Bye, bye Bhutan

prayer flags

Gho and Kira

white woman in a kiraIn schools, government offices and formal occasions, Bhutanese have to wear the traditonal dress. The men clothe in the Gho, a knee-length rope, which is tied at the waist by a narrow cumber band, accompanied by long woollen socks. It is folded in such a way that they have “the worlds biggest pocket” in front of their belly, where they store mobile phones, purses, boxes with betel nut or even books and laptops.

Women wear a kira, made from colourful cotton or silk, and wrapped around the body, together with a blouse called wonju. All young Bhutanese I asked told me they are proud to wear the national attire – but if they are with friends or have to work, the prefer trousers and t-shirts as these are much more comfortable and practical.

Nado Poizokhang

In Nado Poizokhang, they still make incense sticks by hand. The natural ingredients like flowers, barks, wood, leaves, fruits, roots, herbs and medicinal plants are grinded, pulverized, kneaded, stirred, pressed, formed, rolled, dried, packed and sold. But from the beginning.

finishing touch

The formulas used in the incense stick factory are 700 years old and the most elaborate one comprises of 108 products – an auspicious figure for Buddhists. Some of the ingredients grow at more than 4000m in the Himalayas, so they are collected by yak herders who are moving up in the summer to the pastures.

When I visited, I could clearly smell sandalwood and cinnamon. Tshering Wangdir, the man at the ageing grinding machine in the ground floor, told me he also adds cardamom, saffron, juniper and many other things he only knew the Dzhongkha name of.

grinding machineUntil well into the 80s, the grinding and pulverizing was done by hand, with a long wooden stick in a stone’s hole, he told me. Nowadays his job was to guard the machines – especially the one, where all the powder is combined with water and thoroughfully kneaded. “It has to be very soft, like plasticine”, Tshering Wangdir said. His left hand was constantly purple as he took out some pulp every now to try it’s texture.

rollingIn the floor above, the pulp was stuffed in a press and then, with the help of a long lever and the power of two men, forced through three tiny holes so that nests of noodles were formed. These were a couple of meters further unravelled by another man who then rolled 50 centimer long pieces of them with the help of a wooden plank into skinny wursts. Finally he cut them in half, cut the sides – ready for drying.

The second floor, directly under the roof, was by far the warmest, when I visited. Ther the sticks had to dry for at least two days on the wooden boards. Then Kinzeng Choden, Bee Manja and Kunibu Dema packed them in groups of 30  – and they never counted them when doing so. “We just know with our fingers how many 30 are”, Kinzeng Choden said.

The leftovers and the ones that break are assembled in baskets of bast fibre, they can be grinded and used again in the next round.

Once provided with an label, the sticks find their way into village shanties as well as grand state temples and the pockets of tourists. Offerings of incense and somes are a very commen and daily essential practice in Bhutan.

packing of incense sticks

The Big Buddha

Big BuddhaBhutanese proudly say the Buddha Dordenma Statue above Thimphu is the biggest such bronze statue in the world. I don’t know if that’s true, but with more than 50 meters (including the throne) it for sure is an impressive sight.

A Singaporean businessman is said to be the main sponsor. But then it is also there to commemorate the hundred years of Bhutan’s monarchy. My guide even told me it is a compensation for the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan that have been dynamited and destroyed by the Taliban.

The statue will house more than 100 000 smaller Buddha statues, each of which will be made of bronze and gilded in gold.

National Pastime


As if the Takin as national animal wasn’t weird enough, the Bhutanese picked a funny form of archery as their national pastime. Formally played with bows made out of bamboo and real feathers on the arrows, they nowadays use the latest high-tech carbon-fibre equipment.

Anyways, the good-humoured camaraderie remained. Every time someone had hit the small wooden board, which from 150 meters afar can hardly be spotted, everybody would start to howl and dance victory dances.

And if the team member didn’t succeed, they would communicate with him with the help of articulate hand gestures and by waggling the colourful strips of cloth next to the target.

dancing archers

Bhutan goes to the polls

polling station

Some of the voters I met in the village Wangsisina, 20 kilometers south of capital Thimphu, had to walk for two hours to reach the primary school in which they were voting. Others in the mountainous and sparsly populated country couldn’t be reached at all by the election officials. Chief Election Commissioner of Bhutan Kunzang Wangdi said, his colleagues sometimes would have had to walk for seven days to reach a hamlet. And then the officials would outnumber the potential voters. So his commission decided to instead pay these people money so they can afford the long journey a polling station.

