A bumpy road north brings us to Shalupangkha, the monastic school where Pasa’s Uncle Choden has been the head monk for the last five years. Upon arrival, the monks share tea for special guests which include: saffron rice with raisins, butter tea, rice puff cakes, and flower-shaped cookies.
There to make a Tshog offering of monk robes on behalf of a yogi who wasn’t able to make the trip, we were honored with a thank you ceremony and blessing. Sixteen monks of all ages chanted from a prayer book filled with scripture. Afterward, the monks serve us lunch, and we take a group photo.
On the return from the monastery, we make a pit stop in Gasay Shalipangkha, Pasa’s family’s ancestral town. We visit Pasa’s grandmother at her farmstead, exploring another slice of Bhutanese life — in this case, the rustic side. A working farmhouse the pastures abut green rice paddies and are filled with cows, horses, dogs, and cats.
We arrive at Paro, our final stop the Janka Resort — a trekker’s inn located amid golden fields and rice paddies at the base of a lush forest of blue pines.
Our evening yoga session is held in a windowed triangular building between the two vistas.
One of our guides said that “No other country can be like Bhutan,” and the more I learn about this small monarchy (on the verge of democracy) the more I find myself in agreement.
We started our day super early—so early we literally had to jump the fence to gain entry to Buddha Dordenma. The locals refer to the site as Buddha Point and many of them were exercising on our route. Maile guided us on a walking and sitting meditation just as the sun rose over the magnanimous statue glinting in the light.
I was especially fond of the peacock carving and Yuki, a fellow yogi pointed out seemed, to be channeling Lady Gaga in this photo:
We visit Simtokha Dzong next, the first dzong built in Bhutan. Men entering the dzong must add a sash to their traditional go — there are four colors used: Yellow for the King and Chief Abbot; Orange for Ministers and members of Parliament; Blue for District Heads and white for commoners, as Pasa and Dangspa model for us here:
On our way to Punakha, we stop for lunch at the Dochu La Pass hoping for a clear view of the snow-capped peaks of the Bhutan Himalaya. The hills are covered with a light mist while Dangspa spins the tale of the Divine Madman’s journey through the pass, confronting three ogresses and saving a young boy and his yak. The pass is home to 108 chortens (also known as stupas).
Even on our return to the pass later in the week, we find the hills covered in mist. We stop for a washroom break, and one of our fellow travelers Maureen channels her inner dog whisperer, attracting strays with handfuls of granola.
Stories about the Divine Madman, one of Bhutan’s famous saints, paint an outrageous and salacious character, renowned for his crazy sexual antics as a way to provoke the Bhutanese to discard their preconceptions. We hike to Chimi Lhakhang dzong, built in his honor after subduing the ogress on Dochu La with his “magic thunderbolt of wisdom.” This is represented by the extensive phallic artwork on buildings at the complex as well as in the surrounding village.
Monks are performing a blessing ceremony when we enter the temple, after making a modest offering the monk blesses us with the lama’s wooden and bone phalluses and archery set to protect us on our journey.
The longest suspension bridge in Bhutan crosses the confluence of the Mo and Pa Chhu rivers to the trail that leads to the Khamsum Yuelley Namgyal Chorten.
We hike to the temple (2300m) and then view its interior murals, stopping to hear the powerful legend of the magical dagger— where Buddha and his lover join in a sexual union merging powers to suppress demons and negative energies.
Golden temple in the trees
We climb to the top of the temple to admire the expansive views of the Punakha valley.
It begins to rain as we make our way back to the bus. The skies clear as Pasa and his team drive up to a riverside encampment where a picnic lunch, prepared by Kinga, a local restaurant awaits. Another fabulous surprise from Bhutan Tours & Travels.
The Punakha Dzong, a formidable fortress is considered the mother of all Dzongs. Accessible via a covered bridge, two large brass prayer wheels flank the entrance where a man sits nearby praying on his mala.
Inside the complex, detailed murals depict Buddha’s birth and ascension as a spiritual leader. Monks crisscross the courtyard, home to meticulously detailed painted buildings and a large bodhi tree at its center. The paths lead to golden doorways, vast windows with landscape views, and stairways unknown.
The farmer’s market is alight with colorful produce hidden under gray awnings that Claudia and I must be mindful. At 5’ 9”, we have almost 4” on most Bhutanese we have met or seen. We spy a gray kitten darting between the wood cabinets, as dogs lay about in the streets and the random cow crosses the street without looking.
The stalls overflow with peppercorns and coriander, assorted shades of red hot chilis, strings of dried Yak cheese, string beans, organic bananas, bitter melon. A neighboring stall offers spices and tea, packets of saffron ($.75 each!), incense sticks and powder prepared by neighboring monasteries, and Himalayan salt. And did I mention peppers?