September 11, 2014 – Day 10 – Thimphu, Bhutan

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Today was a very nice day just a little cooler. Nothing a light jacket couldn’t fix. We were all excited because Russ was finally going to join up with us. He was in Katmandu, Nepal, this morning and would be flying into Bhutan mid-day.

We started off our day by going to Thimphu’s post office and had stamps made with our individual photographs! This was a lot of fun. What a great idea, we each had our photo taken standing in front of their official emblem and they printed out a sheet of stamps for us. We all bought post cards to mail back home to our families and friends just to put our personal stamps on them. I loved this idea, we should adopt it in Canada! I bet more people would mail letters if they could put their personalized stamp on the envelope.

Next we went to an art school. We watched a class of boys who were carving wooden squares approximately 12 inches square. They would carve a beautiful design of a bird, flower or dragon inside the square. Each square would take about one week to carve. These squares were then sold in a Handicraft store across the street. Tourists as well as locals bought the squares to hang on their walls for decoration. Profits from the sale of the handicrafts were used to support the art school.

There were many plaques with inspirational quotes on the walls of this school, which I loved. One said “If you have never failed, you have never tried anything new”. Another said “Albert Einstein, wasn’t able to speak until he was 4 years of age and his teacher said he would not amount to much”. Another, “Michael Jordan, after being cut from high school basketball, went home, locked himself in his room and cried”. “Walt Disney, was fired from his newspaper job for lacking imagination and having no original ideas”.

We toured a classroom where women were sewing the traditional boots worn in Bhutan. At the same time, men were sitting on the floor painting designs on paper for practise. They would paint the patterns over and over again using different brush strokes and techniques until it became automatic. They also used graph paper and a compass, to draw out their designs, making sure that their paintings would be to scale. When they had mastered the practise techniques, they could then move on to paint actual Tankas. A Tanka (Thanka) is a religious painting, painted on cloth to be hung up on a wall. Usually the Tanka would tell a story, like Buddha’s Wheel of Life or the Four Friends. Many Tankas were used in monasteries for religious ceremonies as well as used in individuals homes. All Tankas were original paintings by different artists, there was no such thing as a print of an original.

There was a common painting of an old man who Buddhists believed lived to be 500 years old. Many Bhutanese people had this painting in their homes because it represented longevity. Another famous painting the Bhutanese had in their homes was the “Four Friends” painting. This was a painting of an elephant, a monkey, a rabbit and a peacock, all sitting one on top of the other. The story is that the bird brought a seed and the rabbit ploughed up the field and planted the seed, the monkey watered and looked after the seed while the elephant protected it from enemies. Then a large fruit tree bloomed but the tree grew so large that the fruit was too high for the animals to pick the fruit. However, when the monkey jumped up on the elephant’s back and the rabbit stood on top of the monkey and the bird on top of the rabbit, The fruit could be picked and shared by everybody. This painting represented family, friendship, trust and cooperation. Many locals kept this painting in their home to remind them that their family relationships should be strong.

Another classroom had young ladies weaving fabric for their traditional dress, called Gho for men and Kira for women. The next classroom had sculptures, which I thought were amazing. They actually used paper pieces mixed in with the clay to add strength. Each subject was sculpted in layers. First the form, then the body, then the clothing and last the tools held by the God they were sculpting. To add another layer, clay mixed with paper was dabbed on to the base and smoothed over with a wet brush. Very interesting and very difficult! It took three months to do one sculpture of a sitting Buddha and five years to be certified as a sculptor.

Russ finally connected up with us during lunch at our hotel around 1:30 p.m. He surprised us because he had grown a beard while he was on Dave’s yacht going through the North West Passage. I was sure happy to see him! But I couldn’t resist playing a trick on him. The hotel had a street dog named Blue who was around 6 months of age, with two bright blue eyes. I had asked the hotel staff to put Blue in my room and when Russ and I walked up to our room to put away his luggage, they were just putting Blue into our room. I told Russ I was very sorry, that I had to break my promise to him about not bringing any more dogs home because Blue was so special! Well Russ just kept saying “Oh no Ellen, not another dog!” I was surprised that he didn’t even get that mad. I think I actually could have brought Blue home. But lucky for Russ, even I couldn’t handle another dog at this time. Russ was relieved when he found out it was a joke and he agreed the dog was pretty cute. He even played with Blue for awhile before we joined the others.

We had to leave the hotel in the afternoon to register our cars again at another Bhutanese check point. For some reason the official spoke to Jon and myself only, even though all six of us were in his office. It ended up that Jon and I were registered as the official drivers instead of Russ and me. Oh well why fight bureaucracy?

At 3 p.m. we had an appointment to visit the Trashi Chho Dzong. This was a special privilege because visitors were only allowed to visit the Dzong after working hours and we were visiting during working hours. To enter the Dzong everyone had to be dressed formally. This meant closed shoes, long-sleeved shirts and long pants for our men. We women had to dress modestly and be covered as well. Citizens of Bhutan had to be dressed traditionally, that meant the men had to wear a Gho. The Gho was a short coat dress worn with knee socks and dress shoes. On top of their Gho, men wore a shawl over their shoulders. The colour of the shawl indicated the rank of the man. The women wore a Kira, which was a long skirt made from one piece of fabric and folded much like a sari only it was from the waist down with a pleat on one side. A belt or velcro held the skirt up. No need to hem because it was just folded at the waist to the desired length. A jacket was worn on top with large cuffs and a pin to close the jacket as no buttons or snaps were used. Women also wore a scarf over their shoulder only it was a narrow scarf woven in bright colours, draped down the front and back over one shoulder. We really liked the women’s Kira and all bought one to wear to our dinner with the Prince that night.

