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Get Thee to a Nunnery

One hot, sunny day, not to confine ourselves to monks, we ventured to a nunnery. The girls — I’d estimate twenty or so — were all teenagers; girls don’t become nuns as young as boys enter the monastery. The similarity was striking, however, as the girls were giggly and energetic as their counterparts in the lay world. Two of them were practicing the dungchen, a long trumpet-like horn whose sound is sometimes compared to an elephant singing! Like the monks, they also shave their heads.

A return trip to Punakha Dzong allowed us to appreciate its beauty in the daylight and capture the jacaranda trees bordering the river. Inside, we caught a glimpse of monks at their daily rituals — like college students strolling the campus. The lovely painted prayer wheel at bottom is typical for an important dzong.

What’s a Chorten, Anyway?

Our first encounter with chortens was at the top of the Dochula Pass between Thimphu and Punakha. In the center of a small field was a large one, surrounded by 108 smaller ones. Inside each one there were small figures, mostly religious relics.

A chorten is also called a stupa, and, as with all Buddhist structures, has symbolic components. The base represents earth; the dome, water; the spire, fire, and its 13 segments the steps leading to Buddhahood; the crescent moon and sun air; its vertical spike ether or the sacred light of Buddha. Inside, a carved wooden pole, called a shokshing, is the life spirit of the chorten.

The Bhutanese people (called Drukpas) believe that if one circumambulates the chorten (s)he will collect blessings emanating from it.

A typical chorten is made of whitewashed stone and is embellished with the Buddha’s eyes and perhaps bands of dark red. There is a chorten in the center courtyard of every temple or dzong., and often a large one in the center of a town.

The Royal Botanical Garden at the top of Dorchula Pass is a lovely spot for walking. Forty-six varieties of rhododendron bloom there during spring and summer; but during our visit many were past flowering and others just bore fat buds that looked ready to pop open. It must be a spectacular sight when the flowers are in full bloom. Scattered throughout are little caves for praying or meditating, painted in the exquisite decorative style we were to see all over the country.

We wandered around Lobesa, a small town known for its obsession with decorative penises (more on that later…maybe), encountering some friendly residents and shopkeepers.

The blue hour found us at the Punakha dzong, one of the most important in the country.

A Short Meditation on Prayer Flags

Prayer flags are ubiquitous in Bhutan, fluttering from the eaves and doorways of houses, decorating temples and monasteries and popping up at road intersections. The flags come in five colors, red, green, blue, yellow and white, representing happiness, long life, prosperity, luck and merit. A large display of white flags signifies that someone in the household has died. The flags also stand for the five essential elements in Buddhism: the sky, fire, earth, water and air, and the importance of keeping these elements in harmony.

The Bhutanese believe that the prayers are carried on the wind — a lovely thought, I think.

I brought some home to hang in my backyard.

The Young Monks

Before I came to Bhutan I pictured devout young monks in serious repose; but our first visit to a monastery disabused me of that notion. Boys as young as five or six performed cartwheels and tore around the field just as boys are wont to do. One little guy had knotted his robe in superhero style.

Ugyen had a conversation with the headmaster, who acknowledged they were in need of notebooks and pencils, so we took up a collection and went on a shopping expedition. In addition to the requested items, we bought toothbrushes and toothpaste and four soccer balls. As you can imagine, the balls were a huge hit, prompting impromptu soccer and volleyball games. The headmaster had been the sole overseer of the twenty boys in his care, having only recently hired a cook to help out. Clearly, the need was great, and our small contribution most appreciated.

From the chorten in the courtyard, Buddha is always watching.

The Food Quandary, Cows and Yaks

Some of us like a bit of spice in our food, others not so much. So Ugyen has briefed the kitchens at our hotels to tone down the spice for Western palates, which is a bit disappointing. Nevertheless, I’m enjoying the noodles, fried rice and soup. Not to sound pejorative, but the chicken, always served in a tasty sauce, had to have been cut up with a chainsaw!

One of the more fascinating beverages is butter tea. Imagine drinking a cup of melted butter mixed with black tea… my first cup was my last!

As we negotiate the narrow winding roads through the snow-capped mountains, we often see cows grazing by the roadside. It’s anyone’s guess where their barns are; and since there’s very little shoulder between the road and the abyss below, I can’t imagine how they get to where they belong.

