The Tiny Kingdom of Bhutan

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

We have come to the tiny landlocked kingdom of Bhutan, with a total population of 700,000, after spending three weeks in the world's second most populous nation. The country's single airport is here in Paro, pop. 10,000. What a refreshing change. 

It is the land of the thunder dragon, where the Dzong is both monastery and city administration center, where larch and spruce and pines reach through the clouds at  13,000 feet, but so do the prayer flags. The national tree is a cypress and the national flower is the blue poppy. 

Temples are as numerous here as stupas in Burma, and the stupas here are square, not round. Men do not spend weeks or months as monks, but years, the first of which is spent reciting mantras memorized from Sanskrit. Oddly, the young men do not know the meanings of the mantras until they go on for more Buddhist education.  

We visited a 7th Century temple where nuns, lay people and a lama chanted beautiful Buddhist songs in a special ceremony held for 21 straight days once every year. Two men played horns, as bells were rung and holy water was given out--poured into one palm of each person and held until a particular prayer was completed. Then the herb-laced water was tasted and quickly applied to the hair. It was a lovely and solemn ceremony. 

Traditional architecture was begun in the 7th Century and most houses are square with three stories. Once the first floor housed cattle; the second was for storage and the third was for living. Today, it is forbidden to bring cattle into the house for sanitary reasons. Wheat and other grains are stored on the third floor, which is open on all sides, and the family lives on the second floor. Every home has a small temple, complete with a Buddha and altar. Seven bowls of water are placed on the altar every morning as an offering, and emptied every evening. 

Here in Paro, red rice has been harvested for the winter, and some threshing continues. Often, families help each other with this chore in a cooperative effort. Wheat, cabbage, radishes and broccoli are the winter crops that soon will be planted. Old stems from the rice are stacked for the cattle. 

Chilis drying on a roof.


Chili-cheese is the national dish, made from fiery hot peppers that are dried on the shed tops. Rice and butter tea are traditionally eaten for breakfast, and we tasted the tea which is made with tea leaves, salt and cow or yak butter. We also sipped the local liquor called ara, which can be made from wheat or another grain. It tastes like saki. The longer it is kept, the stronger it becomes. 

While we saw the famous Tiger's Nest monastery, we opted to drive over a 13,000-foot pass instead. The hike to reach it takes 3 hours and the last leg involves 600 steps down then 600 steps up. Afterwards, you have to return by the same route. There are 94 steps up to this room, and that's quite enough.