit from structures like this to way more elaborate ones. And this old building has been turned into a useful area for the cows to have shelter. Not bad for the cows)

Ok back to writing about the weekend a little bit, although I think I'll be more brief now due to being further away from the time and already being excited about the next post (and this one is getting long) - time's flying over here. When we finished our time in the farming village up in the mountains we came back down to Bhutan's most famous Dzong. The Punakha Dzong. And it is impressive. Built right where two rivers meet, this dzong's massive structure is amplified by the beauty of where it is placed. Pema, who's website can be found by clicking here (and we really like and recommend him if you ever need a guide in Bhutan for anything), explained to us that one of the rivers is seen as the female version, while the other is viewed as the male. This then creates an auspicious location for the dzong as the two rivers meet and become one just outside of its walls. Good choice guys!

Then there is the wonderful Bhutanese architecture. The dzong is ornate, beautifully crafted, painted in brilliant colors, imposing in structure, and adorned with all sorts of precious metals and amazing paintings. Walking into it really does feel as though a person is walking back in time, into a place built by people who had different agendas than builders do today. In Bhutan we have found the country values the look of their country very much. There is hardly a building put up that does not have some touch of the old culture on or in it. But the Punakha Dzong breathes this culture into life! It sets the example for all others to follow. Every step is in the shadow of high towers, all of them holding their own unique stature and architectural design. It was such a treat to have been able to wander through this beautiful complex.

If the dzong were not enough, we were in Punakha on a special holiday. This means that the Bhutanese people were out in droves to visit sites like the Punakha Dzong all over the country on this particular day. This day is celebrated in commemoration of Buddha's first sermon. If the building itself was a treat, the people visiting in their wonderful attire was a topping beyond any comparison. Buildings are nice but even in their most awe-inspiring of moments they can hardly hold a candle to the stunningly august people of Bhutan. They are some of the kindest and most gentle people we have met in our travels, though make no mistake about them not being fierce in battle when they need to be (we have heard tell of tales). Their level of respect for their culture and their way of life is remarkable. The Bhutanese are always ready with a smile on their faces and are most considerate.

We spent our time at the dzong looking up at the architecture, but mostly down at the people walking through in their intricately designed traditional clothing - men in the gho and women in the kira. We were even fortunate enough to spot some government officials, which our guide pointed out by their specifically colored sashes (you can see some in some of our photos with blue and other colors on). Some of these visitors even had on the superbly decorated Bhutanese boots (wait for another pic to come where I stole a picture through a railing - no reason to make people feel weird when you're taking a pic of their super cool boots)! These boots are quite nice. Even more so than the regal looking Bhutanese government officials, we quite enjoyed seeing all of the families together. Unfortunately we did not get a great shot of any of them because we did not feel comfortable just jumping out and taking a picture - I should have just asked as I think most families would be proud to have their picture made. But how much fun to see such large families, and of all different ages, all visiting the dzong together in their traditional outfits. We loved it.

We were granted permission to enter into some of the buildings, though no photos are every allowed once inside. Our guide took the time to walk us around the mammoth sized room of the main attraction at the dzong to explain the excruciatingly detailed murals depicting the various life stages of the Buddha. Without his guidance we would not have been able to understand or appreciate most of what we were seeing. Not a spot was left uncovered. Dragons covered ceiling beams. Elaborate drapes and hanging fabrics covered the ceilings and walls where there were no paintings (or maybe even where there were paintings and they covered them with further designs!). Enormous statues sat in various positions throughout the room for people to visit and pay their respects to/receive blessings from. What an amazing space!

As we left we took extra care to watch the families that were either entering or leaving with us, taking special joy as we passed by. What an amazingly special day it was for the two of us to have witnessed so many beautiful sites all at one time. We will certainly cherish our time at the Punakha Dzong for a long time to come. 

We finished our weekend in Punakha by visiting their long walking suspension bridge. Pictures were taken, I shouted quotes by Shortround from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (naturally), and we all made it safely across and back (unfortunately there were no crocodiles swimming underneath the bridge to complete my movie picture). We then backtracked through the pass on our way back to Thimphu. This time we stopped momentarily due to monkeys on the side of the road. We sat there, us watching them as they in turn speculated over us, and then we slowly continued our journey. What a wonderful country we find ourselves visiting! A new treasure around every corner we look. Till next time we have some more pictures posted below with a few descriptive words. Begin planning your trip to Bhutan now!    

The paintings found in the Punakha Dzong truly were all this detailed. And almost all of them tell some part of the Buddhist way of life here. 
 In trying to be somewhat classy about how we took photos of the people, we did not get the best shots. But I still prefer these to just blatantly holding the camera up in their faces. Look at these beautiful outfits! 
 As promised, the boots! These boots look awesome. 
 A little out of focus but this is my only shot of the entrance to the bridge over the river to the dzong.
 Even the bridge is built amazingly. And even here you find Bhutanese dogs. 
 Photo op on the bridge. 
 The other bridge!
 Adorned with tons of prayer flags, the bridge is not lacking in decor. 
 Quick look at the river. 
 Yep, it looks good on the outside too. 
 We are both keeping our eyes protected while staying stylish with our Goodr sunglasses. Nice.
 We finally did get one family to pose for us. Unfortunately their son was not feeling well, which is why they had pulled over, but after taking our photo we took theirs for them. 
 And the monkeys.
 I kept waiting for one to jump in Sarah's open window to take her camera and any food we might have but they were well behaved. 


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  2. I think you have done an incredible job in capturing the essence of Bhutan and life in the countryside. It appears you could easily write a book on your experiences here. How did the religion of Bhutan compare to your belief system? How did the Bhutanese people compare to Americans in Tennesse? Did Bhutan appear to have an ancient feel compared to the United States? Thanks for an enjoyable blog. Sincerely Stefan.