Bhutan and Nepal September 2015
This past September I was able to visit Bhutan (the land of thunder dragon) with a short side excursion to Nepal. It was an amazing trip. Although Bhutan has become increasingly modern over the past ten years, Buddhist culture and philosophy still thoroughly permeates all aspects of life in Bhutan. This philosophy, exemplified by the Bhutan’s emphasis of Gross National Happiness over Gross Domestic Product, seems to impart a sense of peace and tranquility to the Bhutanese people. However, despite this tranquility, Bhutan is not dull. The Vajrayana (Tibetan) form of Buddhism practiced in Bhutan is both colorful and fascinating. I traveled to Bhutan in September primarily to witness the Cham (masked dancing) Festivals. Cham dances are performed by monks dressed in costumes and masks (often repressing Buddhist demons and spirits) and accompanied by traditional music. The dances offer moral instructions and bring merit to all those who see them. The dances are performed in monasteries or Dzongs (fortresses). Bhutan possesses remarkable architecture including the Tiger’s Nest Monastery, perched high on a 900-metre cliff face and the imposing Paro and Punakha Dzongs. Sharing a traditional breakfast (chili and cheese rice stew) with monks at the Tiger’s Nest Monastery was one of my favorite experiences.
Although Nepal is still recovering from the tragic earthquake, it was still an amazing place to visit. Nepal shares many similarities with Bhutan; both have borders with Tibet and India and both practice a similar form of Buddhism. However, Nepal’s culture is quite different from Bhutan’s. Nepal is primarily Hindu, and it has a higher population density, especially in the Kathmandu Valley. These unique aspects give Nepal a colorful energy that contrasts nicely with Bhutan’s peaceful tranquility. In Nepal, I spent time visiting the historic Hindu and Buddhist sites around Kathmandu and at Pokhara. Pokhara has amazing views of the Himalayan mountains. On a clear day, you can see three mountains with elevations above 8000 metres, including those in the Annapurna Mountain range.