Personal Journeys


March 21, 2004|By Special to the Sun

A Memorable Place

A glimpse into rarely seen Bhutan

By Sally Foster


Where are you going?" a friend asked.

"Bhutan," I answered.

Seeing her blank expression, I explained that Bhutan is in the Himalayas, wedged between China and India. "It is sometimes called Druk Yul -- Land of the Thunder Dragon."

Only about 6,000 visitors are allowed to enter the small country each year, and they are required to be on guided tours. I signed up with Country Walkers for a nine-day walking tour of the three main areas open to tourists -- Paro, Thimphu and Punakha.

There were seven of us on the tour with two guides. The second day of the trip was my birthday. We started that day in Paro Valley, and after breakfast drove to Kyichu Lhakhang, a temple built in the seventh century.

We went through an archway into a courtyard where there were colorful prayer flags attached to long poles and smaller prayer flags hanging from a line.

We entered a small temple and sat on the floor against the wall. The Buddhist monks sitting in front of us were chanting softly. A shaft of light coming through the window highlighted their burgundy robes, and incense filled the air.

When the monks finished chanting, we followed them into the courtyard. Just outside the courtyard a woman was threshing rice. She was using a flail -- a free-swinging stick attached to the end of a longer wooden handle -- to separate the rice from its hulls. I asked her if I could try it, and she agreed.

I picked up the flail, lifted it high over my head and brought it down with a heavy whack into the container of rice. It was a little like fly-fishing (which I have never done) -- there is the same danger of getting snared by your own device. I gave a few more successful whacks and handed the flail back to the woman.

One of our guides said, "You look like you have done this before." I didn't tell him that I own an antique flail, but that I have never used it.

Later we walked into the town of Paro and saw people threshing rice against a backdrop of the Himalayas. We saw chiles drying on roofs of houses that had colorful wooden trim. And we passed women whose big smiles revealed teeth stained by years of chewing red betel nuts.

After lunch in a local restaurant, we walked up a steep path to visit Dzongdrakha Goempa. In this small temple, we each lit a butter lamp. We knew we were in a part of the world seldom seen by outsiders.

A guidebook said that in Bhutan, visitors will be "so close to heaven." Indeed, that's the way it seemed. It was the best birthday I have ever had.

Sally Foster lives in Baltimore.

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Let Us Hear From You

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* Readers Recommend -- Briefly tell us about places you've recently visited that you'd recommend to other readers. (50 words or less; photos are welcome.)

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