The Kingdom of Bhutan: part III – Bumthang

Wednesday 28 February: Bumthang – Roger

At 7:30am we wandered down to the spa where they had a couple of yoga mats set up for the yoga stretch and flexibility class. I was a little apprehensive, as in the early 90’s I did yoga quite intensively with a lovely lady, Mandy White, who taught Iyengar Yoga in Central Auckland. I attended several times a week, even taking private lessons at times. After I had been doing this for a year or two, a visiting instructor came from Australia. Whilst attending one of his classes – he was going around and adjusting people as yoga instructors do – he got to me, tried to make the adjustment, and said “you’re about as flexible as a concrete block”, so with this long ago thought in the back of my mind, I wasn’t sure how it would go. We wandered in and took a seat with a beautiful view from the studio, through the pine trees and down to the river. We were soon joined by the local instructor, who commenced by telling us she was going to make this a session for beginners – and to her credit, she did exactly that. Not that I could stand on one leg with my other foot in my groin… but 45 minutes later, feeling relaxed, we wandered back to our room.

At 9:30am we met Chimi and Singye, who had done the 8.5 hour drive from Paro yesterday, to start our day’s excursions. We drove through the town we had visited yesterday, and along the way saw a large amount of dressed timber stacked on the side of the road, near some white memorial flags, with a stupa across the road.

Arriving at the Jambay Lakhang, a temple built in the 7th century, we noted in the carpark a large pile of stones, some with writing on, that had apparently been put there by one of the Treasure Revealers, a peson within the Buddhist faith who has revealed scripture in some form. As we wandered towards the front entrance of the temple, a number of elderly people passed the door heading in a clockwise direction on their temple circumambulation. We turned left to do the same and passed a number of them sitting on a bench, having a rest. They were all very friendly and engaging. Some of them spin little prayer wheels or count rosary beads as they walk around. Some leave a stone each time they make a round so they can count the number of circumambulations they have completed. This is apparently a tradition that has been going on for hundreds of years.

It was while walking around the grounds, I came to the realisation that Bhutan is really the country of a million photographs as everywhere you look there is some beautiful scenery, or a house, shed, temple or other such thing and all seem to be unique.

Having completed our circumambulation and spun a few of the smaller prayer wheels along the way, we entered the main entrance, spinning the large prayer wheels in the doorway, each making it’s own unique ‘ding’ as we completed a revolution. The doorway led us into a courtyard, once again with steep sets of stairs going up to the next level, and with its own unique style of architecture. There was also a painting of the Buddha with three eyes, one looking to the past, one at the present and the third eye looking to the future. Removing our shoes we entered the temple itself.

Having completed our visit to the temple, we wandered back outside and down an adjoining road through some farmland. We came across two men and a woman doing some fencing. One of the men was cutting the end of a stay for a strainer post with a machete.

A little further along, a man walked behind his three-wheeled rotary hoe, preparing a paddock for the next crop. In places the top wire of the fence was a hot wire, with pieces of PVC pipe used as insulators. A lone scarecrow hung in one of the paddocks and 4-gallon drums with sticks in them were used in other places to scare the sparrows away. A couple of women spread cow manure in a paddock about to be planted with potatoes.

As we wandered further down the lane there were paddocks in various stages of production, including a paddock of fodder that had just been harvested. Milking cows grazed on what little grass was in the fields and there were buildings to house the animals at night and during the winter. We rounded one corner and I looked into a yard and saw a sawmill so I wandered in past the pile of logs, everybody being very welcoming, to see a horizontal band-saw, which the operator pushed back and forward. After each pass the log he was working was turned until he ended up with a square beam several metres long.

