If there ever was a writing place, it is Gangtey, Phobjikha Valley, Bhutan. The drive is brutal, especially so because the roads are being widened and repaved, which means we are essentially driving on dirt roads, inhaling exhaust and dust. But having crossed over the Lawala pass, 11500ft, and start your way down catching glimpses of this Shangri La, all the aches and pains and discomforts disappear into thin air.
The valley is sparsely populated, scattered Bhutanese style homes, uniform in their style and colouring, and otherwise majority of the valley is taken up by the empty marsh land in the middle; saved this way to protect the Black Neck Cranes. Fertile soil has been turned over in preparation for the monsoons, farms of potatoes and cabbage.
Here and there woolly cows, horses and people are going about their business. The air is so fresh it hurts your lungs. Subtle scent of soil and manure is present as well. The utopian agrarian atmosphere.
The quiet is ubiquitous. It permeates into my very being until I had to start listening to see if I was still there. At night I’m sure the silence took me, made me a part of its fabric, and when I woke I had to reconnect myself to my body.
This is a quality of Bhutan, not just this picturesque valley. Bhutan is a quiet place. Life moves slower, people are more attached to the earth, and yet they are as light as the wind that sweeps over the hillsides. Bhutan sounds like temple bells, which have drifted across mountains, until they’re as faint as a whisper. The people smile with their whole face, and humour dances in their eyes like fireflies on a dark night.
I imagine dying in Bhutan is as easy as walking. To pass from a plane of existence into non-existence seems so easy in this place. The stories of Guru’s whose whole bodies disappear through meditation aren’t a far-fetched idea in this place. Chief abbot’s whom converse with demons that have surrendered to Buddhism is not difficult to believe.
The mystical beauty in Bhutan’s natural landscapes is only matched by the blind faith in Tibetan Buddhism that captures its people. The devoutness is contagious; Bhutan’s Buddhism is like a quality of the air, something tangible. You inhale it, and exhale it. It’s in the food you eat, and the route you take.
Besides the beauty, serenity of its natural landscapes, pervasive peace of its Buddhism, the light-hearted joy of its people, the controversially fair, environmentally friendly politics of its government, the only country with a negative Carbon impact, one of the many other things I will take away from Bhutan are its unique flavours.
Ema Datshi was my most favourite dish. After all the tourist foods were served, from the kitchen would come a tiny dish of this local favourite for the Tour guide, and knowing my “numbed by Sri Lankan spicy” palette I have, Thinley would share he’s Ema Datshi with me. All you need is a little rice, and a little Ema Datshi; this chillies and cheese dish is so simple to make, and carries two of my most favourite foods on the planet, chillies and cheese. What’s not to love? It tasted like my homemade macaroni and cheese (because I always put spicy in it.)
All the foods served were organic. Fresh greens sautéed with butter, Chinese mushrooms cooked with carrots and celery, garlic roasted chicken, or Indian style chicken. All served with rice. The food was delicious.
Delicious also was the King! No disrespect, but the Royal family in Bhutan is beautiful. Besides being fair, noble and progressive rulers introducing Democracy to this Kingdom and stripping away royal powers, the Royal family exemplifies the physical beauty of the Bhutanese people. In their traditional Gho’s the men were proud warriors, and in their Kira’s the women looked no less noble than a Queen. It must be a side effect of Gross National Happiness, but the people seemed happy, and that happiness meant they all wore genuine smiles. (I also imagine its hard not to be happy in a place where people draw ejaculating penises on their homes as a sign of goodluck! In fact penises are found in all shapes and sizes at the entrances to most traditional homes. Be careful you might be opening a door with a dildo serving as a doorknob (that’s a true story that happened on this trip! haha)
Just like everywhere else in the world Bhutan has its ugly side, its controversial side. I saw the youth in Thimphu, they didn’t wear their traditional outfits, they smoked cigarettes illegally in dark rooms, and listened to Country music in unseen, unknown bars. Their smiles didn’t quite reach their eyes. They spoke in hushed tones about corruption reaching the government, and the lack of infrastructure development in the East, and the lack of Educational opportunities, the Rural- Urban migration that is leaving empty farms, and destitute elderly parents alone with large tracts of land to farm.
Despite all this, I found Bhutan to be a place with less controversy, less of the ugly of the world. A place as yet, untouched by the anger and discolouration of globalisation, and yet embracing the good side of technology. It’s a unique place, a place I hope holds on to its unique identity and its strange politics. Far more forward thinking is this tiny land than any other modern, “super power” on its East or its West.
Stay special Bhutan, my personal Shangri La; no, the world’s Shangri La.