Bhutan

Weekly Photo Challenge: Frames of the World

I love this week’s photo challenge: Frame. I’m sharing three of my favorite travel photos.

Oman

Oman

Oman
We woke up early after a splendidly silent night in Wahiba Sands. The sun wasn’t quite above the horizon. I opened the door within a door at the entrance to our desert camp and found two amazing views in the frame — a woodcarving that told its own story and a landscape that holds a thousand years of stories I’ll never know.

 

Bhutan

Bhutan

Bhutan
This bridge had me at hello. With hundreds of colorful prayer flags, all I wanted to do was watch and wait to see who walked through the wood frame at the other side.

 

Myanmar

Myanmar

Myanmar
Sometimes when you’re traveling there’s a moment of beauty that catches you completely by surprise. This was one of them, at one of the thousands of temples in Bagan. The tall doorway and ironwork framed this man perfectly, who was contentedly out for an afternoon sweep.

wpc
Go now.

Go now.

Go now.

Complete this sentence: Someday I want to go to ________________________.

What’s your dream destination? What location inspires wanderlust, itchy feet and the urge to pack a suitcase? What trip would be your trip-of-a-lifetime or just make you happier than ever to close the door behind you and embark on a new journey?

Many of us have a running list of our most desired, most dreamy trips and destinations — perhaps an exotic scuba diving trip in the Maldives or a sentimental trip home to see family and friends in the Midwest. Many of us also have a wish list of weekend getaways — maybe shopping at the Chatuchak market in Bangkok or attending the Glastonbury festival in the U.K. As the saying goes, it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey … and the fact that at some point we hope and plan to embark on that journey.

Yet, lifetime trip or weekend getaway, it seems travel is easy to dream about but harder to actually do. I noticed this recently when I wanted to book a last-minute weekend trip from Singapore to Bangkok. Classified as one of my recurring “wish list weekend getaways”, I eagerly searched for airfares but was disappointed by the results. All the low-cost carriers were sold out. The larger carriers had seats available but the prices were upwards of $400. No surprise — it’s a scenario I run into repeatedly here in Southeast Asia because there are so many people traveling to so many amazing destinations. The demand for cheap seats on an airplane is sucking the spontaneity right out of travel. Unless you have unlimited funds, you must book well in advance if you want to get away for the weekend — which is not a major problem in the scheme of things. But I’ve started to wonder … if demand is so high now and spontaneity is vanishing, what will the travelscape look like ten to twenty years from now?

From the perspective of the travel industry, the future is so bright you should make sure you pack your sunglasses. Job growth in the U.S. travel industry is growing very quickly — outpacing the rest of the economy by 25% since 2010. Globally, emerging economies are reaping the financial rewards of tourism with the number of international arrivals (overnight travelers) growing at two times the pace of advanced economies, and projected to surpass them in 2015. Cheap travel to cheap places equals big money for many developing nations.

Yet from the perspective of travelers, the future may not be so bright. In 2012, the number of international arrivals exceeded one billion for the first time ever — 1,035,000,000 to be nearly exact. By 2030, if growth in tourism continues at a modest pace as projected, that number will nearly double to over 1.8 billion international arrivals. What’s perhaps even more fascinating is that there were just 25 million international arrivals in 1950. What a different world. How I wish I could have seen Angkor Wat or Machu Picchu back in the day when hardly anyone was traveling — which is the whole point of my story: go now.

Go now to the destinations you dream about before they’re overcrowded, overpriced, fully booked or just don’t offer the same accessibility as they do today. Many of the world’s top tourist attractions have finite space and limited hours  — how will they meet the demands of more travelers wanting tickets, access, service, quality? Can the Louvre, which saw 9.7 million visitors in 2012, accommodate nearly twice as many in 2030? Can Disney’s Magic Kingdom retain its magic if annual visitors grow from over 17 million in 2012 to twice that in 2030? Can you imagine visiting the Eiffel Tower, Coliseum, Sistine Chapel or Statue of Liberty among twice as many tourists?

