>Unique to Bhutan: the tourists

>I was a chilip, a foreigner, in Bhutan for 9 weeks. Apart from a limited number of aid workers, volunteers and consultants, chilips in Bhutan are mostly tourists over 45 coming for 1-3 weeks from the US, Europe or Japan with an upper-middle class background. Another distinctive group of tourists are Indians who are called simply Indians, not chilips, and they are exempted from the $200 a day tourist fee and they usually stay for a shorter period of time. I heard from waiters and tourist guides that most Indians want better value for their money than other nationalities.

Tourists and locals at Paro Tsechu festival

Bhutan welcomed around 40,000 tourists last year (for a population of 700,000 which is not a lot as the country follows the rule of ‘low volume, high value’ tourism when charging visitors the minimum daily fee. This on the other hand includes everything from accommodation to transport, from food to the tourist guide. In this way, Bhutan has decided not to follow the example of other Asian countries which have become favorite destinations for backpackers and young people wanting to chill out – such as Israelis visiting Nepal right after their compulsory military service. This strict policy of course filters out tourists and most chilips of younger age I met were not tourists, but temporary workers or volunteers, and I haven’t seen any foreign children during my stay.

It is not uncommon among chilips to wear local traditional clothes, the gho or the kira, especially kira for women as this outfit doesn’t differ so much from Western clothing. The gho for men is a different story and you don’t see too many foreigners wearing them. It is hard to put on and for the first time you feel a bit uncomfortable as you are basically wearing a skirt that could easily make your favorite underwear public when sitting untrained. However, after some time you get used to it and it actually feels great. I really liked wearing it.

Even if disguised in local dress, it is easy to spot the tourists in the streets of Thimphu. Most of them have grey hair and glasses walking slowly in pairs or small groups in trekking boots when admiring their environment. They almost always carry big cameras with them and men tend to have gigantic camera lens that may be interpreted by some as the Western version of the phallus cult of Bhutan. They are rarely seen without their tourist guide who show them what to see, where to eat, and what to buy. Occasionally, you can see ‘abandoned’ tourists with no guide wandering around and they look like excited children who have just run away from home to have some adventure in the neighborhood with no parental supervision.

Should you want to visit Bhutan, hurry up. I heard rumors of the government going to increase the daily fee to $250 soon.

Chilips watching Bhutan’s strange animal, the takin
Big brother watching
At Paro Tsechu
At Punakha Dzong
Guide and his guided

A Thai lady at the King’s birthday celebration
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Posted in chilip, gho, kira, penis, tourism, tsechu | 1 Comment

>Leaving behind a footprint

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My unforgettable stay in Bhutan has come to an end after nine amazing weeks of volunteering at the Loden Foundation and discovering new faces, stories and dreams. It is time to get back to my life, family and friends in Europe. However, I have become a forever friend of Bhutan and its beautiful lands, minds and hearts.

I aim to keep in touch with people I met at the Loden Foundation : Ashe Kunzang Choden, Dasho Mehgraj Gurung, Aum Dago Beda, Dr Karma Phuntsho, Dawa Dem, Gerard and Anne Tardy, Dorji Tashi and Rinzin Dema; many of their beneficiaries, young entrepreneurs and kids in need; and numerous locals and chilips (foreigners) as well.

Going home from Bhutan, most visitors fly out from Paro airport. I also stayed here for a day before my departure. I walked around, visited the National Museum and had my last hot stone bath.

Driven by human desire to leave something permanent behind, I hid Bhutan’s 9th geocache on the left side of the river, not far from Jangtsa Dumtseg Lhakhang, an ancient temple. If you want to find it, here are the GPS coordinates: N 27° 26.128, E 089° 24.795. Do not forget to leave a note in the logbook, put the box back where it was, and leave another small gift for others to come. I will surely come back one day to check…

During my nine weeks in the kingdom I didn’t have time to write about everything I was doing. Among other things, I didn’t cover my visit and treatment at the traditional medicine center; my horse ride with a member of the National Council; my visit to a rehab center and the great social work a Welsh lama does in Thimphu; I didn’t write about my conversation with monks who left he monastery to start a new life; the world’s smallest political opposition; or my visit to Chimi Lhakhang for a phallos blessing.

