Earlier this week, I showed off the elaborate and colourful traditional clothes worn by the people when they attend a festival Bhutan.
Little did I suspect that within a week of enjoying the sights and sounds of the Paro Festival, I would be donning a Bhutanese outfit in the home of the woman who made it.
A little background first. We camped our way across Bhutan. There were a few nights in hotel, but almost three-quarters of our 15-day stay was in tents. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that much time in tents there, but that’s another story.
For now, I’m talking about fabric, weavers, traditional clothes and a very special family in rural Bhutan.
We met the Lhadeen family—note: Bhutanese don’t really have surnames, but at least two family members use Lhaden/Lhadeen in their names—when we camped on a hill near their dairy farm in east central Bhutan. Their house is just down the hill from the small village of Sengor and they were returning home from a community meeting.
There was mum, Dechen, and daughters, Carma and Chokey. The three women were in dressy versions of the day-to-day Bhutanese outfit. A group of sassy schoolchildren came up to us just before them, doing the silly antics that kids do to get your attention. Two were especially bold and entertaining, and they turned out to be Chokey’s kids.
Carma has quite good English, plus our Bhutanese guide, Tek, was there for extra translations. With warm hospitality, the family—mum was especially insistent—invited us for tea at 5pm.
I always feel a little sheepish about accepting such invitations. I don’t want to be thought of as the foreigner who takes advantage of generous hospitality from people who might not be able to afford it.
But the invitation was so genuine and heartfelt that we willingly accepted. Plus it was a wonderful opportunity to see inside a rural home.
Poor John didn’t come—he’d already taken himself off on a long walk. So Tek, Anand, Deepti and I set off just before 5. We shed our shoes at the bottom of the entry steps and were welcomed into the warmth—and I emphasise warmth because a cosy fire was going in the kitchen—of a Bhutanese farmhouse.
Tea and simple treats—popcorn is a common snack in Bhutan—were served and we exchanged mini life stories.
You already know a lot of mine, so here’s a bit of theirs. Mum and dad have three children—two sons and a daughter. Chokey is married with children, and Carma and the son—we didn’t get a chance to meet him—are both single.
We were treated to a show-and-tell of the looms and some pieces of wonderful textiles (kiras) the women in the family had woven. Kiras are rectangular, about two metres long, and are the main part of a woman’s traditional dress in Bhutan.
And then came the invitation to try on an entire Bhutanese outfit. How could I resist? The colours and patterns were breathtaking, and the work was flawless. Oh yes, why not.
Carma and Chokey made short work of getting me trussed up. If you look at the photos carefully you might be able to figure out how it all comes together. I’m still pondering how it all worked. There are no buttons, no zips, no darts—just two sets of clips that go over the shoulder and anchor the fabric, front and back.
Finally there’s a fancy belt/cumberbund and a shiny jacket over the top.
It was the dressiest I’d ever looked on an overland trip, and I have to say I scrubbed up rather well.
Deepti was next, and we had fun playing dress-up like kids.
At the family’s insistence, we moved into the shrine room for lots of pictures. The family commissioned someone to build and decorate the shrine for prayer and contemplation. The same painter added lovely artwork to the right of the shrine and to other rooms. You might notice some of the work in the kitchen pictures.
Then came the question from Dechen. Through Carma and Tek, she asked if I’d like to buy the kira I was wearing. The dairy farm was profitable, but not so much so that that they could put their younger children in higher education. So would I consider buying that piece for 20,000 ngultrum (their currency) or about US$330 at the time.
I gulped. It’s a lot of money for something I’d probably never use. That said, I knew the price was more than fair—I’d been in plenty of souvenir shops where prices were way through the roof. I saw a chipped and not-at-all special teapot (no it wasn’t an antique) that had a price tag of 10,000 ngultrum.
The price for this weaving—while high on the face of it—was fair to her and to me. The work was exquisite, and Carma and Chokey explained that their mum wasn’t weaving anymore because her eyesight was no longer good enough for the task.
Of course, this made it a one-of-a-kind and never-to-be-repeated item.
