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Guiding friends from Switzerland through wonderful Bhutan

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Many people kept on asking me if I would ever show them “my Bhutan”..

so in April 2015 I guided for the first time a tour through Bhutan: a group of seven friends from Switzerland and Liechtenstein accompanied me on a 15-days trip to Bhutan. Beside hiking through wonderful nature and visiting many sacred places we had encounters with a good variety of my Bhutanese friends: among them a traditional mask maker and his family, film makers, visual artists, a school principal, and a blind friend who runs an automobile spare parts shop.

In Bumthang -where we stayed in his Swiss Guesthouse- Swiss born legend Fritz Maurer who has become a highly respected Bhutanese since long ago was sharing with us insider stories about the begining of the Swiss-Bhutan friendship.

One of the most exciting and delightful places to stay in Bhutan is beautiful Ogyen Choling in Tang Valley where former Helvetas country director Walter Roder and his wife writer Kunzang Choden are running a wonderful guest house and probably the most interesting local museum in the country: Kunzang Choden herself guided us through her museum and explained about everything in her most compelling and competent way. In the evening a group of women from Ogyen Choling village were dancing and singing around a bonefire and gave us wonderful live experience of the local culture and traditons.

In Gangtey-Phobjikha a young monk was showing us around Gangtey monastery and inviting us for tea. I got to know him a few years back when I was working in a culture project for HELVETAS in four remote communities of Bhutan and he was then still living with his parents in one of these remote villages.

Near Trongsa the principal of a local school -who is an old and good friend of mine- was introducing us to his school offering us lively and detailed insight.

And last but not least: for everyone of the group it was a great pleasure and wonderful opportunity to learn more about Bhutan and the Bhutanese from my best friend and local partner Tshering Zam who accompanied us to many places in and around Thimphu and Paro and also to most famous Taktsang Monastery.

All photos taken by © Markus Wild during the group tour in April 2015

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Flying along the great Himalayan range towards the Kingdom of Bhutan

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Arrival at Paro International Airport, Bhutan

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A first lunch in a local restaurant in Paro town, experiencing a wonderful variety of authentic Bhutanese food.

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My best friend and local partner Tshering Zam with her daughter Tashi Yangzom
at the first annual Royal Bhutan Flower Exhibition in Paro

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Thimphu’s Tashichho Dzong at night

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Mural paintings at the entrance of one of the lhakhangs (temples) at Cheri Monastery, 15 km outside Thimphu

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Details of mural paintings at Cheri Monastery

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Prayerflags and statue in the garden of Khamsum Yuelley Namgyal Chorten, near Punakha dzong

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Chimi Lhakhang, a very old temple and monastery, built in 1499 in honour of the divine madman, saint Drukpa Kunley

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Young monks at the monastic school of Chimi Lhakhang

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Monk playing a self made flute at Chimi Lhakhang

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Punakha Dzong, probably the most beautiful dzong in Bhutan, built in 1637

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A lama monk in the Punakha dzong sitting below the “wheel of life”, a sacred painting showing the six realms of existence and the 12 links of dependent origination

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Kurjee Lhakhang in Bumthang, one of the most sacred Buddhist places in Bhutan

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A nightly song and dance session of local women, surrounded by their children
at beautiful Ogyen Choling in Tang Valley, Bumthang

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At Ogyen Choling, Tang Valley, Bumthang

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Membartsho (Burning Lake), another holy place in Bumthang,
the religious heart land of Buddhist Bhutan

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Beautiful Gangtay Village and Monastery in the high mountain valley of Phobjikha

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Girls on their way back home from school, Phobjikha Valley

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Girls on their way back home from school, Phobjikha Valley

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Phobjikha Valley

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Group photo on Dochu La pass

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Tshering Zam serving tea to the members of our group on the way to world famous Taktshang Lhakhang (Tigernest) above Paro

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Spanning the bridge between loud rock music in a Thimphu music club and silent prayers in a remote Buddhist monastery

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I’m back in Bhutan for one month. Beside working on final procedures with the Helvetas’ LCD Project (Leveraging and Preserving Bhutan’s Cultural Diversity Project) I am meeting different partners to discuss a proposal for follow up activities with my Participatory Photo Project.
During my spare time I use to meet old friends – and also make new ones. This is easy to do in Bhutan and to me this is one of the main reasons why I feel so much at home in this beautiful and fascinating country.
Here’s an example of what can grow out of a simple walk to town on an ordinary day:
Last Thursday evening when going to town I came by Mojo Park and met some old friends that I’ve known from long ago. Mojo Park is “the only place in Bhutan where I can get my dose of live music, alcohol, snacks and good people to meet and good people to hang out with” according to his owner Ganchu -who is also running Radio Valley, a private radio station. So Ganchu was there -on the terrace of his music club- with Tashi Gyelthsen, a Bhutanese film maker and poet and with Rajesh Gurung, a very talented painter and co-founder of VAST (Voluntary Artists’ Studio Thimphu) who was among the group that I was lucky to work with when I was first conducting workshops in digital photography in Thimphu, back in 2005. Now, 8 years later, Rajesh and his friends are taking me to the the floor above Mojo Park and introduce me to a new restaurant called “A la Carte”. It has opened just a few months ago and is run by a former cook at the five star Amankora hotel; I like the place because its very friendly and relaxed atmosphere and  because they serve -surprisingly- some very excellent Thai food. So I surely will  like to go by regularly in the near future. After having tasted some first example of the food  (a delicious Pad Thai) and one (or two) chilled Bhutanese beer(s) we went down to Mojo Park again and enjoyed the talent of some young local musicians.

