From a Nunnery to Cloud 9

Our day began with early morning photos of the Punakha valley…waking at 5:00AM, looking out to a fog-filled valley was quite wonderful.

The Bright Green Rice Fields, Punakha Valley
The Bright Green Rice Fields, Punakha Valley

We headed back toward Thimphu and made a side trip to a nunnery, Sangchen Dorji Lhundrup Choling College.  When we arrived the nuns were learning grammar by singing the various rules of grammar out loud.  Each nun was situated in her own spot around the campus, and each was singing a section of the grammar book.  Maybe that is a great way to actually learn grammar!  Who knew?

The thing that makes this nunnery interesting is the shrine room with a huge sculpture of Avalokitshevara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion.  The sculpture shows the bodhisattva with 11 heads, 1000 arms and 1000 eyes.  As the story goes, the eyes and arms are for searching for people who have fallen into hell because of their various deeds and pulling them out of hell back into the world.  The eleven heads are said to come from the fact that because so many people fall into hell, the bodhisattva needed more to be able to find all of the beings thrown into the lower realms because of their deeds and karma.

Overlooking the Valley.
Overlooking the Valley.








In addition, the grounds of the campus include a reconstruction and replica of the great stupa in Nepal, Boudhanath.IMG_1073

The nunnery sits atop a hill overlooking the Punakha Chu river and can be seen for miles around the valley….in fact, you can see the stupa on the road from Thimphu to Punakha (if the clouds cooperate).

We had the chance to talk to a nun working on her art class.  She was replicating the various graphic styles used to decorate the walls of the shrine room as well as practice freehand drawing the lotus flowers.  She spends about two hours each day just learning about drawing and painting.  Very cool.

Our ride back to Thimphu was as bouncy as before (maybe a little less muddy!) and we made it back to Thimphu.  Halle and Natascha wandered around the town in the afternoon.

In the evening, we went to Cloud 9 Gourmet Burger and Milk Bar, a really wonderful bakery, restaurant, and coffee bar.  The food is exceptional and the veggie burger I had (hand made in the restaurant) was excellent.  Natascha and Halle had BURGERS of all things (!) and said they were great.  I do think, however, the French Fries were the highlight of this visit with red chili dipping sauce.

We are headed to the Haa Valley and the Haa Valley festival today.  We are checking out a local farm house converted to accommodate small groups.  This spot could be a great spot to stay on a future trip.

The Stupa at Sangchen Nunnery
The Stupa at Sangchen Nunnery

To Punakha

The trip from Thimphu to Punakha is relatively short, as Bhutan travel goes.  The trip up over the pass and down into the Punakha Valley winds around the sides of the mountains and you rise from one valley floor to another.

The road between these two places is under construction and sections of the new pavement are a joy to behold and ride on.  Other sections, still being shaped by Indian workers, are fascinating.  The rain storm the night before made sections of this road impassible to all but the most intrepid of travelers.  The ruts carved into the surface of this semi-liquid mass were ever changing as car, truck, motorcycle and mountain bike toiled up, down, and around these trails.

The normally brief two hour journey took us a bit longer.  So, in light of the muddy roads and the traffic we did what sounded right: we stopped.  We stopped for tea, we stopped for photos, we stopped just to look around.  We made a great day out of the experience and saw pieces of Bhutan that one might normally pass by on the way to somewhere.

Our photo stops were particularly remarkable.  The clouds hung over the mountains and occasionally revealed hidden houses and villages.  We snapped shots as the clouds parted and found some of the most ethereal places I have ever seen.

IMG_0994The rain has made the rice fields bright green, almost fluorescent, as the color just seems to leap up from the plants.  Hopefully, you will see in some of our pictures the beauty of those fields.

By the time we reached the small town of Lobesa, we were ready for a rest from the turmoil of the well-traveled road.  The small village of Lobesa is really just a brief stop on the way to either Punakha Dzong or Wangdue Phodrang and parts east.  Everything in the village is a few feet from the side of the road.  The Hotel Lobesa sits on a steep hill overlooking the Punakha Valley, the Punakha Chu River and is owned by the Panang family.  These folks cater to you in a way that is unexpected.  They are kind, generous, open hearted people who make you feel welcome and cared for.  We were given the best rooms in this hotel (of about 10 rooms) overlooking the Punakha valley with unobstructed views of the temple of the Divine Madman.

