Print this page
Tuesday, 01 September 2009

Bhutan's Monasteries and Festivals

Written by Christina Kay Bolton
Rate this item
(0 votes)

Bhutan's Monasteries and Festivals, the Unique Buddhist Kingdom, Sacred Himalaya Travel, travel bhutan, Thimpu Tshechu festival, Bhutanese culture, Wangdue Phodrang Tshechu festival, www.sacredhimalayatravel.com, Christina Kay BoltonBhutan really is unique in the world – its culture is one of the most well preserved in the world.  As a tourist, I felt I was almost stepping back in time.  Some of this may be due to the fact that television wasn’t allowed into the Buddhist kingdom until 1999, so, unlike most places; western culture has yet to take over. Another factor is that traditional Bhutanese dress is required in both school and the workplace, so one always sees the women wearing their Kira’s and the men in Goa’s.  Western style clothes are often worn by the youth on weekends, but the older folk tend to wear the Kira or Goa year-round.

Bhutan has a young king (only 29 years old) who was corronated last year.  He is very popular and has many progressive environmental and educational policies – such as a program to end illiteracy by 2020 where teachers are sent to villages in the evenings so that farmers can learn to read and write after they finish their work.  His focus on environmental protection includes preserving Bhutan’s pristine undeveloped land covering 75 % of the country. One way he’s accomplishing this is urging people to replace traditional roof tops (which require deforestation) with more modern, metal materials.

Bhutan's Monasteries and Festivals, the Unique Buddhist Kingdom, Sacred Himalaya Travel, travel bhutan, Thimpu Tshechu festival, Bhutanese culture, Wangdue Phodrang Tshechu festival, www.sacredhimalayatravel.com, Christina Kay BoltonThe Bhutanese culture is most pronounced during their extravagant festivals.  To gain an authentic feel for these traditions I went to Bhutan in September during their main festival season. As well as being times of celebrating Buddhism and gaining blessings, these festivities are the most important social events of the year. Everyone is dressed in their best attire and the attendees are almost as much of a spectacle as the participants. The monks are the dancers, dressed in lavish costumes and large masks. Some of the dances last hours and all tell important stories of Buddhism.  It seems that almost everyone attends the festivals, so this must be one way all the stories are passed down to the younger generation.

 

Bhutan's Monasteries and Festivals, the Unique Buddhist Kingdom, Sacred Himalaya Travel, travel bhutan, Thimpu Tshechu festival, Bhutanese culture, Wangdue Phodrang Tshechu festival, www.sacredhimalayatravel.com, Christina Kay BoltonFor travelers Bhutan is very peaceful. I could watch the clouds shift over the mountains for hours and never get tired of it. The people are very friendly and smile as you walk by. As a visitor you get the best of Bhutan without having to deal with the hassles of having to wear the national dress or having to explain what you’re doing at checkpoints; the guides and drivers deal with all the formalities.  The tourist industry in Bhutan is well developed and tightly regulated, and you’ll find you need to have a guide in order to travel and the tourist fee is high (approx. $250/day) by the area’s norms, but includes pretty much everything (guide, driver, hotels, meals, entry fees, etc). The hotels are all of fairly high standard and drivers for tourists are well trained and much more careful than bus or taxi drivers.

My driver, Tashi, was a true gem and made the trip much more special. With a kind smile, he was always there to open the door for me and he drove with care over the slightest bump. I immediately felt I was in good hands and would be safe – which is a lot to expect on Bhutan’s rural mountain roads with their common landslides. Tashi was also a lama – in order to become a lama you have to meditate for 3 years, 3 months, and 3 days. He did this twice back to back – meditating for 6 years, 6 months, and 6 days plus a number of shorter stints, so you can imagine how peaceful his energy was.  He’d retired from being a lama for the Thimpu police after 9 years and 9 months (and 9 days?) and started driving tourists for his brother’s company, Sacred Himalaya Travel.  He’s the most kind and careful driver I’ve had anywhere.

Day 1

Bhutan's Monasteries and Festivals, the Unique Buddhist Kingdom, Sacred Himalaya Travel, travel bhutan, Thimpu Tshechu festival, Bhutanese culture, Wangdue Phodrang Tshechu festival, www.sacredhimalayatravel.com, Christina Kay BoltonMy journey began with an incredible flight into Paro with mountains closing in on either side as the plane maneuvered its way through them. You can’t see any runway, but as the plane turns and the Paro valley opens a bit, the short landing strip appears.  It was a fun flight and would have been better if we’d seen the snow covered peaks that were unfortunately hidden by clouds.