But I stalled. It’s not like I needed an elaborate hand woven piece of fabric. It’s really lovely, but it’s a lot of money, I said. I’ll have to ask my husband if he thinks it’s okay. Yep, I used Poor John as an excuse to think things over.
So we made arrangements to return at 9 the next morning for a final decision.
That evening, Poor John and I discussed the matter at length. We both figured Dechen might get 10,000–15,000 ngultrum for the piece in her local market or even from a souvenir shop. We also figured we’d pay about 30,000 to 40,000 for something like it if we were to buy from some souvenir shop.
But do you buy something you don’t need—that you don’t need at all? Finally, we came to a decision we could both live with.
Next morning was rather frightening. We arrived at the farmhouse to learn that Dechen was having heart palpitations. I suspected it was nerves, but you never know. We offered to take her with us to the next large town so she could see a doctor. That was rejected. She couldn’t possibly go without first saying prayers and giving offerings at the family shrine.
The more pressing and all-important question was would I buy the piece?
The answer, of course, was Yes. And do you know why?
Dechen had me when she said she wanted the money to provide more education for one of her children.
Poor John and I decided to treat the purchase as a scholarship. You don’t get anything for providing a scholarship, except the satisfaction that a young person might go further in the world that they would have otherwise.
My only regret is that the ‘scholarship’ won’t stretch to allowing both Carma and her brother to pursue more education. At this stage, only her brother is studying, and Carma is now working in a town away from home. She pops up on Facebook chat every now and then to say hello. I hope her chance to study comes soon.
So if you get to Bhutan and then to Sengor, try to find the Lhaden household and buy another piece of Dechen’s weaving. Or maybe a piece by Chokey or Carma. Believe me, your money will go to a worthwhile cause. Oh, and my purchase of the kira put an immediate stop to Dechen’s heart palpitations. Whew!
And if you’re feeling a bit peckish (Aussie slang for hungry), check out my cooking blog for a recipe on cucumber and salmon bites.
It pays to know something about the events calendar of any place you plan to visit. When we asked about an itinerary for Bhutan—you have to visit the country through one of their approved tour agencies—the first plan had us travelling east to west.
We didn’t really care which direction we travelled, but it also had us arriving in Paro about six days after their annual mega-important religious festival ended.
How about we go the other direction? I suggested.
Et voila! We entered Bhutan from the west and ended up in Paro for the last two days of this incredible festival that honours Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche, the saint who brought Buddhism to Bhutan.
So what made the Paro Festival so special for us?
For starters, I managed to hike up the bloody great hill to the top level of the Rinpung Dzong (fortress) where the main festival activities were playing out. You’d think it would have prepared me for the next day’s long haul up to Tiger’s Nest Monastery. It didn’t, but I digress.
Once I made it to the top of the fortress, also known as a dzong (as usual Poor John was miles ahead of me), I was gobsmacked by the fashion, performances and sheer number of people. Literally thousands of people attend each year.
So I’ll start with the fashion.
Bhutan has a colourful and distinctive national dress that goes right down to footwear for the men. With the exception of the elaborate costumes we saw in Papua New Guinea, I have never seen such fabulous clothing on both men and women. And virtually no skin exposed—have a look at a Papua New Guinea post to compare!
Bhutan’s national dress is governed by a dress code, which has been imposed in modern times. Citizens must wear it as they go about their business in public during the day and for all special occasions. When the code was originally imposed, some people—mostly tribal residents and Tibetans living in Bhutan—were so opposed to this ruling that they left the country.
I always felt a little sorry for Tek, our guide for most of our 15 days in Bhutan, when he had to wear this get-up. day in and day out. as we travelled. It’s stylish, but not all that warm when the weather is cold.
The men wear a gho, a knee-length robe that is tied at the waist by a belt known as a kera. The traditional boot, called a tshoglham, is usually made of silk and does not seem to be compulsory. That said, I reckon the robe is knee-length so they can show off their boots.
Women wear a kira, an ankle-length dress that clips at the shoulders, and a flashy, lightweight jacket known as a tego.
Both sexes add a special scarf when visiting dzongs and other administrative centres. Men’s scarves vary in colour depending on their status or rank—the king wears yellow, I know this because I saw the king at the festival—while women can wear any colour.
