Book Excerpt: Bhutan

A chapter about Bhutan, from my book Common Sense and Whiskey, Modest Adventures Far from Home:

Only about thirty of us were flying to Bhutan, so the back of the plane held cargo: a couple of computers strapped to the seats, a boom box, a crock pot, several unmarked boxes, a quilt. And in the back seat a flight attendant drank in sleep – I mean, she snored. She, Mirja and one more were the only women.

The river Brahmaputra wound out toward the Ganges near Dhaka. Sunlight glinted and skipped across tens of thousands of acres of flooded rice paddies, miles and miles north of the Bay of Bengal. Sometimes the clouds lifted over northern Burma and Bangladesh.

Four hundred miles north of Rangoon a bend in the river ate half a town. It was July 4th. Americans celebrated independence while South Asia grappled with the monsoon.

When time came to drop through the clouds into Bhutan, the pilot announced, “We will maneuver the aircraft in the valley. This is a little different from large commercial aircraft. It is standard procedure. You will see the houses and trees a little closer than you are used to. The scenery is beautiful. Please enjoy the ride.”

He just picked a hole in the clouds and dove through. He did a 180 into the Paro valley. The automatic sensors called out, “too low,” and for the record he kept repeating, “acknowledge, override,” into the cockpit recorder.

This was George, bluff, barrel-chested, a real dude with a wide gray mustache, and one of just fourteen people ever to fly for Royal Bhutan Airlines, aka Druk Air. We said we’d buy him a beer if we saw him in town and he told us he’d drink it.

The only airport in Bhutan is in Paro, an old west one-horse town spread three hundred feet, and no more, across the valley floor, hardly movin’ in the midday sun. Uniformed Indian soldiers lolled about drinking “Thums Up” brand cola.


Phruba and Jigme, our guide and driver for the week, gathered us up for the trip to Thimpu, the capital and main city. Irrigated rice grew just about before your eyes, and every river was a tumult.

We crept and powered around corners (all week) in a Toyota Yokohama van. Jigme and Phruba both wore traditional skirt-like wraps called ghos, a lot like Burmese longyis (chapter six). Phruba’s legs stuck out below the knee. All week long he sat in the passenger seat, the picture of Buddhism, calm, legs hairy and hands clasped.

Tall and 28, he used to play basketball with the young King.

“We would stay outside and pick teams,” Phruba told us. “When he was in a good mood the King would invite us in to play. When he was in a bad mood he would play with his bodyguards. He is very good at the three point shot.”

Being taller than the King sets up a sensitive question: Does one shoot over the King’s head? Yes. The King’s bodyguards are some of the biggest men in the country, Phruba said, so he reckoned the King was used to it.


“Phruba, is the King married?” Mirja wanted to know.

“Yes, he has four Queens” Phruba replied, and seeing an eyebrow cock, he tried to put that right by adding what must have seemed the obvious: “But they are all sisters.”

With only one newspaper in the country, Keunsel, a weekly that comes out on Saturdays, how does Phruba keep up with the world? His answer was simple, disarming and direct.

Phruba’s eyes twinkled. He laughed, “We don’t. We don’t read much.” 

The national dish is called Ema Datse, literally chillies and cheese (It’s those long not-too-hot green chillies we call “finger hot” in a bowl of melted cheese, eaten with a spoon). Discovering our common love of chillies, Phruba’s face fairly radiated. “Whenever people travel outside of Bhutan they carry chilli powder. To Bangladesh, India, Bengal – anywhere!”

Whether they travel to India or Bengal, Bhutanese bring back a lot of India. Everything not Bhutanese was Indian: The uniformed soldiers in Paro, those horrid polluting Tata buses and the big cement-truck look-alikes used for general transport, all of them spewing the same ghastly black smoke that’s already spoiled, say, the Kathmandu valley.

There’s Mysore Rose Brand soap. Dansberg beers. Indian videos – there were posters for Suraj! and Insaaf – The Final Justice! and Border! All with exclamation marks!

And rupees.

The Ngultrum (Bhutanese money) is pegged to the Indian Rupee and you can spend either of them. Bhutanese share Indian punctiliousness and an inclination to paperwork. Pads of every kind of paperwork are done in triplicate with carbons – even restaurant orders.


