Saturday, July 05, 2014

Blessed in Bhutan Part 2 of 2

And the stories continue, as I share my personal experiences and impressions of Bhutan through more fast and fun facts below.

If you missed part 1 of my blog, here's the link:

  • Bhutan is the Land of the Thunder Dragon where the Druk, a national symbol shown in their flag, represents Thunder Dragon from Bhutanese mythology.  It holds jewels that represent wealth.

    The first thing that immediately came to my mind about the Bhutanese flag was its colors resemble the colors of Buddhism.  Apparently, the orange does represent the Drukpas monasteries and the Buddhist religion and the yellow represents the authority of the King, which reminds me of the yellow color of the Emperor in Chinese culture.

    The druk represents strength of the people to protect their country.  I think it's a very appropriate symbol for the Bhutanese as proven by their journey so far, where authenticity has never been compromised.  One can find a lot of words to describe them: loyalty, humility, strength, purity, and it all jives into the symbolism of the Druk.

    In addition, I'd like to point out that the jewels here refer to wealth of a different kind.  It refers more to the nation's prosperity, and not material wealth as most people would assume.  And I think that makes Bhutan achieve the personal happiness that they so strongly protect.

  • Bhutan is also known as the "Last Shangrila" due to its pristine environment and harmonious society

    Bhutan is perched high up in the mountains and is the last Buddhist kingdom in the world.

    One of the main highlights of my trip to Bhutan was to trek the Tiger's Nest (Paro Taktsang Monastery).  It's a Buddhist temple perched up on a cliff up in the mountains of Paro and is Bhutan's cultural icon.  Because it is so high up and in a remote location, the only way to get there is through the mountain paths. It is kind of an "Everest" in a way for me as I am not as physically fit as I would like to. That, with my slight asthma condition, and being a city person, doesn't really make it any better for me.

    But what lies atop that makes me want to pursue this?  Months before, even before I confirmed my trip, this was one of the main questions I had. How hard is it to trek the Tiger's Nest.  My research gave me so many mixed answers that my anxiety had built up even more.  Eventually, as the trip comes to a near, our photographer lead had managed to convince me that it was much better to trek it versus riding a mule up which is even scarier through rough paths and only brings you up half way.  The other concern is that I did not want to slow down the group nor be put in a position where I would have to give it up.

    Okay, I am going to do this. I'm psyched! As part of the preparation, I continued my yoga regularly and made sure I took care of my asthma condition. The day came, and we commenced our journey. But wait, I had to go to the toilet. Lo and behold, I was told there is no toilet and that I could just do it behind the bushes and they were serious. With little choice, I made my way and as I walked over, my friend joined me, and we spotted some tourists walking over to what seems like a toilet. Well, 
    I guess it was someone's house. This lucky turn of event didn't just stop here.  It also gave us the opportunity to find some left behind hiking sticks for my friend which we kindly asked from the owner and she gladly obliged.  This is definitely a good start, I thought.

    Now, my anxiety suddenly disappeared as one challenge after another began to ease up, much like the toilet incident.  We had all day to trek and explore Tiger's Nest, no time pressure. My sandals were perfect, gave me stable footing.  The breathing exercises I learned in yoga really helped normalize my breathing even during steep ascents.  My companions were at equal speeds with me on the trek giving me no anxiety that I am holding them back. The paths were wide allowing my fear of heights to be of no existence. I was glad I didn't choose to ride the mule for which the height of where I'll be will be even scarier. Previews of the Tiger's Nest fed my energy at each spot. The scenery all throughout the trek were just so breathtaking that I had no time to even worry about the trek. We just took out our cameras every chance of the way to attempt to capture this natural beauty. A beautiful modest waterfall awaited us at the last and hardest leg of our trek. We even saw a family of the silver langur monkeys by the trees.  And best of all, we did make it to the Tiger's Nest without any altitude sickness

    Maybe it was more of a physical goal for me than a spiritual one this time, but it was a very blessed trek, despite the fact that it took us longer than other people. I probably never experienced so many blessings in one day and that just shows me that fear is not going to get me anywhere if I don't give life a chance.

  • Bhutan was introduced to Buddhism by the Divine Madman or the Mad Saint, who is known for his unorthodox method of enlightenment, which includes singing, humor, and in some ways bizarre and shocking behaviors that hold sexual overtones.  He also introduced the phallus symbol which represents a blessing, especially for the women who are looking to have children.

    Punakha was one of the highlights of our trip, second to Tiger's Nest. Coming from Paro and Thimphu, Punakha sure gave us a different vibe, where it could get confusing to see sexual symbols like the phallus drawn on the walls of houses and stores.  Somehow, one would not expect this from a seemingly traditional and conservative culture and religion.

    From our hotel in Lobesa, we took a short van ride to the rice fields just below and we walked through the fields to reach Chimi Lakhang Monastery. This is where the original phallus symbol still resides and is currently used to bless those who visit the monastery, mostly women who wish to have children. The monastery is quite small and sits on top of a small hit, and in some ways, enveloped by the vast rice fields below.

    Passing through the rice fields, we had some interesting conversations with the locals: mostly farmers and kids.  A stupa would emerge in the middle of nowhere and pockets of prayer flags surround the area.  It is an irony as I have never stepped on our own famous Banaue Rice Terraces back home, one of the natural wonders of the world.  The view just stretches far to where the eyes can see and it's a wonderful sight, especially with the cloud formations during sunset and sunrise where we would view it from the other vantage points nearby.  On one side, we see a meadow and a group of locals herding their cows.  Reminds me a lot too of Batanes back in the Philippines.