 

 


 

Upon arrival, my guide and driver collected me and we drove through the golden-green rice fields to my home for the next two nights: Hotel Silver Pine. I was welcomed by a large room with a balcony overlooking the mountains and valley. It included a large bathroom and luggage room and the walls were hand painted in brightly colored traditional Bhutanese designs.

Bhutan's Monasteries and Festivals, the Unique Buddhist Kingdom, Sacred Himalaya Travel, travel bhutan, Thimpu Tshechu festival, Bhutanese culture, Wangdue Phodrang Tshechu festival, www.sacredhimalayatravel.com, Christina Kay BoltonAfter settling in we visited the National Museum which is a maze of rooms, hallways and chambers located in a former watchtower.  The most interesting display is near the top – it’s four large statues of Buddha showing the different branches of Buddhism. The museum has a fabulous view overlooking the dzong (a large building that houses the religious and government institutions) and the valley below.

 

 

Bhutan's Monasteries and Festivals, the Unique Buddhist Kingdom, Sacred Himalaya Travel, travel bhutan, Thimpu Tshechu festival, Bhutanese culture, Wangdue Phodrang Tshechu festival, www.sacredhimalayatravel.com, Christina Kay BoltonWe then proceeded down to the Rinpong Dzong. Inside the walls was a large courtyard with a monastery, a courthouse, and various government offices. The carvings are intricate and the painted roofs and walls extravagant.  A young monk offered me fresh walnuts as I went into the temple. I went back to my hotel, sat on the porch and enjoyed the perfect weather and view.

 

Day 2

We spent the day further up the Paro valley at the ruins of Drukyul Dzong, which is where many of the trekking routes begin as it is the end of the road. We hiked down to the river and had a picnic lunch next to the rapids. We also visited the temple of Avalokiteshvara which is one of 108 temples built in the Himalayan region by an 8th century Tibetan king, and one of only three still standing. In downtown Paro we watched the much loved national sport of Archery. Bhutan's Monasteries and Festivals, the Unique Buddhist Kingdom, Sacred Himalaya Travel, travel bhutan, Thimpu Tshechu festival, Bhutanese culture, Wangdue Phodrang Tshechu festival, www.sacredhimalayatravel.com, Christina Kay BoltonThe archer stands 140 meters from the target, so it’s a wonder that any of them hit it – it’s hard to even see them across the lengthy field.

For dinner, the hotels’ gracious servers brought an assortment of Bhutanese dishes which were okay, but not great. In general, the food in Bhutan is very plentiful but not too enticing.  Their national dish is chilies cooked in a cheese sauce served with rice.  Its very hot and lacking all subtlety of interesting spices such as Indian food has.  They also have similar dishes of potatoes or mushrooms cooked in cheese sauce which I found more palatable, but very heavy.  Ferns are another unique food and there are a couple varieties.  The more common fern I liked better – there is one variety that is rarer and considered a delicacy, but I found it rather bitter, where the abundant one is tastier.  Bitter gourd is another common vegetable as well, served either sautéed or deep fried, and again, it is quite bitter and I couldn’t develop a taste for it.  Some places serve descent Indian, Chinese, or Continental food.  Hopefully you’ve come to Bhutan for either trekking in the incredible mountains or the unique culture and not for the food; if you have you’ll be sorely disappointed. But if you like large quantities of food you should be happy as most hotels have buffets or serve you about five different dishes and rice, figuring you’ll probably like something.  Interestingly, I never saw a menu in Bhutan and people don’t ask you what you like, you just sit down and they start bringing food. With three large meals a day you’ll never go hungry.

 

 


 

Day 3

In the morning, we drove to Thimpu, Bhutan’s capital, on the newly widened road between the two largest cities. It was a nice drive following the river and is the best road in the country despite one section damaged by landslides. I checked in at Hotel Pedling which was nice with soft clean white sheets and a puffy duvet. After lunch we went to the Thimpu Bhutan's Monasteries and Festivals, the Unique Buddhist Kingdom, Sacred Himalaya Travel, travel bhutan, Thimpu Tshechu festival, Bhutanese culture, Wangdue Phodrang Tshechu festival, www.sacredhimalayatravel.com, Christina Kay BoltonDzong to attend the Thimpu Drupchen festival, but I was really disappointed because they did not allow me or any other tourists in to see the dancing.  It turns out that tourists are usually only allowed on the first day of the festival.  However, we did tour the dzong, which was a prosperous one due to the king having his office and house here.