They’re trying to keep Bhutan pure. I think intellectually everybody knows it’s a losing long-term proposition, but good for them just the same. In a lot of ways it’s working.

Most men wear traditional ghos. Guys walk together with an arm around their buddy’s waist. You get benevolent, open stares. So few people have stuck Nikons in their faces that they still smile back.


An hour and a half from the airport the Toyota rattled up the driveway of the Indigenous Art School. Trying to keep traditional ways alive, the government brings children who show talent here from all over the country to learn to create religious thangkas, or paintings, and to learn carving and sculpting.

Here they all sat, at wooden benches, windows wide open – no electricity in the building – working in natural light. We stopped methodically at year 1 year 2 year 3 year 4 year 5 and so on up to eight.  Smiling boys in robes at dusty wood benches.  A fairy tale.


There was a football match that afternoon. You could hear the stadium cheer from every corner of Thimpu. Phruba boasted (or did he rue?) that it was up to 27,000 or 28,000 now, Thimpu was. No stoplights yet, but there were two traffic cops. A sign on the road between them advised, “Dumping Strongly Prohibited.”

I treaded mud down toward the sound of the crowd, down by the river, the Wang Chhu, admission fee 5 Ngultrums (14 cents), and sat with four monks from India, each contributing to the betel-juice-stain emergency in Thimpu.


A delicate, clean rain began as the football match let out, and for a little while the streets of Thimpu (only a few streets), teemed. At the Phuntsho Meat Shop a man stood under naked light bulbs on a table high above the buying public wielding an ancient scale, weighing skinned chickens and fish.

I walked into the bar at the Hotel Taksang, directly opposite Pelwang’s Mini Mart and below the billboard explaining the “Sewerage Construction Project – for better health.”  They already knew I lived in room 325 and they told me my wife was asleep upstairs. I was the only one there and they made french fries to go with my beer. In this bar one beer cost 54 ngultrums and two cost 104.

Stray dogs (I think about eight billion) gave a free, full-throated concert most nights. Strays are the bane of Bhutan, just like in Kathmandu and Rangoon and Tahiti.

Being Buddhist, the Bhutanese have a little problem. They can’t kill the strays, can’t even spay them. That would be taking a life. But they can appoint Indian Hindus as dog catchers, and have them kill dogs on the pretense of rabies or rash.

The Phuntsho Meat Shop, Thimpu

Neither tumultuous, chaotic nor edgy, the polite weekend market sold no disgusting pounded meats or goats’ heads or bowls full of crawling bugs. Everybody wore their traditional clothes and chewed betel.

One guy sat sorting fat green chillies. He’d pause and turn, spit betel juice in his right hand, shake it behind him, and dig right back into the chillies.

A short drive from the river, the only golf course in Bhutan doubled as the front yard for the Supreme Court. Across the road at the Indigenous Medicine Hospital (established in 1978 by the World Health Organization) the manager tried to integrate the traditional and the modern. If patients didn’t get well via one regimen, he tried the other.

They grew all their own herbal remedies in a garden out back. There were machines from Austria to package them. Three rooms were labeled like this: Powder Section No Admittance, Pills Section No Admittance, Tablet Section No Admittance.

A prayer wheel clanged because they always turned it, the patients sitting in the courtyard, which doubled as the waiting room. 

Twenty or thirty people mashed bark into pulp at the oxymoronic “Jungshi Handmade Paper Factory.” They wet it, dried it, rolled it, spread it, and eventually produced coarse papers, some embedded with leaves or rose petals.

Down at Plum’s Café, you could read a three day old Times of India. It was the most up-to-date news in Bhutan. You could sit on a toilet named Hindware. Ex-pats and their kids took up too much space and fretted in the corner. Probably the calmest posting in the world, and still they fretted.


Up the hill, past the embassies of Bangladesh and Denmark, the Little Dragon Montessori School, the Druk Incense Unit (manufacturing and exporting) and the Motithang Fire Out Post, was a sanctuary for the mysterious cross between the sheep and yak – not the shack – the Golden Takin, preserved for its own safety in this place, behind a fence, some time ago when animal diseases spread across Bhutan.