Mojo Park, late night jamming

Mojo Park, late night jamming

After the closing hour we continued chatting outside, sitting on the terrace in front of the club. A friendly and charming young woman was offering me a piece of self-made chocolate cake that she was sharing with her friends; they were telling me that on coming Saturday they would go for a hike to Phajoding monastery and asked me if I would like to join them.
Although I have lived in Bhutan a great part of the last eight years and although I have visited many different lhakhangs (temples) all over the country, so far I have not yet reached Phajoding, a monastic complex of many temples and buildings, situated above Thimphu on an altitude between 3500 and 3900 meters above sea level.
So I agreed happily (since not all young people I meet in the city are still interested to walk up arduously through tense forests to remote monasteries)!

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Some 30 hours later, on Saturday early morning, before 7 am, they picked me up at the arranged meeting point, and after a 15 minutes car ride (by a friendly uncle of one of my new friends) we reached the point where the road ends; we left soon behind us the thousands of prayer flags that are flattering around the radio tower where our hiking began. The path leads us through pristine forest with mystical looking trees, many of them now changed to warm autumn colours, across spots of pastures towards the monastery high above the capital. A kind and lovely stray dog seemed to have waited for us and accompanied us during the whole day, walking always nearby, behind or in front of us, waiting patiently outside while we were visiting each of the five temples; he was asking silently but clearly for some share, when we had red rice and ema datshi as our lunch (kindly prepared in the early morning by one of my friends). My contribution to the meal were a handful of Bhutanese mandarines and apples from the weekend market and some hazelnut chocolate brought along from Switzerland.

After the strengthening meal my friends changed their dress, putting on their traditional dress (called “kira” for women and “gho” for men); for Bhutanese it is mandatory to wear the traditional dress when visiting religious sites, schools or government offices and buildings.

Lama Namgay Tenzing, the head teacher for 25 young monks studying at the Monastery

Lama Namgay Tenzing, the head teacher for 25 young monks studying at the Monastery

So we walked from one lhakhang to the next, climbing up till 3900 meters above sea level, on simple but good enough foot paths. Inside the temples we prostrate and pray and give offerings (butter for butter lamps, incense sticks and some smaller bank notes). In each place a monk would pouring out a hand full of holy water that we drink and that we apply on top of our heads.
I was always impressed and it made me feel comfortable and happy how people all over Bhutan would introduce me to their customs and believes and how they invite me to take part in their religious practises. It happened to me with people of different religious believes and practises, Buddhists and Hindus, and also people who still follow animistic believes and practises; it always made me feel that I am not a stranger to them but a friend with whom they like to share what they have and what they are. This attitude has helped me to feel comfortable from the beginning and to learn about their traditions and it has made me feel at home the longer our relation lasts.

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What is very fascinating to me about today’s Bhutan is that many people still do have this lively relation to the traditional and natural world; and there are some who are able to span the distance from the nightly sounds of modern rock music in Mojo Park to the silent prayers and archaic rituals in a Buddhist monastery and they apparently can enjoy and value both aspects of today’s Bhutan.

And I’m happy to see that also a monastery like Phajoding is now using modern technology to communicate with the outside world and to inform about what makes them special: there is a very interesting and educational homepage called “Phajoding Monastery Project” where you can read and see that this monastery is not a relic of the past but a living learning place with very dedicated teachers like Lama Namgay Tenzing who provide compassionate care and education for 40 orphaned and disadvantaged boys within a holistic curriculum. On their homepage you can sign up for new posts and you can connect with the project via facebook, twitter, pinterest and flickr

I think that Bhutan of today actually has good chances to connect good elements of modern life with precious sides of its unique traditional heritage.

In the LCD project that I have been working for during the last three years I was teaching students of remote schools how to use digital photography to explore and document their local culture; with the help of the camera lens they began to see and appreciate the traditional knowledge that is still alive in their communities in a new light. (Here you can download a leaflet with basic info about my Participatory Photo Project.)

My young friends reaching the highest point of the monastic complex of Phajoding (on 3900 meters above sea level).

My young friends reaching the highest point of the monastic complex of Phajoding (on 3900 meters above sea level).