Given all the unpublished stories and pictures, I will keep writing this blog for some more time to benefit all my readers in numerous countries from the US to Europe, from Russia to China, from India to Australia and from Afghanistan to Thailand. Later, this blog may become a permanent site on Bhutan and I also plan to write down my stories in more details in a book with several unpublished photos. Stay tuned.


In the meantime, please feel free to contact me at valcsicsak.zoltan@gmail.com in case you have questions, comments or anything to discuss.

Tashi Delek !


Posted in airport, General, geocaching, loden | 1 Comment

>Unique to Bhutan – marijuana and money

>Once I heard that Bhutan is the only country where pigs fly. Yes, because of marijuana which is freely growing everywhere and usually given to pigs as an appetizer in case they don’t want to eat enough. And human consumption? Very limited, as smoking this weed is not part of local tradition, but rather a modern discovery, especially by youth, such as taking certain prescription drugs to get high or drinking too much alcohol. That is why people like Lama Shenpen at Deer Park has more and more to do when it comes to helping drug addicts.



Walking to Khoma village

 Bhutan is also unique in a sense that this is the only country I know of where a foreign currency is so widely and legally accepted. The Bhutanese Ngultrum is linked to the Indian Rupee which is accepted up to 200 banknotes or so. For one US dollar you get around 45 Nu/Re.

50 Ngultrum

What can you buy for one dollar? About 4 cups of tea or an Ema or Kewa Datshi meal or a few copies of newspapers. This would also take you from your favorite bar to your hotel in Thimphu by taxi.

Talking about money: kids like Kinga Lhamo whose family can’t afford school expenses, need only 6000 Nu ($135) per academic year to go to school. I happen to sponsor her and if you can also afford to help, you are welcome to support other children in need. Just let me know or contact the Loden Foundation directly.


Kinga Lhamo and her unemployed mother. His father passed away last year.


Other unique things in Bhutan: traditional dress, languages, the Penis, and personal names.

Posted in marijuana, Ngultrum, Rupee | Leave a comment

>Paro Tsechu, colorful religious festival

>Paro Tsechu is one of the most important religious festivals in Bhutan taking place in Paro in March or April following the moon calendar. Here you can see a few photos I took when I attended.

Going and coming to/from the festival location
Everyone is wearing his/her best dress
Gathering around the main stage

Community Police maintains order

Nice atmosphere
Dancers on the stage

The misterious man in red
Atsara has two ‘things’, one for blessing.
He collects money in return
I can’t see him.
I will be like him.

The misterious man in white
Practical advices
Other protection for legs

Shooting monks. Well…

Mobile cinema halls to further entertain people
He looks like a pirate of the Caribbean

Scary program
Kezang D Wangmo on the cover
Miss Bhutan happens to be the daughter of a Loden trustee
There is also a market
One can go home with a new car after the festival
Going home
Lennon in Paro lives forever
Posted in atsara, General, Kezang D Wangmo, Miss Bhutan, monks, tsechu | Leave a comment

>The schedule of a Buddhist monk

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On a weekend I climbed for a few hours to stay overnight in one of Bhutan’s 2000 monasteries: Dho Dhey Drak (meaning ‘place with rocks and cliffs’). Human settlement has occupied this place located for long time, but in 1986 a Buddhist Institute was established here currently hosting 170 monks from the age of 10 up to 29. Students come from all over the country to study Buddhism from four teachers. There is a guest house for visitors, but it was occupied by a family, so I shared the room with three monks.

