Bhutan – Thimphu
We had to have our bags packed before breakfast – which was much more difficult to do now that we had done our souvenir shopping. We sorted out our still-wet clothing, our disgustingly dirty hiking gear and the little bit of respectable clothes we had left to wear on the flight home, all into our two suitcases and backpacks. I had been incredibly foresighted and had asked a store keeper if I could have one of his old rice sacks, made of woven nylon. He readily agreed, and I now used this bag to put our dirty, wet boots into before packing them back into a suitcase. Good thinking, Colleen!
It was quite the process to load our gear onto the bus. Bags and backpacks were in a massive pile just outside the hotel doors and the porters were doing their best to move it to the top of our bus. One by one, the bags were handed or tossed to waiting porters standing on the roof and were eventually tucked securely under a bright blue tarp.
Today would mostly be sightseeing in the city. Our first stop was the National Memorial Chorten, located just a few minutes’ drive from our hotel. The Memorial Chorten is a lively place during the day. The way Chunjur described it to us makes me think of “adult day care”. Because so many families now have both parents working, the elderly parents are left at home alone all day. With the completion of the Chorten, the grandparents now had somewhere to “hang out” during the day. Much to my surprise, they spent their days walking around the Chorten, murmuring their prayers and spinning their prayer wheels. To me it looked incredibly boring, but the fact that everyone was together, enjoying the day and doing something active was a great thing to see.
Entrance to the Memorial Chorten
A bird nesting inside the dragon’s beak
A sampling of the meditators
Enjoying the sunshine
Massive prayer wheels
Meditation at the prayer wheels
I learned that the prayer wheels are actually made up of pieces of paper – sometimes thousands of pieces – each sheet covered with mantras. The mantras are rolled together, forming the cylindrical shapes that you see. By turning the prayer wheel (clockwise only!), you are sending the written prayers to the heavens. And naturally, your prayers cannot be for yourself, but only for others.
We left the grandparents to pray for their friends and families, and boarded the bus again. Chunjur had listed an array of options for the day and between that and the list I had read from the G-Adventures Tour website, I wasn’t entirely sure what I would see today. It was like being surprised every time I got on the bus! Our next destination was the Gagyel Lhundrup Weaving Centre. The bus let us out in the parking lot and with Chunjur’s instruction, half of the group wandered over to the nearby art gallery while the rest of us went inside the small shop to hear about the history of this fine craft.
Just inside the door were two rooms with low ceilings; I had to duck to keep from hitting my head on the bare wooden beams. Each room had two to three looms, some of them worked by women, some of them not being worked, but all of them with some woven pattern filling the framework. Chunjur explained how, depending on the complexity of the weave, an artist might take two weeks to complete her piece, or up to six months. The patterns were often very personal and individual. If something happened to the woman working the loom, no one would be able to finish her piece; it would just be too intricate to continue. One of the looms was being worked to create a new dress for the Queen – this place was really top-notch! After watching a couple of the women work on their intricate weaving patterns, we went upstairs to see the finished products on display.
Not only were there row up row of woven fabrics hanging along the walls, but also garments of various styles and complexities. Without any clear direction or notification, people started to bring clothing down from the racks. asking us which patterns we preferred. One by one, they draped us in light cloths, arranging the folds and tying up loose ends. While they used safety pins on my wrap, I did wonder what would be done if this was my daily outfit. I doubt that the women I saw on the streets have safety pins holding their skirts in place.
Here is Dan, getting wrapped up
The fancy couple
A hive of activity!
I walked across the room a couple of time, surprised by how much movement the skirt allowed. When I saw them being worn by the Bhutanese women, the skirt looked like it might hinder the length of the stride. But now that I was wearing one, I could see that nothing was restricted. We eventually unwrapped ourselves and made our way outside. While the first group came in to see the weaving, we crossed over to the small art gallery where the first group had been. It was a small place, but the artwork was good and the artist was onsite. I probably would have bought one of his canvases, if we lived in an apartment with vertical walls to hang it from.
The bus was waiting for us, ready to ferry us to our next destination: the Giant Golden Buddha we saw on the hill yesterday. It is officially known as the Buddha Dordenma – one of the largest “Buddha rupas” in the world. While the Buddha himself is complete, there is still plenty of work being done on the grounds itself – and within the meditation hall underneath the statue.
On the road to the Buddha
The town of Thimphu
Approaching from the side gate
Workers building another structure near the gate
One of many (many!) gold-leaf statues on the grounds
The meditation hall, with the Buddha on top; note the person for scale near the elephant’s trunk
(Petra) And a closer look at an elephant – and me!
This will eventually be the Grand Entrance to the grounds
As usual, cameras were not allowed inside. The interior was fantastic, more so to me because it wasn’t complete. To see a room fully painted and “finished” means that there was nothing left to imagine. But seeing the ceiling murals with sections missing, or walls with only certain details included, it allowed me to better understand just how complex and time-consuming such artwork really was. I found a couple of pictures on the internet, because something like this just can’t be properly imagined. The following two images are from the Elkoepusa site
Monks walking up to the site
Lunch hour had come and gone and the group was hungry. Chunjur directed the bus to go directly from the mountaintop Buddha to a restaurant on the south end of Thimphu. Along the descent from the mountaintop Buddha I saw an unusual sight: an outdoor gym area. I had see this once before on the north end of town and thought it was an interesting idea then as well. Set up in a gravel area just off the road were half a dozen or so basic exercise sets, with signs to promote physical health and encourage use. It was one more positive feather in the cap I had imagined for Bhutan.
