Bhutan is a country rich in ancient traditions. The people are devoutly Buddhist and most of their life today is based on these ancient legends and customs. There are numerous chortens (stupas), mani walls and prayer flags throughout the country. Structures such as chortens and mani walls must be passed on your right side. Roads will even be diverted to ensure all traffic goes correctly around them. These Buddhist structures as well as the Bhutanese architecture and the surrounding Himalayas, create stunning scenery. Traditional dress is commonly worn throughout the country. Men’s wear a robe-like knee length skirt called a Gho and women a long skirt and jacket called Kira.
Thimphu – The capital of Bhutan and its largest city, Thimphu is set in a hilly valley. At a population of 100,000, it still has a small-town feel. There are no traffic lights in town, only roundabouts and traffic police to control intersections.
We visited a nunnery where 50 nuns study Buddhist mantras and live a simple life, similar to monks.
We also visited a 12th century teaching monastery where 500 – 600 young monks study Buddhism as well as school subjects. We were lucky to see a few practicing on their Dungchens (ceremonial trumpets) and oboes on the monastery grounds.
Bhutan’s king is very concerned about keeping Bhutanese traditions alive. Thimphu has an Arts and Crafts College where students perfect traditional techniques in painting, metal works, needle work and sculpting.
Buddha View is a new site in Thimphu with a 52 m high golden Buddha on a hill above town surrounded by statues of heavenly bodies. It has a large open courtyard that is used for large ceremonies.
Punakha – Three hours east of Thimphu is the small mountain town of Punakha. On the drive, we crossed the Dochu La (Pass) where there are 108 large chortens. They commemorate the deaths of Bhutanese soldier who were killed in a battle against Assamese rebels from India in 2003.
Punakha is the site of an important and imposing Fortress, Punakha Dzong. Built in 1644 at the meeting of the Mo Chhu and Po Chhu (Rivers), the Fortress has a very picturesque setting.
Inside the Fortress is a chapel that only the King, the Head Lama and the caretaker may enter because it houses the mummified body of the Guru Rinpoche who unified Bhutan.
Chimi Lakhang – This translates to ‘The Temple of Fertility’. A renegade Tibetan Lama from the 15th century came to the Punakha District to preach his philosophies that promote indulgence, song, dance and women. He proclaimed that the phallus symbol will ward off evil spirits and promote fertility. Today many women come to the temple in hopes of becoming pregnant. They carry a large wooden penis while walking 3 times around the temple in hopes that it will increase their fertility! The phallus symbol can be seen on most houses in this area as well as many other places in rural Bhutan.
From Chimi Lakhang we drove to eastern Bhutan. There is only one highway connecting east to west. It runs high up on the sides of the mountains and follows the winding contours of the mountain range. Until recently the highway has been only one car wide, but the government is now widening it. The drive is terrifying. For much of the drive, we would weave our way past huge mounds of granite boulders, squeeze between front end loaders and a sheer cliff on a windy, bumpy, loose gravel road. In many places the road has a vertical drop of 1000 m and another 1000 m vertical wall to the top. The drive took 6 hours each day for the next 2 days equally about 200 km each day.
Trongsa – The Trongsa Dzong (Fortress) is the largest and most important in Bhutan. It was built to help unify Bhutan and before becoming King, the prince must govern the lands around Trongsa. There is a watch tower on the hill above that is now a museum.
Bumthang – In a remote area in eastern Bhutan, Bumthang is the ancestral home of the royal family. Kurji Lhakhang (Temple) is a complex of 3 large buildings built hundreds of years apart. The first one was built around a cave where Guru Rinpoche meditated for 3 days. They say his imprint is still in the cave wall. The second building has the ashes of the first 3 Kings of Bhutan.
Phobjikha – The small town of Phobjika is at 2900 m elevation so is quite chilly, even in the spring. Each winter, millions of Black-Necked Cranes migrate to the Phobjika Valley from Tibet. When they arrive, they circle the Gangteng Monastery three times and repeat this when returning to Tibet in early spring. Unfortunately they had already left by April when we were there.
We did visit the Gangteng Monastery which is a teaching monastery. There were a number of monks getting a Dungchen (ceremonial trumpet) lesson from a Master on the steps of the monastery’s temple.
Bhutanese Food – In Bumthang we stayed in a cozy inn run by a Bhutanese man who spent 9 years in Canada. He treated us to amazing Bhutanese dishes while telling us stories about Bhutanese life. Our favourite dishes were: sautéed spicy chilies served in a creamy cheese sauce, veggies sautéed in Yak butter, buckwheat pancakes with spicy chili paste, buckwheat noodles in a garlic sauce. For breakfast we loved toasted buckwheat flour that you mix with hot water and dip in butter tea or chili paste.
We loved our time in Bhutan as it has a rich culture and has beautiful mountain scenery. It is so different from anywhere else we’ve ever travelled.
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