How will so many international travelers even get to these places? We’re gonna need a bigger boat, and airplane and airport. According to a study on airport capacity constraints, the world’s largest 100 airports handle more than half of the global aircraft movement. Of these, 10 to 20 airports are operating at critical capacity including major hubs like La Guardia, Heathrow, Frankfurt and Paris Charles de Gaulle. By 2016, an astonishing 70% of all flights from the top 177 airports (of 2,400 worldwide) will take off and/or land at capacity constrained airports where runways and schedules are full. What does this mean for travelers? Surely high prices based on high demand for limited flights, but maybe also the necessity of flying late at night or early in the morning as airports add flights to less busy times of the day. Perhaps too, the inconvenience of flying to an airport farther from the destination if the hub airport has no room for runway or schedule expansion. Bigger planes carry more people, but also require more space and emit more noise — an adverse effect on neighboring communities. Any way you look at it, there seems to be turbulence ahead for international travelers.

The good news is that travel can create valued memories that last a lifetime, particularly among families. According to a survey of American adults and children, more than half of the adults had vivid memories of childhood family vacations and still reminisce about them. These adults also want to create similar travel experiences for their own children. Half of the kids surveyed, ages 8 to 18, said vacations bring their family closer and some of their best memories are from family vacations. I would agree — I fondly remember our family vacation to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico when I was 12. We were trailblazing since no one went to Mexico at the time. I got a vicious sunburn, but I’ll never forget the beautiful sunsets, eating jicama for the first time and feeling like it was pretty cool that my parents had taken us to such an exotic place.

Beyond all these facts and figures, no survey can quantify the thrill of leaving behind familiar surroundings in exchange for the unknown. I vividly remember the first time I stepped out of the Kathmandu airport into the taxi that drove me to my guest house. Where in the hell am I? What have I done? This place is crazy bananas. It was an experience I’ll never forget. It stoked the fire and I haven’t stopped traveling since. Good or bad, freaked out or chilled out, travel is the only thing we can spend our money on that will make us richer, guaranteed.

So, where is it you said you want to go? ________________________.

Go now and make the journey before the world beats you to it.

Research and statistics cited in this post can be found here:
UNWTO Tourism Highlights
Airport Capacity Constraints
Travel Employment Statistics
Travel Effect

Experience Miscellaneous Travel
Hand-painted ceiling

Day Three in Bhutan: Local Color

Hotel Pedling

We departed Hotel Pedling around 8:00 a.m., passing through the center of Thimphu. Bhutan has no traffic lights — not even one — so the country’s busiest intersection is controlled by a white-gloved policeman who stands at a kiosk and keeps the traffic moving. We followed his signal and passed through the roundabout on our way to the weekend market.

Not a single traffic light!

Bridge across the Wang Chhu

The market is adjacent to the Wang Chhu river running through Thimphu. Before we entered the market I noticed a staircase to a bridge crossing the water. We climbed up the stone stairs to a white brick tower with a blue and orange flower motif on the interior and exquisitely hand-painted mandala on the ceiling surrounded by swirls of indigo. Post and lintel timbers framed the opening to the bridge and morning light filtered through string upon string of multi-colored prayer flags. A peek through the flags revealed a placid view of the river, flowing south toward India. These are the discoveries that make Bhutan such a special place — artistry, thought and beauty in the most unexpected locations.

Hand-painted mandala

The Wang Chhu

The craft market

Crossing the bridge, we found an outdoor craft market with treasures from around the region — printing blocks, decorative boxes, wall hangings, singing bowls, masks and tribal jewelry . I bargained (poorly) for a jewelry box beaded with red coral and turquoise. The seller smiled and offered a small discount — I was her first sale of the day and a sign of good luck. She agreed to a photo in return.

A picture of happiness

Bridge across the Wang Chhu

Back across the bridge (what a photographer’s dream), we entered the Centenary Farmers Market. Housed in an open two-story structure, vendors displayed their produce at yellow concrete stalls. Fruits and vegetables were on the ground floor — green beans, eggplant, potatoes, tomatoes, cucumber, lettuce, cauliflower, carrots, ginger, garlic, apples, oranges, bananas.

The produce market

More peace and happiness

A couple of adorable little girls eagerly struck an informed pose for a photo. The thrill of a digital camera is new to a lot of people in Bhutan, and kids seemed happy to pose and smile for us in exchange for a look at the photo (although these two scurried off as they giggled).

