Posted on September 25, 2012 by Margot
Like many people I have always had a latent interest in Bhutan, so when I heard about 12 months ago that Pat Darlington, a local Jindabyinian who works for the National Parks and Wildlife Service was leading trips there, I leaped at the opportunity and signed up Ross and myself. So now we are finally here, and because it is a fully inclusive, fully escorted tour – the only way you can get to see the country – I became very lazy and did very little research other than reading bits from the Lonely Planet, perusing a couple of coffee table books from the local library and catching a couple of on-line travel articles.
One of the few things I did read was that it is a pretty hairy flight and landing, with the pilot having to negotiate between high peaks and then bank steeply from one side of the valley to the other to land the aircraft in a very narrow restricted space. And so it proved to be!! But he did it, and there was a spontaneous round of well deserved applause from all passengers on board, ourselves included!
And then we were safely landed at what must be the most casual airport in the world: disembarking passengers wandering around the tarmac taking photos of the plane and its magnificent backdrop; ground staff relaxing in a portico of what must be the most ornately decorated airport in the world; and billboards celebrating the recent wedding of the Royal couple.
As in Thailand the Royal Family is revered throughout the country -images of them abound in shops, restaurants, cafes, hotels everywhere in fact. Even the passport control section of the airport had pictures of the five kings that have ruled Bhutan since the family was elected as hereditary rulers in 1907, spread across the entrance like a frieze.
The fourth King abdicated in 2008 in favour of his son and at the same time started the country on the road to democracy, replacing the absolute monarchy with a constitutional monarchy. The first parliamentary elections are due to be held in 2014. The country has come a long way in 60 years. Until the third king Jigme Dorji Wangchuck came to the throne in 1952, Bhutan had no schools, hospitals, postal service or currency. There was no police force or army, no electricity, no telephones, no national media – the first newspaper started in 1965, the first radio service in 1973 and Bhutan was the last country in the world to get television, in 1999. Now there satellite dishes sprouting in every village, monks and schoolkids with mobile phones and wifi and Internet cafes in most places. All this we have learned from our guide, or seen for ourselves during the couple of hours it takes to drive from Paro where the airport is situated, to Thimpu, the country’s capital.
Along the way we are captivated by the scenery and the stories we hear as we stop several times for short walks off the roadside to walk over centuries old iron suspension bridges, or view the three chortens (Bhutanese, Tibetan and Nepalese style – covering all the bases) built at the confluence of two rivers to ward off the evil spirits who inhabit such places.
And everywhere, we see the prayer flags. We learn more about them later in the day and discover that the colourful ones like those just here are actually wind flags – so named because the wind lifts the prayers from them and carries them away to where they will be heard. There are others as well, most importantly the house flag which is just a single flag erected on the roof of every new house on a day determined to be propitious and blessed by the monks. It doesn’t matter if the flag later blows away or is faded and shredded by the elements – the important thing is that it was put there in the first place. The other type of prayer flag which we see adorning high ridges at almost every turn of the road are “dead” flags. These are almost always white and always in groups (for reasons I didn’t quite catch). They are attached to long poles and erected as a commemoration after the cremation of of a deceased relative. They look quite beautiful
We finish off our first day with a visit to a memorial stupa on the outskirts of Thimpu, built by the Queen Mother to commemorate the death of her son. The faithful come here to perform their daily prayers and to gain merit by circumambulating the stupa as many times as they can. We are intrigued by the large numbers of really old people sitting around in groups; chatting, praying, sharing food, getting up to greet the tourists or do a circumambulation or two, and only half believe the guide when he tells us it is a sort of adult daycare centre: younger people drop the oldies off there on their way to work with a packed lunch and pick them up on the way home. Pat later assures us that this is in fact true and points out that it is very effective and meets all the criteria that go to make up a successful adult daycare program: social activity and companionship, a prepared meal, mental activity saying their prayers and lots of physical activity in those circumambulations!!
So it’s early to bed so as to be up early again for the packed program for tomorrow in which we will attend the first day of a 3 day Teschu or festival and go find the Tarkington, Bhutans national animal.