23 Days in Bhutan

In the spring 3-week term of 2002, a group of twelve students and a professor from Hiram College went to Bhutan, a small nation in the Himalaya, to the east of Nepal to study. The interdisciplinary course was Finding Order in Nature: Natural History and the Himalayas. They were the first student group to spend any significant time studying in the country. I was part of the group - this is my journal, with some minor editing. Writing added later is in monospace.

Students are Jason, Susan, Howie, Rick, Peter, Christopher, Dan, Spencer, Colin, Jill, Trucian, and Scarlet participated in the trip, led by professor Dennis Taylor.

We left early on 11 April from Cleveland. Flew to Chicago, Tokyo, Bangkok, then Paro.

The following is an essay assigned to be written prior to arrival in Bhutan. It was written on an airplane, between Chicago and Tokyo or between Tokyo and Bangkok. The assignment was to describe my understanding of the idea of natural history – the subject of the course.

Natural History is one of those terms that seem easy to describe – it has a set definition or place in the mind – until description is actually attempted.
It is the study of the natural environment, and how it changes and it changed over time. It is the study of plants and animals and geologic history. It is the study of how all these things interact and change and affect each other.
It is not just the study of a specific region, but of how one region affects another, and how all of those regions have affected others, over time, to give us what we have today. It is all the natural changes over time.
Part of this is the impact of humans. Humans are animals, too, and they fit into this picture, somehow. How, exactly, I do not know. But their influence must be counted as much as any other animal.

13 April

In Bangkok. Arrived late last night. The flight from Cleveland to Chicago was fine, but from Chicago to Tokyo, one of the most painful experiences of my life. Painful because not only was it so uncomfortable, but because I could not do anything about it. Note that I am rather tall (6 foot 8), and that this was a 13 hour flight. But if a simple airplane flight ranks so poorly, I think I am doing pretty well.

Then there were showers in Tokyo. What an amazing and comfortable thing, so worth the money. I had been hoping to sleep during the layover and had been against the showers, but at the insistence of others, I showered. And it was wonderful. Clean showers, wonderful. And I felt just great afterwards.

Then another six hours in the airplane, and we are in Bangkok, arriving at midnight. Bags are collected, and we make it through customs without incident. Then we pile into a couple vans and speed off to the hotel, the drivers going far faster than they should, at least in our opinion, and collapse on beds. Yay!

A restless night, really, mainly due to being uncomfortable, hot, and dehydrated. But enough sleep. Oh, there was food!

Went out to a little restaurant, something in a back alley, not too far from our hotel in Chinatown, the Grand China Princess. We pointed at a bunch of things, and ended up with it all on a platter. Yum! And good Thai beer, too! Sitting in an alley (Not quite an alley, really, far too much traffic for that. Narrower than any of the main streets, but still with significant traffic. The sort of thing that in America would be called an alley, and so certain members of the group insisted upon calling it an alley… I prefer to think of it as a place enough removed from the main street that it was possible to actually sit down.), eating greasy food, drinking cold beer, trying to catch up to whatever hour it was, and the hot exhaust of cars and other motorized vehicles belching on us.

The speed of the city is just amazing. Bangkok is so fast, so dense, even at night, when it has cooled, and everything has slowed down a bit. As it gets dark, things speed up a little – the darkness has cooled things off just enough that it is possible to actually think. But that passes. Come midnight or one, the city has slowed, its five million inhabitants sleeping, preparing for the next day. And that is where we were. Sitting on chairs by the side of the street, tired enough to collapse right there, sipping in the cool night air, ready for anything, the place was so pulsing with energy.

Today was just amazing. Woke up a bit late, had a quick shower, grabbed a quick breakfast, and met up with the group, running out into the city. It is the Thai New Year, and the people were already starting to throw water at us, early in the day. We saw the largest gold Buddha.

A day that was too amazing to describe. The massive gold Buddha, in a building so plain, and so worn. The reverence for the Buddha, not the building that houses him.

How can one describe anything?

The joy of eating wonderful food, of dancing in the streets, of having random people throwing water on you, covering your face with talc?