Chili powder

There were chili peppers everywhere — piles and piles of chili peppers! Red, green, fresh, dried, crushed and powdered into a fiery red dust. Thick, black sausages were stacked on a shelf like limp tire tubes. Dried yak cheese hung from strings, while dried fruits and nuts sat in open sacks. Another part of the market housed a muted palette of grains and rice. It was a Saturday morning scene like so many others in the world — people out to make some money, socialize and do their shopping for the week.

Yak cheese & sausage

Dried fruits and spices

Grains and rice

Thimphu and the sitting Buddha

It was time to depart Thimphu for the Punakha valley. I bought a bag of mandarin oranges and we returned to the car. Leaving Thimphu, I spied one last view of the sitting Buddha (top right on the hillside) before we started up the road to Dochu La Pass. Like so many “one and only” things about Bhutan, there is just one road going east and west across the country. And it is just that — a road, not a highway. It started out paved but twisted erratically up through the mountains with patches of dirt and mud. Barely wide enough for two cars to pass, the importance of having a good driver became very apparent. His skill and attention were the only things saving us from the trucks passing on the right and the precipice on the left. Think twice before you embark on this road — fear and car sickness are frequent companions.

Dochu La

The top of Dochu La Pass (3,140 meters or 10,300 feet) welcomed us with a grand display of 108 white chortens, built in 2005. A short hike to the top of the hill revealed a northeasterly view across the valley to a cyan sky partially filled with shifting cumulus clouds. On a clear day you can see Bhutan’s Himalayas, as we would discover on our return.

Sopsokha

We descended the mountain toward Punakha. Recently harvested rice fields stepped across the valley toward small clusters of two-story homes. We stopped for lunch at Sopsokha, laughing at the phallus handicraft store with its wooden souvenirs of every size. Phalluses are serious business in Bhutan — hanging from the corners of roofs, painted on walls and to the left and right of front doors of many homes.

Typical

Trail to the Temple of the Divine Madman

After lunch we set off by foot from Sopsokha to Chimi Lhakhang, or the Temple of the Divine Madman. The sun reached the western sky as we walked a wide road to the east side of the valley.

Valley rice fields

Harvested rice

Harvested bundles of rice were carefully stacked in circular mounds like pumpkins with stems on top, each golden bundle waiting to be manually whipped against the ground to release the grain. Daily life in Bhutan was yet again on display in a pastoral scene of incredible beauty. Walking uphill, we reached the temple where Kinga gave us a quick tutorial on the history of the Divine Madman.

Kuzu kuzu!

Temple of the Divine Madman

Temple of the Divine Madman

Lama Drukpa Kunley (born 1455) is known in Bhutan as the Divine Madman and creator of the takin (see Day Two’s adventure). He used his “Thunderbolt of Flaming Wisdom” to turn demonesses into deities, hence Bhutan’s abundance of phallic imagery and statues used to ward off evil spirits. His antics and exploits are legendary, and supposedly he enjoyed the company of hundreds of women thus the Temple of the Divine Madman is known as a temple of fertility. We turned the red prayer wheel at the entrance and toured the small interior where I made an offering of 20 nu. I was blessed by a monk who touched my forehead with 10-inch wooden phallus. Only in Bhutan.

Spinning the prayer wheel

Everyone loves football

From the interior courtyard, we watched young monks reciting prayers in a small room while another walked past me with a soccer ball under his arm. Here it was in Bhutan, the world’s most beloved sport with destiny and fortune at the whim of a black and white leather ball. Outside the temple the boy kicked the ball on the hillside. Does he yearn to be the next Messi? Or does he play to pass time, simply for the love of the game?

The Beautiful Game

Peeling oranges in the afternoon sun

Farther down the trail we passed a trio of women peeling a bag of oranges with their backs turned toward the sun. We walked past hanging laundry, stacks of firewood and doorsteps filled with the sandals of the occupants inside.

Sopsokha valley view

Making rice candy

Kinga led us into a small hut where a woman was toasting rice to make candy. She stoked the fire and stirred the skillet, and laughed when I stopped to photograph the heart-shaped lock on the door. Another two hours in Bhutan, another layer of life in this quiet, peaceful country.

