Lending a hand in Bhutan

Bhutan had been ‘calling’ to me for a while. It seemed to pop up in my world on a regular basis. Whether it was on TV, a social media post or, more interestingly at my co-working space. An email came round asking if anyone would be interested in joining a group of women heading to Bhutan for a mindfulness and volunteering trip through a company called Insightful Learning Journeys. Yes! I almost shouted back.

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Beautiful Bhutan

Although that actual trip never happened due to lack of numbers, having met up with Khatiza, founder of Insightful Learning Journeys, she asked if I would be interested in joining as a writer to another of her volunteering journeys which she facilitates for corporate employees. She was keen to have someone help her improve her website and write about the experience. Of course I jumped at the chance.

Khatiza founded Insightful Learning Journeys to create a foundation and framework of mindful values and practices which support both individuals and organisations and help create a ripple effect in communities. As a result of her keen interest in understanding and appreciating the value of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness, she was invited in 2012 to deliver a talk on the topic to the Google employees in Singapore.  Thus began the volunteering journeys to Bhutan, with participants who were keen to help the country develop while striving to retain its core values. 

To join the journey meant committing to giving your time to an organisation to transfer knowledge or skills (or both) for part of the time you visit. The Google employees that were joining her on this self-funded trip were doing so with the aim of sharing there skills in technology, marketing, sales, engineering and so on. In return they got a couple of days holiday in lieu and a trip of a lifetime, not to mention the personal accomplishment of helping a community grow.

How can I help?

Me? I was just a writer. What could I do? I was far from techie, and can’t claim to be a Google expert. But, ever resourceful, and knowing the needs of Bhutan as she does, Khatiza was quick to suggest a lady who has established Bhutan’s ONLY women’s magazine. Pema has been working on Yeewong for a number of years and apparently would be grateful my insight in to how to improve the magazine and its reach. Great I thought, that is right up my street. Or was it…?

Whilst I was happy to help out the magazine – and I did meet with Pema and offer some thoughts in to publishing from a Western perspective and we continue to keep in touch – I felt this wasn’t actually what Bhutan was ‘calling’ me for. There was something else, I was sure. Chatting to Khatiza one day it became clear. In fact, it was staring me in the face. My experience with children with Special Needs and my training as a Signalong tutor. My younger Son has Down’s Syndrome, so since becoming his mum 16 years ago  I’ve learned A LOT about A LOT. All of it floating around in my brain somewhere.

When I revealed this to Khatiza she knew exactly where to put me – with the Ability Bhutan Society (ABS). A society inspired by the vision of the King of Bhutan and, according to its website “a place where those living with diverse abilities have a voice, where social workers develop skills to help, where families get support through education and psychosocial support and somewhere that provides qualified care providers.”

In a country like Bhutan, which is still very much in its infancy when it comes to understanding, training and the development of people with special needs, all offers of help and sharing of knowledge is welcomed.

So, in I walked with my four-penneth…

What do they need?

I met with Thuji, the behaviour specialist at ABS on our first night in Bhutan, and  talking to her the extent of the help they needed was obvious. The vision and determination were there though – and that is half the battle. We talked about what resources were available (not many), what facilities were available (even less) and attitudes to disability in Bhutan. Unfortunately the elephant in the room was that in Buddhist religion, the matter of Karma is fundamental and the suggestion that people are ‘punished’ by being born with disability or special needs is an undeniable undercurrent.

However, thanks to people like Thuji and her wonderful Executive Director Beda who herself has a child with special needs, along with their team, the tide is turning and those with disabilities are being accepted, listened to and heard. In fact many Buddhist teaching dispel this karmic ‘payback’ as a myth.

After our dinner together I arranged to meet Thuji at ABS the next morning as she really wanted me to see the centre where most of the therapies and interventions are carried out. There were no brightly coloured walls, no nursery rhyme posters on the wall, no soft matting on the floor. Instead I was in a cold building of 3 levels – with NO RAMPS OR LIFTS. The irony of which wasn’t lost on Thuji or Beda, who both commented on it . But as I say, Bhutan is new to this. In the therapy rooms, names of children were pinned to the wall with a list of goals underneath. Under one or two of the names were chairs to aid sitting – the type children in the UK used about 15 years ago. Functional, yes. Comfortable? probably not.

But, I don’t want to paint a sad, poor picture here. It’s not like that. Thuji was justifiably proud to show me the goals for each child and the few toys they had, pointing out those that certain children favoured. It’s not that the Society can’t afford toys as such, it’s more that they just can’t GET them. Everything has to come from abroad, usually India, which isn’t always easy. Interestingly something that became more and more apparent throughout my visit wasn’t the lack of shiny new gadgets and fabulous sensory toys that they are crying out for, it was basic things like a colour printer to make visual timetables or a laminator so they could make PECS boards.

Honestly, my fund-raising mind went in to over drive straight away!

School is special for all

Thuji was keen for me to visit a local school with her to meet a teacher who had set up a special needs group within the school. Madam Chimmi works within a large local primary school and established a group within the school just for children with moderate learning difficulties when she could see that these children were not getting the help they needed elsewhere.