For a lot of Bhutanese people in the cities the vote also meant long travels, because they had to go to the place where they are registered – and in most cases this is their home town, or the village their parents or grandparents come from. So the voting day often is also a family reunion day, Kunzang Wangdi said. The 18 year old Yeshi Choden is happy she could see all her aunts and uncles and grandparents and nephews and nieces again.

It’s only the second time after 2008 the Bhutanese people were allowed to vote after the king introduced a constitutional monarchy with a parlamentary system. Yeshi Choden doesn’t seem to be overly excited about her right to vote. What do you prefer, monarchy or democracy?, I asked her. “Both makes us happy”, she replied.

The Land of the Thunder Dragon

Whatever tales and legends you might have heard about Bhutan, chances are high that they are true. My favourite facts:

traffic policeThe capital doesn’t have a single traffic light. Thimphu is the cutest capital I’ve ever seen, nestled in a lush valley, crossed by an untouched river.  None of the houses is higher than six floors, and they all are built in the traditional style, with sloped roofs, monochromatic walls and ornate wood-carvings around the doors, windows and roof-lines. Around 100 000 people are living there – peacefully guided by traffic policemen.

Buying cigarettes is illegal, but everybody knows his or her little shop, where they are sold under the counter. The sole complain smokers have: Since cigarettes are only available in the black market, prices have doubled. Nonetheless I’m amazed the tobacco makes it into the Himalayan country at all, considering that only three streets connect Bhutan to the outer world (in this case: India, there is no street into neighbouring China).

Red Panda Weiss BeerDrinking is possible, but not on Tuesdays, which is a declared dry day. Bhutan even has it’s own brewery for Weißbier, run but by a german-spreaking guy from Switzerland. Back in 1967, Fritz Maurer applied for a job as a cheese-maker for the king of Bhutan himself. It turned out he liked the country, which is as mountainous as his homeland. So he stayed, but missed tasty beer. Nowadays his brewery churns out 1000 bottles of  „Red Panda Weiß Beer“ a day – in re-used bottles of the Indian Kingfisher beer, because there’s no glazier’s workshop in Bhutan.

chilisChilis are not a seasoning but the main ingredient of dishes, used like a vegetable. One theory I heard: Because it is cold in the mountains and fuel is limited, chilis are used to warm people from the inside. Often served with red rice. (Which is also used to clean the hands instead of washing them before the meal. Just grab a handful, knead for a while and, voila, the palm and fingers are clean!)

Democracy, introduced only in 2008, wasn’t the result of a rebellion or protests or even a single demonstration. As unbelievable as it seems, the democratic system was a gift by the 4th king. So now, after going to the polls the second time, people are still trying to figure out how to voice their opinion and how to debate constructively. And of course they all love their king!

penisPenises are painted beside the entrances to many houses, in order to ward off evil spirits. Some are also cut out of wood and dangle from the ceiling, others guard the front door. Apparently every painter is depicting his own best piece – it’s the only one he has seen, I got told.

The government is conducting a regular survey on people’s happiness. Turns out, 41% of Bhutanese are considered ‘happy’. To measure the gross national happiness, nine components of wellbeing are taken into account: psychological wellbeing, health, education, time use, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standards. The outcome: Men on average are happier than women; especially well off are unmarried and young people. The happiest people by occupation include civil servants and monks. Interestingly, the unemployed are happier than corporate employees, housewives, farmers or the national work force.

TakinThe Takin is the most incredible national animal. It has a plumb, bovine like body, covered with dense, long yellow to brown hair. The short, stocky legs end in two-toed hooves, and the head is defined by a large arched “Roman” nose. It is so unique, taxonomists couldn’t relate it to any other animal and gave it a category by itself.

The mystic story however goes like this: Lama Drukpa Kuenlay, the “Divine Madman” (the guy who is also responsible for the penises on the houses), one day ordered that he be given a whole cow and goat to eat, before performing a miracle. Having devoured both, he stuck the goat’s head on the bones of the cow. On his command, the animal came to life, arose, rant to the meadow and began to graze.

A thing to do before you die

Never did I manage to come up with a list of 101 things I want to do before I die (or let alone 10 things). The problem wasn’t so much as to think of 101 gorgeous things – but none of the silly, crazy, or fantastic ideas ever made it onto the paper. Either I was too scared to actually have to pursue that goal, or I thought I would do it anyway. I always try to live life to the fullest, no matter what a list is proposing.

But: If you have such a list, you definitely should add the flight from Delhi/Kathmandu to Paro in Bhutan to it. And then sit on the left handside when facing the cockpit. Watche eight-thousenders pass by. And enjoy.


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