We drove to the highest viewpoint overlooking Thimpu and stopped at a small zoo on the way down. Then on to a weaving collective where the elaborate Bhutanese textiles are woven by hand, then to a nunnery, and to the Memorial Chorten, where people walk in large circles around the center stupa or spin large prayer wheels to gain blessings. In the Bhutan's Monasteries and Festivals, the Unique Buddhist Kingdom, Sacred Himalaya Travel, travel bhutan, Thimpu Tshechu festival, Bhutanese culture, Wangdue Phodrang Tshechu festival, www.sacredhimalayatravel.com, Christina Kay Boltonlate afternoon I went shopping in Thimpu’s mix of tourist shops, street markets, and at a local bazaar with food, music, and craft stalls.

I had a nice dinner at my hotel – the food was better than at other places I’d stayed. I was given Tibetan momos and shitake mushrooms as well as the customary cheese filled dishes and rice.  This hotel also offered free computer access in its business center which was convenient.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day 4

We stopped at the weekend market where people sell grains, fruits, and vegetables as well as tourist items, before heading out on our day hike to one of the most important Bhutan's Monasteries and Festivals, the Unique Buddhist Kingdom, Sacred Himalaya Travel, travel bhutan, Thimpu Tshechu festival, Bhutanese culture, Wangdue Phodrang Tshechu festival, www.sacredhimalayatravel.com, Christina Kay Boltonmonasteries in Bhutan: Cheri Goenpa. It is on a mountaintop with a gorgeous view and it’s not that far to hike up, but it is steep. On the way, many Bhutanese passed me as they go to the monasteries on weekends to light butter lamps as gifts to Buddha.  After descending, we drove through the lush forest to a river where we had a hot picnic lunch prepared by the hotel complete with plates and silverware.

 

Bhutan's Monasteries and Festivals, the Unique Buddhist Kingdom, Sacred Himalaya Travel, travel bhutan, Thimpu Tshechu festival, Bhutanese culture, Wangdue Phodrang Tshechu festival, www.sacredhimalayatravel.com, Christina Kay BoltonWe also visited the oldest dzong in Thimpu and a temple where most of the parents in the capital go as soon as a child is born to receive a name.

Day 5

An early start at 5:30 brought us to the Dochula pass just after sunrise – the view was beautiful as we had a completely clear view of the snow covered mountains.  Our other reason for leaving so early was to try to get to the Wangdue Phodrang Tshechu festival by 8:30 to see the large thanka painting that is unfurled in the dzong from 5-8:30 a.m. – it is supposed to bring blessings just to see it. Unfortunately we arrived at 8:15 a.m. and it was already gone.  We did see some dances though with the monks in bright costumes and elaborate masks.

 

 


 

After the festival we went for lunch at Chhimi Lhakhang Cafeteria in Lobesa which has a gorgeous view, a good buffet lunch, and definitely the best bathroom in Bhutan – decorated with antiques and a view over the rice paddies.  Lobesa is also the starting point for the short hike up to the Chhimi Lhakhang Temple for fertility.  You’ll probably notice the phalluses painted on the sides of the buildings before you head out.  When you’re at the temple, you’ll not only get the customary holy water, but you’ll also be blessed by a monk touching the top of your head with a large phallus and a bow and arrow.  That was definitely a surprising moment – I’d never imagined a monk in his long red robe blessing me with a phallus before.

Bhutan's Monasteries and Festivals, the Unique Buddhist Kingdom, Sacred Himalaya Travel, travel bhutan, Thimpu Tshechu festival, Bhutanese culture, Wangdue Phodrang Tshechu festival, www.sacredhimalayatravel.com, Christina Kay BoltonWe also went to the Punakha Dzong – the largest dzong in the country which was also the original capital.  Sitting right at the conflux of two distinctly colored rivers – one a glacial blue and one dark green – it is a dramatic sight.  The paintings and the temple inside are very majestic, as well as the long stairways up just to get in.

I stayed at Kichu Resort, which is tucked right between the road and the river. The river is raging at this point, so the sound of rushing water will lull you to sleep.  The rooms are simple, but the staff is very nice. Kichu serves only vegetarian food. Wangdue is at a much lower elevation than Thimpu or Paro and is significantly warmer. It was hot during the day in late September, but pleasant at night.

Day 6

We embarked on a day trip to the Phobjikha valley, where the famous black necked cranes migrate in winter – this involved a beautiful drive over another high mountain pass.  Bhutan's Monasteries and Festivals, the Unique Buddhist Kingdom, Sacred Himalaya Travel, travel bhutan, Thimpu Tshechu festival, Bhutanese culture, Wangdue Phodrang Tshechu festival, www.sacredhimalayatravel.com, Christina Kay BoltonWe went to the monastery where there was a festival rehearsal happening (which looks just like the festival without the masks).  Then we hiked down to the valley, since it wasn’t black crane season there weren’t many others around, but we had a picnic before heading back. Unfortunately, a bad rain storm came out of nowhere and quickly turned to hail and whiteout conditions – very nerve-wracking on the narrow, twisting, bumpy roads.  Luckily, the hail disappeared as quickly as it came, but the rain stayed with us for most of the drive.