European Magpie

As we wandered past a stupa, a lady with a baby held on her back by a blanket walked past. When I asked if I could take a photo, she adjusted the baby to make sure it was looking at me and happily posed for a picture. We wandered past more piles of timber, stacked so it wouldn’t warp in the sun. We crossed a roofed bridge and came across another group of fencers – this time two blokes, each wielding a crowbar, and two women wearing gloves. The guys drove the crowbar into the soil to loosen it and the women removed the loose soil by hand, ending up with a perfectly formed hole about 600mms deep.  A pile of rough cut posts lay on the ground beside the tractor and will soon become a fence. A little further on their backpacks hung on a recently completed stretch of fence, each post rock-solid in the ground, the strainers well-stayed and the four strands of barbed wire so tight you could have played music on them.

Rounding a corner we came across another bunch of memorial flags at the Kurjee Zangdopelri Buddhist temple, built by the grandmother of the current king. This was closed today but across the field, 200-300m further on was the Kurjey Lakhang cluster of three temples situated in a large walled compound. The oldest of the three temples was built in the 15th century, on a site where the second Buddha had meditated in the 8th century. The second one was built in 1900 and the third in 1984. We entered the oldest temple first and once again Chimi went into patient detail explaining the various shapes and forms surrounding the statue of the second Buddha (Guru Rinpoche). As we were about to leave, about 15 people, wearing the national dress, entered and went through their prostration process, as Chimi does every time we enter a temple.  It turned out that these people were guides in training. One of the trainees came outside and asked to have her photo taken with us, which we happily obliged.

We then entered the second temple, where there was a model of a semi-wrathful (just slightly pissed off) Buddha. Chimi once again explained this to us. I asked how he knows so much and whether all guides have as much knowledge and he explained that his father is a Buddhist teacher.

We continued north past a row of large, coloured flags and over the steps over the wall alongside the gate to the temple. Looking back, below the temple grounds is a large monastic institution, where people go to train to become monks.

We wandered down the road, passing probably the nicest block of public toilets I have ever seen, and a kindergarten where parents were collecting their children from school. We headed down to the river, where Singye was waiting for us with a brew and some snacks, which we consumed before continuing on our pilgrimage past some unique government buildings. Crossing the Bumthang Chhu river we came across a furniture factory with its own sawmill. We passed a unique house behind some gold embellished wrought-iron gates and then came to one of the most interesting scenes I have ever seen. A family was adding an extension to their house. On one side of the house the stone masons were busy building the stone around the door and window frames, which had been built on site at the other side of the house. I stood and watched for sometime as a bloke with a large machete-type instrument hand carved a beam out of a log. Another man with an electric plane planed another beam, a woman over the fence in the paddock cultivated the land and another chap sat and carved the unique ornamental timber that juts out from the end of these buildings.

We continued on past a prayer wall, next arriving at the Lhundrup Choeling Lakhang, a temple initially build in 1501. It is another unique temple experience with a large honeycomb beehive hanging from the ceiling outside. On the way out I asked Chimi about some calligraphy painted on stones in the wall. He read it out to me and it was in fact a mantra, like that being recited by the people walking around the first temple we visited “Om mani padmey hung”.

We continued on our pilgrimage down the road and a very friendly chap with reddish-brown teeth chatted away to us. It turns out that a lot of the locals chew betel nut here. Cows wandered freely along the road, occasional holding the small amount of traffic up. Soon we reached our final temple of the day, the Kenchogsum Lhakang, or the temple of the three jewels. This is one of the earliest temples in Bhutan, initially built in the 9th century. It was renovated in 1479 and then tragically burnt down in 2010 but the relics were only partially damaged. It has been recently reconstructed. There are monastic accommodation blocks on each side of the temple. On each corner a chain of small buckets hang down, acting as a downspout. We wandered clockwise around the outside of the main temple, entering the main hall on the back right-hand side. This is by far the largest temple we have been in so far. Chimi asked the caretaker for permission for us to take photos inside the temple as I would love to be able to share the ornateness and uniqueness. Having over the years visited churches in Europe and quickly becoming ‘churched out’, Mayan temples in Central America and quickly becoming ‘templed out’ and Mosques in the Stans and becoming ‘Mosqued out’, each of these temples are unique and with Chimi’s patient explanations Sylvia at least is starting to get an understanding of what it all means. I am not sure I have quite caught up yet. However the request was declined. It is really hard to describe the beauty, intricacy and uniqueness of the temples. This one in particular was spectacular – every inch of the three storeys is decorated in some way with different depictions of Buddha and his disciples.