I was completely stunned when Tek said that some ceremonial outfits cost as much as $2000, especially if they include silk and gold threads. That’s some serious money in an economy that’s not oozing wealth.
Luckily many people can weave their own clothes to keep costs down (stay tuned for a post about a fabulous hand-woven kira that I bought).
Of course, we arrived in our very best camping clothes—it was all we had. A few foreigners outdid themselves with full traditional dress. And were rewarded for their efforts. On his way out of the festival, the king stopped for a lengthy chat with a foreign woman who was wearing traditional Bhutanese dress.. We were directly opposite her at the time, but our camping clothes didn’t muster a comment from him.
But festival attendees weren’t the only one who were all dolled up.
The drama performers—monks and professional actors—know all the right moves and wear wonderfully elaborate and colourful costumes and masks.
Their dances act out stories and incidents from many decades ago. Some honour the life of Padmasambhava, remember he’s the man who founded Buddhism in Bhutan.
We missed the first two days of dances. Not sure that’s a big loss because we made it to the last two. Based on the descriptions, I think the dances of all days are rather similar, so I hope it’s totally okay to miss one or two days of them.
But we were there to see the thangka or thongdroel draped on the side of a building. It’s a sacred, religious picture scroll, or tapestry, that is exhibited for a few hours on the last day of the festival. It covers the entire facade of a building and is considered one of the most sacred blessings in the whole of Bhutan. We didn’t get up early enough (3:30am) to see the moment it was unfurled, but we were there before it was rolled away later in the morning.
More about the religious festivals (or tshechus)
Bhutan’s religious festivals (also called tshechus) take place all over the country, but the four-day events in Paro and Thimphu (the national capital) are considered the best.
Tshechu, which means ‘10th day’, celebrates the 10th day of a month of a lunar calendar. In Bhutan, the month observed varies from place to place and temple to temple.
It is believed that everyone must attend a tshechu and witness the mask dances at least once in their lifetime in order to receive blessings and wash away their sins.
There are almost 20 different mask dances. Each dance has a special story behind it, and many are based on stories and incidents from as long ago as the 8th century and during the life of Padmasambhava.
The dances are creatively named with titles such as Dance of the Terrifying Deities, Dance of the Four Stags, Dance of the 21 Black Hats, Dance of the Eight Manifestations ofPadmasambhava and Dance of the Heroes.
I have to admit that I couldn’t figure out the meaning of the dances we saw, but I loved the colour, movement and energy. It seems that there are at least four dances per day, and these are televised live during the festival.
And if your head is spinning after all this whirling around, drop by my cooking blog for some cookies and milk.
Everyone who knows anything about Bhutan and who also knows that I’ve been there asks if I saw Tiger’s Nest Monastery. Yes, yes, of course I saw it.
Frankly, I’m relieved if that’s how they phrase their question. Because if they ask have you BEEN to Tiger’s Nest Monastery, I have to hang my head and admit that I got halfway there.
Getting to the halfway point was enough of a struggle that I was easily discouraged from tackling the rest.
So trudge along with me.
We were up early and ready to go. Our guide for the day (I can’t remember his name), Anand, Deepti, Poor John and I were set to scale the hill that leads to this famous monastery. The promotional hype says it ‘clings to a cliff 3120 metres above sea level’ overlooking the Paro Valley. This is true, especially the clinging to the cliff bit.
The hype also says you can make it to the monastery in two hours, and that the ‘weak and weary’ (my quotes) can take a horse to the halfway point and even a bit beyond. This is only half true, and the two-hour comment isn’t at all true.
So off we set. It’s a nice gentle start up the hill and I briefly thought if most of the climb is like this, I’ll be fine. I can walk for hours on the flat or even the gentle slopes of a well-graded switchback.
But then the hard slog began and the horses appeared.
I think I’d like to take a horse, I told the guide. No, you don’t want a horse. They’re unreliable. Some fall down and some people even die when their horses throw them over a cliff. Oh yeah, the monastery ‘clings’ to a cliff.
I wavered. I know how to ride a horse. I’ve even owned a horse. But one look at the beasts was enough to convince me that they weren’t any keener than I was to walk up that hill, so I passed up the opportunity. Better that my own legs give up and I collapse in a small heap on the ground.