An actual summary of the day: Leave hotel. Wander in streets a bit, heading in the general direction of the gold Buddha. Denny spotted a vendor selling durians, and asked us if we wanted one – we split one pod. Yummy, so what if it does smell really bad. We got to the gold Buddha, bought tickets, and went in. Amazing. Just amazing. And to think that it was hidden under a layer of plaster for so long.

Then, on to the Royal Barges! (Or so we hoped… this was the New Year, and a national holiday and all that. But first we had to find a boat across the river. And to do that, we had to get to the water…. We could see it, but covering those last couple hundred feet is easier said than done. And given the polluted state of the river, this said location would preferably contain a dock. One was found, and even a boat, eventually, with the help of one rather kind Thai citizen, who walked with us for ten or fifteen minutes, taking us to the closest water taxi dock, after we asked for directions.

Rode a bit on the boat, being burned by the sun, but unable to stand up under the canopy. Got off the boat and wandered around a bit, and ended up across a canal from the rather closed looking Royal Barges… but not so far away, someone heard beating drums, and we investigated.

OOOh! People dancing, in some sort of Buddhist temple compound… food, a bit spicy, and soon they were encouraging us to dance, too, which we did. Smearing our faces with talc, throwing water at us, and laughing. (And all in a good natured way, I swear.) So that was fun, and we stayed a bit, until their parade was about to begin, then made our way back to the water taxi dock. Next, to the art museum! (or not…)

Nope. Of course, the art museum, like most other things, was closed. And the festivities were beginning. More water! More talc! (Just so long as it is not river water – had a bit of that thrown on me – nasty. More wandering, the reclining Buddha, and some relaxing. Strange foods, some that I partook of, others avoided. But a generally good afternoon, before heading back to the hotel.

Dinner in the same place as the night before, but earlier, hotter, more exhaust. A bit of time at a tiny internet café just down the street, then back to the hotel, cool, and asleep.

This place seems to have more joy. Maybe. I could be happy here, I think. It is different. Now the waiting and…

14 April

In the Bangkok airport. Too early. Lost my Waterman fountain pen, so it is just as well that I did not bring the good one. So ready to fly into Bhutan. But also obsessing over the need to buy pens. Sigh.

Design consideration for future use – support of front cover. (of this book)

The way people drive around here scares me, yet I have not seen any accidents or even near accidents. A different mentality for sure. One that requires more focus, more active participation in driving. And more responsibility. But perhaps it has something to do with the presence of more police officers.

Tried to buy a fountain pen in the duty free shop, but nothing available at a reasonable price. Sigh. Will try to find something in Calcutta. Wasting too much space here ranting. This is wonderful.

Everything is wonderful.

The following is a writing assignment, to be completed prior to arrival in Bhutan. It was written on the plane flight between Bangkok and Calcutta.

What do I expect Bhutan to be?

I expect it to be like nothing else I have ever dealt with.

At first, I expected a perfect little Shangri-la, but as I read and heard more, and learned of the plight of the Nepali minority, of the availability technologytelevision, internet cafés even, my view changed.

Bhutan is an isolated country, changed by the mountains. It is poor, but at least has the natural resources to support its people. Politically, it is not a perfect place.

It will be beautiful. And it is poor. And the influence of technology will be present. We will be rich Americans.

I expect a beautiful country, a place that will change my perspective on everything, and hopefully allow me to live better, and be a better person.

14 April. Afternoon.

I am in paradise. I am happy. Everything is beautiful. And I just don’t care about anything else anymore. In some way, I am enlightened, some very small way. The beauty of this place. The absolute wonder of it. The quality of the light. The beams of light, breaking through the clouds. The people. These buildings. These roads that twist and turn through the mountains.

Geologically, the only place that I have seen like this is the Shoshone River Valley, in Western Wyoming, but this is so much bigger, and a much wider variety of soil. It is dry here.

Feel fine with the altitude. Really. Sort of worries me. Or something.

Problem: This is the most incredible place I have ever been. I have traveled a fair amount, seen some really incredible things. I have been to great museums, seen great natural wonders, and been impressed by all.

But this is so totally different. I fly, with a dozen others, halfway around the world. I am able to see a little bit from the window of the airplane, but not enough to really shock me. Then the plane lands. I step outside. A little airstrip in the middle of a huge valley. Terminal done to look like so many older buildings. Standing there, mouth open. Just shocked. So different from what I could have imagined. So much more dry , but also so much more massive, and real.

