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Diary from Bhutan: Goodbye and tashi delek!

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In her thirteenth and final diary entry, Stephanie Earnshaw waves farewell to Bhutan with a journey to explore the more rural east of the country, a last visit to the monks at Punakha and a good boogie at the staff leaving party.

July in Bhutan is the middle of the rainy season, so school and college students were on holiday. In August, I didn’t go back to school as my time in Bhutan was coming to an end, so I finished at the start of the monsoon holidays in mid-July. Since I wasn’t teaching, I had a lot of free time so I went for a trip to the east of the country and also paid one last visit to Lebeh and the monks at the monastery.

The trip was the first time I’d been so far east in Bhutan. The east is generally at a lower altitude than the north so it’s much hotter and wetter than in Thimphu, the capital (and where I live). People wear gho and kira (traditional dress) as they do everywhere in Bhutan, but the towns and villages are much smaller and many are not reachable by road.

Eastern Bhutan: View from the road

There’s only one road from the west to the east. It’s good but very windy and, for many stretches, it runs along the side of a mountain so, even though the country is not very large, it takes a long time to travel anywhere. One part of the eastern road was hacked into a sheer cliff face so treacherous that over 200 workers died in the making of it. They are remembered in shrines along the roadside.

The countryside is mostly jungle with the occasional glimpse, through the monsoon clouds, of huge mountains and deep valleys. We were very lucky not to be held up by landslides as they’re common at this time of year. Some people come back from their monsoon journeys with stories of running a gauntlet of boulders as they crash down onto the road from the cliffs above, but we were lucky enough to avoid this!

We got as far east as Tashigang, where there was an earthquake one afternoon while we were sitting in the garden of our guest house – luckily just a small one! We also visited a holy place nearby called Gom Kora, where we saw a garuda egg and climbed a rock that only those without sin can climb – although I have to admit we cheated by going up the back way which is much easier! The monks who live at this temple were busy re-varnishing the floor of the main prayer room when we came, which added an interesting aspect to the visit. You don’t expect to see a monk in robes varnishing the floor, but I guess they have to do it sometime!

On the way back to Thimphu, we stopped off at Tongsa in central Bhutan where we visited the winter palace of the 2nd King of Bhutan, Jigme Wangchuk. It felt as if he had only just been there, with the bedclothes still on his bed and a portrait of his wife on the altar of the prayer room. Near to the palace was a beautiful nunnery, only the second one I’ve visited in Bhutan, where we were welcomed with tea and tzao, a dried rice snack.
Sign at the nunnery near Tongsa
The nunnery is on the side of a vast valley on a road that leads down towards the south of Bhutan, and on into India. When we visited, there was a break in the monsoon rain long enough for us to see a beautiful rainbow and admire the huge, thunderous monsoon clouds rumbling from a distance. No wonder Bhutan is called the land of the thunder dragon!

When my trip was over, I paid one last visit to the monks I’ve been teaching in Punakha (two hours’ drive from Thimphu). Many of them, including Lebeh, the principal, are on a summer retreat, which means they’re not allowed to set foot outside of the monastery for 40 days. Lebeh explained to me that he is having trouble getting a visa cleared for the English teacher he’s chosen from the many applications he had after advertising. In the past, there have been problems with teachers in Bhutan getting involved with politics or behaving inappropriately, so the monastic body is very cautious about who they will allow into the country. However, Lebeh is still hopeful that he will have his English teacher soon. The guest house for the monastery is finished so they are now fully equipped for visitors!Punakha: Lebeh and the monks
I didn’t stay over this time, only to have tea with Lebeh and play a last few English language games with the monks. I’ll miss them, but Lebeh has promised to be in touch by email and he’s planning to visit London next spring so hopefully we’ll meet up then.

Thimphu: Staff party at Changankha school

At school we had a leaving party for me and some other teachers and helpers who were departing. We danced the night away, as we always do at staff parties, mixing traditional Bhutanese songs with music from Boney M and other seventies western classics. It was a fusion of Bhutanese and western dancing styles and, of course, everyone joined in! You can watch a contemporary music video here. This is my last Bhutan diary so, as they say in Bhutan, goodbye and tashi delek!

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