IMG_1027While I am no food critic, I will say that the food at this Hotel is exceptional.  The vegetable options are extensive and we had squash, cabbage, potatoes, green beans, okra, and ferns. Before Bhutan I never even thought of eating a fern.  Here, the taste of these plants is delicate and wonderful.  They have a nutty flavor.  Combined with onions and sautéed, ferns are so tasty.  (Not all ferns are eatable I’m told, so best NOT to head to your local forest and grab a bunch)

As we eat our meal and I surprised that we were served okra.  Growing up in Georgia, okra is a summer staple and as a child I ate my fair share of this vegetable.  The thing is, every time I have eaten okra, I feel a kind of slimy texture.  That’s what signaled me that this vegetable was, indeed, okra.  So, I asked, the staff, “what do you call this vegetable?” thinking that I had just uncovered some incredible secret that connected my childhood home to Bhutan.  The young girl said, “Okra.”  OK. Let’s chalk that one up to my idiocy and move on, shall we?

Our afternoon was spent at the Punakha Dzong.  In the past, I have visited this place and have spent a short time walking the grounds and seeing the shrine room.  On this day, we had the leisure to explore.

Our guide, Namgay, is a wonderful story-teller and he relayed this story to us about the dzong and the strength of the Bhutanese people.  According to scholars, the dzong was built in the 1600s.  The fortress was a means of protecting western Bhutan from Tibetan armies descending from the north.  This valley leads to Tibet, and the rich farmland of Bhutan was attractive to Tibetan leaders.  Once the dzong was completed, in the late 1600s, a Tibetan army of about 2000 marched down the valley to raid the farms and villages of Bhutan and steal recently harvested crops.

As the legend says, the Bhutanese army of only about 200 soldiers was no match for this well-armed division.  As a means of fooling the Tibetans into thinking there were many more Bhutanese defenders, the Bhutanese general had his troops march, repeatedly around the dzong.  The Tibetans, watching from across the river, counted the numbers of troops and decided that a direct assault would be a disaster.  As the story goes, they returned to Tibet fearing that a full-scale conflict here would be a disaster.

The massive scale of the structure extends from the exterior walls to the stair cases, doors, interior buildings and shrine room.  The climb into the dzong heads up a staircase not for the faint of heart.  The incline is steep and you hold onto a handrail as you ascend the staircase to the guard station.  Passing two giant prayer wheels, you pass through a doorway about 18 feet tall and wide.  The door itself, constructed of wood, is about 16 inches thick and clad in metal studs.

Once through the doorway, you enter a courtyard.  In the center is a live replica of the Bodhi tree, which, according to Buddhist legend, was where, in India, the Buddha achieved enlightenment.

Check out the photos as we upload them of the Dzong….more details to come.



Photos from Punakha

Early Morning, Punakha Valley
Early Morning, Punakha Valley
Interior Scene, Punakha Dzong (are we supposed to be up here, Namgay?)
Interior Scene, Punakha Dzong (are we supposed to be up here?)
Contemplating the Photo
Contemplating the Photo


Interior Stairs, Punakha Dzong
Interior Stairs, Punakha Dzong
Chorten along the Punakha Chu River
Chorten along the Punakha Chu River
A Random Child Found in Punakha
A Random Child Found in Punakha


The Conference

Halle, Natascha and I arrived at the conference on Day 3.  We unfortunately missed the talks on education and teaching, but we were excited to hear the days speakers on the more technical aspects of Himalayan culture and its influence on history, math and science.  The talks ranged from a detailed analysis of the spread of Vajrayana culture across Asia and the rest of the world, the development of geometry in the ancient world for the creation of sacred structures, the spread of dance based on geometry (!), and the newest psychological studies on meditation and the brain.  Overall a packed schedule.

A word about the format of the talks; each talk was no more than 10 minutes long (with one exception).  While that allowed for a lot of speakers, the amount of information was limited.

The session began with a talk from Lopon Sangay Dorji, the head of development for Bhutan.  He is a realized being (enlightened) and spoke on the historical significance of Vajrayana and the culture developed from that practice.  Unlike the other talks, his lasted about 45 minutes and included details about how Vajrayana and Himalayan culture have spread across the globe.  He mentioned the people responsible for the spread of this culture beginning with Padmasambhava (about 800 C.E.) and extending through the more recent historical figures like Sanjay Pari (about 1600), Zabdrung Rinpoche (1680), and later scholars.  Ultimately, he commented that the idea of dependent origination (cause and effect philosophy and science) has it’s roots in this particular cultural trend.