Outside the door is a painting of a Buddha with three eyes. This represents the Buddhist circle of life, and is extremely rich with meaning – way too complicated to explain in a few lines here.

Our pilgrimage over, we were driven back to the lodge, and greeted at the gate as always by the friendly staff. We enjoyed a late lunch in the restaurant, starting with a beautiful drink made from butterfly pea, before retiring to our room for a restful evening.

Thursday 29 February: Bumthang – Sylvia

We started the day with a 45-minute guided meditation at 7:30am at the spa. This included some focused breathing and was a very relaxing and centering way to start the day. I did find that my joints are not used to sitting cross-legged for any length of time… After a delicious breakfast, we met Chimi and Singye at 9:30am and headed off for the day’s adventures. First stop was known as Membertsho or the Burning Lake, where Terton Pema Lingpa, a great treasure revealer, dove into the river carrying a burning lamp in his hand, and returned with treasures and relics and the lamp still burning. I have been impressed in general in Bhutan that there is very little rubbish around and many signs reminding people not to litter. I was quite bemused at this place as there was a sign clearly stating do not hang prayer flags and I have not seen so many prayer flags in one place before.

Next we visited the Pema Choling Nunnery, which would be one of my highlights so far. As we arrived the nuns, many of them quite young, were making their way into the temple. We joined them and watched as they were served salted butter tea and puffed rice, before starting chanting. Apparently they chant these prayers when someone makes a donation and requests a certain number of prayers to be recited. It sounded quite beautiful, with one of the more senior nuns reciting into a microphone and the others following along. The disciplinary master kept an eye on the proceedings. We were served some sugar tea and biscuits. Before we entered Chimi had negotiated that we be allowed to take some photographs inside the temple, truly a real privilege here. So here is a small glimpse into what we have been experiencing… but really the pictures do not do it justice. Perhaps they will encourage you to visit here one day too.

We left the enchanting, chanting nuns and headed a little way up the road to the start of our hike for the day. This would take us about 10kms, first through farmland and then blue pine forest, rising gently about 400m from the starting point to just over 3,100m and then descending again. We passed another small sawmill; this one had very cool gates made out of the bandsaw blades. In many parts of the forest people had been granted the rights to fell some trees. At times we would walk on soft sawdust where the logs had been cut, with many left to dry on the side of the track. The early part of the track was on a path wide enough for a tractor to haul the wood but later on it all had to be carried out by hand. Every now and then we would see signs that cows had been grazing along the track – although there was very little grass around. Little streams had been carefully tapped into to create waterways to provide easy access to drinking water. We spotted several deer tracks, signs of wild boar and even a couple of feline tracks but wildlife today. It was a lovely peaceful walk.

Heading back, past the hotel, we reached a beautiful riverside spot where the Six Senses team had set up a delightful meal for us. Cooked on river stones, over an open fire, we feasted on grilled vegetables, some sort of potato rösti, grilled trout and giant prawns, finished off with a local desert of a type of sweet dumpling with mint and honey. Roger also sampled the local wine, ara, and beers and finished off with a couple of glasses of an Italian red wine. Although the wind was cold, the view was spectacular and the food was excellent. The flavours they are able to create with the local herbs, berries, honey etc are truly delicious. We were provided with hot water bottles and thick blankets to help us keep warm – not that Roger needed them but I very much appreciated them. Another fantastic experience.

Back at the lodge, we ended an excellent day with 90-minute massages at the spa, just the thing to ease aching muscles and put us in a relaxed state of mind for the evening.