Did all those things that you do at a foreign airport, then drove off to the hotel.

A single, narrow, pave lane, twisting and turning through the landscape. Everything is too beautiful. The beauty, the wonder of this place is beyond what I can deal with. I am happy. This is perfection. Why should I care about anything else? Really? Right now, I care more about making the most out this experience than anything else. Really. Don’t have any worries about other things. Except those people that are with me. And my family. I want the rest of the people to feel so good, so full of energy. I want to do something. I care about everyone, and I don’t know how to show it.

We stood there on the runway, our mouths open in awe. Just stepped out of the airplane, onto the concrete of the landing strip, our last contact with reality the brief stop in the airport in Calcutta, our last real contact, Bangkok. And this was so far different from what we saw there.

Many of us were expecting a different sort of environment – we were looking forward to dark, snow covered mountains, jagged rocky peaks, or the lush, green that some of the photographs in books had shown – we expected to see this sort of thing right away. Instead, what we saw was a wide, steep river valley. The valley was dry, for the most part, thought there was some farming on the bottom. The valley walls were dry, with scattered coniferous trees, but mostly light colored soil or brush was visible.

This valley was so relatively sparsely populated – so different from Bangkok, and from the airplanes in which we had spent the past day. Perhaps 5000 or 8000 people in the whole valley, spread out, using what land they could for farming. This was not the picture that I wanted to see. Thought their houses looked beautiful, this town, Paro, was clearly not involved in much more than subsistence agriculture. I wanted to see, and to believe that it was a paradise, and see lush, green everything, everywhere. I wanted perfection, a nice myth to fit well in my mind.

The terminal was small, for an international airport. Given that it only has one or two flights a day, it does not need to be very big. The airport was the first real example that we saw of the traditional architecturepost and beam construction, with some sort of white material between the posts and the beams – traditionally compressed earth and stone, or just stone, but more recently, plaster or concrete. The wood – the posts – are painted with all sorts of designs – mostly non-objective, so far as I can tell, thought I am sure that they fit in with the local symbolism.

We tried to assemble as a group, to pay for our visas, and eventually accomplished that. The visa fee must be paid in US dollars – worth noting what a desirable currency it is – says a lot about the place of the US in the world. After clearing customs, we collected our baggage. Everything arrived. While collecting our baggage, our guide, Phurba, arrived.

Phurba was dressed in the traditional gho, wearing dress shoes and knee socks. A Bhutanese man, about 30 years old, his black hair in a smart, simple haircut. A smile on his face, he greeted us all, and led us to the Toyota Coaster that would be our transportation for the duration of our time in Bhutan.

Leaving the airport, I came to realize just how big it was, given the amount of traffic – two landings a day – that it receives. The runway itself must be relatively large, and there must be a certain amount of space around that, all which must be fence in – these things are not negotiable. The old airport buildings are still there, though some of them appear to be unused and rather rundown.

The other buildings that make up the airport, they too must be of a certain size. The hangar for the aircraft must be big enough that they can be protected and cared for. And the air traffic control tower must be big enough to be effective too. Other administrative buildings must be big enough to serve their functions. And the terminal must make a certain impression – it is the first thing that people see when they enter the country and the last thing that they see when they leave. And this is a commercial airport, with regularly scheduled flights – it is not like most of the other airports that I have seen of this size, which are used almost entirely by very small aircraft.

Paro International Airport is beautiful, and good introduction the country.

Leaving the airport in the Toyota Coaster, a small, nicely designed bus, relatively new, with large, clear glass windows and seating for about 20, Phurba told us that the road that we were on was the longest stretch of straight road in all of Bhutan – a couple hundred yards at the most. This was a bit scary, but exciting, too – what wonderful journeys might we go on, on the twisting, turning roads that make up the national highway?

A brief ride, fifteen minutes later, we arrive at the Hotel Druk, our accommodations in Paro. The road to the hotel goes mostly along the valley floor, passing farms and houses, but without going through the town of Paro. The road then starts going up the valley wall, to the hotel, zigzagging back and forth, using switchbacks just wide enough for our bus to get around. We climb slowly, smaller cars whizzing past us on this one lane paved road. And climb slowly, we arrive at the Hotel Druk, perhaps a third of the way up the valley wall, but the end of the road.