One day we stopped at a little shack shop at a place I called Yak Junction because of the many yaks ambling along the highway and nibbling on grass and weeds. We all bought beautiful shawls made from baby yak wool, softer than you can imagine, from the lady weaving in the sun.

Baby yak
Mama and baby


Venturing Into the Kingdom of the Dragon

The remote and landlocked kingdom of Bhutan is perched on the shoulder of India on the eastern edge of the Himalayas, with Tibet to the north. A rare clear day flying in offered views of Mt. Everest.

I had read that landing in Paro is a hair-raising experience, which I suppose it could be during bad weather. On approach we arced closely around a forested mountainside with a shawl of clouds. Paro is not the capital, but is close to Thimpu, where we spent our first two nights; Paro has the only sufficient flat terrain to accommodate runways for big jets.

We met our local guide, Ugyen, and driver, Top Gey,, with whom we will spend the next ten days. Top Gey will prove to be extraordinarily skilled behind the wheel, as we will learn when we venture into the mountains and countryside.

Our first of countless temple visits is in Thimpu, This workshop will be all about shooting faces — and dzongs and prayer flags.

The monks at the monastery in Thimphu range in age from about ten to infinity. The young boys are as rambunctious as 10-12 year-olds at home are, they are just garbed in red robes. I had had a vision of devout young men praying — but no!

At the southernmost edge of the city, a giant (169- foot) sitting Buddha is the city’s most famous landmark. Inside are another 100,000+ small gold and brass Buddha figures. The Buddha Dordenma was erected to honor the king’s 60th anniversary in 2010. in his forehead is a giant diamond.

The next morning we returned for more artistic shots of the Buddha.

I have a lot more to catch up on when we move on to our last hotel this afternoon, so stay tuned.

Peaceful Music

A young woman plays the khim in the hotel lobby. Peaceful, relaxing music for washing stress away. And forgetting the debilitating heat outside.

First Day in Bangkok

After a terrific night’s sleep, I am totally acclimated to the time change. But adjusting to the enervating heat is something else entirely. When Barbara and I set out this morning, the air temperature was 85, but the “feels like“ temp was 95!

We managed a short trip on the metro with the intent to visit the Royal Palace, but were persuaded by an enterprising local to get there by tuktuk and see some other sites along the way. We breezed quickly through the Wat Indharaviharn with its enormous Standing Buddha — 32 meters tall. This is only a third class wat, but the Marble Temple, our next stop, is one of the city’s most beautiful and popular with visitors. Its steeply pitched layered roof lines are intricately tiled, with graceful finials reaching heavenward. Smaller outbuildings are covered with intricately carved Carrara marble trimmed in gold.

(I can’t seem to upload the Standing Buddha image, but he’s not that handsome anyway.)

Wat Saket, home to the Lucky Buddha, is some 700 years old; people leave tributes asking him to fulfill their wishes. I asked the attendant there how many wats (temples) there are in Bangkok, and was surprised to learn there are 800; but even more astonishingly, there are 28,000 in all of Thailand!

The heat was really getting to Barbara, so we asked our driver to take us to the Royal Palace, which was where we wanted to go in the first place, so we could wrap up our tour. We learned to our dismay that this final stop was where he would leave us — not back to where we started our tour. We were able to cool off in a sort of underground auditorium that seemed to be where tour groups gathered. Once we headed for the entry, however, I was busted for wearing cropped pants, so that was that. (The guidebooks caution not to wear shorts, sleeveless shirts or sandals, nothing about crops.) We caught a different tuktuk back to the Banyan Tree Hotel, our little oasis away from the frenetic city streets, and enjoyed a lovely lunch.

The rest of our traveling companions are arriving late tonight; hopefully we’ll have better sightseeing luck tomorrow, and I’ll figure out why I’m having trouble uploading images.

This is an experiment. Today’s lunch

Away Again!

The long travel drought is over! Aside from a week in Biloxi in January, it’s been six months since I’ve had any adventures to write about. But that’s about to change: I’m awaiting my flight from Boston to Hong Kong, then on to Bangkok to meet up with friends. After a quick visit there we’ll connect with our photographer leader, Bryan, and will all go to Bhutan for ten days. A short rest in Phuket will wind up the trip.

I expect Bangkok to be noisy, hot and crowded, and Bhutan, by contrast, to be serene, cool and remote. I’m trying new technology for my blog this time, untethered from my laptop, and don’t know how it will go. Stay tuned here — it will take me a couple of days to get to Bangkok and get connected.

Adventures await!