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Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon

Updated: Apr 13, 2020


We flew into Bhutan with some friends who were visiting us in India. As the plane came in to land, it dropped down below high mountain peaks to follow a narrow, winding river valley. The walls of the valley drew closer and closer as we descended along that sinuous route, nearly scraping our wingtips. Or so it seemed. The airport has a hard-earned reputation for being one of the toughest on the planet for takeoffs and landings. There’s just no place that’s flat and straight in that corner of the world.

Bhutan is a remote mountain kingdom perched high up in the eastern Himalayas. It is a Shangri-La of a place – a retreat from the joys and hassles of modern life. Quiet, Buddhist and peaceful, it values GNH (Gross National Happiness) above GDP and economic development. New buildings continue to be built in the traditional style and most people continue to dress in their time-honored way. The capital city, Thimphu, had one stoplight but it was removed as too impersonal and the traffic cop reinstalled. TV and internet only reached the country in 1999. It’s a throwback to less-complicated times and a culture little-influenced by the outside world.

It is the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon.

Each valley of any size is anchored by a large fortress-monastery called a dzong that is the local administrative and spiritual hub. Massive white walls outside enclose a complex of courtyards, temples, offices and monk accommodations inside. They are beautiful and imposing at the same time. A small city or town and small farms spread out around each dzong.

Imposing in a rather different way, many Bhutanese houses have various auspicious figures painted on their exterior walls to bring them luck. A favorite was a giant, erect, ejaculating penis. Yes you heard right. Out there in front of god and everybody, maybe right next to the front door. The one in this photo is as tall as a person, with a thunder dragon wrapped around it. Or the locals might have a few large wooden phalli hanging from the eaves of their house. Or the spigot of a water well might be made to look like, er, you get the idea. It’s a different sort of ornamentation.

The intent is to honor the Divine Madman, an unorthodox Buddhist guru from Tibet who crossed the Himalayas into Bhutan 500 years ago spreading Buddhism by celebrating wine, women and song. He became famous for his “Flaming Thunderbolt of Wisdom” and Bhutanese adorn their houses with it to this day for good luck and to ward off evil.

We spent a week in the kingdom visiting dzongs and temples, hiking, soaking up the scenery and generally enjoying the place. We got knocked on our heads at one temple by a priest with a wooden - er, thunderbolt - to be able to enjoy its protection. Drank saffron-infused holy water at others to be cleansed of impurities. And spun lots of prayer wheels, always in a clockwise direction of course, to send prayers up to heaven.

Bhutan’s economy gets most of its hard currency from tourism and selling hydropower to India. Much of the population are farmers and ranchers, or else monks, but with a small but growing segment having restaurants and hotels. It’s not a rich country by any means, but we saw little of the poverty and begging, or pollution, that may be encountered elsewhere in that part of the world. Education and health care are provided free of charge. One of our friends on the trip ate something that disagreed with her, became dehydrated, and required hospitalization. Happily it wasn’t too serious, a few hours of saline drip fixed her up. When her husband tried to pay the bill the hospital couldn’t understand his intent – who in the world pays for medical treatment?

One of the towns we stayed at was having a festival celebrating a military victory over Tibet in the 1600s. Who knew Buddhists were so bellicose (not to mention other, er, thunderous proclivities)? Bhutan is the only country amongst all its neighbors never to have been occupied or colonized by a foreign power. The festival was a riot of color. Everyone from miles around was dressed in their Sunday best and shoe-horned into the dzong to see traditional theater and dance acted out in a large central courtyard. After several hours standing cheek by jowl with barely room to scratch an itch, my back and Sølvi’s knees were aching but what a great show. We thoroughly enjoyed it, and took more than a few photographs.

We also found out that Buddhists, at least those in Bhutan, celebrate many different gods and deities, somewhat akin to Hindus. I mistakenly thought Buddhism was only about the big guy with the droopy earlobes but no, there’s also lots of fiery demons plus the Garuda bird (shown below) and many other interesting characters. In Bhutan you should only make offerings at temples in your home valley as the gods can be jealous. If they haven’t seen you in a while they may cause you to be sick or otherwise bring bad luck. So if you can’t get back home regularly, it’s best to have one of your family put on some of your old clothes and make an appearance at the local temple in your stead. Apparently some of these gods aren’t quite all-seeing and all-knowing.

And we found out that some temple monks, or perhaps it’s the temple gods, like to watch American-style TV wrestling. We hiked up to one temple and there was Hulk Hogan, or maybe it was The Rock or another of their ilk, on a TV discretely placed in an out of the way spot. The Hulkster?!? I tell ya, Bhutan completely turned around my perception of Buddhism – it’s clearly a lot more fun than I’d realized.

Back in the 700s, Guru Rinpoche aka Padmasambhava aka the Second Buddha turned a concubine in Tibet into a flying tigress and rode her over the Himalayas to a remote cave high up in the mountains of Bhutan (it just doesn’t stop with these Buddhists!). There he meditated for three years three months three weeks three days and three hours, after which he introduced Buddhism into Bhutan.

A thousand years later the guru was reincarnated and built a monastery on that spot, known as the Tiger’s Nest for good reason. Both the monastery and its setting are spectacular. Bhutanese are expected to make the trek there at least once in their lifetimes. We made the pilgrimage as well. You start at about 7,500 feet above sea level, already in thin air, and work your way up above 10,000 feet. It’s a healthy climb. Our erstwhile-dehydrated friend made it too, quite a feat for one who was in the hospital only two days before. We could have rented ponies to take us up but that’s bad karma unless you’re a monk or from the royal family. Apparently only they’ve got the dharma to manage the karma. Infidel commoners should work their way up to that holy spot rather than be carried. We did.

As you hike the monastery comes in and out of view, becoming more and more spectacular. It is attached somehow, improbably, to the side of a cliff with a sheer drop of a couple thousand feet straight down. As you approach you find yourself on the wrong side of an enormous chasm, with long ropes or cables of prayer flags impossibly connecting the two sides. Your eyes follow the flags out over the emptiness and serious vertigo sets in. I’d never experienced anything like it. I had to hold on to the cliff to keep my sense of up and down and avoid being pulled out into the void. I coulda stayed there all day on the side of that chasm, admiring the view while clutching the cliff and watching the light change. We took a few photographs there too.

Alas we had to leave, and flew back to Delhi the next day. It was a great week in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon. I’d wake up in the mornings with a grin on my face from the combined effects of fresh air, exercise, good travel companions and interesting experiences. I’m ready to go back.

Here’s a link to some of our favorite photos from Bhutan . . .

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