The Hotel Druk is of relatively recent construction – built sometime in the mid 1980s for the influx of tourists caused by the opening of Bhutan to tourism at that time. The hotel is about four stories, and like all the other buildings, built in the traditional style. It has a slate roof, and considerable quantities of elaborate painting on the trim.

We pair up, to share rooms. The rooms are nice, better than one might expect, though I don’t think that any of us really knew what to expect, so removed was this experience from anything that we had dealt with prior to this. The rooms were about the same size as one might find in an American motel, with American style toilets and showers, and hot water, even. Everything seemed somewhat rundown, and cheap, considering that this building was not even 20 years old. The mattresses were thin, but comfortable. In addition to the electric lights, a couple candles were provided. And instead of the Bible placed in most American motel and hotel rooms, there was a copy of The Teachings of Buddha, with a bright orange cover, depicting a sunrise or sunset, I am not sure which – the copy in my room was in Japanese, but some of the others had copies in English, Spanish, German, and a few other languages, too – had I asked for one in English, they would have probably provided one for me.

The ceiling was rather high, 12 or 13 feet, about, which seemed strange for a country that had such short people, especially after the hotel that we stayed in in Bangkok, where the ceilings could not have been taller than eight feet, and the relatively short height of the people in Bhutan. My guess, after a little conversation with a few of the other students, is that the ceilings were probably built that way to be more comfortable to the foreign visitors. Around the ceiling was a hand painted, not stenciled trim, which incorporated the used of the swastika. One forgets that this symbol was used for hundreds of years by other people before it was appropriated by the Nazis.

Lunch was good, if not particularly memorable – I think at that point, in the early afternoon, having spent so much time out of touch with everything, anything would have tasted good. One side of the dining room was a wall of plate glass windows, providing an amazing panorama of the valley. The scale of it all, and the clarity of the air impressed upon us that this was something very different, very special. The valley looked dry – other than the valley floor, which was green from farming, the valley was brown and gray in color, mostly dirt and rocks, with some coniferous trees.

After lunch, Phurba led us on a hike, to see a few sights, and for him to see how well we might deal with the altitude. Some fared better than others. The air was dry, it was hot, and we were not all prepared for this. The crumbling ground, steep drop-offs, and general unmaintained condition of the trail were not things that we were prepared for.

After a half hour or 45 minutes of walking, mostly uphill, we arrived in a bit of shade at some sort of old religious building, a lookout tower of some sort, that is currently used as a house. It is a massive structure – thick stone walls, painted white, probably four stories tall, the walls leaning slightly inward – it is a very vertical structure. And there was shade around it. Big trees, some cypress, planted long ago. A single board makes a bridge across the stream, and we are greeted by a group of small barking dogs. We rest, a bit ,at a stand of prayer flags, while Phurba described the significance of the structure and some Bhutanese symbolism.

We continue on the trail, this time downhill, to the National Museum, a stone building, probably 14th or 15th century, built in the shape, somewhat, of a conch shell. Amazing paintings, animal specimens, metalwork, and religious objects ,but what struck me most was a Buddhist manuscript, on paper, from about the 10th-12th century. It struck me as an incredible rarity, the sort of thing that I would love to study, if only I read Sanskrit.

As we left the museum, it was starting to rain. I spun both of the massive prayer wheels just outside the exit of the museum, hoping for the best on the journey. The sky was mostly covered by clouds, but the sun was breaking through and illuminating a small patch of valley floor. This was a magical place, I realized.

Dani, the driver, took us back to the hotel, where we relaxed a bit before having dinner. After dinner, I slept better than I can remember sleeping in a long time.

15 April

Awoke early, feeling wonderful.