Day 7

We headed back over the Dochula pass early and had breakfast at Dochula Cafeteria which has a panoramic view.  It was also my first authentic Bhutanese breakfast as I had tasty fried rice instead of the eggs and toast usually served to foreigners.  After checking back into the Pedling Hotel we went straight to the Thimpu Tshechu festival and watched many of the folk and religious dances.  Of the ones I saw the Eight Manifestations of Guru Bhutan's Monasteries and Festivals, the Unique Buddhist Kingdom, Sacred Himalaya Travel, travel bhutan, Thimpu Tshechu festival, Bhutanese culture, Wangdue Phodrang Tshechu festival, www.sacredhimalayatravel.com, Christina Kay BoltonRinpoche (who brought Nyingma Bhuddism to Bhutan) Dance was the most dramatic and ends with a huge line of attendees queing for blessings.

We also stopped at the national textile museum which is small, but interesting and highlights the different types of weavings from each area of the country.  During dinner my guide, Gumpa, who’d been very informative throughout told me his son had an accident so he’d have to stay home and the owner’s son would accompany me on my last two days.

 

 


 

 

Day 8

Bhutan's Monasteries and Festivals, the Unique Buddhist Kingdom, Sacred Himalaya Travel, travel bhutan, Thimpu Tshechu festival, Bhutanese culture, Wangdue Phodrang Tshechu festival, www.sacredhimalayatravel.com, Christina Kay BoltonI met my new guide and we headed back to Paro to hike to the famous Tatsang (Tiger’s Nest) monastery which is perched on the side of a cliff high up on the rock face.  It was a 3-hour hike up on a switchback path that turns to many, many stairs as you get close to it. It’s incredible that they were able to build the monastery way up there – carrying all the stones and materials up must have been so tedious and treacherous especially since they’ve only had the stairways about ten years and before that there was only a small rail you had to hold onto as you negotiated the path.  On the way down we stopped at the tea house 2/3 of the way up the mountain for a good lunch with a great view.  We stopped in Paro for a bit of shopping before heading back to Hotel Silver Pine.

Day 9

We embarked on a long 6-7 hour drive on a narrow road from Paro to Phuntsholing which sits on Bhutan’s southern border with India.  About halfway there the road got considerably Bhutan's Monasteries and Festivals, the Unique Buddhist Kingdom, Sacred Himalaya Travel, travel bhutan, Thimpu Tshechu festival, Bhutanese culture, Wangdue Phodrang Tshechu festival, www.sacredhimalayatravel.com, Christina Kay Boltonworse and was littered with landslides. There are large landslides here every monsoon that block the road and they were still cleaning up from this years’. Sometimes taxi’s will drive up to the landslides on either side and the passengers will walk across with their things and switch taxi’s to continue their journeys, which seems like an ingenious solution.  No tourist traffic will go through though, so don’t plan this route from May to the beginning of September. There is no need to take this overland route unless you’re heading to Darjeeling, Assam, or Sikkim.  For anywhere else you can easily fly from Paro which I would definitely recommend.  Even for Darjeeling check if you can arrange a flight because Druk Air (Bhutan’s only airline) does advertise flights to Siliguri although I was not able to buy one when I booked my trip as they were not sure if they would continue that route. There’s really nothing in Phuntsholing anyways and it’s very hot. I stayed at Hotel West End which was the only place on the trip that I needed AC which thankfully they had.

Bhutan's Monasteries and Festivals, the Unique Buddhist Kingdom, Sacred Himalaya Travel, travel bhutan, Thimpu Tshechu festival, Bhutanese culture, Wangdue Phodrang Tshechu festival, www.sacredhimalayatravel.com, Christina Kay BoltonI learned so much on my trip about Bhutanese culture and really got a feel for the Bhutanese people and their way of life.  My only regret is not having gone trekking.  If I were to do the trip over I think I would just go to one festival (as they are all quite similar) and instead do the 5-6 day trek from Paro to Thimpu and spend another five days or so in the towns. The longer treks such as the Snowman are considered some of the best in the whole world.  Also, exploring eastern Bhutan would be high on my list as I heard great things about the Bumthang valley as well.  I really enjoyed my journey and felt a profound sense of peace and ease from the very first day I arrived in Bhutan.  I’d highly recommend it as a destination to put on your list. If you go – be sure to ask for Tashi as your driver at Sacred Himalaya Travel.

www.sacredhimalayatravel.com

 

©Christina Kay Bolton

 

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

Related items