The plus was that I didn’t get chucked over the side by an uncooperative horse. The minus was it took me a very, very long time to get to the halfway point.
The gentle slope ran out almost immediately. Then the ladder kicked in—not a real ladder, but a slope that seemed like one. Poor John (sometimes called He Who Walks Everywhere) and Anand strode ahead. Deepti and the guide lingered with me, but I shooed the guide on.
Deepti is young, fit, energetic and good company. It was a pleasure to have her with me—she walked and talked, while I huffed and puffed and gasped and struggled and dawdled. Of course, I’m exaggerating, but the walk up is long, steep AND rather boring.
I look back at my photos and most are of the monastery inching slightly closer in every frame. I have photo after photo of the monastery, but very little else. I usually find lots of things to snap—flowers, people, scenery—but this stroll was all about reaching the monastery. For me it was all about reaching the halfway point, which I managed in an hour and 40 minutes.
When we finally arrived, I urged Deepti and the guide, who’d waited for us, to go on without me. I’ll be fine waiting here. And believe me there were plenty of other stragglers who didn’t press on to the top. Quite a few had ridden horses to the halfway point, and one even saw a horse stumble and toss off its rider. So I allowed myself a slightly smug smile that I got that far walking.
There wasn’t much to photograph at the halfway point, except a gigantic prayer wheel and endless views (mostly the same) of the monastery in the distance. But there were plenty of people to chat to and a restaurant (but we were going to lunch somewhere else later). Oh, and there was lots of hot tea and biscuits to revive us. I particularly liked the cheesy snacks, but more about that soon on another post.
It was a while before the others returned, and they had many tales to tell.
Poor John, who took just under two hours to get to the top, was quick to say you would have hated the second half of the trek. A lot of steep up, then a lot of steep down and then more steep more. It was exactly what I needed to hear.
Then Anand and Deepti added the fact that no photos were allowed inside the monastery. Oh yay! Another reason for my ancient self to stay behind.
And then an absolutely corker of a story from all of them.
It seems that way back when the monastery was first built, there was a huge Buddha statue created to be displayed at the top. He’s there now, but can’t be photographed.
Now I hope I get this right, and feel free to correct any mistakes.
The story goes that this Buddha weighs about 8 tons (way more than I weigh). When it came time to carry him (I’ll assume it’s a him) to the top, the locals pondered how to get him there. He was way too heavy for the locals to lug up there.
After some discussion, they decided to break the statue into pieces and carry up each piece individually (a plan I would have supported). But apparently the statue interrupted and insisted that he should not be dismembered. In fact, he said they should just leave him alone and he’d get himself up there.
And apparently that’s exactly what he did because the locals awoke in the morning to find the Buddha positioned in the monastery. Such a pity that I couldn’t figure out how to get him (the Buddha) to teleport me up there too.
That said, I’m really glad I didn’t tackle that last struggle. I always take time to go up a slope or hill, and always take caution to go down. As I often say to Poor John, The chances of me falling are slim. The consequences of me falling are huge.
The guide was quick to point out that just a few weeks before we were there and on the last leg of the uphill trek, a Thai woman leaned back against a railing to take a pic, and fell to her death.
So no regrets that I didn’t go the distance.
A bit about Tiger Nest’s Monastery
First built in 1692, Tiger’s Nest Monastery is Bhutan’s most important and most visited site. Also known as Taktshang Monastery, it overlooks the Paro Valley and really does hang off a cliff at 3120 metres above sea level. I’m so glad I started much higher up than sea level.
The monastery has four main temples and a few dwellings. Most buildings have balconies with amazing views. The main courtyard has a prayer wheel that is rotated every morning at 4am. There are also eight caves. Monks of the monastery are supposed to live and meditate in these caves for three years.
The Hall of a Thousand Buddhas, which is carved into rock at the monastery, also has a statue of a tiger. This is important because tigers are respected symbols of the monastery. Legend says the monastery’s site was chosen by a tigress, which also explains its name.
All of the monastery burnt down in 1998 and has since been rebuilt.