The lecture.
Natural history – what it means, all that fun stuff.
History – man dominates the world, orders animals. This is what happened in the 18th and 19th centuries. Looked for evidence to name things.
Myth – story that helps us makes sense of the world. Not supported scientifically.
Looking for underlying features, to help understand and classify.
What are the differences between places?
Fit the pieces together, and determine if this reality is there.
Finding commonalities. Looking at the world.
However, sometimes (always) things cannot be so easily divided. Can a mountain be divided into four zones? What criteria are used to determine what zone something is?
Von Humbolt. From experience, what does this look like?
All we have is our experience.
Why colonize? What can we do with the land? Sending out naturalists to exploit natural resources. Wealth invested…really long term. We got dinosaurs. Really long term. A tradition that allows people to exploit wealth.
Why do we go back to natural history? – More important to get the information – the diversity is important.
What have people learned from centuries of dealing with nature? Cultural world is most important influence on natural history today. Responsibility to help others make sense of what we are learning. Need to change approach.
Physical environment = Why are we in Bhutan?
1. culture. 2. pristine environmentimpact on the rest of the world. 3. Part of an important academic traditionto understand the world , you must go to the extreme. This is the land of absolute extremes. Tibetan Plateau changes rest of the world’s weather. Look at the physical environment.
Evolution – gradual change for a species over time my group
A genetic change in an organism. class
natural selection – the traits that allow the strongest to survive are propagated. my group
Differential selection of traits that pass on a reproductive advantage. class
adaptation – changes done to make something survive better and accommodate a situation better. my group
Stress of environment. Stress selects changes that are already there. class
Aut ecologyphysiological ecology – you see what it is, and then what it could be used for.
Try to learn from environment, and not just identify characteristics – INTERACTION. – How things work with environment. How does the organism respond to the environment – including culture?
Evolution is a byproduct of selection. What brought about evolution in the first place? What is the stress of the environment doing?
This is unstable because we are at an extreme.
Observe - Force yourself to think of different things.
IMPORTANCE OF CULTURE – you cannot understand environment without culture.
Huge history of Western influence – need to understand environment.
(end of lecture)

Observations today:
Differences in valleys – U-shapedParo – most of farming is on valley floor – some vegetation on valley walls, relatively evenly spread. V-shapedThimphu – farming on terraces – no space on valley floor – differences in plant life on valley walls.

Many more trees planted on v-shaped valley walls.


Natural history is about people and culture.

Buildings no long used start to resemble sedimentary rocks. (outcroppings)

Valley walls are very high. Not sure what terms to use to describe them in, but high. A couple thousand feet?

People are acclimating… interestingly. More energy to be fussy with each other.

I guess Paro is a glacial valley. Drove from Paro to the capital, Thimphu.

The drive from Paro to Thimphu was interesting. Leaving Paro, a dry, glacial valley, we see houses, a few here and there along the valley floor, or on the flat land, wherever it may be. There are more houses near the city, Paro, and they decrease as we get father away. The soil is so dry, though there seems to be considerably more vegetation on the north facing side of the valley than on the south side.

The people, for the most part, seem to live on the south facing side of the valley, though perhaps the slope of the north facing side of the valley is too steep to live on. Perhaps it can be attributed to hundreds of years of grazinggrazing trails are very evident. This, combined with the dry climate, the relative lack of rivers in this valley compared to those that we would see later, suggests a possible answer.

As we drove along the road, near the bottom of the valley, at one time we saw monkeys, gray langur. After a bit of driving we arrived at the confluence of two major rivers. There is a major bridge, for Bhutan, at this point, and the first of many roadblocks and checkpoints. Also some hydroelectric facilities.

As we drove on to Thimphu, the valleys became more green. There was more farming, more vegetation. The east facing side of the valley had relatively little vegetation, though it had more than there was on either side of the valley that we passed through earlier. The west facing side of the valley, with a more moderate slope, has many farms, spread out, as the slope is still pretty steep, close to 45 degrees, the limit for terracing.

The valley walls are heavily terraced, and there is considerable farming – the crops on the fields could not be identified. However, there were bananas, occasionally, as well as apple trees at the edges of the terraces. Overall, there was a lot of plant life that we would not expect for the elevation, but one must keep in mind that Bhutan is relatively far south – still in the tropics.

As we get closer to Thimphu, the density of the population increases, until, looking out at the valley, we see Thimphu, the largest city in Bhutan, with about 40,000 people. The houses and buildings are mostly clustered in the bottom of the valley – the valley walls remain green, with trees.