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A small but functional classroom where tables were moved to accommodate ‘choosing time’

In a small classroom she works with 8 children varying in age with needs such as autism, global developmental delay and Downs Syndrome.  The room was decorated with the children’s work and there was a small trampette in the corner which served as a place for some of the children to let off steam in between work. Again, what stood out was the lack of simple resources.

Tables were shifted around to accommodate what work they were doing and Madam Chimmi spent most of the time working on her own with the class. No easy task – as anyone who has worked with children with SN will testify. All of the children have a parent/carer outside during play time as their just isn’t the staff to supervise. As a result, many parents and carers have to sit outside the classroom all day as to go home and come back again is out of the question – we’re talking a long trek for many.

Despite this, many of those women (and they were all women) were grateful that their children had somewhere to go and would happily tolerate the tediousness of sitting on the floor or stone benches for hours on end. It felt very much like a community and they were there making things, chatting and passing the time in a convivial atmosphere, springing in to action when the children came out.

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Puzzles were one of the few resources available to the class.

Madam Chimmi told me how difficult it was to access resources – much like Thuji had said. She was in desperate need of things like simple flash cards, keyrings to make up individual PECS aids, materials for art and the like. She wasn’t looking for computer programmes, sensory tunnels and new playground equipment. But more than that she wanted to learn. Learn how to help the children under her care as she wasn’t ‘officially trained’ in SN. She lapped up the few signs I showed one of the little girls who was desperately trying to talk to us but couldn’t produce actual words. She was interested to hear about my work as a Signalong Tutor and spoke of how, because there was no real speech therapy in Bhutan at all, there was nowhere to send children like Pema.

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The children are included in treats taken around the school

I also found out that there is just one psychologist in the whole of Bhutan – yes, that is one person helping EVERYONE who needs psychological help.

I came away from the school amazed at how much Madam Chimmi had achieved with what little training she had – with the support of the ABS. But there was so much more, with such little input that could be done. So my mind began buzzing. What if I could bring over a team of SN specialists? I know many myself and I was sure it is something that would appeal to many.  My mind was whirring.

Family time

That afternoon I went to meet two local families who get support from the ABS and with whom I was going to be working with over the next couple of days. I was a little nervous as I wondered how I’d feel about someone new coming in to my house telling me what to do with my child. Especially someone from a completely different culture. I was very aware that my life was probably different in many ways – my access to help, my outlook, my view on SN generally and I tried to bear this in mind when planning what to do. 

I decided the best way to help would be to do some ‘play therapy’ to encourage some of their other skills, be it fine motor, communication or social – or all three. I wanted to concentrate on communication as that is the area I have had training in and went for the idea of using sensory bags.

I filled two PE style bags with various items of different materials, textures, shapes, feel. I also took along things like cornflour, dough, pipe cleaners and shaving foam to play with.

Suvan, the first young man I met was 4 years old. I’d been in touch with his parents Pem and Sunil via email for a few weeks and they had given me some information on his background. He had trouble feeding from an early age, refusing any solid food. He also had global developmental delay and communication difficulties. The parents had been working hard on introducing various foods to Suvan, trying to wean him off pureed food and had got to a stage – through a lot of perseverance – where he had just begun to tolerate very small lumps. Unfortunately Suvan choked on a piece of food which led to a rush to the emergency room at the hospital. This clearly set him back and Pem and Sunil explained to me that he now once again refuses anything other than pureed food.

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The charming Suvan

From talking to a therapist called Caroline Essame here in Singapore I went armed with some ideas and information on oral defensiveness. Along with my sensory bag of goodies I arrived the next day to play with Suvan the next day. A very astute little boy who sussed me out immediately and was reluctant to engage with me. He did however, tolerate me being around for quite a while. I was expecting this reaction as when I had called round the day before to meet the family he made it clear he wasn’t interested in me being there. A very typical reaction really for a boy who is happily watching nursery rhymes on TV and a stranger turns up.

My plan was to engage him through Pem and Sunil – therefore taking the pressure  away from Suvan to have to ‘talk’ or ‘play’ with me. I showed Pem how to make up cornflour gloop and we encouraged Suvan over to see if he would touch it. He did, without fuss and we even managed to get him to put his whole hand on the top and feel the mixture melt underneath it. I explained to Pem that this was an ideal thing to do with cousins (she had previously told me he has a number of cousins of a similar age that he currently struggles to engage with).

I then took various things out of the sensory bag and either dropped them on the floor near to Suvan or threw them across to him. He picked up each thing and insisted I put it back in to the bag. Each time he did I over exaggerated my response. “No” – with a big shake of the head – “you don’t want this?” Or making sounds like “B” for the balls or “Ffff” for the feather. 

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Suvan loved to watch nursery rhymes in his special spot

I was encouraging each time he interacted with me – even it was to tell me to go by handing me my bag. He was charming and very determined. All traits that will serve him well I’m sure. After a while I let him go back to his nursery rhymes and went through some oral exercises with Pem that will hopefully help develop Suvan’s oral awareness. We also discussed getting some help and information from other places – websites, through the ABS and maybe further afield.

