November 2005: I am not Buddhist but to me being in the Himalayas is a spiritual experience. it is hard to not feel God when you are surrounded by the highest and most majestic mountains on earth among peaceful Buddhist cultures and monasteries where monks devote themselves to a life of discipline and obedience to a higher power. It is hard to visit such a place and to not feel the presence of God. I first fell in love with the Himalayas during my first visit to the Indian Himalayas in Zanskar and Ladakh in 1998 where I met the exiled Lama of Bhutan, a kind and pragmatic man who had fled Bhutan due to political persecution and for a fear of his life. I became friends with the Rinpoche, another name for a lama, and stayed as a guest in his temple. He told me about Bhutan, which in 1998 was as exotic and distant sounding to me as the Moon and this planted the seed of curiosity that would eventually almost 10 years later bring me to Bhutan. I reached out to the Rimpa She in India to ask if he had any contacts in Bhutan, a country with strict entry protocols designed to prevent a massive influx of tourism that might negatively impact the culture and I received word that he was assassinated. The emailer told me not to mourn him however because a reborn Rinpoche has already been discovered in a small child in a village somewhere in northern India. This difference in mentality from my own was just another layer of icing in the cake that drew me back to the Himalayas. I found a Bhutanese trekking company that provided the mandatory letter of invitation, and I was off to Bhutan with a friend of mine for a 10-day trek.

 

 

About Bhutan

My route across Bhutan

Bhutan is an isolated mountainous Buddhist Kingdom and is the only Buddhist kingdom in the world and is ruled by the Wangchuk dynasty. It is surrounded by India to the south, Tibet to the north and Nepal to the west. Bhutan has historically sought to preserve its traditional culture and form of Buddhism and had done so by either preventing the entrance of foreigners, which it did until 1974 or by limiting the number of foreigners, which it currently does mandating that all foreigners pay a set daily fee to visit the country. The fee during my visit was 200/person/day, which is high enough to keep the volume of tourists under control and far less than in neighboring Nepal. In order to protect the traditional ways, the king even banned television and internet until 1999. All government workers are required to wear traditional Buddhist robes, and most people wear them voluntarily on a daily basis anyways. During my visit the king also banned smoking and MTV. Bhutan values conservation of its nature and an economic model that favors moderate development and places more emphasis on the “gross national happiness” over the gross national product by not seeking to industrialize or develop at a rapid pace like neighboring China and India. There are strict measures in place to protect the nations forests and during my visit I was told that every tree requires government approval before being felled. The country is dominated by the Himalayas to the north and the lowland forests of the Terai to the south where tigers and Asian Rhinos live in the national parks.

 

Getting There

To get to Bhutan my friend and I flew to the only international airport in the country in Paro via Calcutta, India. All flights into Bhutan are via the national carrier Druk Airlines and only depart from Bangkok, Thailand, Calcutta, India and Dhaka, Bangladesh. To get in we obtained a mandatory letter of invitation and organized a trek via a Bhutanese trekking agency, The flight to Paro was extremely sketchy and involves hair raising frightening low elevation turns through narrow mountain valleys and canyons.

 

My Itinerary

My goal in Bhutan wasto make the most ofthe 10 days I had there and trek to an isolated village far from any roads and experience traditional culture the village of Laya tomeet the Layap people near the border of Tibet deep in the Himalayas was exactly what I had in mind. This was my itinerary formy trip in Bhutan:

Day 1 : Depart Calcutta via Druk Air to Paro, Bhutan. Drive 5 hours to Punakha homestay.

Day 2  Drive two hours to Tashithang, trek to Goem Damji and camp in tent.

Day 3 Trek to Gasa Dzong (monastery). Camp beside the dzong. Visit hot springs.

Day 4 Visit inside the dzong this morning. Trek to Koina.

Day 5 Trek to Laya village, just before the Tibetan border.