Door lock at the candy factory

Dusk at the Punakha Dzong

Thirty minutes further by car and we arrived in Punakha — just after the sun had moved behind the mountain ridge to the west, casting shade over the valley. The Punakha Dzong stood proudly at the edge of the river against a backdrop of bluing mountains. Monks dressed in red robes gathered for dinner on the west side as we marveled at the site. We would return here in two days and tour the dzong on our way back from the Phobjikha valley. Until then… dinner, sleep and the promise of black-necked cranes in the morning.

Next: Day Four in Bhutan

Miscellaneous
Laying the paper

Day Two in Bhutan: This is Life

The Sitting Buddha

Our second day in Bhutan began with breakfast at the hotel and a drive up the mountainside near Thimphu. Fin was taking us to see Bhutan’s sitting Buddha — what will soon be the largest sitting Buddha in the world at nearly 170 feet tall. Bhutan is so small, and yet this Buddha is SO big — facing east, overlooking the valley and enormous in scale as you begin to approach it. The mountainside has been carved away and flattened out, with a massive expanse of concrete where the Buddha sits at the west side. The Buddha emanates good energy and happiness to everything in the vicinity.

The Sitting Buddha

Construction of the sitting Buddha is an exercise in international cooperation — funded by a Singaporean, constructed by Indians, with metal work completed by Chinese and land supplied by Bhutan. The project was started about six years ago and is nearing completion, although quite a bit later than expected. The Buddha was created in China and shipped in pieces to Bhutan, where it has been welded together on site.

The Sitting Buddha

The cone-shaped third eye at the forehead is five feet across and encrusted with diamonds. The hair is deep sapphire blue, the face with well-defined features and a gaze that looks past you toward the edge of the mountain. In the Bhutanese sun, the entire Buddha glows brightly against the sky.

The Sitting Buddha

Thimphu

From the site of the sitting Buddha there’s a terrific view of Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan. From here, we headed across town to the hillside on the north side of the city for a morning hike at Sangaygang.

Sangaygang

The hillside at Sangaygang has been joyfully overtaken with prayer flags strewn in every direction. From here, the trail climbs steeply and leads to several monasteries and meditation sites in the hills.

Sangaygang

The current king’s residence, Samtenling Palace, isn’t far from here — we were able to get a glimpse through the trees. According to Fin, the fourth and former king (Jigme Singye Wangchuck or K4, as he’s known) is 57 years old and enjoys mountain biking on this trail. No wonder — it’s great single track with wide open views of the valley. Bhutan definitely has the terrain to become a world-class mountain biking destination of the future.

Wangditse Goemba

At the top of the hill we reached Wangditse Goemba, founded around 1750. A large prayer wheel stands at the south side, with prayer flags staked along the edge of the site.

Wangditse Goemba

Sangaygang

All over Bhutan, groups of 108 tall white prayer flags mark significant locations and memorialize people who have passed away. In Mahayana Buddhism, 108 is an auspicious number referencing 108 volumes of the Kangyur — a collection of the words of the Buddha. White prayer flags symbolize air, while blue, red, green and yellow symbolize space, fire, water and earth. Traditionally, mantras were printed on prayer flags with wood blocks. Wind spreads the peace, goodwill and blessings of prayer flags to everyone and everything around them.

Sangaygang

The Takin

From Sangaygang, we drove down the hill and stopped to see Bhutan’s national animal — the takin. Thimphu has a takin preserve (free admission), with fenced acreage on which they can roam with barking deer. Takins are strange looking animals. Legend has it they were created when Bhutan’s Divine Madman put the head of a goat on the body of a cow and brought his new creation to life.

Bhutanese architecture

A new building at the takin preserve will open someday as a museum and visitors center. It was amazing to see such beautiful new architecture, with ornamental spirit and exquisite hand-painted detail. Traditional artistry is very clearly valued, preserved and passed on throughout Bhutan.

Handpainted exterior

Land of the Thunder Dragon

Weaving scarves at the Takin Preserve

Departing the takin preserve, we stopped to watch this young woman weaving on a loom. She displayed stacks and stacks of colorful raw silk and cotton scarves she had created while overseeing the entrance to the preserve. I picked up a little souvenir for myself.

Thimphu Royal Golf Club

Back on the road, we drove into downtown Thimphu for lunch, passing the Royal Thimphu Golf Club along the way. Quite a few golfers were out on the course enjoying the sunshine amidst a few deep water hazards.