Dho Dhey Drak from Buddha point over Thimphu
A closer look.
One of them was my guide for the two days who had joined the Institute only two years ago. We had a great discussion about Buddhism in general and life at Dho Dhey Drak in particular. Before you decide to become a monk student, please read his daily schedule:
Weekdays:
4-5am: waking up and studying in the room
5-6: morning pray
6-7:40: lessons in the classroom
7:40-8: morning tea
8-9: lecture in the classroom
9-10: repeating what was studied the morning
10-10:15: break
10:15-11:30:lessons in the classroom
11:30-12:30: lunch
12:30-13: handwriting class
13-14: learning to play musical instruments or make rituals and ritual cakes
14-15: English lesson
15-16: studying on his own
16-17: repeating what was learned today
17-17:30: dinner
17:30-19: evening pray
19-19:10: break
19:10-22:00: evening studies and going to bed

On weekends: taking care of the compound; washing clothes, cleaning the rooms; playing sports like football or badminton; and having hot stone bath (stones heated on open fire are placed in cold water in simple wooden bathtubs)

Strictly forbidden for monk students to 1) challenge the teacher; 2) leave the premises without a permit; and 3) steal. In addition, there is no sex, smoking, drugs, and alcohol. And of course they have to follow the daily schedule.

What do they study ? Memorizing liturgical texts in Classic Tibetan language, known in Bhutan as Chöke. How to behave as a monk. How to play musical instruments. How to conduct rituals. How to write poems. English language.
Recently I heard it is considered to integrate math and sciences and more English into the curriculum to help monks get a job in case they decide to quit the monastery. It is probably a good idea, at the same time I met a few geytays (monks who gave up monastic life) and they seem to be successful in their new secular life. I was even told that the best businessmen in Bhutan are former monks. 


Former monks or not, my experience is that there is more room for creative and hardworking entrepreneurs in Bhutan.
Posted in Dho Dhey Drak, football, monks | Leave a comment

>Unique to Bhutan – The Languages

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In Bhutan, the official language is Dzongkha meaning “language of Dzong” meaning “language of fortress-like monastery”. Originally used as the language of popular communication since the 17th century, especially in western Bhutan, it was only declared the country’s official language in 1971. Linguistically, Dzongkha is a South Tibetan language. Although spoken Dzongkha and Tibetan are very different, the literary forms of both are highly influenced by the liturgical Classic Tibetan language, known in Bhutan as Chöke (choekey). 
Besides Dzongkha, there are around 18 other local languages in the country, including Nepali in the south. Visiting Ura located in the middle of the country I had dinner with a local family and my Bhutanese colleagues were sitting like me equally unable to understand a word of the conversation in local dialect.
File:Languages of Bhutan with labels.svg
Languages of Bhutan (Wikipedia)

Although English has no official status, it is taught at schools and widely spoken, especially in towns, where some people even speak better English than Dzongkha. It is also fairly common to hear educated people casually mixing the two languages when speaking. In Mongar I heard a minister discussing his itinerary with his team in this mixed way. Currently, there is intensive public discussion about the use of two main languages and how to preserve the role of Dzongkha when experiencing greater and greater English influence. The government even set up a development commission to pursue this goal.
Other interesting thing about hearing English spoken in  Bhutan is the use of the word “la” at the end of the sentence as a sign of respect. A typical phone conversation could be something like that:
“Kuzuzangpo-la”     (Good morning)

“Kuzuzangpo-la”

“Where are you going, la?”
“From Thimphu to Paro, la. I’ll be back to Thimphu tonight. We can have dinner, la.”
“Okay, okay”
What I have also noticed is that most people just suddenly end the phone conversation when they feel everything has been discussed without saying something like ‘bye’ or ‘see you’. For the first time it sounded a bit rude to my chilip ear (chilip = foreigner), but now I’m used to it.
The last thing I would highlight is the habit of covering one’s mouth when speaking to a person of perceived higher status or giving offering at temples. I heard that the reason is to prevent bad mouth smell from spoiling the environment.
To hear people speak Dzongkha, listen to the online radio, Kuzoo FM.
To read more unique things in Bhutan, click here:  NAMES  or  DRESS, DOMA, ETC  or PENIS
Posted in chilip, Dzongkha, language | Leave a comment