    As we reached the monastery, we see many young monks who are studying out in the grounds of the monastery.  I am amazed at their sharp focus as seen through their facial expressions.  It seems like they were reviewing their chants for an exam.  Far to one end, we see older monks giving the younger ones an oral exam.  This is a common sight, and the more conventional one, seen when we made our rounds through the different monasteries and nunneries.

  • Bhutanese are predominantly vegetarians due to their religion but many do eat meat like cows, pigs and yaks.  However, they are not allowed to kill them.  Thus, there are no slaughterhouses in Bhutan. Bhutan's meat comes from India.

    Yak production is one of the main livelihoods in Bhutan, especially in the higher altitudes as yaks can only survive around 4,500 meters and above. Aside from producing milk and meat, yak production also includes materials for garments, tents, and even fuels from their dung.

    The Bhutanese national dish is called "ema dachi" which is chili cheese. They use whole green chilis much like we saute our vegetables and add cheese to counter the spice. Most Bhutanese dish are spicy, and not just regular spicy, but extremely spicy.  In fact, the food they prepare for the tourists is not even comparable to the normal food they eat everyday. Food they serve for the tourists are toned down in terms of spice.

    Momo dumplings are also popular.  Traditionally, they are made with yak, but beef is a common alternative especially for areas where yak in not available.

    Vegetables are abundant and meats are not used as much.  The meats are also not generally tender. A visit to their central market exposes their love for vegetables, especially chili.  Variety seems to be quite limited but there are more than enough stalls that sell the same produce.  We also saw some dried fish.

    Coffee culture seems to be catching up as one sees coffee shops sprouting up, mostly in the city. But most people still enjoy their local coffee and crackers.

    We got to try their butter tea which is tea with yak butter.  It tasted more like soup to me than tea, but it was interesting.  It definitely had more flavor than I had expected.

  • Bhutan has a standard dress code where most locals still wear the traditional attire.  Its common architecture also flanks the structures all around Bhutan and they do not use nails or iron bars.

    Bhutan seems to have a thing for standardization, and maybe that's the secret to their simplicity and practicality.  Most people still wear the traditional gho and kira everyday to work.

    Bhutan sports a standard architecture for all houses and buildings.  The delicately hand drawn multi-colored wooden frontages, small arched windows and sloping roofs are seen in Bhutanese structures, whether a dzong or a residential house.  The type of architecture that does not use nails or iron bars remind me of the dovetailing method used in Japanese carpentry.

  • Prayer wheels and prayer flags both distribute blessings and positive wishes to oneself and to others and in a way, locals do this to gain merit, much like chanting prayers. Similarly, tiny stupas called tsa tsas are offering made to dispel the negative and bring in positive energy.  Prayer wheels need to be turned clockwise.
    In Bhutan, we find many of these things and one can't help to participate in these rituals.  Who wouldn't want to dispel obstacles and negative vibes and bring in positive energy? I am not a Buddhist myself but I do believe that the intention of these acts are quite practical and in no way different from my own spiritual beliefs. In fact, I kinda admire that one doesn't just pray for their own petitions but also for others out in the world. This kind of selflessness is very rare.

    We had to opportunity to consult a fortune teller at one of the monasteries and I did receive a relatively positive fortune. He recommended I get 3 sets of prayer flags so I did. At the back of my mind, I wondered if this was sort of a money-making scheme, thanks to the paranoid side that society has influenced on me. But if for anything, it's for a good cause. Assuming my positive fortune is true, then the least I could do is share these blessings with others too.

    I love the words used from an article used to describe the meaning of prayer flags:  "
    Himalayans believe that when the wind blows the flags, it spreads the blessings, good will and compassion embodied in the images and writings across the land. Eventually the prints fade and the prayers become part of the universe, and the prayer flags are renewed."

    Each set had several flags all with the same color.  I had blue, green and yellow.  I managed to hang my 3 sets of prayers flags at the Takchong Lakhang Iron Chain Bridge, at the base of the last leg of the Tiger's Nest by the waterfalls, and at the Dochula Pass overlooking the Himalayan mountain range.
Hill above the Dochula Pass

Tachog Lakhang Old Wooden Bridge

At the bridge beside the waterfall going towards Tiger's Nest

  • Archery is Bhutan's national sport

    We were lucky enough to watch some of the locals practicing at the archery range.  It was a large field and both ends had a target.  The local rotate from one target to another, and thus depending on which side they are shooting at, we had to hide behind a small shed to avoid being hit by stray arrows.

    Their bows seem really lightweight and they are now made of fiberglass compared to the old wooden ones. I've always been interested in archery but never really gotten into it.  I did try an old wooden bow one time at one of the resorts. It was extremely heavy and the tension of the stretch was a lot to handle.  I then took a quick beginner's class with the new fiberglass type. It was much lighter and I managed to hit a couple on target. But I've never been good at aiming and I just couldn't get the physics needed to understand how to control my bow :-)  It was nice to see the professional archers in action.

  • Bhutan's cultural dance, the cham dance, is a form of meditation and offering to the gods, led by music from Tibetan instruments

    The most popular festival is the annual Tshechu Festival, which is a mask dance where the locals 
    receive blessings and wash away their sins. Every mask dance performed during a Tshechu has a special meaning or a story behind it and many are based on stories and incidents from as long ago as the 8th century, during the life of Guru Padmasambhava.

    The cham dance is in a way a preview to the annual festival.  It is also a mask dance where the characters sport colorful costumes and masks. We watched our outdoors beside one of the restaurants. I love the part where the characters jump high during their dance.  The dance was accompanies by two musicians playing the cymbal, a guitar like instrument and two long trumpets.

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