Friday 1 March: Bumthang to Gangtey – Roger

At 7am we headed down to the spa for a Body Balance session. This is one where you sit cross-legged and go through various yogic breathing activities while the instructor waves some incense over you. She then started chiming the singing bowls. It was a bit like being outside Westminster Abbey on a Sunday morning. I didn’t realise you could get so many sounds or vibrations out of three brass bowls. As we sat there with our eyes closed we could feel the vibrations coming from one of the bowls as she moved it close to our heads. We then laid down on the floor and went through a guided visualisation/meditation process with some unusual music playing in the background. We were taken in our minds down to a river, de-clothed, jumped in to the river and so it went on. Eventually we opened our eyes and went back to our room.

We headed over to breakfast and they brought over the daily three shots. Today one was for detox, one was for anti-aging and I can’t remember what the third one was for but it tasted a bit like kerosene. Breakfast over, we wandered down to the car where Chimi and Singye were waiting patiently. At this point I must inform you that you are lucky I am not a writer as we saw so many things today that a writer would have written a book about it. As we headed down the hill in the 8-year old Kia 4WD Sorrento, which has only done 50,000 kms and is in almost brand new condition – I’d wager it has never done over 60 kmph – we asked Chimi and Singye how many times they had done this trip and they said they couldn’t count – only the number of years they’d been doing it.

We followed the winding road through the pine forest, eventually crossing the Kiki La Pass on the Bumthang highway, at just over 2,700m, the lowest of the several passes we would cross today. At the bottom of the pass the road became a bit wider and was a clear two lanes. Chimi said this was only completed 5 years ago and prior to that the road through to Thimphu used to be basically a one-lane road. Soon we came to a small town, Chumey village. This little village was spotless with all the little streets swept with hand brooms. We went into a little souvenir shop, which had a great display of everything from masks to Yathra, or woven rugs, one of which we now own.

We continued along the journey, passing a rather modern looking service station and adjoining building still under construction, then crossing a new bridge, which had been built alongside the old one. As we wound our way along the valley we passed many sawmills, lots of construction and new buildings and even farmyards full of animals. The highway has milestones (or should we say kilometre stones) along the way, showing the distance to Thimphu. Lots of little creeks have little buildings containing prayer wheels, which are turned by the water as it flows through the building.

We continued gaining altitude, through mainly pine forest with lots of old man’s beard blowing in the wind, until reaching the top of the Yotongla pass at 3,423m. On the other side of the pass the vegetation changed from pine trees to more bush type foliage. The road descends quite steeply and has been cut into the cliffs with obviously a huge amount of rock being blasted off to make room for this two lane highway. We had not gone far when we rounded a corner and were brought to a standstill by a herd of about 50 yaks, under the control of a herder and his dog. Chimi informed us that these yak herders are semi-nomadic and during the winter the yaks are kept on pasture at 2,500-3,500m, moving to higher elevations to feed in the summer. The road, considering the altitude and the climate, is in surprisingly good condition with only the odd area that had been damaged or washed out during the winter.

All the government signs in Bhutan are yellow writing on a red background. At one stage we passed a shed with a rusty roof, with a sign stating “Roadside amenity – Yotongla – Department of Surface Transport”. We wound our way down the valley at 40 or 50 kmph, many times doubling back on ourselves, eventually arriving at Ta Dzong (watch tower) in Trongsa, the original seat of the Bhutanese Royal Family. Ta Dzong was originally built as a defensive watch tower after the dzong, or fort, which the town also boasts, and is now a museum. There was a large amount of timber lined up at the edge of the carpark drying. We wandered down the steps to the entrance at the bottom, where our cameras and phones were removed. We climbed a couple of flights of stairs looking at various artefacts and Buddha type figures before entering a small room where we watched a video showing the history of Bhutan and the Trongso region. It was an interesting journey through the tower, climbing many flights of stairs and looking at some really interesting statues, artwork and garments worn by various leaders over time, including the raven crown of the first king. We eventually popped out on the top of the turret, which would have been a great place to take photos from as it gave spectacular views over the town and surrounding countryside, but sorry, cameras were locked away.