Down on the valley floor, prayer flags flapped from a government telecommunications tower. Paddies ran right up to the Royal Palace.

The Royal Compound, Thimpu

Phruba declared that no subject has seen inside the palace. Mirja and I chewed on this for a while. Whattaya think’s inside? Jacuzzis?

You think they live like what, kings?!


For goodness sake, don’t ever quote me on Buddhism, and Phruba suggested we not quote him on spelling the names of the Bodhisattvas either, but at a nunnery and a monastery, here is what I understood: Girls can become nuns by the same rules that boys become monks – same rules for either sex.

The Dub Thub nunnery on the hill honored a fifteenth century Bodhisattva named Tonton Gyalpu.

“He built all the chain bridges in Bhutan,” Phruba explained, “But only one still exists, in eastern Bhutan.”

A cloth draped over one whole wall was “to protect dust and to keep out the breath.”

On the right of the altar, Phruba told us, pointing left, was a painting of a sixteenth century reincarnation of Tonton Gyalpu. Just below it was a 1994 calendar with a picture of the current reincarnation, now 17, who had left a month ago for a tour of the United States. On the left, he said, gesturing right, more pictures of the Bodhisattva.

Gods and men can be thirsty. Bowls of water, brought in at sunrise and out at dark, lined the altar as offerings. A bow to ancient Bon beliefs sat right atop the altar – peacock feathers and tree branches.

There were ceremonies four times a day at the Dub Thub nunnery, and flies twenty four hours. If you wanted your own ceremony, for good luck in a new job, for example, or in ill health, it could be arranged with just an offering of money and tea for the monks and nuns. Outside, nun’s wraps draped over the railing.


Bumping along the way to the next monastery, Mirja drew from her standard repertoire.

“Do you have snakes?”

“Oh yes!”

“Poisonous ones?”

“Yes, cobras!”


The Queens’ personal monastery, on a bluff over Thimpu town, honors a Bodhisattva named Avaloktsherwa, the “Buddha of Compassion” who you’ll see with nine heads, or eleven, or one thousand. He vowed to eliminate all human suffering and when he realized the enormity of his vow, Phruba said, “his head was exploded.”

Somehow, that’s why you see him today with nine heads, or eleven, or one thousand.

“You come here (to the Queens’ monastery) to get names,” Phruba explained. The monks name babies in a formula according to the year.

As we walked in, a young woman threw dice onto a plate held by a monk. Phruba observed for a while.

“That girl has exams starting tomorrow. She is seeing if she will do well.”

As far as monasteries go, Phruba confided, “I trust this one more.”


Back at the hotel, a savage fight broke out at the sewer construction site. A woman or two screamed, shouted at their men and slammed some car doors. The Buddhists watched in awe, and they shook their heads at the wrath and passion of the Indians.

Still, they needed them.

“Bhutanese people are great at many things,” Phruba declared, “But not with concrete.”

So the workers were Indian or Nepali, but that was a problem, because everybody in Bhutan knew that once they came, they would never leave. Free education and medicine made for better living. They would put on ghos or kiras, the women’s traditional dress, and it would be hard to tell if they were Bhutanese or not.

There is a derogatory term for these people, ngolops. All the district borders within Bhutan had checkpoints to try to prevent ngolops’ movement within the country. The weekly newspaper Keunsel always reported on parliamentary debates about ngolops.

I asked Phruba the pronunciation of “ngolop.” He pronounced it for me (“no – lop”), thought for a moment more, then told me, “It is better not to say that word.”


Indian music woke us, really loud and really early. I trudged downstairs to the breakfast room and sat at the window, staring sullenly at a man inside his apartment across the street because I thought he was the source of the music. He glared back at me.

I asked for orange juice and it came back grapefruit.

Phruba came in with a warning: We’re going east, and outside of western Bhutan you’ll have to be ready for toilets with buckets and maybe you can ask for a bucket to wash with.


