Bhutan: Somewhere Over the Rainbow

I miss Bhutan. I think about the country nearly everyday. Sure I’ve been writing blogs since my return from my travels there (October 2011), which obviously makes me think about the country. But I think about Bhutan more than just for writing my blogs. I think about it on a deeper level. And I miss the country.

Bhutan Rainbow

What I miss most are the people. Everyone I met was extremely gracious, friendly, and genuine. I feel like I have made some life-long friends. I spent the most time with my guides, three of them, all fantastic leaders, answering my questions and taking me everywhere. Along with the guides, I had three very careful drivers, and equally as great as my guides. I appreciated meeting staff at all the hotels and restaurants, people in the stores, and even just meeting people randomly, whether walking around, in villages, or in temples and monasteries. I have even made some more friends on Facebook since my return.

Bhutan Rainbow

The children of Bhutan bring wonderful memories to me. Many of them were so enthusiastic when it came to photographing them, giving big smiles, and wanting another picture taken after seeing themselves in my camera. One child in particular, the daughter of one of my guides, was my gracious host the day I witnessed the dancing and singing rehearsal in preparation for the wedding of the King and Queen of Bhutan.

Speaking of the King and Queen of Bhutan, having the privilege of meeting them was truly an honor. A once-in-a-lifetime memory.

Bhutan Rainbow

I also miss the Buddhist religion. Deeply rooted in the hearts of the Bhutanese, I could feel their religion permeate their lives. Their devotion, deep beliefs, honor, and respect of their religion makes this country quite special.

Even the visual displays of the religion are wonderful to see throughout the country, and I miss the reminders. Whether it be the temples and monasteries. The prayer flags and prayer wheels. The chortens, arts and crafts, or festivals. A deep sense of belonging is what I felt as I traveled throughout the country.

Bhutan Rainbow

The scenery is also something I miss. The snow covered mountains of the Himalayas. The village of Laya. The fields of various vegetables and grains growing. The red of the chilies hanging everywhere to dry. The blue skies. The fresh air.

I want to go back to this country. I want to delve further into the religion, learn more about the people, the land, and the country.

Bhutan Rainbow

I’m not sure what it was, but throughout my travels there, I saw several rainbows. Sure, I see rainbows at home. But there was something deeper about seeing them in Bhutan. The first one I saw was on my first day in the country. It was like some sort of symbol emerged from the sky for me. I didn’t know exactly what it meant then and still really don’t now. What I do know is that as I write this blog from my desk at home and gaze out the window, somewhere on the other side of this great planet, somewhere over the rainbow, is a country that I miss.

Sweet (and memorable) Travels!

Dancing and Singing for the King and Queen of Bhutan

Bhutan King Queen Wedding Dancing Singing
I experienced something unique when I was in Bhutan. In fact I believe that I was the only non-Bhutanese to watch this amazing event. It was not in my guide book, let alone my itinerary, and I didn’t even know I was going to be seeing this until about 15 minutes before.

Bhutan King Queen Wedding Dancing Singing

It was a warm day out, the sun was shining, and the air was fresh. Originally I thought that that morning I would be walking around the streets of Paro, shopping, and people-watching until my afternoon activities.

Bhutan King Queen Wedding Dancing Singing

My guide picked me up at my hotel, right on time, and we started driving towards Paro. But his daughter was in the car, a person I did not expect to meet, to know, and did not expect to spend the next several hours with.

Bhutan King Queen Wedding Dancing Singing

Instead of the Paro shopping, I was being taken to a large grassy field. It was not the grass though that was important. It was the people. Hundreds of people. Mostly school children, of all ages. Groups of children, each from a different school in the Paro Dzongkhag (“county”). About 20 groups all gathered in this large grassy field. My guide’s daughter and I were dropped off.

Bhutan King Queen Wedding Dancing Singing

You see, it was a few days before the big event, the event that all Bhutanese were already celebrating. It was a few days before Bhutan’s beloved king, His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, was to marry his beautiful bride, Ashi Jetsun Pema Wangchuck.

Bhutan King Queen Wedding Dancing Singing

These groups of children on the grassy field were all practicing dancing and singing routines that a few days after the wedding they would be performing for the King and the new Queen. And here I was! Seemingly the only non-Bhutanese there, sitting on the grass, in the warm sun, watching group after group after group practice their dancing and singing. What an opportunity. I was just in awe. I mean how many times in a lifetime would this happen? I mean how many itineraries would this ever be a part of? It is these types of travel experiences that I cherish the most!

Bhutan King Queen Wedding Dancing Singing

Each group of children was wearing the traditional clothes of Bhutan, Kiras for the women and Ghos for the men, with matching school colors. They danced and sang; sang and danced. Routines that they had down to a tee. Each group unique, different, and beautiful.

Bhutan King Queen Wedding Dancing Singing Bhutan King Queen Wedding Dancing Singing

I felt especially proud, like I was a parent, when my guide’s daughter danced and sang with her school. I took extra pictures of her. She even checked in on me every once in a while as I sat and watched about 15 of the schools. I told her that she was great in her performance, and I thanked her again and again for the honor of me being there. I even had a chance to talk to some of the children, and some of the true proud parents during my almost three hours at this event.

