Dzongs, Abbots, and Ara

Bhutan is a tiny country wedged between much, much bigger ones. All the guidebooks compare it in size to Switzerland, but Switzerland isn't abutting an unfriendly China who a few years back casually annexed a nice little chunk of the northern mountains because "it used to belong to China". And by "used too", they mean sometime in the last 4000 years. I might be the only person who finds such geopolitical dynamics interesting so let's just jump to the sights, smells and booze of Bhutan. Oh fine, one more tidbit, the border with Tibet is closed. No going in or out, though Tibetans if they make it here can become Bhutanese. This is otherwise difficult to do - at least that's what I understand. Okay, okay, I'm done!

Yesterday was probably our favorite day - the weather cooperated, the sites where fascinating. We saw the 108 memorial stupas, the Punakha Dzong, the Fertility Shrine dedicated to what I can only describe as the cult of the penis, and wandered through a village where we acquired (buying it is illegal) some locally made sake-type wine called Ara. Our timing was perfect, for when we arrived at the Dzong we got to watch from above the chanting of a 100 monks celebrating an auspicious day in Bhutan, with the lead abbot (i.e. Bhutanese Pope) leading the whole affair. (No pictures allowed though).

Today we had to deal with rain and lots of it. Cold and rainy, ugh, but cold and rainy and terrible hotel the night before, does not a happy mother-daughter team make. Last night was the only wrong note in our trip so far. We had heard horror stories about Bhutanese food but frankly I've found it good. Not, Thai-level good, but tasty, varied, and healthy. Last night was why those horror stories exist.

Anyhow, after heading out early, we arrived in Thimpu, the capital. It's not the most attractive city in the world, but as far as new, developing country, city-on-the-up-and-up go, it's pretty damn clean, nice, and quiet. By law all the buildings must retain some trappings of the Bhutanese style, which looks homey and attractive on the farm houses and in the villages, but looks a bit heavy handed on five story buildings. That said, I think this is much nicer than a city filled with anonymous cement blocks that you find everywhere else.

We went to the oldest Dzong in the country on the outskirts, then the central market, then the main government Dzong. While standing in the pouring rain we saw... The King! Us, a handful of other tourists, and a few Bhutanese all waited by the temple entrance as he came with his ministers to celebrate the anniversary of the death of the founder of Bhutan. As my mother put it, "we saw the top three people in Bhutan - the King, the Abbot and the Prime Minister". Cool. (Again, no pictures).

On a more interesting cultural note, since today was a special and very auspicious day, we also saw many Bhutanese in their Gho and Kira (traditional clothes) walking to and from temples. Some had miles to walk in the pouring rain. It was rather picturesque and special to witness.

I'm done yammering on, now pictures.

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