Day 6 Full day to visit with the Layaps in Laya Village  (as the villagers here are called) near Masang Gang Mountain  

Day 7 Trek Laya to Koina (6-7 hour trek)

Day 8 Koina to Gasa (6-7 hour trek)

Day 9 Gasa to Tashithang to Pukakha to Thimphu (10-11 hour trek)

Day 10 Drive to Paro airport at 6:30 am to Calcutta via Druk Air

 

The Trek

Our guide, Karma me us at the airport dressed in his traditional robes and we proceeded with our drive across the country via narrow winding paved roads through the mountains that left me feeling car sick. We drove approx. 5 hours to the trailhead of our trek at Punakha, where we spent the night with a Bhutanese family in their home. The large Bhutanese home with a colorful wooden exterior and mud brick interior walls was typical of most houses in the countryside. The mother of the family we stayed with cooked us traditional meals of a rice veggie dahl dish that reminded me of Indian food. Next to a portrait of a Buddhist spiritual leader or Rinpoche, large chunks of yak meat were hanging from the living room wall drying. Even though Bhutan is Buddhist, the people still eat meat, however they do not butcher animals. This task is reserved for Hindu Nepali people.

 

Homestay

Me in our homestay with meat hanging in the background in the living room

Portrait of Rinpoche and drums for Buddhist ceremonies

Public Service Announcement Posters provided to  Local Villagers from Government Ministries. We saw several of these posted in homes like artwork. This pone was to discourage over-consumption of alcohol and another one I saw was to discourage defecating in public. 

Common waterfall on the trail

Lush Mountain Forests

The next morning, along with our guide, cook, a few ponies carrying our food and camping equipment and their handler, we climbed and descended countless forest ridges through the Himalaya foothills. We walked through streams and rivers of rushing frozen water. The lush forests around us are home to exotic species such as tiger, and leopards and on occasion we spotted blue and macaque monkeys or endemic colorful birds that were too far away to photograph. At the end of the day, we camped in a tent on a hilltop overlooking a forested valley.

 

Ponyman tending to one of the ponys at Our campsite

Our campsite

A dzhou-cross between a yak and cow that we commonly encountered on the trail grazing. 

Forest flowers

Crossing freezing rivers up to our waist in water

Village of Gasa

All villages were perched high up on a hilltop and to reach them we had to climb and descend dozens of times via muddy steep paths through the forest. When we first laid eyes on the village of Gasa and its impressive towering white Buddhist monastery, we appeared to be very close and we were in terms of the as the crow fly’s distance but when taking all of the turns, ups and downs of the topography into consideration, we were actually hours away so when we finally arrived to Gasa, we were exhausted. The small village of Gasa with its beautiful wooden houses could only be reached by yak trains and by foot. As we arrived, we were greeted by dozens of kids being schooled at the Buddhist monastery. Gasa had no electricity and the presence of foreigners in town was a rare and something I didn’t see at all throughout our entire trek. The children were especially happy to see us and would gather around giggling. I took photos of them and showed them their photos on my camera view finder screen, and they all giggled even more at the sight of each other’s photos.

 

me with the village students

Archery compeition-national sport

farmer taking a break

The highlight of Gasa is the Buddhist monastery built in the 1600s. Aside from being beautiful perched on a cliff overlooking the valley and adorned with murals of monsters and Buddhas, it is a fascinating place. There were young boys practicing their Buddhist meditations and any slip ups were greeted with a lashing from some kind of whip by the elder boys that were watching over the rites. In the monastery building the top floor only accessible by ladder is a place of special sanctity where only men are allowed to visit. The room is full of amazing murals and statues of Tibetan demons.

 

Gasa monastery

Gasa monastery

Child looking our through the wooden windows of a house

Prayer whell in the monastery

Mural of a demon in the monastery

Children practicing arts and crafts

Me shpwing the children their photos

me showing children their photos

Village kids practicing their english lesson from their school book with us, ” Whats the time, Momo?”

