Bhutan: Hopscotching an unsullied land among the Himalayas (Continued)
ThimphuAs capitals go, Thimphu is rather charmless. The sidewalks are packed with same-sex packs of friends walking arm-in-arm, ducking in and out of tiny shops selling fabric, DVDs and groceries. I briefly admire the white-gloved cop who is stationed inside a covered, elevated wooden platform at a traffic circle in the center of town. There's very little traffic, but he’s both forceful and graceful as he orchestrates the dusty vehicles that encircle him.
Many travelers go mad for the Post Office; it's a major attraction for stamp collectors. Since the 1960s, the country has issued colorful, creative stamps depicting historical events, celebrities and monarchs; there's an impressive range for sale. For a nominal fee, you can have your photo made and emblazoned on a page of stamps available within a few hours. The stamps can be affixed to postcards sent home to friends and family.
Wandering the streets, I meet a gregarious gay cowboy; I know, because he (boldly) declares his sexuality. He poses for pictures, then invites me for Coke. We chat about America's politics, global economics and travel. The locals are relaxed about sexuality: couples get "married" simply by moving in together and "divorced" simply by moving out. Many men maintain families in multiple villages; there's no stigma about these arrangements.
A short drive outside of town, in the shadow of a telecom tower, is the Motithang Takin Preserve. Takins are the national animal; they've been likened to a moose with a bee-stung nose. Lumbering and shy, they get closest to the fence during morning feedings. Fantastical wildlife and gay cowboys make for a befuddling place.
Central Bhutan and Punakha-Wangdue ValleyWe make our way to Central Bhutan. The Dochula Pass rises to 10,000 feet with jaw-dropping views of regal snow-covered Himalayas. Built by the eldest queen, 108 chortens stud the pass. "Panoramic" is an understatement: I feel as though I can reach up and touch the low, wispy clouds. A few men squat at the roadside, breaking rocks with a chisel. Against this majesty, even the sound of breaking rocks sounds like music.
We descend into the picturesque Punakha-Wangdue Valley, home to the Punakha Dzong, the second oldest in the country. It is scenically situated at the confluence of two sparkling rivers. To reach the dzong, I share the covered wooden cantilevered footbridge with a cow. At this point in the trip, the bovine is welcome companionship. Though I’m "dzonged out," we pile back into the bus to visit the Wangdue Dzong. My notes say it boasts commanding views. Unquestionably.
Although a rooster crows, it's late in the day when we arrive. The fading rays of the sun warm the bricked courtyard. A few young monks are horsing around, practicing karate; I see yellow Crocs flash beneath the deep red of one boy's robe. A silver-haired tourist is snapping photos. The monks gather to giggle over their images on the digital camera. The pungent smell of ema datse, chiles and cheese, scents the air. I pause. Sometime, this scene is both exuberant and tranquil. I breathe it in, practicing Buddhist mindfulness. This is Bhutan.
Bumthang ValleyBhutan's most beautiful destination, the Bumthang Valley, is the spiritual and cultural center of the country. It's also the lush agricultural center. It looks like fairy-tale land from a childhood book, with its charming traditional homes built from local timber. Hand-lettered signs advertise cheese, honey and apples.
Guru Rinpoche introduced Buddhism to Bhutan in the 8th century. We hike to Kurey Lhakhang, a popular pilgrimage site which features the bodily imprint of Guru Rinpoche on one of the complex's rocks. The highlight of our time here is the Tsechu Religious Festival, which takes place annually in the autumn in several small villages. Colorfully costumed dancers perform masked dances in celebration of Guru Rinpoche’s life.
At Trakhar, the atmosphere is intimate; there are just a few Westerners. Bryan knows the village's highest-ranking man. He is related to a lama. He invites us to sit with him in his family's home and watch the proceedings. It's cold and the refuge is welcome; we are served whisky and snacks.
Locals turn out in their finest jewelry and clothing. The women wear brightly woven, ankle-length kiras, their necks heavy with turquoise and coral necklaces. The men are turned out in dapper ghos. The children run around, gleefully shrieking.
The dances are athletic and graceful performances that tell a story. There are routines include a stag and hunter, fringed black hats and wrathful deities. Dancers, wearing elaborate headdresses, leap and twirl, their heavy embroidered skirts swirling. But it's the masked jester who is most memorable, comically taunting the crowd with a large wooden penis, to gales of laughter. The sight of an 18-inch red penis waved in the face of a startled tourist is not one I will soon forget.
If You Go:
If you fly into Paro, the country’s only airport, i'’s courtesy of Druk Air, the only airline with scheduled flights. The $800 roundtrip flight from Bangkok (2009 prices) has the chattiest passengers I've ever flown with. Giddy strangers excitedly share itineraries and pass cameras to seatmates in the coveted window seats. The landing—that seemingly skims the Himalayas—inspires impromptu applause.
Mountain Travel Sobek has been leading trips in Bhutan since it opened to tourists in 1974. They offer both group and private trips. Visit MTSobek.com for information and reservations.
A former Navy brat who traveled and lived abroad extensively, Suzanne Wright is a fulltime, freelance writer based in Atlanta. She is a member of NATJA, and has written numerous travel, food and decor features for numerous international, national and regional publications. Her articles have appeared in Elite Traveler, Wine & Spirits, Veranda, Atlanta Magazine, The Tennessean, Atlanta Homes & Lifestyles, Piedmont Review, Charlotte Place, Where, On Magazine and others. A suitcase is always packed and her passport always up to date.