Dzongs are fortresses, one for every main town. Our destination was the biggest one in Bhutan, the Trongsa Dzong. We climbed a pass toward Lobesa, a shimmering green little place where they’ve grown apples, oranges and brown jacket cardamom, exports to Bangladesh, for eight or nine years.

An immigration checkpoint for ngolops stood at Angtso. We pulled up behind an impossibly full van and stopped to wait beside Gakey Restaurant Bar and Grocery House #3.

A prayer wheel in a little concrete hut at the edge of the road turned by water power. This was terribly auspicious for the guy who built it because the more you turn a prayer wheel the better. He was set for life, or at least the life of the stream. People have even used tap water to turn prayer wheels, Phruba allowed, but that’s problematic now that they’ve started charging for water.

The road climbed to just over ten thousand feet, where the Dochula Pass was wholly swallowed in mist, an achromatic, ghostly place. The road, intermittently paved, was ever only eight or ten feet wide, and the ubiquitous honking before heading into hairpin turns was little beyond talismanic. Surely somebody above and 270 degrees around a switchback wouldn’t hear.

Wattle fence, to check landslides, ringed the road. Blue plastic canvas served as tents for road laborers, 130 ngultrum-a-day sentinels of misery, all wet all day every day way up here in the clouds.

Even on the most obscure patch of earth (and they had plenty of them), there’d be a painted background on the overhanging rocks, say a red rectangle overlaid with yellow Bhutanese script spelling out the six syllable mantra Om Mani Padme Hum, which for Buddhists purifies the six realms of existence, the worlds of God, God and human, human, animals, hungry ghosts and hell.

At the village of Thinlegang, workers bent nearly double in the paddies. Jigme pulled to the side of the road, jumped out, fired up a cigarette and tried tuning his shortwave radio.

“What’s on?” I asked.

“Nothing sir,” he exclaimed brightly. I could tell that, but I meant what was he trying to find.

“It’s Sunday. Our Bhutan national broadcast. I think it’s too early. Maybe at ten.”

After the road junction to the former capital of Punakha, we came alongside the massive Punak Chhu (chhu means river) as it lumbered through bottomland, bound for the Brahmaputra, Ganges and ultimately the Bay of Bengal. Beyond the Punak Chhu checkpoint we climbed, retracing the opposite side of the river up into the garrison town of Wangdi Phodrang.

Wangdi is Bhutan’s main military town. Indian troops train the Bhutanese army. A sign reads, “Join the Army and Serve the Nation.”

Jigme stopped to gas up the Yokohama and pick up box lunches. He reckoned it would be four and a half hours until the next shop, so we bought litres of Gold Star Water, a product of Eastern Traders, 44 Exra Street, Calcutta. Mirja thought it sounded like motor oil.

Wangdi was lined with ramshackle Indian-style trading stalls that Barbara Crossette (in her book So Close to Heaven) kindly observed, “defy all attempts to define them as quaint.”

There are two versions of how Wangdi (or Wangdue, as you’ll also see it) Phodrang got its name: One is that a 17th century leader, or Shabdrung, saw a boy building a castle with sticks and asked his name. The boy said Wangdi and the town was named for him, Wangdi’s castle. Or if you prefer, it’s because the dzong was built in a place where you can see all four directions, another meaning of Wangdi.

We had the requisite car trouble leaving town, but it was nothing a few whacks on the battery cables with a tire tool couldn’t fix, and we were off for Trongsa.

Mountain goats mingled with the cattle that roamed the roads. Somewhere we stopped and ate lunch on a hill. The inevitable pack of kids found us, marked out its distance, and stood and stared. They wouldn’t come closer and they wouldn’t talk until we left, when they hit us with a torrent of  “Ok bye bye see you tomorrow!”


Time, language and numbers all had a random way in Bhutan. Ask Jigme and Phruba how long today’s drive would last and you’d hear ten and eight hours (It took a little more than seven). Along one stretch of particularly hellish road Mirja thought Jigme was in danger of dozing off, so she peppered the boys with random questions. One was how many employees their company had.

Phruba: “We have fifteen. Twelve guides, nine drivers, and we have trekking staff, office staff….”