Note: You’ll see that some of the photos are by Gary Foster. Gary travelled with us in India earlier this year, but he did not join us in Bhutan. That’s because he visited there in 2011. He graciously sent me his photos. Poor John won’t carry a camera, so I have to rely on Gary and others in these circumstances.
A little diversion tonight to pay my respects to Omar Sharif who died earlier today at the age of 83. He was a handsome man, remarkable actor, excellent bridge player and an Egyptian.
I was privileged to have met him when I lived in Cairo in the 1970s. My dear friend, Vassily, knew him well. In fact, Vassily’s brother was Sharif’s main bridge partner whenever he, Sharif, was in Egypt.
The first time I met Sharif was in the Sheraton Hotel in Cairo. I met him a couple more times, but the first meeting remains in my memory. That was almost 40 years ago, and he was as handsome and charming as he looked in all his movies.
But I have a funny story to tell in relation to this meeting.
When I won my scholarship to go to Egypt, I was dating a very handsome Palestinian. We dated for many years, but the relationship was going nowhere. His mum didn’t want him to marry a foreigner.
How it all turned out is another long and funny story for another time.
But we’re talking about me meeting Omar Sharif and a comment from way back then.
That Palestinian boyfriend was rather annoyed that I was going off to Egypt on a scholarship.
Why are you going? he asked. If you’re hoping to meet an Omar Sharif, you need to know that guys with those looks are a dime a dozen in Egypt.
He was wrong. There aren’t that many. Sharif, you will be missed. Glad I met you.
And later I married an Australian I met in Cairo.
We didn’t have the chance to visit many food markets while we were in Bhutan, but the weekend farmers’ market in Thimphu (the capital) helped to tide me over until my next ‘fix’.
This amazing market draws vendors from all over the country and nearby India too, I think, as there was an entire section of Indian food items. Farmers start arriving from Thursday and stay until late Sunday, unless they sell out.
The market has two parts—food and craft— and is located on the edge of town, near the Wangchhu River. We focussed on the food section and were rewarded with new ingredients and new takes on some known ingredients.
After eating just a few meals in Bhutan, we figured out that cheese and chillies are the national ingredients. They’re in virtually every dish and served at every meal—even breakfast. Not surprisingly, the market had hefty supply of these national ingredients.
Fiddlehead ferns are another popular item. I’ve known about these ferns for years and always thought of them as being native to Canada. Let me tell you, they grow wild all over Bhutan too. We had several meals featuring ferns—they are delicious—but the first time I saw them for sale fresh was in the Thimphu market.
Although not a food, incense was another common item on display. It’s important in the home and in monasteries. I don’t think religious rituals can take place without dozens of incense sticks burning.
A completely new-to-me ingredient were crow’s beaks. These bright green vegetable pods are hollow inside and a little bigger than a thumb. We never ate any, but they smell a bit like cucumbers and I’m told they taste a lot like green beans. Common names used in Bhutan for this plant include slippery gourd or olochoto and kichipoktho. I’ve now discovered that crow’s beaks are also grown in South America (although I never saw it there) and that, in tropical climates, the plant can grow to 40 feet.
I’ve seen plenty of bitter melon in markets around the world, but Thimphu was the first place I ever saw it pre-sliced. Nice idea.
I was surprised to see banana pods, tamarillos and other fruits that I think need a warmer climate to grow. But Bhutan has better weather than I imagined. In fact, the southern part of the country, that borders India, is quite mild for a good part of the year.
The market was well-supplied with all sorts of produce that is designed to keep well. This especially makes sense in a place where remote and rural households might not have refrigerators or reliable sources of power. So there were vast arrays of honeys, pulses, dried vegetables, dried mushrooms, dried fish, tea, pickles, and herbs and spices. They were selling the biggest bay leaves I’ve ever seen.
Of course, one of the best things about visiting markets is the people-watching. It’s a chance to see how and what people buy and sell, what they wear and how they work.
From the time we arrived in Bhutan, our guide, Tek, talked about having us visit the Burning Lake—a very sacred site.
While this remote destination is plenty watery, it is neither burning or a lake—it’s a widening in a river. Nevertheless, it is an important part of Bhutanese legend.
