Happy Together

Tradition meets modernity in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan

By Kate Siber

Photo by Kate Siber

Before leaving central Bhutan and making our way back to Paro, we spent a morning at the Jakar dzong watching the tsechu. The dance was central to my experience of the traditional side of Bhutan, but like many travelers, I discovered some of the most beautiful parts of the country in accidental details. I loved how the big trucks that throttle and choke down the skinny, winding, one-and-a-half lane highways are decorated in tinsel, decals, colorful pictures of animals, sequins, and painted exclamations of “Good luck!” I loved sitting down in a restaurant in Paro next to monks reading the paper, smoking cigarettes, and idly chatting like the happy, old men one sees in town squares in virtually every country in the world. I loved lying in my tent in the mountains during my trek, listening to the voices of my guides, cook, and horsemen rise into eerie Himalayan melodies before they drifted off to sleep. I loved rambling through the Punakha dzong’s temple and hearing the dull, sobering, reverberating thumps of my socked feet as I treaded the ancient floorboards.

On my last night in the country, Chencho and I drove the twisting, dust-choked road back to Paro. While he fixed a flat tire, I visited the Paro dzong one last time. As I crossed the bridge, festooned with prayer flags, and climbed the stone pathway up and up, I passed curious schoolgirls and boys and admired the immense medieval structure, imposing against the cloudless twilight.

The dzong guard almost didn’t let me in without a guide, but then he flashed a smile and looked the other way. I was all alone in the empty stone courtyard, but I could hear the murmuring of monks, the fluttering of robes and pigeons’ wings, and the quiet footsteps in the hallways. Down a couple dozen steep steps, another courtyard looked out over the few lights of Paro, the bends in the river, and terraced rice paddies. A teenage monk followed me. I looked right, he went left; I looked left, he went right. Two older monks entered and he went skittering away, giggling.

As I was about to leave, I heard, “Psst! Miss! Miss!” from one corner. A young monk beckoned. Through minimal English and sign language, he intimated that I was to make a donation. He tied a red string blessed by the Paro lama around my neck as his two companions chortled into their long-robed arms. He then motioned for me to enter the temple via a passageway. Inside, three dozen teenage monks sat chanting over Sanskrit scriptures, until they saw me.

First one, then three, then a dozen, then most all of them stopped to look at me, to watch me pass as I ambled the ancient creaking floorboards. Some smiled shyly, others beamed up at me with grins, and some brave ones waved me over to them, laughing and staring.

“Where are you from?” asked one.

“Where do you live?” asked another. They became braver as I answered.

“You’ve beauty!” said one.

“You’ve beautiful!” said another as the three dozen of them giggled, eyes twinkling, in my direction. After I waved goodbye, I walked out, pulled my shoes on, and dawdled in the breezy courtyard, as a lemon-wedge moon rose over the wall. I knew the monks’ expressions were no come-ons, but simple, lovely expressions of curiosity. They may have never seen a Westerner my age, 26, alone.

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Issue 25

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