In transliteration, “r’s” in particular come and go. Our destination was Tongsa on the map, Trongsa on the road signs. The signs gave a running count of the distance to Trashigang. The maps read Tashigang.


Way up in the fog, we rolled to a stop in front of six mildewed men with sledgehammers. They faced huge rocks in the middle of the road. They’d just cleared a tiny gap, and we picked our way through. Two huge Indian transport trucks full of logs came barreling around us down toward the slide. If they got through I’d have to see it to believe it.

Phruba piled us out onto the side of the road above a village called Rukubji to explain how a crazy spirit had visited there and had not been treated well. He cast a spell and that’s why the fine people of Rukubji cannot to this day grow rice. They grow wheat, and potatoes.

Stupa outside Rukubji

While Phruba was storytelling, Jigme found the Bhutan Broadcasting Service and a music program. “Bhutan disco,” he smiled. (Jigme preferred his nickname, roughly pronounced “Pudt-so.” It meant, same as it sounds in English, roughly “short and round.”)

Finally, we all got to unwind and stretch at the Sherubling Tourist Lodge, nestled on a hill just below the Trongsa high school. They brought us tea and Ritz crackers. We’d just taken most of the day to bounce 194 hard-fought kilometers.

The dzong itself is off limits to tourists, for it’s a very important place both religiously and politically. But there is a watchtower way up above that you can visit. It holds a monastery for healing the sick.

Up the muddy path, then up the nearly vertical monastic ladder steps, seven monks were just preparing to conduct a ceremony for the living, the dying and the dead, complete with horns, bells and drum.

They said we could stay and served yak butter tea. They chanted endless passages from memory, the natural afternoon light flooding through the windows, and made music until far after we had climbed back down the hill. Really fabulous.

Down in the town now. Only one real street. More ads for Indian videos “Auzaar” and “Ziddi.” A discarded box that once held “Aroma School Shoes.”

Phruba vaguely explained a game monks play with four balls and a stick. He pointed out cedar trees down by the dzong. cedars are the national tree of Bhutan. There was a time when they exported them to Tibet in exchange for religious teachers.

Four young women wove yak wool into colored patterns on ancient wooden looms at Tashi Tsering General Shop and Bar. I scared them with my camera flash and they giggled. An old man tried to get us to buy from his shop. He was another example of why the book Dental Arts in Bhutan would be more of a pamphlet.

Phruba told us as far as he knew we were the first westerners here since the sixth of June when he brought some French folks up. That would have been a little more than a month.


When the day came to an end, we sat in the dusk on log benches, barefoot in the wet grass. While we watched, mist first enveloped the river valley, then veiled the town, the dzong, and finally crept right up to where we sat.

Nema, the slightly sodden hotelier, served dinner. Mirja thought her Golden Eagle Lager (of India) tasted “like our room smells.” She had a good point. You could smell the past in all the rooms in Trongsa.

Probably unwisely, I dipped into a half liter bottle of Jaching Brandy, produce of Bhutan, “Blended and Bottled by Army Welfare Project Gaylegphug Distillery.” We ordered our hot water for 7:30 a.m., left our empty bucket outside the door and fell asleep in the rain.


The Trongsa dzong dated back centuries but it had been rebuilt lots of times, after fires from overturned butter lamps and a huge earthquake that leveled just about all the dzongs. Nowadays the Trongsa Dzong had electricity and plumbing (The dzong in Paro, where the airport is, was just now getting power).

It was the heart of the nation. The first King of Bhutan was the governor of Trongsa, ruling from the dzong, when he overthrew the last Shabdrung to unify the Kingdom. The third King, the reigning King’s father, was born here. All kings did a stint here as governor before accession to the throne.

Although Bhutan has only been ruled as a Kingdom for a hundred years, it has had a sense of nation since the eighth century. In Papua New Guinea, nobody knew anyone in the next valley. PNG’ers were animists. Bhutanese had the bond of Buddha.


First light showed it had rained all night. Water dripped through the leaves, peaceful and delightful, but I worried that now maybe the road back was washed out.

A man in Punakha, the former capital, told me that when he was a tour guide in Trongsa in 1991, the most landslides ever happened. They finally airlifted the tourists out but it was a week before they reopened the road.