Typical Village House

We also visited a series of hot spring pools in the forest by Gasa. The hot springs felt great on my achy muscles and joints after the hike. But for others, Bhutanese people came from all over the country to submerge themselves into their waters, which are widely believed to have medicinal healing properties. Most of the women went into the water topless. I sat in one pool with a group of elderly women and men and when I existed my guide informed me that I was in the pool that was specifically for people looking for relief from their leprosy and STDs. 

 

High Forests and Alpine Passes

 

 

From Gasa, we climbed into the high mountains passed frozen pine forests and high-altitude mountain passes of 15,000-16,000′ that were covered in Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags. We slept one night in a log cabin where a man lived that was freezing cold despite the constant wood fire that we kept lit. We also had a warm companion in a thickly furred Himalayan blue eyed cat.  In the middle of the night when I was sleeping on the floor in my sleeping bag, I realized that the cat’s presence wasn’t just because it was pretty. I awoke in the dark to the familiar high-pitched squealing and scratching of rats all around the corners of the room and when I realized it was rats, I opened the door and let the car in, and the rat problem quickly resolved itself.

 

Alpine forests

We hiked through remote mountain trails and rarely saw another person. The forests were vast and deep, and it was easy to imagine snow leopards and even the Yeti living in this kind of place. Our poney man, a kind of guy who didn’t seem to be the kind to embellish a story, told me he has seen snow leaopards in these mountains and that there are many oft them. This wasn’t surprising to me but what was surprising was that he claimed to have seen the tracks of a Yeti in the snow. He claimed that one morning he woke up and in his camp he saw the large foot tracks of a Yeti-3-4 times larger than a humans and according to him the toes are located on the reverse side of a yeti’s feet to help confuse any would be trackers. I doscivered that not only do most Bhutanese believe in the Yeti, there is even a wildlife reserve designed to proect them in the eastern side of the country. 

 

Rat infested cabin where we stayed a night

Land of the Layap People

 

 

As we descended from the high mountain passes to the village of Laya, we started to spot random Layap people on the trail. The Layap people are an indigenous group that live in the area of Laya village at 12,000.’ Laya is a small village with only a few hundred people and is completely surrounded by the towering snowcapped Himalayas. Tibet is only a few hours walk away and traders Layaps commonly trade goods at the Tibet border. One of the most commonly smuggled goods is anything with the image of the Dalai Lama, exiled leader of Tibetan Buddhism in China and as a result all images are banned in communist China. They practice shamanism Buddhism, and until the 1980 had virtually no contact with the outside world. They have their own unique culture and dress. The women wear colorful yak fur jackets, and colorful beaded necklaces and wear a straw hat that is shaped after a Tibetan stupa. They farm cold weather crops using yak dung as fertilizer and decorate their houses with lots of phalluses-penis decorations-paintings and carvings.

 

Elderly layap woman hiking on the trail near the high mountain pass

High mountains

Small Buddhist temple facing the mountains in Laya

Proud Layap Girl

Layap lady spreading fertilizer and burning it to help it take rot into the ground for planting season

layap girl

Layap girl carrying her baby brother

In Laya we spent two nights inside a one of the village houses in a room that was also used as a Buddhist shrine. To get to our room, we had to climb a small wooden ladder to the second floor of the house we stayed in. It was a magical experience to go to sleep every night to the glow of the yak butter candles kept alight at night inside the room where our bedroom which also served as a Buddhist temple.

We explored the Buddhist temples and walked around the village observing the Layap way of life. The Layap people are friendly but shy. The most interesting experience we had in Laya was when we were walking through the village, and we heard drumming and the chanting a mantra. Expecting some kind of Buddhist rite, we went to investigate. We discovered there was a sick man on the verge of death, and he was sitting in the corner of a house. A group of Layap people were seated on the floor on the other side of the room and somewhere drumming a chanting Buddhist mantra while another man with a broom was sweeping the room around the sick man. The villagers were attempting to exercise the demons from the man they believed were responsible for causing his sickness and the scene unfolding before us was a ceremony to accomplish this act. This was a very serious scene, and I didn’t take any photos out of respect for the family and their mourning.