Both Sunil and Pem were very gracious having me in their home and both very keen to learn and help their son as much as possible. Sunil explained how they had taken him to Bangkok in the past to see experts that aren’t available in Bhutan. We also touched on how it can be isolating having a child with SN. I left feeling like I’d made friends with the family and hope I gave them at least some tools to use to help with his development.

Pulling together

Sherub, who is 10 and has global delay, was the other boy I had been placed with. Again I’d been in touch with his parents and his mum Ugyen had already expressed such gratitude to me I felt very humbled. When I went to meet the family it was clear they all took care of Sherub and were desperate to try to help him. In particular his younger sister, who had left school to become his main carer whilst his mum worked. This struck me as very selfless of her and I’m sure takes the pressure of the family immensely. I also felt a little sorry for her as she had given up her education.

But from what other people had told me, this is common in Bhutan due to lack of facilities for children like Sherub and Suvan. It also isn’t uncommon for families to have to leave their relatives at home alone all day in order to work – some of whom are so vulnerable they have to be locked in a room. This  may sound shocking and it’s hard not to judge. But really, what would you do if your child couldn’t attend school and there was no one to look after him/her but you needed to work to keep your family fed? So Sherub was actually fortunate that he had someone to look after him.

Sherub was a friendly young man and happy to play with me. One of the areas his mum had expressed concern with was his tendency to grab at people, squeeze too hard or lash out. I had experience with this and I dealt with it by gently pushing his hand away, and saying no firmly and say something like ‘nice hands’ or ‘hands to yourself’.  At one point Sherub did grab at my glasses (which was mainly due to over excitement), what was encouraging was that he immediately looked to his mum which suggests he understood it was not appropriate. A simple no with my hand and voice was all that was needed.

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Sherub soon worked out how to get the balloon to make a funny noise.

He really enjoyed the sensory bag and happily played with the squishy balls and scarves. He especially liked the balloon and we played with this for a while. Blowing it up, making lots of funny noises which he tried to mimic, and then letting it go and making even more funny noises. Soon Sherub tried to imitate the shape of blowing with his mouth and this was really encouraging. He loved the play foam and his sisters helped him manipulate it. He chased the balls and when he clearly had decided a break was needed he wandered in to another room. But each time he came back very happily and it was easy to engage him once again.

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Sherub got the whole family involved in our play!

I know a lot of young children like Sherub and I was really struck by how the right kind of input can make the world of difference. In my opinion I would say Sherub was on the autistic spectrum. I know that Thuji has trained in ABA and explained to Ugyen that I thought this was a programme Sherub could really benefit from, particularly in areas like toilet training. I wondered how many children would get the opportunity to join the programme though when only one person in the country could carry it out?

I felt a real need for the families to be involved more and suggested – both to Ugyen and Thuji – that maybe his sister could attend any ABA with Sherub and learn how to do it with him. That way, she would learn a way to help him and then perhaps have a skill she could use later on too.

Again I felt a real bond with Sherub and his family and was welcomed with grace and humility. I was struck by how different things are when you are in a country that is still catching up with regards to training and awareness. But it was clear the need is there – as is the willingness to learn.

The future

Having finished working with the boys I met with Thuji and Beda and talked about how things went. They were both keen to hear what my thoughts were which was very humbling once again – after all, I’m just a mum with a little bit of experience. I had brought along some flash cards, simple games and communication ideas that I left with them. Along with a flip chart or two, note books and other things that the Googlers kindly gave me.

I asked Thuji to make a list of materials or resources they needed most and I would see what I could get together. What was on it surprised me once again – velcro strips, laminating pouches, key word flash cards. Things that we can pick up easily enough here.  I said I’d start a collection and get a package to them next year. Although how the heck they get their post is a mystery since there are no addresses as such in Bhutan!

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Can you help provide some basic resources?

 

If you have any items you’d like to donate, please see the link below.

Having returned from my journey and reflected on the time I spent with the ABS and the families in Bhutan, what’s crystal clear is the need for training, information and advice. Also, that it would actually be quite simple to start making inroads to help.

Do you want to help?

So, I have a plan. My idea is to get a team together next year to go out and offer our skills. Just as Insightful Learning Journeys do with the Googlers – give the communities the tools and knowledge to help themselves. Teaching people how to fish as it were.

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Help us bring some muscle in the form of skills and knowledge to the children of Bhutan.

I’m looking for speech therapists, SN teachers, ABA qualified people, child psychologists, OT’s, Physiotherapists and of course, parents who want to share their knowledge. The idea being that we go in and teach/help the staff of ABS who will then, in turn, be able to help the families of Bhutan.

In return? Well, you’d get the experience of a life time and we’ll make sure you get time to see some of the stunning beauty of this amazing country. The trip would be self funded (maybe your company offers some kind of programme whereby they’d sponsor you?) But I promise it’s worth every penny. Think of it as a holiday as you will come back feeling great.