In the later 1400s, a Buddhist saint named Terton Pema Lingpa told villagers of his vision that a guru had hidden sacred treasures in their nearby ‘lake’.
Not surprisingly, the locals weren’t convinced and the local governor was especially suspicious. He assembled a large group of people to watch Pema Lingpa retrieve the treasures.
The governor told Pema Lingpa that if he successfully got a treasure, he would support him. If he failed, he would punish him for disrupting his district.
Pema LIngpa is said to have grabbed a burning butter lamp and proclaimed, If I am genuine, let me bring back the treasure with this lamp still burning. If I am a fraud, let me die in the waters below.
Obviously, he popped up with the goods or he and the lake wouldn’t be famous.
The story goes that after quite some time, Pema Lingpa resurfaced with the still-lit butter lamp, as well as a small box crafted of joined skulls and a small sculpture.
According to tradition, this miraculous occurrence caused all those present to become followers and patrons of Pema Lingpa. The event also gave the lake its name of Mebar Tsho, or the Burning Lake.
The path down to the ‘lake’ is festooned with brilliantly coloured prayer flags, other devotional items and a small altar dedicated to Pema Lingpa.
Pilgrims are still drawn to the site and on auspicious days they will offer butter lamps at the water’s edge. According to Tek, the guru who is currently resident at the Burning Lake is a great character. He’s in his final year of a stint that will last three years, three months and three days.
The guru was coming down to ‘do his job’ as we were leaving and he stopped to speak to Anand, who was our driver for this journey. He was full of gorgeous smiles and hearty hellos, and offered to show Anand the way to enlightenment. Anand graciously declined, explaining that he was Hindu. I wasn’t quick enough to get a photo of them together, but I did get a pic of the guru descending to his ‘workplace’.
Recently I posted our visit to Jodphur’s spectacular Mehrangarh Fort, and now it’s time to check out the city’s other jewel—the Umaid Bhawan Palace.
Poor John and I are equal-opportunity tourists so we spent half a day at the fort and the other half at the palace. Confession—a half-day at the palace was enough but we should have spent a day at the fort.
That said, the palace, like the fort, is breathtaking and important in Indian history.
In 1923, His Royal Highness Maharaja Umaid Singh Ji (grandfather of Jodhpur’s current Maharaja) commissioned the building of this enormous palace. It was going to be his 347-room residence, but it was also his way of providing employment for his people during a lengthy period of droughts and famines.
The employment plan worked a treat. Along with several other community projects, it kept 3000 labourers busy for 15 years—from 1928 to 1943. I wonder if it took so long because they used an interlocking system that required no mortar.
Interestingly, the structure was originally known as Chittar Palace, after the local yellow-gold sandstone used in its construction. But ultimately, the art-deco structure was renamed after its instigator. That said, I don’t know how the word Bhawan fits into the name.
Today the palace has three roles—it’s part museum, part residence for Jodhpur’s current royal family, and part luxurious hotel for tourists. I’ve read that rooms go for about $500 a night. Yikes!
Obviously Poor John and I didn’t stay there. We stayed in the Zostel Hostel. That’s where our travelling companion, Gary, had his hiking boots stolen in the first 15 minutes we were there. Traveller’s tip: Don’t leave your shoes in the hallway outside a hostel—even if a sign tells you to do so. Take them off, pick them up, take them inside with you and put them in your locker.
But back to the palace, which was designed by Henry Vaughan Lanchester, a renowned Edwardian architect. His designs combined eastern, western and art deco influences.
There’s a sad story about the original furniture and fittings. They were of an art deco design by Maples of London, but were lost in 1942 when the ship carrying them was sunk by the Germans.
Luckily, artist Stephan Norblin came to the rescue. A Polish refugee, Norblin was an accomplished artist, an amateur interior designer and familiar with art deco styles. Sadly, almost all of his palace work (especially some elaborate murals) appears in areas that are not for public viewing. I saw some photos of them and was sorry we couldn’t see them in person.
But two museum collections caught my eye—a whole lot of ancient clocks, and porcelain washbowl and pitcher sets.
Oh and there was a collection of old cars that were impossible to photograph. The best I could do was get a reflection of the palace/hotel on the front of one of the cars.