Maybe we’d stay in Trongsa, with our bucket, for some time.

“We have no helicopters in Bhutan,” Phruba declared preemptively. Just in case.


We made it out, and all the way to Punakha. It rained all day.

We didn’t pass another vehicle for more than two hours. People used the road to spread reeds and weave mats.

The rains energized the hills. Waterfalls appeared by the hundreds, thousands, and even more in secret little places across the valley, here now, covered and gone in a minute, dropping hundreds of feet at a bound.

We only passed two trucks the whole morning, instead mostly confronting cattle and horses run by muddy boys. Sometimes white stripes marked the center of the road, with four feet on each side.


The Pele Pass crouched shrouded in simple, utter fog. We crept around to the previous day’s slide. A new boulder the length of two men, waist high, lay across the road. Men from one of the blue canvas huts were beating on it. This was gonna take a while.

Jigme entered negotiations. Four or five sticks of dynamite materialized and were slapped on the rock and held in place by mud. Phruba, Mirja and I scurried back. Jigme rolled the van back around the corner to a place with no rocks above it. We waited.

Dynamiting the road at the Pele Pass

The blast rocked down and back up the valley and rocked us in our chests. It shook smaller pines out of the ground and sent them skittering down the hill in a hundred places. It cracked the rock. We crept around the corner and just then, shouts. Five men scattered in a flutter of ghos as clots of earth and rocks tumbled straight toward them, dragging a young pine behind.

Gingerly, they returned. In subdued triumph they laid the tree, cautiously, across the rocks they’d piled on the lip of the canyon.

Forty five minutes later a call went out. They’d pried and stacked enough of the boulder away that we could just squeeze though, barely.


Punakha made a dismal capital city, and Phruba said the third King knew it, so in 1955 he moved the capital to the broad Thimpu valley, giving it room to grow. Phruba rued that his own grandfather, who had land in both places, built the sprawling family house in Punakha, the capital, and only a small hut in Thimpu.

The hotel in Punakha had telephones, though. They didn’t connect to anywhere but the front desk and Phruba failed to raise the outside world via the radiophone behind the reception desk, but that was okay, the management used the hell out of ‘em.

“What time would you like dinner?” One call.

“What would you like for dinner?” Two.

Three: “Would you like your papads baked or fried?”

The morning calls started at 7:10 (We ordered 8:30 breakfast) but I don’t know what they wanted because we ignored them.

The Hotel Zangdho Pelri was owned by the parents of the four Queens.

Perhaps a word on why there are four Queens: In Bhutan, you marry the eldest sister in a family and her sisters also become your wives. Property is handed down to the females, not the males. Marrying all the females in the family is a way for the family’s wealth not to be diluted.

“It stays in,” says Phruba. “It doesn’t matter how many sisters, three, four, five – only one husband comes in.”

It isn’t always done everywhere anymore, he says, but absolutely still is in the more remote spots.

Mirja asked, “Do the Queens do charity work or anything?”

Phruba looked right back and told her, “No, they just live.” Sometimes they’ll open a business or a hospital if they’re asked, he allowed.


We planned a morning walk to the fifteenth century monastery called Chimmi between Punakha and Lobesa, high on a hill. Then we’d walk back through villages, ending at the Punakha Dzong.

But an insistent rain gave us time instead to ponder things like the government policy of allowing 4000 visitors a year, which equals 77 a week nationwide. Based on how many vacationers we’d seen – three besides us – they could go wild and let in a hundred next week. 


Punakha Dzong sat at the confluence of the larger Mo (mother) and Pho (father) rivers. A suspension footbridge crossed the Mo, which coursed full-speed not two meters below your feet. It was at its highest just now, during the monsoon.

Phruba grinned. “This river also flows to the Brahmaputra. It is our water that floods Bangladesh.”

One end of the Punakha Dzong has been under semi-permanent construction. In 1994, six or eight prisoners on the construction detail died when their jail flooded. Phruba told us straight up, it was because they were trapped in chains.

Barbara Crossette writes that Bhutan was astonished to learn everybody didn’t chain their prisoners and when they found out, they immediately quit, embarrassed.