If you are interested in joining this SN group to Bhutan, please get in touch as soon as possible. Email me putting Bhutan Volunteering in the title bar. If you are based in Singapore or the UK and you have resources to donate please also email me here with details of what you could offer and I will arrange either collection or a drop off point.

Finally, here is a piece Thuji sent me that she wrote about her feelings regarding the children she works with. She is sending it in to her local paper to raise awareness.She agreed to let me share it here.
One morning I was driving to work, I got a call from an old friend who wanted me to see his nephew who has Autism. I was excited to meet his nephew whom I had heard about but never met. As the car drove into my office parking lot I saw a young, handsome boy on the front seat. I opened the door and greeted him. He looked at me and took his seat belt off. He held my hand as we walked into the office.

He looked excited and happy.  Let me call him Nima, like the Sun. He was a strong and energetic teenager living with Autism.

Autism in simple words is an impairment in socialisation and expressive language with sensory related issues like vocalisation and self-stimming behaviour.  Nima could not express his needs or wants, but he understood what everyone around him was saying. Nima looks for warm hugs, love and gentleness from people around him.  He has a beautiful soul, full of innocence.

His parents are divorced and he gets little attention at home. He is sent off to a village with his grandparents, who do not know what to do with this young teenager.  It’s not his parents’ fault – they are frustrated and helpless. His parents do not know how to take care of him living in Thimphu. No doubt this young teenager is neglected and seen as a burden to family.  Deep in his eyes there is a story untold.

When I met him and after spending time with him I feel his voice. In his voice I write for him:

Whose child am I?

‘My parents have no time for me, waiting for me to perish. I cannot express my basic needs. I am hungry and I don’t know how to ask for food. I am cold but I can’t ask for warm clothes.  I want to go out like every teenager but the outside light effects my vision and the noises are magnified too loud. ‘

Like Nima, there are many children living behind closed doors, asking whose child am I? Do I have a right to live?

Do you know a family who has a child like Nima? Can your heart open to be more understanding? Can you hear his – and the family’s voice?

By: Thuji

Behaviour specialist

Ability Bhutan Society

To find out more about ways to help the ABS in Bhutan please get in touch. Either fill out the form below or email me.

Click through to the links to read about the rest of my time in Bhutan.

Here for how it all began

Here for sightseeing in Bhutan

Here for the Tigers Nest Trek

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Sightseeing in Bhutan

Sightseeing in Thimpu

Despite the fact Thimpu is relatively small, there are a number of sightseeing options. If you’d like to read about why and how I got to Bhutan in the first place please click here. I also took on the ‘Tigers Nest Trek’ which you can find hereAll of my cultural learning whilst there was part of a learning journey with Insightful Learning Journeys. which Founder Khatiza Van Savage facilitates. In this particular journey, I was included in a self funded volunteering and cultural immersion learning for Google Employees.

I travelled independently of the group but we met for breakfast and dinner most days. I also took part in my own mindful volunteering that you can read about here. As I was part of a larger group I was lucky to have a pick of wonderful guides – Dorji and his team of Bhakta, Thinley and Sonam are seasoned guides and drivers who have supported Khatiza Van Savage in her learning journeys for many years. They are proud and gracious Bhutanese nationals, well versed in their culture and eager to ensure that your journey is memorable on many levels.

BUDDHA POINT

It was clear before we got anywhere near the Buddha that we had chosen possibly the worst – but also the best day – to visit. It was the final day of ‘Prayers for world peace’ and it seemed that many local people were converging, possibly for the 8th time in as many days (as many people visit every day) on Buddha Point. The traffic snaked around the mountain for a good 2k or so. Still we persevered as it seemed that if this many people were going there, it would be worth the journey. And it was.

As the car park was shut we were dropped off at the foot of the steps to the Buddha – and thank goodness. I would urge anyone going to make the climb from the bottom of the steps rather than driving up to the car park. It looks quite daunting but it is well worth it, especially as you can stop as many times as you like, turn around and be rewarded with breathtaking views across Thimpu.

The steps to Buddha Point

The steps up to Buddha Point

As we were climbing the stairs dozens of people passed us, some carrying tiny babies in their arms, many walking with whole families, lots of young children laughing as they bounded up without effort. I even saw an elderly lady who was hunched over and barely able to stand being helped step by slow step. It was clear she was going to make it no matter what and her cheerful companion was going to encourage her the whole way.

Once we were at the top it was evident what all the fuss was about. Over the loud-speaker the chant of prayers was being played to the hundreds of people sat in front of the Buddha. All there to give thanks and prayer, all there of their own will, all there to celebrate. Rows and rows of people of all ages, sitting sedately on the ground, in front of them, rows and row of monks sat under a large marquee that had been erected especially for the occasion. In front of the monks was another more auspicious bright yellow silk ‘tent’ where apparently the Abbott himself was reciting the prayers that could be heard (we couldn’t spot him from where we were). This is the equivalent of the pope being in attendance apparently and there was certainly a reverential, and joyous, atmosphere around.