We get to the hotel, the nicest in the city, unpack, and begin to understand what we are actually dealing with. And it is probably the nicest hotel in the country. There are televisions in all the rooms, as well as hot and cold running water. There is a large, two story lobby, with a big chandelier, and hot and cold running water in all the rooms. It is not what one would expect from an American hotel – the rooms are all different, and the décor looks… cheap. Not tacky, but just with cheap materials. It looks like all the worst of the 1970s. Not that I am complaining. It was a decent place to stay, and served everything that I wanted well.

After lunch in the hotel, a buffet of a combination of Indian and Chinese foods, the usual for tourists in the country, we went shopping. The main objective was to purchase ghos and kiras, the national dress of Bhutan. A gho is the male garment. It looks like a floor length bathrobe, but is pulled up to knee level, making a large pouch in the front, which is usually used for holding a wallet and other things. One wears a shirt underneath it, and knee socks to cover up the legs. In colder weather, pants or long underwear may be worn, underneath the gho, tucked into the socks. The kira is the female garment, which looks much like a floor length dress, with a sort of jacket that is worn on top.

Most of the students were able to purchase ghos and kiras off the shelf. Some of us, myself included, were not able to find anything that fit, so we had them custom tailored. The cost of mine, with the huge mass of fabric that it used, about 8 yards of nice cotton, made overnight, was only about $45.

Later, more gift shopping, some purchasing of junk food and beer, as well as cheap liquor – too cheap, really. Less than a dollar a tenth. And scary stuff it was. An uneventful evening. Back to the hotel, sleep, and all that.

16 April

Lots of new construction.

Oh, and an internet café.

More evergreen trees here, and less farming – higher in valley.

King lives in a very small, simple house – palace is for official occasions.

Fewer crops here than Paro – more concentration of industry.

A bright red spot of wild cherry trees.

Houses with cattle and satellite dishes.

A painting with relief on a large rock outcropping.

Streams running over roads.

Nice houses, even far away from city.


Observations: (more)
600 year old houses made of rammed earth revert back to nature, modern construction (of concrete and brick) with not do this so well, if at all.

Marijuana only grows below a certain altitude… maybe. Some coincidence with it and settlement – direct proximity with houses.

Streams very carefully directed with irrigation channels, so careful as to not be obvious at first.

Treatment of land is more public – paths meander past, and even through, people’s yards – a different sense of possession of land and property.

Places are being electrified that do not yet have proper roads going to them.

Construction of nice new houses does not necessarily occur in the city or on the main roads.

New houses are made of brick or stone or concrete, usually, though some are still in mud, in the fashion of older houses – all are still in the old style, though some in the city are departing slightly from that.

Satellite dishes. More obvious outside the city.

My gho is huge. A massive amount of silk. Only it isn’t. Nope, not a massive amount of raw silk. Cotton. Still massive.

The art school is state run, and instructs on the craft of traditional art. Upon graduation, they are given government jobs making crafts. It is craft, and not art – adhering to specific ways of how things are to be done. And it is beautiful craft.

Windows for houses are built whole, without nails.

A special glue, Toroi, is used so that wet paper can be stacked together. The water is pressed out, and then it is dried on metal heaters.

Paper is made with Daphne bark.

An interesting day, to say the least. Began with a hike down the valley that Thimphu is located in. Professor Taylor did not come along, as he was not feeling up to it. A bus ride, probably a half hour long, to a point much higher on the valley. This was the first section of road that has really bothered me – it was so steep and twisting. But we all made it. And the bus did not fall off the side of the mountain. On the way to the trailhead, we passed through the army headquarters, and the village where the families of those who are in the army live. It was the poorest community that I had seen in Bhutan up to that point, as well as the poorest that I have seen since. The army base was to be the ending point of our little hike.

Many of us seem to be amazed by the wild marijuana growing near some of the houses we saw in our hike down the valley. The pace for the hike was fast, Phurba scrambling down the rocky path like a goat, we said. The paths follow a certain sort of logic, but I am not sure what that logic is. A logic created over centuries… the path is the space between the fields, I know…

But what did we see on that walk down the valley? The drive to the trail head was up a steep, twisting road. We stopped on the way...

Read this far? Read part two! Old Growth Forests, 13th Century Temples, and Rites of Spring