Crisp mountain breeze. The moment the air in Bhutan touches your skin, it’s as if you’ve been reborn. As if you stumbled upon a bottled elixir, untouched by impurities and accessible only when one has traveled far, far away from the Western world.
In recent months I’ve been obsessed with comic book inspired programming (The Arrow, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D) with mystical storylines that involve parallel existences both supernatural and alien, worlds alight and pristine. I can’t help but compare the reality of Bhutan to the fantasy of Lian Yu; it’s like nothing I’ve ever known, yet everything I could have imagined. And that impression was just from walking across the tarmac at Paro International Airport.
The six of us piled into the caravan and began our journey to Thimpu, the capital of Bhutan. On the way we stopped at Tachogang Lhakhang Bridge one of 108 iron suspension bridges built during the 14th century by Lama Chakzampa. The Pachu River gushes beneath the prayer flag cloaked bridge, in torrents of white and crystalline blue. The bridge shaking with delight with every footstep provides passage to a multistory chapel on the other side of the river, the inside decorated with deity murals. At every level, cone-shaped totems dipped in white paint honor the dead and the living.
This morning we explored Thimpu, starting with the Great Buddha Dordenma, a gigantic golden Buddha commissioned by the King of Bhutan, funded by foreign donations, and made in China. The interior is made of bronze, accented in gold, the ceilings painted with deity murals and over 125,000 Buddha decorate the inside.
Dangsa, our guide shares the history of the Buddhist prayer and then leads us through a live demonstration. He explains how the ritual is meant to tamper the negativity of the five emotions: Anger, Pride, Desire, Ignorance, Delusion through a 2-part asana. Performed 3x upon entry to the temple, we follow his lead to purify our spirit in mind, speech and body. We position our hands in lotus prayer, cupping our third eye, then mouth and heart, followed by a kneel bringing our forehead to the ground. The flow is familiar, a cross between an abbreviated sun salutation and the Muslim Salat.
The temples of Bhutan welcome all people but there is one group more popular than others. Seniors. We learn that the reverence for Buddhism is multigenerational, and that it is a common practice for families to drop their children off to school, and their parents off to the The National Memorial Stupa or Golden Buddha while they are at work. The temples act as a Senior Center providing a place to congregate and a purpose for its elder members to contribute prayers for all sentient beings.
The statue also plays an important role in the daily routine of Bhutanese living in Thimpu. At the close of their business day many make the trail to the temple a part of their exercise and meditation practice.
The city is filled with religious buildings and next on our tour is Changangkha Lhakhang, a temple frequented by parents seeking protection for their children. The building is framed by rows of prayer wheels, and an inconspicuous courtyard with a stupa made of archery bows.
Bhutan’s national animal the takin, is an endangered goat-antelope that roams the mountainside forests 2500m above sea level. We visit the Royal Takin Preserves to see the creatures firsthand, and marvel at the sanctuary nestled in a valley of blue pines.