Bhutan King Queen Wedding Dancing Singing

In addition to watching all the dancing and singing, I also got to witness some of the building of a platform that would be where the King and Queen would be sitting from in a few days time in order to see all the children dancing and singing.

Bhutan King Queen Wedding Dancing Singing

While I know I am not the King and Queen of Bhutan, there were times that I felt so privileged and honored to be watching this special event, that perhaps in some way, I was Queen for just a few hours.

Bhutan King Queen Wedding Dancing Singing

Oh, and remember that I actually briefly met the King and Queen the day after their wedding.

Sweet (and special) Travels!

Bhutan: The King, The Queen, and I

“Where are you from?” He asked.
“The United States.” We answered.
“What part?” He asked.
“Seattle and Michigan.” We answered.
“Are you enjoying Bhutan?” He asked.
“Very much!” We answered.
“Good. Good.” He said.
“Tashi Delek.” We wished. (For blessings and good luck.)
“Thank you very much.” She replied.
“It’s an honor to meet you.” I said.

Then I cried.

This was the 30-second conversation I (and two other women I was traveling with, Beth and Sarah) had with His Majesty the Fifth King of Bhutan Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck, and his beautiful new bride, Her Majesty the Queen of Bhutan Ashi Jetsun Pema Wangchuck. It was the day after their wedding.

King of Bhutan and Fiance

I had been travelling in Bhutan for nine days prior to this conversation, knowing that the wedding between the King of Bhutan and the new Queen was going to take place on October 13. In fact, prior to the wedding, the entire country of Bhutan was preparing for the occasion. Decorations of special multi-colored prayer flags were displayed everywhere, as were photos of the King and Queen, and extra country flags of Bhutan. There were an abundance of thoughtful signs wishing longevity, serenity, and love for the King and Queen. One sign declared, “We would like to wish you a long, blissful, and happy married life.” People were preparing dancing and singing performances for the days following the wedding. The event was the talk of the town; well, really the talk of the country.

Bhutan Wedding Sign

another thoughtful sign

On the day of the wedding itself, I watched it live in my hotel room on BBS, the local Bhutanese TV channel, starting at 7:00 in the morning. And I’ll admit it – I took photos of the TV as I watched. For two hours I was glued, listening in Dzongkha, the national language of Bhutan, and watching intently. Part of me couldn’t believe that I was actually in the country where a Royal Wedding was taking place.

King of Bhutan Wedding on TV

Suddenly at five minutes before 9:00, I got a knock on my hotel room door. “Oh no, don’t interrupt me now,” I thought. It turned out to be the woman who was to clean my room, so together we watched the last five minutes of the wedding. At the end I asked her, just to make sure, “Are they officially married now?” “Yes,” she replied. Silently we both cried with joy and happiness.

King of Bhutan Wedding on TV

my photos of the Royal Wedding on TV

Then the day after the wedding…Beth, Sarah, a fourth woman, Shannon, and I were to begin a seven day trek to Laya, one of Bhutan’s highest villages at about 12,500 feet elevation. To start the trek we needed to drive (along with our driver, Jigme, and our guide, Tobgay) from a town called Wangdue, and head north through the town of Punakha to our starting point, Gasa. It just so happens that on this same day, the newly married couple were to be driving south on their way from Punakha, where they got married, passing through Wangdue, on their way to Thimphu, the capital city. During the King and Queen’s drive it was known that they would be stopping at towns and villages along the way in order to greet and talk to their people.

Punakha Dzong Bhutan

Punakha Dzong, location of the Royal Wedding, with prayer flags

Early that morning as we were driving we saw many, many local Bhutanese already lining up along the roadsides of Wangdue waiting for their King and Queen to arrive. “Should we stop?” we asked ourselves, as we kept driving. We were all tempted, but we also knew that we would need to hike later on that day, and had a long drive ahead of us.

However, a few moments later, we encountered a smaller village, with fewer people, Lobeysa, where the locals were outside waiting along the roadside as well. I think we all felt that now we could not miss the potential opportunity of seeing the King and Queen. It could be the chance of a lifetime! Se we decided to stop and wait with the locals.

Offerings for the King and Queen Chorten Lobeysa Bhutan

We got out of the car and began to gather next to a chorten (a mound-like structure that contains Buddhist relics and offerings) which was adorned with a photo of the King and Queen, as well as with special offerings for the Royal Couple. Then we lined up in a single-file line right along with the locals. I became very excited, because soon I could actually be seeing a King and a Queen. After a few moments, however, it was getting warm out, and the King and Queen had not yet arrived, so everyone disbursed from the line to find some shade. Every so often something would happen though, like cars driving by, or perhaps a rumor, and everyone would think that the King and Queen were arriving. So we would stand back in line, only to realize a few minutes later, that it was not them. Not just yet anyway…

Waiting For the King and Queen Lobeysa Bhutan

Shannon waiting in the shade with the locals

After two and a half hours, and about three or four times lining up and then disbursing, the event finally happened. The King and Queen (and their entourage of cars and other important people) stopped at Lobeysa village! Out of courtesy, the four of us chose to stand towards the end of the line of people so that the locals could be the first ones to see their King and Queen. (Although Shannon waited even a bit further down the line than us three.) The King and Queen got out of their car and started greeting their people! Since I had some time before they got to our end of the line, I just had to take a glance at them. I stood on my tiptoes, more than once, to look down the line to see them. They looked as handsome and as beautiful as I had seen in all their photos and on TV! And wow, I was actually seeing them live in person!