The 2nd session of the morning focused on historical and modern art, and the influence of Vajrayana on art forms.  The talks started with conversations about early iconographic art that spread from India into the rest of the region.  Iconographic art then transformed into something like the people’s art in which folks created art forms that reflected their lives and experiences.  These general art forms included textiles, functional art (cups, plates), weaving basketry, and dance.

One of the more fascinating aspects of the talks on art concerned how the early development of geometry influenced everything from construction, sculpture, and dance.  The form was something called a mandala that originated in India in the very distant past (evidence from around 4,000 BCE) and developed into more elaborate and precise forms.  The art of painting adopted geometric precision in the creation of art and extended to textiles and dance.

The geometric system developed an elaborate math system that came to be used in everything from painting to architecture and dance.

Just before lunch, the last presentation was given by a psychiatrist in England who is examining the brain function of advanced meditators.  Her work examines the Vajrayana belief that the human brain includes 8 different forms of consciousness.  Her study is fascinating and concludes that Buddhist concepts of consciousness do, in fact, offer insight into what we know about consciousness.  Controversially, she offered that the idea that the 8th consciousness mentioned in Vajrayana, a consciousness that continues after death, has some evidence in the science of the brain….her team are doing research on this idea now.  Whoa.

If you have read this far, then good on ya….I can fill in all of the details of the talks and you are all welcome to my notes.  The conference folks will provide more detailed information to the participants in the coming weeks.


And Just A Little Bit More….Waiting and A Little Bit More Running

[A Brief Word about Photos: so it’s tough to upload photos to the blog with slow internet connections.  I will load as soon as I can.]

Officially started to laugh out loud.  Yes, I received a number of strange looks.  We had to abandon the airplane as the flight computer “fix” did not work and so we were ushered back into the terminal and given vouchers for a stay at the Louis Tavern VIP Lounge.  We were told that someone would alert us when the plane was ready to board again….I know you know that I know where THIS story is going.

So Halle, Natascha and I were escorted to the lounge and relaxed for a couple of hours.  The escort said, quite clearly, that we would be alerted personally once the flight was boarding.

At some point into our stay, I thought and Natascha said, maybe we should check on the flight status?  I walked to the counter and the staff could not determine what the status of our flight was.  Hmmm.  When all else fails, find someone else to ask….so I did. Headed downstairs to the customer service counter and asked “Have you heard anything about the Bhutan Airlines flight”?  “Why yes sir, the flight is boarding on concourse E, gate 1 A”.  This young lady offered the comment as a kind of aside….like oh, yes that’s happening now, why do you ask?

PANIC!  I take two steps at a time to the second floor, yell at Natascha and Halle, WE HAVE TO GO NOW!  Natascha bolts upright out of her comfy chair and we race through this tranquil place, out into the concourse (which is, of course, NOT concourse E!!).

We start to run through concourse G, past all of the shops and eateries, racing by people looking at us bemused at this spectacle….I glanced to the side as we passed concourse F, and I saw the glint in the eye of a security guard I know we saw hours earlier on our previous junket through the mall….I swear he was laughing!

All the while I’m thinking “we are going to miss our flight, we are going to miss our flight!”  On we ran down two escalators, through the hall toward the gate.  The gate number, E1A, was not readily apparent but we did see the giant TV screen with our flight listed as being at gate C2A!  WHAT!  The staff person at Louis Tavern said E1A!  Natascha moaned, Halle said, “this is not happening.”

I found someone who looked like they worked in the airport and gasped, “Bhutan Airlines?”  No words came from her lips, she looked at us (you know the look) and pointed…that way.  Further down the hall a group of people were gathered.  Was this our group?  I scanned the faces for someone familiar….YES!  A Japanese tour guide with her flag in the air, waving at her flock!

We made it!  Again!  That’s when I, literally, laughed out loud.  It was a little maniacal.  And yes people looked at me….I didn’t care.  At this point in the journey, nothing could phase me.

We climbed in a van this time for the ride to the plane, still where we left it.  We dragged ourselves up the stairs to the seats, collapsed in a heap….me still laughing, Halle worried at her crazy father.

