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Diary from Bhutan: Discovering the dark side

Type: Article

Stephanie Earnshaw tells us about teachers' day and the King's visit. As if to counterbalance these joyful occasions, her eleventh diary entry turns into a bit of a ghost story session, featuring a daemon child and other scary creatures.

Teachers' day

May started positively for Bhutanese teachers as we celebrated teachers' day on the 2nd. Students in schools and colleges all over Bhutan showed their appreciation for their teachers by offering them gifts, singing songs and performing dances. This may surprise anyone who hasn't taught in Asia – teachers here get a great deal of respect! In India they take things one step further and students actually dress up as teachers and take the lessons, leaving the teachers to sit back and drink tea for the day. Here, we weren't quite that lucky but we did enjoy a student talent show, gifts and a delicious lunch, all organized and paid for by the college students. At school the children all brought sweets and drawings for all the teachers.

Teachers' day - student speech

Two weeks after teachers' day, the students at college were busy again organizing and participating in the annual sports day. Since this is the first year of the first private college in Bhutan, we were lucky enough to have the Minister for Education as our chief guest. As well as the usual athletic events there was also a tug-of-war contest between male teachers and students and a musical chairs competition for the women. I would've preferred tug-of-war but it was deemed unladylike. My complaints to the student government made no difference. As the Bhutanese say when your circumstances get the better of you: 'What to do, la?'

There are many thunder dragons (thunderstorms) in the air now as the monsoon is building up steam – literally. Dark clouds and rainy nights make for a mystical and spooky atmosphere. Thimphu also feels slightly eerie at the moment as there are rumours of headhunters going around. In old Bhutanese tradition it was customary to bury a human body, or head, in the foundations of every important public building. Since there are many new hydro-power constructions and bridges being built around Bhutan at the moment, the word is that the headhunters are out! Even in Thimphu no one wants to walk alone, even for short distances in broad daylight, and in the countryside people are even more anxious.

Sports day

On top of this, my colleagues have recently been enjoying telling me ghost stories, which they genuinely believe and often have first-hand experience of! One friend was telling me how his brother-in-law, who is a taxi driver, took a fare on a notoriously haunted road, which taxi drivers often refuse to drive down after dark. A young woman appeared on the road, hailed the taxi, got in the back door and signalled to go towards Thimphu city. When the driver arrived in the town centre and turned around to ask the passenger where she wanted to be dropped, no one was there!

In another story my colleague's sister was taking her children for an evening drive, when they passed a hunched old woman and a pale-faced child who stopped them and asked them for a lift. The family explained to the old woman they couldn't give her a lift as they were going in the opposite direction. As they drove off the children turned round to look out of the back window and saw that the old woman was actually a tall, beautiful and very angry witch with huge fangs! They sped away and fortunately the witch couldn't follow them as spirits and daemons are usually tied to fixed areas and cannot move beyond their boundaries.

In the scariest story of all, a friend of mine had gone to a small town in Eastern Bhutan to give a lecture to some trainee teachers. She arrived late in the evening and was shown to the small house where she would be staying. It was provided by the college where she was working so the caretaker showed her to her room but left promptly. My friend took a shower as it was very hot and she was dusty from the journey, and when she came back to her room, a small boy was sitting on the bed. She thought his mum must have sent him for an ear examination (my friend is an audiologist) but, as she was very tired, she asked him to come back the next day. He didn't move so she thought maybe he was deaf and tried to show him to the door. Eventually he left and my friend went to bed, locking the door after her.

Sports day

The next morning she woke up early only to find the little boy waiting at the end of her bed. She was mystified and somewhat afraid as she didn't know how he had got in through the locked door. She took him outside and told him to go and wait at the college for her. Once dressed, she went straight to the caretaker who told her the boy was a local daemon that manifested itself as a child to people who had a strong spirit and good karma protecting them, but to weak people as a huge angry daemon. He apologized for not warning her but said there was no point as the daemon always came to visit strangers and she was lucky it had come as a child and not a monster! My friend was terrified, gave her lectures as quickly as possible and drove the ten hours back to Thimphu without stopping. Since hearing all these ghost stories I think twice about going out alone at night!

The month ended on an exciting and happy note as, at school, we were lucky enough to have a visit from the King of Bhutan, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck. He's visited many schools in Thimphu recently but the visit was still a wonderful surprise. The King made a tour of the school, explaining to the children what Gross National Happiness means and handing out sweets and stationery. Afterwards he had a group picture with the teachers and spent a long time giving them a motivational talk about how they are the ones best placed to make a real difference to the future of Bhutan. I've never known teachers to get so much love and attention – and all in one month!

Teachers' day

 

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