>Unique to Bhutan – The Penis

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I bet there is no other airlines in the world that offers an in-flight magazine that you innocently open and inside you find a half-page picture of this kind:


This is Drukpa Kunley, the ‘Divine Madman’, and his ‘divine thunderbolt of wisdom’ as appeared in the last issue of Tashi Delek, DrukAir’s in-flight magazine. But who was Drukpa Kunley  and what did he do for Bhutan? 
A Buddhist master, he lived between 1455 and 1529 and he came to Bhutan from Tibet in the 15th century as Yogi Kunga Legpai Palzangpo to teach local folks about Buddhism in a fairly unorthodox way by using provocative and entertaining poetry, songs, dance, and humor, often combined with drinking and having sex. He occasionally applied all of his teaching methods with his hosts’ wives, too. 
One of his very visible and distinctive legacies is the Penis painted on houses across the country in various shapes, sizes and forms. Other is Chimi Lhakhang, a temple established by his relative in 1499, where lamas today bless you with a wooden or stone phallus helping you have a child. Hopeful local and foreign women and men visit the place for the blessing and some of them stay overnight to test the power of ritual on the spot.

When Bhutanese asked about the reason for painting erected and ejaculating penises on homes or hanging wooden ones from the roof, they claim that they protect the house against deities and bad spirits. I don’t know if it works, but it surely shocks many tourist getting out of their minibus wishing for a nice rest at a roadside restaurant. I heard a story from a tourist guide who was visiting the countryside with a British man and his 16 years old daughter. When the man asked my friend what that hanging piece of wood there was, he was so embarrassed to say it was a penis in front of the girl that, instead, he said “It is your Thing, sir.”

The tradition of  provocative and shocking Buddhist teaching well demonstrated by Drukpa Kunley lives on today. I heard about a lama having a family visiting him and then in the middle of the meeting showing them a porn movie as a way of making them realize the truth of life. This story may be an urban legend, but modern interpretation of ‘divine thunderbolt of wisdom’ can be seen on walls all over the country.The penis motif is also manifested in jokes like this one from the online Bhutan Times:

THE REQUEST:

I, the penis, hereby request a raise in salary for the following reasons:

I do physical labor.
I work at great depths.
I plunge head first into everything I do.
I do not get weekends off or public holidays.
I work in a damp environment.
I don’t get paid overtime I work in a dark workplace that has poor ventilation.
I work in high temperatures.
My work exposes me to contagious diseases.

THE REPLY:

Dear Penis,

After assessing your request, and considering the arguments you have raised, the administration rejects your request for the following reasons:

You do not work 8 hours straight.
You fall asleep on the job after brief work period.
You do not always follow the orders of the management team.
You do not stay in your allocated position, and often visit other areas.
You do not take initiative – you need to be pressured and stimulated in order to start working.
You leave the workplace rather messy at the end of your shift.
You don’t always observe necessary safety regulations, such as wearing the correct protective clothing.
You’ll retire well before reaching 65.
You’re unable to work double shifts.
You sometimes leave your allocated position before you have completed the day’s work.
And if that were not all, you have been seen constantly entering and leaving the workplace carrying 2 suspicious-looking bags.

Sincerely,
The Management

ATTENTION: the following pictures may disturb your peace of mind !


Modest size, discretely decorated
Oversized, with a dragon
Doubled, ejaculating water from a water-driven prayer wheel.
On the road to Wangdue Phodrang
From the inflight magazine of Druk Air
One from Ura
Another one from Ura
Other two.
Helping hands.
Hanging thing.

 

Hanging over the door.
What is he doing?
Drukpa Kunley is said to have decorated it this way.
Looks likes it meditates.

The tradition lives on in Thimphu

… and in Khoma village on the wall…
and on a caramboard, local board game.

Click for more unique things in Bhutan:       NAMES     DRESS, DOMA, ETC

Posted in divine madman, Drukpa Kunley, penis | 1 Comment