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A sea of people gathering to give thanks and prayer

We walked around the structure of the Buddha – and around the fenced off area where the people were gathered sitting in prayer. Although we couldn’t go up the steps that led to the foot of the structure we could still get a feel of the majesty of it and why it is regarded as a must see whilst here. All around, outside of the fenced off area children were playing happily, families gathered together, people shared food and monks and security guards alike passed by.

We went to give offerings to the monks and found we had a choice of worthy causes to give to. As we walked the steps back down I took in the amazing views once again and for the first time since arriving felt the true beauty of Bhutan and its people. The happiness was palpable and I felt honoured to have shared a part of this special day.

SIMPLY BHUTAN

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Dorji taking one for the team!

As the name suggests, this simply is Bhutan – a living museum that has been set up to show Bhutan as it was, before development kicked in. A very small museum that actually has a lot to offer. The initially shy guide – although I think her shyness was possibly more about our charismatic guide ribbing her than anything else – took us around each display explaining them to us. The first room she gave us the opportunity to try some traditional local wine.

If I were to say it was like firewater that would be an understatement! A small sip was all I could manage. Luckily Dorji was kind enough to finish it for me so I didn’t appear rude 😉

Other displays included a phallic garden (yes, with phallus of every shape, size and colour), the inside of a traditional Bhutanese house, festival masks, local craftwork, archery and a wishing bowl to try. Some women also performed a local dance whilst constructing a house!

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The very talented Pema showing us his craft

 

 

One particular display that is well worth making the visit for is a local craftsman called Pema (http://www.simplybhutan.bt/tshering.php.) He creates the most intricate wood carvings, carving and painting them all himself. Pema has cerebral palsy and does all the work with his feet. With his beaming smile and willingness to share his craft he won us over completely. His story of being ‘found’ in a small mountain village and then being given a place at arts college is inspiring and heart warming.

 

CHANGANGKHA TEMPLE

There are any number of temples/monasteries to see in Bhutan, and in Thimpu. I chose Changangkha after reading about the resident astrologer who can provide your very own prayer flags according to your date of birth. I was intrigued. Not the most worthy of reasons I grant you, but hey, a little frivolity here and there doesn’t hurt right?

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Changangkha Temple

The monastery is perched high on a ridge above central Thimpu and dates back to the 12th century. Climb the steps and walk around the pilgrim path where you can sit and rest on the benches there to admire the spectacular views offered of Thimpu.

Guru Rinpoche, (link to Tigers Nest) the Tibetan who introduced Buddhism to Bhutan, settled in this area and so the monastery was built here and is regarded as one of the holiest temples in Thimpu. Parents bring their children here to be named by the protector deity Tamdrin. Whilst we were there one mum was holding her swaddled baby waiting for his or her name. A slip of paper was passed to her and she left – all very quick and without ceremony. Very unlike the naming ceremonies and christenings I am used to  My guide, Sonam explained that he was named at this monastery. Apparently names are unisex and there are only a small number – so there are many Sonams around!

Astrologer in Bhutan

My cheery astrologer who found my perfect prayer flags to bring me luck – I hope!

After our visit we head back down the steps to visit the astrologer – a portly round-faced man whose teeth and mouth were stained with the beetle nut he obviously chews on a regular basis. He reminded me of a cartoon monk with his large belly and cheery demeanour. After requesting my date of birth he told me – through my guides – that this year was in fact a bad year for me in business and up until the 2nd December I should avoid any business decisions. He gave me four sets of prayer flags (well, sold me!) and told me to hoist them any time from the next day to nine days time. Of course, the higher and holier the place the better.

Lucky for me I just happened to be trekking to Taktsang temple (link to Tigers Nest) the following day – possibly the best place for flags there is.

THE NATIONAL LIBRARY

As a lover of books I am always up for a quick look around a library. Bhutan’s national library is slightly different to your usual one. For a start there is no one in there! Maybe it was the time of day? Also, it didn’t look like you could actually borrow the books, although I didn’t check this out.

The books there seemed to be mostly reference and historical books. I’m guessing this library is used more for research than finding the latest JK Rowling.

However, the building itself is beautiful inside and out a worth a quick look if you are in the area.

 

 

CHOKI TRADITIONAL ARTS & CRAFTS SCHOOL

Bhutan has 13 traditional crafts and these crafts are plain to see all over Bhutan and you cannot turn a corner without seeing some beautiful painting on the side of a house or traditional wood carving on a pillar. The Choki Traditional Art School  in Thimpu is one of two in the country set up to teach young people the traditional skills of their ancestors.

Open to the public, the school is a place to see the crafts being learnt from the ground up as it were – and it’s fascinating to see the painstaking detail and intricate way in which each craft is taught.

From ‘Rimo’ (drawing),  Patra (carving), Tshem-Zo (embroidery) and Thanka (scroll painting) the young people who qualify at the school then have a skill they can use throughout their lives and ensure that these age-old techniques do not die out.

 

JUNGSHI PAPER FACTORY

Having wandered around the local market stalls I’d already noticed the beautiful paper and paper products on sale. The intricate flower pressed gift wrap, the delicately bound notebooks and the robust looking sheets of paper caught my eye. So when the guide suggested we go visit where it is made I was keen – after all, it could feed my notebook fetish if nothing else.