We wandered back down and out the exit, where Chimi met us with our phones and camera, then strolled up the road to a lovely picnic area, which had a great view of the town across the valley and down to one of Bhutan’s many hydro-dams. Apparently there are four major hydro-dams in Bhutan, many smaller ones, such as this one, and quite a number under construction. As we sat eating our lunch we could hear the chant of mantra-type prayers from the dzong below us where they are holding a large festival today.

Lunch over, we drove down to the dzong, which is the largest in Bhutan. On a piece of flat ground on the other side of the stream from the fort, large tents had been set up and it looked like well over 1,000 people were gathered. On another piece of flat ground below this a large kitchen had been set up and people in orange uniforms made their way down the rows of people carrying large 50-60l buckets filled with rice that had been prepared in the kitchen, which they doled out with large ladles, ensuring that everyone was fed. The people here were so friendly and all were dressed in their traditional clothing as they took part in this large religious gathering.

From there we wandered down a path and across a rather quaint old bridge into the dzong. On the way there were three very friendly school girls who were more than happy to pose for a photo in front of the garden. Upon entering the dzong we first went to the administration side, then headed to the monastic side, which meant climbing many more steps. Entering the monastic part of the complex, there were two large prayer wheels and pictures of the north, south, east and west Buddhas, along with the elephant, rabbit, monkey and bird harmony picture. We entered but only into the courtyard as the temple was closed due to the day’s festivities. Numerous monks were heading back to their quarters. As we left, a party of local high school boys were heading up the steps to check out the temple area. They were very friendly and incredibly polite.

On leaving the fort we strolled across the bridge and back up to where the festival was taking place. Ten or twelve police women were performing, I presume, a traditional dance. It almost appears that the people here are so polite and friendly that the police would have little else to do, although to be fair, Chimi said it was the first time he had seen the police dancing.

We continued on our journey, heading up the valley opposite the fort in order to cross the river several kilometres up then head back the other side, where we stopped to take photos back towards the fort and the huge amount of terracing that has taken place over the years. We continued slowly along the valley, passing many more settlements with  huge areas of terraced land, monastic-type buildings, and the road carved into the steep terrain. Gaining altitude again, and back in yak country, the bush cleared and it was surprising to find ourselves at such high altitude, almost in grassland. Yaks grazed contentedly beside the road. Eventually rising to 3,404m, we crossed the Pelela Pass and as we headed down the other side we were back in pine tree country again. We had only gone about 3km, when we branched off the main road onto a single lane, but still sealed road, at one stage coming to a complete standstill as a herd of yaks were busy licking salt from the road and refused to budge. Soon we crossed the Lawala Pass at just over 3,300m. Sylvia was surprised to see rhododendrons and even magnolia trees at this altitude. It turns out there are even 4 species of rhododendron that are endemic to Bhutan and some can grow as high as 5,000m.

Soon the pine trees receded and we arrived in the magnificent Gangtey Valley, which we will no doubt tell you more about tomorrow. We headed up a small hill, passing three large Himalayan Griffon Vultures, and arrived at Six Senses Gangtey “Bird-watching Bridge”, where we were welcomed by a guy playing a flute, decked in red scarves and led into the dining room/lounge, which has magnificent views across the valley.




4 thoughts on “The Kingdom of Bhutan: part III – Bumthang

  1. remi says:

    colors, smiles amazing lanscapes….

    and super brave Roger for the Yoga lesson…

    I remember Aikido lessons too.

    Mountains climbing are not a problem for you!!!

    Thanks again for sharing your trip

  2. Rosie says:

    What a magnificent lot of photos and information. Thank you sooo much you two. It has taken me ages to read because there is so much going on in the photos. The river ones (without prayer flags) could have been take in NZ. You certainly seem to have been given the right guides. What a lot of information!
    So glad to have seen photos of the inside of one of the temples. Gives a good idea of what the others must be like. Pretty mind-blowing really. You’re both looking great too. Xx

  3. Alister Johnston says:

    wow once again fantastic photos of a very colorful Bhutan and its people

  4. Trevor REID says:

    Don’t worry we are not built for Yoga.
    Second the kerosene drunk was for memory.

    Great read & pics

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