Day 1: The Introduction

Gasey introduces me to Bhutan, a land steeped in culture and tradition.

I almost didn’t find him. Allowed myself a thirty second panic attack (“I have no cellphone here, no free wifi either, oh god”) before squinting to see my guide, Gasey, holding up my name.

The ride from Paro to Thimphu is 2 hours. I spent the first half hour gawking out the window, occasionally turning back at Gasey to nod as he gave me the brief intro. Fun fact I enjoyed: The population of all of Bhutan is not even 800,000. I enjoyed this because the population of San Francisco is over 800,000. Go figure.

Following the basics, he led right into what Bhutan is known for — gross national happiness. “There are four pillars the government uses to judge this,” he says. “Culture, environment, socioeconomic development, and government.”

Culture. Hm. If I were to create a measurement called gross national happiness in America, would I add Culture as a pillar? Let alone the first? I thought. Shrugged it off with, I guess culture is important to them.

Retrospectively, a giant understatement.

Prayer flags for the Iron Horse

We made a pit stop at the Iron Bridge. Not quite as extravagant as the Iron Throne, but created by the first engineer of Bhutan, as Gasey says. The flags along the side are Bhutanese prayer flags, put up for good luck and prosperity.

These flags come in five colors: white, yellow, red, green, and blue. These colors symbolize air, earth, fire, nature, and water, says Gasey. Ooh, so close to Avatar! I thought. This wasn’t the last I’d see of the five elements.

The bridge crossed the Paro River to Tachogang Lhakhang, a temple sitting atop a small hill. We hiked up on the left side. Remember that.

Inside the temple, I wasn’t allowed to take any pictures. Immediately upon entering, Gasey excused himself and began a bowing ritual (for lack of a better word) in front of the shrines: first facing the opposite direction, then facing the shrines. I wish I didn’t just stand there awkwardly watching, but I figured it would’ve been more awkward for me to try and mimic his actions. He already didn’t know what agnostic meant when I told him I was that, and I had felt thoroughly uncomfortable trying to explain to him.

After learning a bit about the temple, we exited the building. I started to turn to go back down the left side, but Gasey ushered me down the right side instead. “We must observe temples in clockwise motion,” he told me. I asked him why, and I think he misunderstood my question and started talking about earthquakes. So sorry guys, no answer as to why that is. Google.

Archers of Bumthang dance and sing after an arrow hits the target

Once we arrived at Thimphu and ate lunch, we decided to kill some time watching an archery tournament. Archery is Bhutan’s national sport. Recognize the flags? Again with the five elements — I swear they were everywhere.

Even archery had culture. Whenever the archer missed the target altogether (very common since it was a 150m shot), the team members on the side of the target would howl to signify the miss. Whenever the archer hit the target, the team members on both sides (archer’s and target’s) would circle up and chant a song. I’m pretty sure I heard at least seven chants, and all were unique. I have no idea what they were saying, but hey, NFL teams don’t chant songs when they make touchdowns. What’s cooler is the chanting wasn’t exclusively done by the team that made the shot. It was both teams.

Changangkha prayer wheels

Next up, Changangkha monastery. All around the edges were these spinning cylinders called Prayer Wheels. Gasey led me in rounding the monastery in clockwise circulation, spinning every single prayer wheel. There must have been at least 50.

Inside the monastery (again no photos allowed), were twenty chanting lay monks. Young and old, bored and diligent, they were all reciting the same prayer book. Apparently, the royal family invites lay monks from all over to come read this book out loud for good fortune in the months of May and June, Gasey told me after conducting his bowing ritual again.

What’s a lay monk and how does it differ from a monk, you might ask?

Well, I asked. The only difference Gasey mentioned is that monks can never marry, while lay monks can. I then ask if all monks voluntarily choose that life of celibacy and as I expected, Gasey says no. Some parents send the children off to be monks at a very young age so they can get a thorough education. Probably too young to care that such a decision was made for them.

Young monks swinging by a cliffside

Earlier in the day, I learned that not many Bhutanese people can leave Bhutan. Only temporarily for school or work, but not forever, says Gasey. I suppose this is a result of the government valuing culture so heavily. How are you going to maintain tradition if everyone who lives by it leaves.

As much of a paradise as this place may seem, it’s sad to me that Gasey has never left this country. But I guess this is just a different culture.

Be useful to yourself. Be useful to parents. Be useful to community. Be useful to Tsa-Wa-Sum. King, country, people.
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