Sitting next to me was Sanjay, a businessman living in Bangkok and headed to his company’s factory in Kolkata.  Sanjay knows everyone.  He knew everyone on the plane, walked up to the captain and asked for status updates.  He always asked for information and received more details than any of us ever did.  We sat together and I asked about his work and his life.  He is, without question, a remarkable man.  Born and raised in Kolkata, he is a regional director (most of Asia) for a large corporation that sells premium tea.    I am grateful to have met such a well-traveled, knowledgeable person in the world.

The flight to Bhutan makes a stop in Kolkata.  The plane travels north from Bangkok, over Yangoon, past the Andaman Sea and over northeastern India to Kolkata.  While the city is massive, the airport is less so….almost tiny by most standards….an abandoned plane sits by the runway, overgrown with vines and covered with a thick carpet of green.  The airport is surrounded by a wall with wire above a block structure.   The terminal is new and includes about 6 gates for planes.  After our 30 minute stop, we travel on to Paro.

The weather in July is rainy.  Monsoons move across the Himalayan region slowly and by July are situated across India and through Bhutan.  This weather pattern makes landing in Paro even more exciting than it already is.  You see, the airport in Paro sits in a small valley and just about the only flat piece of ground in the valley is made up of the runway.  On this particular flight, the landing was dramatic.  The clouds obscured the view of the runway and we had to circle low over the mountains to see if all was clear.  When I say “over the mountains” it looks like we are about 100 feet above the trees….I’m not sure I will ever get used to flying on a plane that close to the tree tops.

Anyway, the flight banked sharply left, then right, then left and hard down to the runway.  It felt like we were in a dive toward the ground.  When we landed we hit the ground, tossing us into the air, briefly.  Then the pilot hit the brakes HARD and we quickly came to  stop.

Landing in Bhutan is unlike any place I’ve ever been.  Surrounded by mountains and a river on one side of the airport, the scene is idyllic.   The new terminal structure is  beautiful and typifies Bhutanese architecture.

The Customs process has been streamlined dramatically.  In the past, you had to present your VISA have that checked by an official and then have your entry card checked against your passport.  Now, the officials check your passport, scan it, and you are done.

Namgay was waiting outside for us.  It’s hard to describe the feeling I have when I return to Bhutan and meet Namgay.  It’s a strange mix of wonder and excitement.  If you are reading this blog and have not visited Bhutan, I’m not sure any language can articulate the feeling.  I’ll say this: there is something about the place that is unique.  One scholar I read said, basically that Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche) consecrated this land so that one’s experience of the place and the people would bring great joy and compassion into your being.  I think Padmasambhava said something like this:  “seven days in Bhutan is like spending seven years in Tibet”.  He meant that the blessings available to someone coming to this place exceeded those in Tibet.  Maybe that blessing is what I experience each and every time.

Maybe that’s why I come back to this place again and again.

And Sometimes One Speaks Too Soon (We Know EXACTLY Who One Is)

I’m Guessing It’s All About the Camels.

We are on day 3 of our journey to Bhutan and the day has run pretty much like the days before; PANIC.  Maybe panic is too strong a word.  I’ll let you decide.  Our evening in Bangkok included sleeping.  We arrived at Great Residence with the idea that we would shower, change, and head to downtown Bangkok for dinner and an experience (you can look at our previous wacky experience in Bangkok here)….

With all good intentions in mind, we headed off to our rooms and immediately crashed….well, at least SOME of us did.  Having not slept in 30 some odd hours, sleep grabbed me like a tiger, shook me around and left me laying there wondering what happened.  With a solid five hours under my belt, I woke at 9:45PM ready for the day!  Only, it was night.  In Thailand.  Something was definitely off….(no comments on THAT point, please).

Intrepid as always, I decided let’s go anyway!  A taxi ride into Bangkok would get us there by 10:30 and then we had the night!  Right?  Riiiiigggghhhhhttt.  In the meantime, Halle and Natascha, eager to head to town waited on me until they passed out around 8:00PM….and so it went….we woke up around 3:00AM, got ready for our flight from Suvarnabhumi airport.

I have said it before and I will say it again: the Bangkok airport is a wonder.  In so many ways, this airport defines the modern world and consumer culture.  An entire mall of goods is presented to you as you wander the concourses.  The King Stores (in recognition of the King of Thailand) offer a variety of food items including the ubiquitous dried fruit.  I am a sucker for the various versions of dried mango (freeze dried is particularly delightful).  The various other shops and stores include the “duty free” expensive goods like Hermes, Gucci, Prada and the like.  These places represent a kind of experience of life that few can understand (me included).  Not really trying to take anything away from the place at all, it interests me that these expensive duty free shops abound in this airport.  Simply put, the place is remarkable in its scope and, I imagine, is miles long.