It was just a few minutes more and our bus pulled into a small parking lot of Chh’a Bistro & Bar. We poured out of our seats and through the front door of the restaurant. An old motorcycle decorated the space above the front door and the bar area was full of interesting curios and souvenirs.
Chh’a Bistro & Bar
It was another buffet meal and the welcome presence of noodle dishes had become more common since leaving the mountains behind. As we enjoyed our lunch the owner came out and greeted us, eventually sparking a conversation with Mick about the motorcycle parked out front (different than the one over the door). My ears perked up when I heard a few select, motorcycle-centric words and I barged in on their conversation. Especially when I saw them get up to go outside and check out the bike I could partially see through the window. Dawa, the owner of both the restaurant and the motorcycle, was very proud of his Royal Enfield, lovingly restored and modified. He was very accommodating in talking with us about his travels in Europe, and he invited us to come back to Bhutan with our helmets and he would show us around “some of the best roads”.
Dawa on his Royal Enfield
Lunch was over, but our tour of Thimphu was not. Our next stop was the National Folk Heritage Museum. I was looking forward to this stop, as I am always interested how things “used to be”. I had seen the traditional buildings on the side of the road, but now I would get a chance to go inside and see how they were laid out, how they were furnished, even what utensils they used. I imagined that it would be like the time we visited the Ballenberg Open Air Museum in Switzerland.
I was disappointed. Yes, we were greeted by a friendly staff member who served us terrible, traditional wine before taking us into the grounds. He carefully explained to us the traditional methods of building and how they varied in different parts of the country. Where we were, in the western portion, the rammed earth method was most common. A display was there, showing the framework and he explained how long the process would take, which I unfortunately can’t recall the details of. However, the process takes long enough that home additions were planned and begun years before they were needed.
On the other side of the wall from the rammed earth display was a display that made some of the more easily amused in the group giggle: it was a garden of phalluses (phalli?). Most phallus depictions I had seen so far had been painted on the side of homes, although the shops in town were happy to sell slightly larger-than-life statues. The statues here in this garden were much larger, but they still represented the same simple idea: a sign of good luck. The popularity goes back to the “Holy Madman” Drukpa Kunley (1455-1529) who made “generous use of his penis” to fight demons, convert women to Buddhism and mock the religious establishment. Sounds like a fun guy to invite to a party! Although there is a vast written and oral tradition on the religious and historical significance of the phallus-symbol, for most Bhutanese today it merely means a sign of good luck and an instrument to ward off evil spirits.
Our guide led us down a short path and we entered a dark, smoky room. This was what I had been waiting for: the interior of a traditional house! We were in the cooking area of the house and the guide explained how the smoke produced by the cooking fires helped keep the wood free from pests. He showed us a couple of other traditional items but then that was it. No trip upstairs, no seeing how the bedrooms were laid out, or the open space under the roof where (I learned later) the family usually kept a shrine and used the space to dry hay and chilis. We were whisked out the other side of the room into the sunshine and to a small gallery of shops, including one manned by a young man with cerebral palsy. He had gradually lost use of his arms, but had taught himself to manipulate his feet, in order to continue to create his artwork. We watched as he carefully carved the wood, using his toes to manipulate a wood chisel and hammer. Later he would use a brush and paint to decorate it. It really is quite amazing the talent that people are capable of.
Carving and painting only with his feet (but in this picture he’s checking his phone)
There was one more stop just before the exit gate where a very short archery range was set up. I was actually surprised that this was considered a “range”, as it was maybe thirty feet to the target. Anyone who wanted to give it a try was allowed to (some took more than one shot) and I was one of them. It was interesting, as the target was so close that there was no arc necessary. It was a simple straight shot – and I still missed. Archery is the national sport of Bhutan, so I was sure that any of our hosts could have hit this target from ten times the distance we were shooting from.
The brief tour of the Heritage Museum over, we filled the bus once again for a short hop to another sight-seeing destination: the National Institute of Traditional Medicine. One of our group was a doctor and had expressed interest in visiting. The building was large, but with only one small room dedicated to the “museum” aspect of traditional medicine. In this room was simply a ring of glass-fronted cabinets with shelves of organic, traditional medicines with placards of the Latin names and general uses. The rest of the building was dedicated to the health and well-being of local population.
Nice sign just inside the Hospital entrance
We had one more stop before we left Thimphu and returned to Paro: the General Post Office. Chunjur said that the post office had a deal where you can have a sheet of custom made stamps made while you waited. The only catch was that the photo you wanted to use had to be on your phone. Anyone who knows me, knows that I almost never take pictures with my phone, so my options would be quite limited. I stood in line, handed them my phone with my photo chosen and then went off to look at some post cards while I waited for my custom stamps.
Thimphu Post Office
Decoration outside of the post office
The photo I used for the stamps, from a hike in Switzerland
And the final sheet of stamps (minus a few that were used)
The sheet of stamps would be of limited use to us. They were only for post cards mailed Internationally from Bhutan, so I thought of whom I should write to (and for whom I had an address!) and then picked out some appropriate cards from the Post Office’s shelves. This was the last stop of our tour of Thimphu and, by association, Bhutan.
Next stop: return to the Metta Hotel in Paro!
Technically, I should include the return to Paro on today’s page, but I already have a lot of information here, and Paro was a short day, so I’m going to combine the last portion of today with tomorrow.