Our first stop inside the Dzong was at the temple, called Goemba in Bhutanese. All religious buildings in Bhutan have a red band painted below the roof line, called a khemar. Circular brass plates or mirrors representing the sun are placed on the red band. There were prayer wheels on the outer walls and people walked around the temple clockwise turning the wheels. Inside the wheels were prayers written out on paper scrolls and you were deemed to have received the prayer by spinning the wheel. At the entry there were murals painted on the walls of the four guardian kings. Inside the temple were three thrones at the back wall, the current King (K5) sat in the centre with the Fourth King (K5’s father) on the left and the leader of the Monks on the right of K5. Behind these three thrones was a huge statue of the present Buddha. This temple was used for important meetings and ceremonies. On each side of the temple along the walls and behind glass walls were 1,000 small statues of Buddha sitting on shelves.

Thimphu is the capital of Bhutan and the Dzong was used for all of the administrative government offices on one side and all the religious offices on the other side. It was a large fortress originally built in the 17th Century. It was destroyed by fire most likely from the oil candles used and rebuilt in 1962 by King 4, Jigme Dorji Wangchuk. The Dzong was built in traditional Bhutanese fashion with no nails or blueprints. It had high walls for protection of the official offices for both government and religion. The two, religion and government are closely linked in Bhutan, as shown in their flag. The top colour being yellow for royalty and the bottom red for religion. In the middle is a white dragon representing Bhuttan. We had tea and cookies in the office of The Secretary of Home Affairs. Unfortunately the Minister was not in the capital and his assistant filled in for him.

The highlight of our day (other than Russ joining up with us) was dinner at the palace of the princess Chimi, the eldest daughter of King 4. She was not in the country but her husband, the Dasho Sangay was our host. He was an extremely charming man, not to mention very handsome and interesting.

The Dasho has two sons, the first being the first Royal grandchild who was 8 years old and the second son was four and a half years old. Sangay has several businesses in Bhutan, one being the construction of 5 first class hotels, called Six Senses. The Dasho and his wife the princess went to Columbia University together in New York City.

Sangay’s father sent him to India to attend a British private school in India at the age of 8 years old. He asked his father why he sent him to India to go to school because it was very tough for him. His father replied if you can survive in India you can survive anywhere in the world! Sangay said even though it was hard it turned out to be a blessing in disguise for him. As 82% of their trade in Bhutan was with India he can now just pick up the phone and call someone through the contacts he had known from India.

The Dasho Sangay, gave us an intimate lecture on Bhutan, a small country (kingdom) of just over 700,000 people, that was sandwiched between two giant countries, China in the north and India in the south. They survived partly because of their geography, as they were located on the eastern side of the Himalayan Mountain range, the highest mountains in the world. If invaded the Bhutanese could go to the mountain passes and shoot down at their enemy, protecting their independence. After all it is much easier to shoot down than shoot up!

They also built Dzongs in each city, which are huge forts that protected the local community if invaded. The Tibetans actually invaded Bhutan 7 times unsuccessfully in the 1600’s. Tibet wanted to invade Bhutan because Tibet did not have fertile land like Bhutan and because a Tibetan Lama fled Tibet taking a religious relic with him into Bhutan. In the late 1800’s the British East India Company was based in Calcutta and they explored the possibility of invading Bhutan, unsuccessfully due to the mountainous terrain of Bhutan, evan though they did seize the Assam region, which was the flatland of Bhutan and today was considered to be part of India.

When the first King of Bhutan was coronated in 1907 he was knighted as the Knight Commander of the British Empire. Bhutan continued to have a good relationship with Britain. In 1947 when India received their independence from Britain, the Indian Prime Minister came to Bhutan to meet with the 3rd King and they signed a treaty making them allies with each other. India needs the power they receive from Bhutan’s hydro power plants and Bhutan needs India’s protection from China.

In 1974, the 3rd King of the Wangchuk Dynasty passed away in Kenya, during a hunting safari, which made his son who was 16 years of age their 4th king. In 1976 a team from the world bank came to Bhutan and they did a SWAT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, alliances and threats) with the emphasis on the gross domestic products (GDP) of Bhutan. But the king said I want to do something different and put emphasis on the GNH – gross national happiness of my people.

The world bank replied that you can do that in your house but not at the state level, to which the king, who was a teenager at the time, replied “in Bhutan GNH is going to be more important than GDP”. He said that during my reign I am going to work towards increasing my people’s happiness.

GNH as a state policy aims at striking a balance between the material, emotional and spiritual development. It is broken into 4 main pillars: sustainable economic growth; preservation and promotion of the environment; preservation and promotion of their culture; good governance. How is it implemented? Through the Gross National Happiness Commission. Any government planned project has to be approved by this Committee by passing the GNH stress test.

GNH is measured by suicide rates, crime rates, access to health care and education, (basic healthcare is free), time spent with family, density of trees to the population and how many places of retreat are there, such as the number of Buddhist temples.

Dasho Sangay, used tourism in Bhutan as an example. Yes, Bhutan could open up their tourism because the demand was there and it would increase their GDP but as a small nation of only 700,000 people what would happen if suddenly millions of people came to Bhutan? Would the increase in tourism add stress and change the culture of the Bhutanese? Would this pass their GNH stress test? No, so at the moment the cost to visit Bhutan was very expensive, which limited the tourism numbers and kept the Bhutanese culture and GNH intact.

After our Q & A, the Dasho had us sit in his back yard for some entertainment of traditional dances and music. It was magical and he explained what the dances were all about as we drank wine from Napa Valley and had appetizers. Later we entered his dining room to have a traditional dinner with his brother, who was also very handsome and charming.

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