At the confluence of the Mo and Pho Rivers

Until 1955 Punakha Dzong ruled the country. Inside the center tower are no less than 28 temples and the biggest thangka in Bhutan, extending nearly all the way up the inside of the tower. It celebrates the eight original clans united into a nation.

Here Phruba got talking fast about a special ceremony with eight warriors, one from each of the clans, and how today they still have three days of absolute power. “They can even kill someone,” he told us.

Guru Rinpoche, who is said to have brought Buddhism to Bhutan, predicted by name that Shabdrung Namgyal, the unifier and first of eight Shabdrungs preceding the royal family, would build a temple at the spot he called Elephant Hill (it does slope like the head and back of an elephant). And Shabdrung Namgyal did have this dzong built.

But in 1651 when he died, the elders were afraid that if the people learned of the great unifier’s death the country might come apart. So they faked his continued health. Since that moment of his death, in 1651, the people haven’t been able to go into the special temple where his body (we guess) still rests. There are those who still invest supernatural powers in Shabdrung Namgyal and believe he still lives, just inside this chamber.


A dzong mixes church and state. It’s a monks’ residence and the seat of state government. There’s a tower containing the temples with a building built around it, incorporating a courtyard inside. One side of the tower is the administration for the state and the other is for the monks. The courtyards are for observances and festivals.

The governor’s office is inside, the first right. A stupa stands straight ahead in the courtyard. Here’s the vagueness of time in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon: Phruba explained that “this chorten (stupa) was built in 1982 by the Queen Mother as a memorial to a very holy man who died in 1984.”

The guards, one of them with a fifteen-inch dagger on the end of his rifle, were just boys. I asked Phruba what kind of guards they were. “Royal Bhutan Police,” he exclaimed. “Most of them are over fifteen years old.”


In Bhutan, mysticism remains the coin of the realm.

For centuries Bhutanese women unable to conceive have come to spend the night alone inside the Chummi monastery. Somehow, it’s also famous in Japan. Not long ago a Japanese woman came here, went home, had a child and named it Chummi.

A boy in the Bumthang valley is known to be a reincarnation of his neighbor’s bull. He goes next door and gets down on all fours and he knew the name of the bull without being told.

The 68th head Abbot, or the Je Rhenpo, died three months ago in meditation. You don’t cremate someone who dies in meditation because he may not be finished.

Although, Phruba swears, “His jaws sag and he’s lost some body weight,” he’s still posed kneeling in the same spot right now, today, in Timphu. When he falls over they’ll cremate him.


Still it poured in Punakha. Jigme found out the National Archery Finals were this afternoon in Thimpu.

“What time?” I asked. Phruba looked puzzled. I guessed it’d be on when we arrived, and it was.

On the way we stopped to see a dart match in the mud, the local team in a tight match with the bad guys in the village of Thinlet Gang.

The archery finals pitted Druk Air versus the Agriculture Ministry, these two teams winnowed from the original eight. Rain couldn’t dampen spirits, but not a gho on the grounds smelled fresh.

Spectators at the archery finals

A pickup team played football against the police. The whole town was there. It was a holiday. The sun even broke through. The afternoon turned beautiful as we set off for Paro. But I must say, I’ve NEVER seen so much traffic in Bhutan.

Phruba rued progress.


Setting out on foot from a stream on the Paro valley floor, Mirja, Phruba and I hiked up to an elevation of 3000 meters, at first along stream beds and through pine forests, then out across the sturdy red soil. The sun beat down and the air was perfectly still.

Phruba told us to stick to the main path – the shortcuts are too steep – and right away he fell back, only to appear ahead of us via a shortcut. Old guide trick.

We were alone as always, passing only two women and a boy resting by a prayer wheel. They were walking on to the Tiger’s Nest monastery to stay the night.

The Tiger’s Nest is just impossible, perched on a sheer hill. We gazed across a valley from a lookout point. I didn’t think I could walk to it, let alone carry on my back enough materials to build it.