We ate lunch on the top floor of a building downtown — fried dumplings, buckwheat noodles, potatoes, vegetables and the usual Bhutanese chili-cheese combo. Fin, owner of Bridge to Bhutan who had accompanied us for our first 24 hours in Bhutan, introduced us to our official guide and driver who would take us from there. We were sad to see Fin go, but Kinga and Kumar were fun, well-educated companions from whom we would learn even more about life in Bhutan.

Thimphu Post Office

After lunch, Kinga and Kumar escorted us to the bank and the post office — the latter being well worth a stop on anyone’s itinerary. Bhutan has a rich history of stamp production, with elaborate and beautiful stamps from the past several decades celebrating everything from Olympic sports to aviation to Bhutanese folk lore to butterflies of Bhutan. Best of all, you can have your photo taken and printed on Bhutanese stamps you can use on the post cards you send home! So cool! Check the mail, mom, but it might take a few weeks.

Jungshi Handmade Paper Factory

After the post office, we were off on an afternoon tour of Thimphu which started with the Jungshi Handmade Paper Factory. Housed in a one-story white building, the operation begins outside where fibers are soaked, boiled and cooled, then dumped in a heap on a table inside.

Jungshi Handmade Paper Factory

Jungshi Handmade Paper Factory

Jungshi Handmade Paper Factory

The grinder

The fibers are processed into pulp using an old grinder. The pulp is poured into a sink where it’s spread onto a screen, then the screen is lifted out and the paper is placed in a stack where it releases water and dries into sheets.

Spreading the pulp

Lifting the sheet

Aligning the edge

Laying the paper

Jungshi Handmade Paper Factory

When dry, the paper is hung up one piece at a time, brushed off and stamped with a logo. Jungshi has a small paper shop on site where you can buy the paper, posters and journals they produce.

Archery competition

Leaving the paper factory, we made an impromptu stop at an archery range where an afternoon competition was taking place. In retrospect, the 20 minutes we spent here is one of my favorite memories from the entire trip. Archery is Bhutan’s national sport, practiced with great enthusiasm all over the country.

About two dozen archers were at the north and south ends of the archery range which was 140 meters long. (What a VAST distance to cover with a traditional bow and arrow, not to mention the tiny target which is about the size of a dinner plate.) Archers at the south end of the range took turns shooting while archers at the north end stood behind concrete walls, out of danger, waiting to see if their arrows hit the target. When the archers at the south end had finished, the archers at the north end similarly took their shots.

When we arrived, an archer at the south end had just hit the target near us which brought about a synchronized “dance” with singing and shouting by all the archers at the north end of the field. Quite a production, no doubt steeped in years and years of tradition.

Archery competition

After the dance, the archers at the north end took turns shooting their arrows. Ready, aim, fire… then they each waited for shouts and hollers to see if they scored.

Archery Competition

Archery Competition

Archery competition

If I ever return to Bhutan, I hope to spend more time watching archery. It’s fun, spirited and pretty incredible to see these sharp shooters in action, even as an occasional dog wanders in front of the target. Just two Bhutanese athletes competed in the 2012 Olympic games — both female, and one of them in archery. It’s a sport loved by men and women alike.

Trashi Chhoe Dzong

The sun was setting and that was our cue to get to the Trashi Chhoe Dzong for the changing of the guard — newly implemented since last year’s wedding of King and Queen Wangchuck. We walked to the far end of the dzong where soldiers were assembling to march out and lower Bhutan’s flag.

Trashi Chhoe Dzong

Changing of the Guard

In a ceremony that lasted about 15 minutes (I’m hoping to get video up soon!), a monk led the procession from the dzong to the flag, then the flag was lowered, rolled, carried inside and stowed until the next morning.

I reflected on the day’s events over dinner at the hotel. We had canvassed Thimphu from morning to dusk, capturing many moments of daily life in Bhutan that didn’t seem all that different from my own life: hiking, golf, archery, paper making, the post office and bank, a dzong, the takins and one big, giant Buddha (okay, that part was very different). It was all foreign, yet not unfamiliar. Fascinating, yet similar. Strangers, yet people who are just like me and you. It was a day of adventure for sure, yet just an ordinary day in the life of Bhutan.

Next: Day Three in Bhutan

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