At the factory, visitors can watch paper being made from start to finish and it’s a fascinating journey. The paper is made from the bark of just two tree species – the Daphne tree and Dhekap tree. Using traditional age-old methods, the bark is soaked, pulped, squeezed, wrung out, placed on racks, dried on a wall then laid out. I make it sound so easy – it clearly is a finely honed skill. As we watch the man smooth out thin sheets of soaking wet paper on to a hot wall that dries it in minutes ,and then peel it off (before it dries out too much; a matter of seconds) and place the sheet in a pile before starting the process again, it’s clear that this is something he’s being doing for a long time.

Whilst you are not going to spend hours at this little factory it is well worth a visit. Of course, I bought a notebook!

 

TASHICCHO DZONG THIMPU

There are Dzongs on every hill in Bhutan it seems. Dzong actually means fortress and were built not only to protect the Bhutanese but also as administrative centres, houses for the clergy and somewhere people got together during festivities.

This particular Dzong is one of the most important and was restored after a fire in 1698 (originally built in 1641). It houses the secretariat, throne room and offices of the King of Bhutan. It was also where the fifth kings coronation was held in 2008. The northern part – which is not open to the public  – is the summer home of the Je Khenpo (most Chief Abbot of the Central Monastic Body)

An interesting and photogenic place to wander around, be aware you cannot take photos inside some areas so check with your guide first.

POST OFFICE

Now I’m no prude when it comes to stamp collecting – there is a history of stamp collecting in the family – the prospect of visiting a post office during my trip seemed slightly weird to me. My guide though was keen, and as he said, at least I could post my few postcards whilst there.

Housing a small museum that gives a brief, but thorough history of post in Bhutan is worth a visit if you’ve got half an hour to spare. Considering Bhutan still doesn’t have consistent street names and no postcodes it’s tricky enough now to consider posting something. Back when you were reliant on the strong legs and resolve of the mail runners – who literally, as their name suggests – ran around the hills with mail, it must have been quite hit and miss.

But for me, the piece de resistance of the visit to the post office was being able to buy stamps with my own mug on! Oh yes, I stood in front of a really obviously fake ‘background’ of The Tigers Nest lead to much excitement when I wrote out a few postcards and was able to slap my personalised stamp in to the top right corner. Can’t wait to hear people’s reactions when they get their postcard!

 

 

REFLECTIONS

Looking back I still can’t believe the numbers of dogs I saw on the streets of Thimpu – and I understand this is true throughout most of Bhutan. Not only that, the noise those dogs make at night isn’t something that I remember fondly. Having said that, there are lots of things I do.

The warm people, the stunning views, the clean air, the sky that goes on forever and the fabulous guides. Also knowing that there are people there that need a helping hand. Here are just some of the pictures I took of the wonderful Bhutanese people.

 

LIKE TO TAKE YOUR OWN JOURNEY TO BHUTAN?

If you are interested in joining a journey in the future I am currently working with ILJ to organise a writers retreat, yoga journey and a volunteer journey to work with the Ability Bhutan Society. Please do get in touch if you are at all interested here and put Insightful Learning Journeys in the title bar.

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Chukie and Khatiza our facilitators and cheerleaders!

Please do click through to the links to read about the rest of my time in Bhutan.

Here for how it all began

Here for my volunteering experiences

Here for the Tigers Nest Trek

I’d love to hear your comments and feedback…

My Bhutan adventure

It was some time ago that Bhutan caught my attention. As a country that puts Gross Domestic Happiness ahead of Gross Domestic Product I watched a programme about the country and was fascinated. The fact that it sits landlocked between India and China in the foothills of the Himalayas was something that was so intriguing – and the more I read about this tiny country and its independent people, the more I wanted to go. However, it was clear from the protestations of “I don’t want to look at temples” from the kids and “mmmh, not sure I’m that interested in treks” from the husband that this was somewhere I’d have to explore on my own.

So I did. In a way that I had never explored a country before. Part tourist, part volunteer, part working, here’s the journey I took…

Getting there

With an early start, and despite being one of the first at the airport, I wasn’t able to get a window seat – which I’d been told to try to do so that I could get the full experience of flying in over the Himalayas. I needn’t have worried though – the excitement on the plane is palpable. The flight was fine, a little cramped as you’d expect from a small airbus but the service was good.  After a quick stop in Kolcatta where half the plane got off and new passengers got on we take off again for the 40 minute journey to Bhutan.

Soon enough the range comes in to view, the snowy cap of Mount Everest can be seen if you are lucky enough to be sat on the left, the rest of us have to crane our necks and hope for a glimpse. Before you know it you are gasping at the wonder around you – left and right on our journey. At one point it felt like we got so close to the side of the mountain that we could have reached out and touched it.

The slight swerve and sharp pull on the brakes as we land reminds us how tricky a landing this is and once we’re done there is a ripple of applause. Apparently there are only a handful of pilots trained to do this landing and I can see why. Skill is an understatement.