As they approached us I held onto a white scarf that we had purchased. We were told that we could present the scarf to the King and Queen as a congratulatory gift, as an offering. We had also been told that no photographs of them were allowed (darn), that we weren’t to make eye contact with them out of respect, and that we should bow as they passed by.

So I was completely surprised when the conversation started! I hadn’t expected it. I actually hesitated for a few seconds in answering the first question that His Majesty asked us. As the conversation progressed however, I figured that eye contact was appropriate, and by the end of the 30 seconds, I actually experienced wonderful eye contact with both of them; especially with the new Queen when she said, “Thank you very much.” She had such a warm and gentle smile.

The tears that I shed (after the King and Queen safely moved on to the next people in line) just happened. I guess I felt so honored and privileged to have met and talked to them, to the King and Queen of Bhutan. Something that I had not planned for; something no guide book talks about; something not in any itinerary. I even completely forgot about offering them the white scarf in the midst of the conversation. Thus I still have this as a remembrance souvenir.

I had a vast amount of rich and rewarding, unplanned experiences during my 25 days in Bhutan. Experiences neither in my guide book nor in my itinerary. I would say though, that the conversation between the King, the Queen, and I, was truly the most rich and rewarding.

Tashi Delek to the King and Queen of Bhutan!

Sweet (and unplanned) Travels!

The Beginnings of Bhutan

This blog isn’t about the beginnings of the country of Bhutan itself. Rather it is about the beginnings of my own journey of making my decision to travel to Bhutan.

Although, the beginnings of the country of Bhutan itself are actually quite interesting, so I’ll throw in a few sentences about that. (It really would require another blog for all the details.)…The early history involves semi-nomadic herdsman. People of the Bon and Buddhist religions. Periods of turmoil and instability; and periods of victory and peace. Several key figures that changed the course of Bhutan’s history. Isolated from the outside world for centuries. Modern Bhutan with its philosophy of Gross National Happiness.

Bhutan Tiger's Nest

Taktsang Monastery aka Tiger’s Nest

Anyway, the trip that I will be taking in October 2011 actually began transforming in the back of my mind several years ago. In 2008, I knew that Beth (of Wanderlust and Lipstick, whose website you are on now) led groups to this fascinating country. I still even have some emails that I wrote to Beth back then about the possibility of my going to Bhutan.

However, other events in my life began to happen…the sale of one home, and the purchase of a new home. The birth of my niece! Now these things aren’t bad at all, and I do not regret not going to Bhutan several years ago, as I love our new home, and I of course, love and adore my niece. I guess you could say that the time and money involved in these things kept me from pursuing Bhutan.

Through the years though, I still managed to have some fabulous in-country trips to satisfy my travel bug. “Staycations,” as they call it. Alaska, with one of my sisters. Two long backpacking trips on the Wonderland Trail. And several trips to San Francisco (where my niece lives).

View of Himalayas Coming Into Bhutan

View of the Himalayas as approaching Bhutan

The years passed, and honestly, I had kind of forgotten about Bhutan. Then that travel bug creeped up on me big time at the end of 2010! Instead of staycations though, I felt like it was time for me to go abroad again. I had not been out of the country for over two years, and I wanted to go somewhere. But where?

For a month or so, I tossed around several ideas of where to travel. Many countries and continents came to mind that I had not yet been to. But no decisions had yet been made.

At the same time as the ideas were being tossed, I had already been reading a series of six blogs written by Beth on a trekking trip she had done in Eastern Bhutan. I was intrigued. Somewhere in the midst of all this, it said to contact her if anyone would be interested in traveling to Bhutan. I emailed her, and while at that time, her trips at that time weren’t scheduled till 2012, I wrote to her of my interest.

King of Bhutan and Fiance

King of Bhutan and Fiancé

Beth’s Eastern Bhutan trips combined experiencing local life, the people, the culture, the villages, and the religion. While at the same time, trekking in some beautiful scenery. All of that definitely appealed to me!

Then those 2012 trips got moved up a few months. To October 2011! Instead of going to the eastern side of the country, though, the trip involves the western side, but still with same combo of people and culture, with trekking and scenery. And just like that, I made my out-of-country travel decision, called Beth, and soon signed up. It was my beginnings of Bhutan…

Sweet Travels!

By the way, the King of Bhutan recently announced his wedding that is occurring in…October 2011. If you want to join me and Beth on the trip, don’t delay, as flights will be extremely difficult to secure during October. Here is a link for more information.

The history of the country of Bhutan is from this fabulous book written by a former Queen.

Treasures of the Thunder Dragon

Photo credits…Two from Beth Whitman, and King and Fiancé picture from the press.