There was a little cafeteria at the lookout point, which was the terminus for all but pilgrims and monks. The cook rustled up a delicious vegetarian lunch, and we sat at a little terrace and demonstrated our cameras to the assorted few who lived up here in support of the cafeteria/gift shop/outpost.

Phruba told us that at Tiger’s Nest, “Ceremony day after (He meant tomorrow) for weather making. It is big this year because this year we have two Junes.” He paused. “Sometimes we have no August.”

Excuse me?

He knew he had us and he warmed to the subject.

“Oh yes. Today is the ninth. Maybe sometimes we have two ninths and maybe no eleventh. This is decided by the monks and they always agree.”

It’s published in Kuensel every Saturday, so you have to check.

“This is why you cannot know when are the festivals.”


We drove to the national museum, perched on a hilltop above the Paro Dzong, (also called the Rinchen Pung Dzong, or “fortress on a heap of jewels”). From 1651 it had served as a watchtower. Thunder cracked across the valley and rain pelted the roof of the museum’s top floor, the stamp gallery.

Here were stamps commemorating: the 250th anniversary of the birth of George Washington, the Innsbruck 1976 Olympic Games, mushrooms (in 3-D), countless coronations, various non-aligned summits, the rose (scented), Apollo XVII (3-D), talking stamps (tiny phonograph records), international popular dogs, the 60th anniversary of the Boy Scouts, classic cars (3-D), insects (3-D), steelmaking, the Battle of Britain, and the Yeti.

Chains from a chain bridge (one of the eight of which only one remains) built by Saint Drupthob Thangtong Gyalpu (1385-1464) were on display. So was what they called an ancient water clock. It was a bowl into which 60 drops of water were placed. When they had evaporated, an hour had passed.

There were skulls or stuffed versions of indigenous animals, like the very endangered snow leopard, the barking deer, guar, alligator, wild yak and Tibetan gazelle.

In 1872 the future first King was imprisoned for six months by the eighth, and last Shabdrung, in the basement.

And there was this item, just so you know: “Self imbossed conch shell believed to be a tooth of Terton Pema Lingpa (1450-1521).”


Inside the Paro Dzong, boy monks played in the courtyard, the bigger ones stealing the smaller ones’ wraps, to hold out and wet in the rain where the gutters didn’t work. An ancient hall smelled that way, open, wood floored, with the stink of dirty wet boys of questionable hygiene.

Phruba had changed from his hiking clothes to his gho to enter the dzong. He was explaining how the high threshold at entrances to dzongs everywhere was essentially to keep Tibetans out in times of war, since they wore lower skirts than Bhutanese men, making it slower for them to step over the thresholds when invading.

As he told us, Phruba unwrapped the sash all Bhutanese men wear around their ghos in monasteries as a sign of respect. Another use of the high threshold: He began, “When we have our dead people….” and right there the only cross moment among Bhutanese flared because a Royal Bhutan Police monastery guard accosted Phruba demanding he put his sash back on.

They talked all in Dzongka and we just left them to argue, walking away up the hill.


Settling up at the front desk at the Hotel Olthang, I was waiting for my less than one dollar change (more than they ever seemed to keep behind any counter. They were forever having to run next door or down the hall to make change. This particular time they didn’t have Ng32 where Ng35 = $1).

The Indian guys beside me were in full rage, shouting “Give me that money please,” and grabbing at a wad the night clerk held back wide-eyed. They demanded a quarter of five wake up call and thundered that if you don’t call us we’ll miss our flight.

They made it. Both planes in the Druk Air fleet were in Paro the next morning. Our buddy George the pilot was off for Kathmandu, while we left for Calcutta. There were no x-ray machines.

Leaving Bhutan requires a little airplane acrobatics. Just into the air you must lean left, around the hill at the end of the runway, then lean left down the valley, back and forth for five minutes until you clear the hills.

Druk Air served spring rolls and salad for breakfast – with a croissant.


See more photos in the Bhutan Gallery at

5 thoughts on “Book Excerpt: Bhutan

      • Very well indeed. They’ve moved to a constitutional democracy from a monarchy, at the direction of their beloved monarch. Their university system, which is what I was assisting with, has expanded considerably. And it is as friendly and as stunningly beautiful as ever.


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