During my stay in the village, I developed a case of food sickness, and I had horrible pain in my stomach and travelers’ diarrhea. A man who claimed to be a local shaman came to me and presented a rock to me that he said was sacred and given to him by a Rinpoche. The rock he claimed had healing powers. He pulled the rock out of a pouch in his jacket and rubbed it on my stomach briefly. Strangely enough within 30 minutes I felt better and was able to start trekking again. Maybe it was the power of mind over body or maybe the rock did have magical healing powers, I will never know.

 

Small room that also acted as a Buddhist temple where we slept at night

Towering mountains

Village Buddhist temple

Village temple

Layap Girl

Penis Sculptures and Paintings Everywhere

 

 

One of the most fascinating parts of Bhutan that I observed is its obsession with phallus symbols or the penis. I spotted giant painted penis’s on doors, hanging from the corners of roofs, and there is even a temple dedicated to the penis with giant phalluses inside made of stone and wood. All of these phallus’s are credited to Lama Drukpa Kunley also called the ‘The Divine Madman’, a Tibetan monk who came to Bhutan in the 15th century to share his Buddhist teachings. The Divine Madman as explained to me, and I’m sure there are many versions of these stories, was a lived during an era when demons prowled the wilderness between villages and people were afraid to move outside of the protection of the safety of their villages.  The Divine Madman was a crazed monk, who had no fear of demons. He had a reputation for being well endowed and being sex crazed and would sleep with animals and any woman he could including elderly ones. He was also fearless and slayed the wandering demons in between villages with his erect penis. Now as a tribute, a good luck fertility sign and as a way to scare of demons, images of the Divine Mad man’s penis are painted or carved throughout the country. Laya seemed to have quite a few and also some of the other villages we passed on the trek. 

Chimi Lhakhang, dubbed the temple of cocks, a Buddhist temple dedicated to the Divine Madman located on the drive to Thimphu, was a fascinating place. We had to walk from the road through a few rice patties to get there. true to the temples name, there were many roosters wandering around the temple but no hens. Inside the temple, a few monks introduced us to a giant statue of a stone penis and another one that was covered and only unveiled once per year for a fertility festival. One of the monks explained to us that people travel from all over to be blessed by the temple and those who are unable to have children after visiting the temple are guaranteed to have one after following the rituals at the temple of carrying a small stone penis in hand clockwise around the temple 3 or 4 times and then prostrating themselves before the monk in front of the statue of the Divine Mad Man as the monk taps the stone penis on your forehead while reciting a Buddhist blessing. I followed the ritual right up until having to kneel before the monk while being tapped on the forehead with the stone penis. I decided to stop short of that activity.

 

Dancing paintied penis’s with askots 

Carved penis hanging from each corner of the roof to protect a house

In Laya we spent two nights inside a one of the village houses in a room that was also used as a Buddhist shrine. It was a magical experience to go to sleep everynight to the glow of the yak butter candles kept aloight at night inside the room where our bedroom which also served as a Buddhist temple.

 

me posing in front of a house with a painted angry ejaculating penis on the front door of a house-again believed to scare demons away from the house

My pony man presenting to me a parting gift or a wooden penis he carved from a branch in the forest

On the last day of my trek, when I was saying goodbye to my trekking team, when the pony man very innocently presented to me a parting gift of a wooden penis, he carved from the forest for me. He apologized to me for doing such a bad job and for not having the time to paint it red. My guide explained to me that every man in Bhutan is familiar with how to carve a wooden penis and that it is common knowledge and that the pony man gave me one as a gift because I thought it would make me happy since I was always taking photos of penis images throughout the trek in Bhutan.

After the trek, we spent one last night in Thimphu and flew via Druk Airlines the next morning to Calcutta, India.

 

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