Which brings me to the other part of this tale: running through the airport.  I have experienced running through airports to make flights twice in my life.  This day included one of them.

So it all started like this: we decided on a breakfast spot, a place called Volare (no singing that song!) which is a European-style café with various tasty food and coffee.  I have visited this business every time I have visited the airport for any length of time.  Today’s fare included a couple of shots of espresso, the ladies had some forms of coffee (of the frozen variety!), croissants and Caprese.  The Illy coffee was really wonderful and I am always impressed by its flavor (and no, I am not a coffee expert….just some guy who likes espresso).

We arrived at the coffee shop at 5:10 AM.  The flight left at 6:30 AM.  We believed we had plenty of time.  (Mistake number 1)  We ate our food and leisurely wandered the mall and headed back to the gate.  As we walked, I glanced up at the list of departing flights.  It was raining outside, and I thought, “maybe it’s delayed”.   In BRIGHT RED letters, next to the flight number were the words FINAL BOARDING CALL.  WHAT?!  You have to be kidding me right now.  FINAL boarding??

As soon as I saw the words I yelled to Halle and Natascha “WE HAVE TO RUN”!  Natascha looked at me and the panic swept across her face — and she ran.  Halle matched her pace and I was behind by maybe 20 feet….we ran for 1000 M.  Why do I know 1000M?  Because the signs reveal how far it is to a particular concourse (A – F).  Each concourse is about 300M from the other.  We were lounging in concourse E.  We had to run to concourse C, past the sign, down two escalators, through the hallway to the gate.  1000 M.

In past years traveling on Druk Air has been a casual affair.  The staff are friendly and attentive.  Things move at their own pace.  This statement is NOT to say that the airlines or staff are not serious in every way; they are.  The ethos of the airline, I felt, represented the ethos of the country.  This year, we are traveling on Bhutan Airlines.  Bhutan Airlines is a private company unlike the airline owned by the monarchy (Druk Air).  The staff and way we have interacted with the company has been professional and the people exceptionally kind.

Regardless, we ran to the gate and up to the counter….we got the look (you know what I mean) from the Thai staff…I could see it, “yea we both know you are late so don’t say anything just get on the bus.”  On flights to Bhutan, the planes sit on the tarmac away from the terminal.  Busses transport you from the concourse to the plane and then you walk up steps to the aircraft.  Needless to say, we were the last three to make it to the bus! (Are you still reading this tripe?)

And then we waited.  OK, here’s the thing: I am NOT a believer in fate or chance actions that speak to a greater all knowing, all powerful entity that directs life as we know it.  While there may, in fact, be a greater, all knowing, all seeing entity directing life, my experience tends to explain most human endeavors as a series of sometimes complex, sometimes not, situations that reflect a cause and effect.  In most cases you can find the root cause and follow the tortuous road to the effect.  AND our experiences on this trip are challenging my understanding of the world….NOT profoundly…just in an interesting way.

We’re Waiting! Happily!

To continue the story, we waited on the bus for about 15 minutes….then we drove for about 5 minutes to the airplane.  We climbed the stairs, were greeted warmly, found our seats.  All was good with the world.  WE MADE IT to the plane and were ready for our travel into Bhutan.

And. We. Waited.  Past the 6:30 departure time; through the 7 o’clock hour.  With a crackle, the speaker came to life and the captain said the flight computer was damaged and maintenance was called.  The FLIGHT computer!  At this point in our travels, we wondered aloud, Halle, Natascha and I, if we weren’t bringing the various challenges with us OR that WE were being challenged to strain our patience or otherwise got through some test.  To show us (read me) that all of the best laid plans of mice and men are truly subject to the whims of chance….or some other power turning the wheel of the ship or car or whatever metaphor comes to your mind.

In reality, I gave up worrying about the conference and my place in it….I can do nothing to affect the outcome of whether or not I, TGF, can make it to Bhutan on time.  I emailed the conference coordinator, let her know my difficulties, and let the rest go….I released it all.   At that moment (about half way across the Pacific), peace arrived…I relaxed into what is possible on this trip and allowed the rest to just be.  Am I getting too woo woo for you?  OK, enough said…I tend to wander into those thoughts sometimes anyway….so la dee dah.

More ridiculous thoughts to come…..