View from plane window

The view from the airplane window as it circles round between the mountains

Bhutan airport is a straightforward, old-fashioned type affair where you walk down the steps of the plane on to the tarmac and trundle off to go through customs. I love that kind of arrival – you feel like you’ve arrived in a new country, rather than just a waiting room. Having said that, as I’d find out all over Bhutan, the building itself is like a museum itself. Beautiful carvings, paintings and architecture.

Painting on building - Paro airport

The airport is slightly jazzier than Heathrow

Customs was quick and painless as was collecting the luggage and I was met straight away by Dorji, one of the ever smiling guides who welcomed me with a white silk scarf and warm greeting.

Gangtey Palace

A short drive took us to Gangtey Palace, a boutique hotel just up the mountain from the airport. Once a summer palace to the aristocracy and residence of the Governor, it was gifted to an ancestor of Tobgye Dorji’s family for services to the monarchy.  The family is justifiably proud of their gift. The gardens – looked after solely by the mother of the family – was reminiscent of an english country garden in its planning. Fuchsias, carnations and sweet peas were near to the end of their season but I’m sure were blooming resplendent throughout the summer months.  The whole landscaping was breathtaking. However the similarity to an English garden stopped there as the whole hotel is beautifully traditional.

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The entrance to Gangtey Palace. Beautiful inside and out.

Stone pathways lead to a huge lawn – a former apple orchard I believe – that would simply say ‘ta da’ if it could to the view. And what a view. Paro and it’s surrounding mountains glistened in the beautiful sunlight. The sky was picture perfect blue and the air was clear and fresh – and not at all cold! I felt I may have over packed slightly as had brought thermals and LOTS of layers. However I was assured that come that evening I’d be glad of them.

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The stunning view we had whilst we drank tea

Tea was served at tables on the edge of the lawn giving us all the opportunity to take in the view some more. Again a seemingly English affair with cups and saucers, milk and sugar (in Singapore you have to beg for milk) Although on tasting it was possibly condensed – but that didn’t spoil the moment.

Soon Tobgye, the owner of the hotel and his business partner and daughter Chukie came to meet us. It’s clear here is a man who has stories to tell – and he loves to tell them with aplomb. Not in a pompous or arrogant way, but in the way only someone who truly feels comfortable in his own skin can. Stories of past misdemeanours in the family, of the feisty Bhutanese battles with surrounding countries and most passionately of all, his Buddhist faith. Quoting various buddhist teachings he explained how he truly believes in karma and that we should all look towards altruism. He then invited us up to the altar room where he told us more of his fascinating families history and showed us family portraits and treasured Thangka’s (A buddhist painting on cotton or silk).

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Tobgye Dorji – we were all fascinated by his stories.

Tobgye then led us all in a meditation which, considering was our first time together, proved to be easy to slip in to and thoroughly relaxing. Trying to stay awake was a challenge for all I think – and this is the challenge of meditation. Finding that space between relaxation and peace whilst awake. I would have loved to have taken time to do this every day of the trip, but it wasn’t to be.

The Gangtey Palace chefs provided a delicious lunch of rice, chicken, fish and vegetables and the local cheese which is very similar to Indian paneer. Highlights were definitely the delicious vegetable balls and some little dumplings filled with what tasted like spinach and ricotta. The traditional ‘Ema Datshi’ chilli kick was served as an accompaniment – which, Tobgye explained was his idea. He realised that the Bhutanese taste buds were slightly different to tourists – and he always ensured his guests were happy. This also meant limiting the amount of salt that would traditionally be added.

Eazy

Eazy – a local side dish added to everything

Most of the group commented on the fact they had expected the food to be more ‘foreign’ and maybe difficult to enjoy at first – and considering we were a group including Chinese, Taiwanese, Australian, Singaporean, Brits, Czech’s and Americans – this wasn’t as ignorant as it sounds. Our guide Dorji said that things may differ at dinner (whilst laughing at our naivety).

As someone who doesn’t eat cheese and has a child’s palate for chilli, I had been a bit worried I’d be living off rice for the week. But, I was very wrong.

After lunch we headed to Thimpu and our hotel for the next few days. On the way we stopped at Tachog Lhakhang bridge. Apparently it was built over 600 years ago by a local engineer called Thangtong Gyalpo. He is said to have built around 58 iron chain suspension bridges around Bhutan and Tibet – many of which are still being used today.

Bridge in Paro

Tachog Lhakhan bridge

Unfortunately the bridge was shut for repair, but we got a chance to cross the wobbly enough wooden bridge next to it. With its fluttering prayer flags and unusual chain mail construction, there was something haunting about the bridge. This ten minute walk also gave us a chance to see how we were coping with the altitude. And yes, most of us walked back up (the not very steep) incline puffing more than we would usually.

Thimpu

The twisty turny mountain road was not as hair-raising as I had expected, although bit queasy at times. Driving in to Thimpu I realised  it’s much busier and more developed than I expected it to be. A mix of traditional style buildings and derelict looking places, as well as shops overflowing with local crafts, knick-knacks and souvenirs for the growing number of tourists now visiting. There are roads and pavements, but you need to watch your footing and take care as there are steep steps in many places, as well as the odd gap or two.

Thimpu was playing host to a car exhibition when we arrived which seemed to include a turn by local dancers, singers and a host who chattered away on the microphone. I didn’t actually see any new cars but just the logos. There was a pretty big crowd though and the heavy disco music went on for a couple of hours.

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Street dancers doing their stuff

Walking around town I was struck by the number of people there were. Many in groups just hanging out it seemed. I walked down one side street which will now always be known to me as “meat street” where people were queuing for fresh chicken and other meat I couldn’t identify in the shops there. It didn’t smell very pleasant as you can imagine and as I walked through spotted a lady doing something with some dried fish which involved pulling off a part and chucking it behind her. I walked past without stopping.

Local farmers – or their family – were sat on the side of the pavement with their produce spread out in front them. Many people were walking along carrying bag loads of vegetables. And I don’t mean a bag load of vegetables. I mean one bag full of one vegetable – mostly chillies. I watched one lady crouching down filling a whole bag full of green, red and orange chillies. I seriously cannot imagine how long it would take my family to get through that many chillies. I’m starting to see what Dorji could be referring to.

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Thimpu high street – where you could buy everything from ointment to shoes.

Some parts of Thimpu were not so pleasant to walk through if I’m honest, the drains full of rubbish, pavements with holes to break an ankle if you’re not careful and tired looking shop fronts that are maybe struggling to find a niche for themselves now. But, the overall feel of the town was quite festival like with lots of laughter and chat amongst people as they moved around. Stalls selling Cokes attracted a crowd and yet I didn’t spot any restaurants that seemed to be busy. Maybe that comes later in the evening?

The hotel itself – Thimpu Towers – was pleasant enough and offered a great view of the town square and the clock tower. The rooms are large and well equipped. I was slightly concerned by the supply of ear plugs though!

A developing city

Dusty, busy, lots of cars, lots of people, quite a few tourists. All things I didn’t think I’d use to describe Thimpu. But it is a busy city/town (by Bhutanese standards you understand). Rows of shops selling everything from balls and clothing to incense sticks and buddha statues. The streets are laid out in a way I couldn’t fathom, many steps up and down pavements, some missing steps where they were needed so jumping was the only option. The smell of petrol bothered me slightly and the number of stray dogs was also surprising. It soon becomes clear this is an issue in Thimpu as they sleep all day in the sun and bark all night. Apparently the government are introducing spading to reduce their number.

The Bhutanese people are also a mixed bunch. Men seem to have an air of authority about them wearing their traditional Goh, as many do. It’s funny to see them reach in to their Goh and pull out things randomly – it’s where they keep phones, keys, notebooks, sweets. cigarettes – you name it, it’s tucked away neatly. In fact, it often explains the portly shape of some of the men.

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Dorji, our  lead guide, in his traditional Goh

Lots of young people can be seen hanging around and children roam freely in the way children did back in the ‘good old days’. Sometimes their closeness to traffic made me gasp, but it’s clear these kids are street smart from an early age.

The women in their Kira amazed me with their elegance in heels, especially on the broken pavements and steep kerbs. Many are made up beautifully and I’m ashamed of myself for being surprised at this. Why wouldn’t women in Bhutan use make up and do their hair after all?

A wander along the craft stalls shows the various traditional crafts Bhutan is rightly protecting. Silk wall hangings, hand-made paper, simple knitted scarves, beautifully decorated scarves and throws, prayer flags, woven bags, even a traditional archery stall. Many of them selling the same as the next person, but each one important to the survival of many of these handicrafts (see Choki school below). Apparently the stalls are subsidised heavily in order to offer the workers a way to continue their tradition.

Sightseeing in Thimpu

Despite the fact Thimpu is relatively small, there are a number of sightseeing options. If you’d like to read about the places I visited, please click here. I also took on the ‘Tigers Nest Trek’ which you can find here. All of my cultural learning whilst there was part of a learning journey with Insightful Learning Journeys. which Founder Khatiza Van Savage facilitates. In this particular journey, I was included in a self funded volunteering and cultural immersion learning for Google Employees.

I travelled independently of the group but we met for breakfast and dinner most days. I also took part in my own mindful volunteering that you can read about here. As I was part of a larger group I was lucky to have a pick of wonderful guides – Dorji and his team of Bhakta, Thinley and Sonam are seasoned guides and drivers who have supported Khatiza Van Savage in her learning journeys for many years.  They are proud and gracious Bhutanese nationals, well versed in their culture and eager to ensure that your journey is memorable on many levels.

Bhutan Guides

The fantastic guides and drivers

LANDING AT PARO AIRPORT

For those, who, like my husband are airplane geeks here are some shots of the runway and airport. And, just for your enjoyment a video I took from Paro view-point of a plane coming in – amazing!

 

 

Please do click through to the links to read about the rest of my time in Bhutan.

Here for sightseeing in Thimpu

Here for my volunteering experiences

Here for the Tigers Nest Trek

I’d love to hear your comments and feedback…