Archive for the ‘Bhutan’ Category

Tucson: Ending Beginning

Friday, June 12th, 2015

Got up at 5 this morning, no jet lag, on fire about this project. I threw a latte on that fire. No lattes for 2 weeks: don’t tell me I don’t suffer for my craft.

A few tentative sketches in my notebook from the trip developed into pages of ideas, and suddenly the project begins to take on some momentum. Sometimes design feels like a dance with a really annoying partner, someone you’d just assume bludgeon to death…and sometimes it flows. Going to Bhutan was exciting, but this is the end of the beginning, and the beginning of something even better.

Tokyo: Someone Else

Thursday, June 11th, 2015
Moisture off the ocean as I head to the airport

Moisture off the ocean as I head to the airport

Forgot about the time change last night: it was 7pm before I got outside and I wouldn’t have gotten to the awesome coffee downtown in time to enjoy it. Instead, I wandered around the neighborhood and ended up getting a beer and dinner. My pepto bismol moment last night argued otherwise, but what the hell. One cheapo Chang beer and some awesome fish and a dessert featuring coconut milk, corn, “sago” (no idea what that is), tapioca and a little onion, served hot…surprisingly satisfying considering I picked it all at random from the menu. The streets were loud with open restaurants blaring local rock, live bands competing with karaoke, radios and televisions. Somewhere, Stevie Wonder was still getting air time. It was hot and sticky simply walking around, shorts and flipflops definitely in order even at 10pm. I got back to the room, brushed my teeth, noticed the sink wasn’t draining, fumbled with the drain until I accidentally got it to work (press down, don’t pull up), considered once again what do do with the toilet paper (deposited into bags marked “sanitary bag” which then went into the trash if you must know…hope I was correct for the maid’s sake), set my alarm, arranged for a wake-up call, read about 2 pages, and that’s all I remember.

Departure concourse

Departure concourse, Suvarnabhumi Airport, Bangkok. I thought my name was tough.

I woke up at 5, got the wake up call at 530, got the van to the airport at 6, got through boarding pass and immigration and bag check by 630, hit the gate before 7, got kicked out of the gate at 715 (wasn’t open yet), got on the plane at 8, got to Tokyo by I can’t remember Tokyo time, deplaned and went through yet another tedious bag check even though it was a transfer, got to the American Airlines desk just 20 minutes before flight time for my next boarding pass, ran for the plane and was the last one on, stewardesses shaking their heads at me, hit LA 12 hours later on the same day I left so I could live through this all again, got through immigration by 1230pm local time, got my checked bag and passed through customs at 130 (long, long, long line), had all my paperwork in order and a valid green card (unlike the last time several years ago, which took some negotiating: these people are more agreeable than they appear) got to Terminal 4 by 145, passed through bag check TSA pre-approved by 2 even though they made me disassemble everything after all (I’m telling you, I look suspicious to them), took the bus to the remote American Eagle terminal and waited 2 hours for the plane that left finally at 4, slept until we hit Tucson at 540pm local time, got home at 630 thanks to my exceptional brother (the mature one), took a shower, threw my clothes in the washing machine, unpacked the rest of my stuff, and sat down to write about it all at 8.

Narita Los Angeles Tucson

Narita Los Angeles Tucson

This trip already feels like it happened to someone else.

Bangkok: Almost

Wednesday, June 10th, 2015
The Dzong at Paro

The Dzong at Paro

Driven to Paro from Thimphu to catch my plane to Bangkok, I couldn’t help falling asleep on the hour long trip. Not very good company for the driver.
I managed to compress all of my augmented belongings into two bags again, folding the Gho really carefully (the thing is huge), even folding my dirty laundry, finding room for this huge book of data on Bhutan and all of the other presents I’ve been given as well as the tchotchkies I’ve picked up here and there. Unfortunately its all so heavy now I can barely carry it. Exquisitely planned this trip was not, at least on my part. How my visas and tickets and transportation got arranged in 3 days by everyone else I have no idea.

I almost made it 2 weeks without getting sick. Almost!!! The night before I leave I end up with the runs, and it is not pleasant people! I’ll spare you the details.

In the airport it’s impossible to understand the announcements, so when a large number of people head for the door I assume its time to go. When I find my seat on the plane however, the video monitors show a 25 minute flight to Guwahati, India…not a much longer flight to Bangkok. Have I told you about once hopping an expensive overnight ferry from Mallorca to Barcelona, only to wake up in Ibiza? That was my 21st birthday. Anyway, some anxious inquiries suggest I’m on the correct flight anyway, and off we go. Bhutan slowly disappears into mist and then clouds, and I feel a little nostalgic, a little grateful, and a little eager to be home again.

We are warned that photography is not allowed at Guwahati, the same warning we got in Kolkata. A steward comes through after some passengers disembark, verifying that every bag in the overheads has an owner, and I suddenly realize they are very concerned about terrorism. I thought at first that they didn’t want the rather forlorn state of the infrastructure to become public knowledge.

Lunch is served on the next leg, chicken or veg, rice with more veg, roll, salad, yogurt, carrot cake (not too sweet or frosted thank god)…coffee…I sleep the whole way to Bangkok. There, we’re loaded onto a bus, delivered to the terminal, ushered with very confusing directions to immigration, directed to belt 10 for bags, I change $60 because I don’t know what to expect even though I’m only here for a day, and then I wander off to look for a phone to order up the hotel van. Only, when I’m directed to a phone, I can’t for the life of me figure out how much money to stick in it since it obviously isn’t free. I wander some more, find a guy who directs me to a guy, wander some more, get redirected to another guy, who calls the hotel on his cell, and then 10 minutes later escorts me to the van. “Wandering” seems like an inadequate system, but it worked for me.

Music videos on BANG TV

Music videos on BANG TV

Thai television is very…saccharine. It’s 6:30 pm. I have to get up at 5:30am to catch the flight to Tokyo…find the most amazing cup of coffee in Bangkok, which is 30 kilometers away, or catch a quick dinner locally, or simply call it a night…hmmmm.

Thimphu: Music

Monday, June 8th, 2015

Inspiring musical performances at 4:05am, 4:45am and 5:30am from the dog in the alley outside my hotel room window, with a dramatic chorus of his compatriots shortly thereafter, offer yet another perspective on the Thimphu art scene. While the musicality of the event proved erratic at best, the sheer power and emotional depth on display immediately captured my full attention. Plaintive high notes punctuated a bass line with real gravitas, and the resulting groove really connected with this audience. These artists evoked some powerful emotions.

Artist Troupe

Artist Troupe

Packs of these musicians roam the streets here in Thimphu, with impromptu performances a common daily occurrence, and all of it apparently free. God knows how they eat unless it’s each other, Buddhism notwithstanding. Gentrification of this artistic scene has not been a problem.

At 600am you can stand in the middle of the street

At 600am you can stand in the middle of the street

The main shopping street

The main shopping street

I felt a strange but palpable relief when the performance finally ended around 6am. Musicians paint with silence, it’s been said, and I’ve never appreciated it more than early this morning outside the Seryna hotel in this boogie capital of Bhutan.

Thimphu: East meets West

Sunday, June 7th, 2015

Invited to see a new hotel opening soon as part of a school for hotel management, I’m driven to a site dominated by a huge stone building punctured by irregular windows and somewhat encumbered by huge wood protrusions. Austrian design, Austrian engineering and Austrian money made it happen.

Austrian hotel

Austrian hotel


Tons of Indian steel imported to cantilever a roof for this reinterpretation of the traditional Bhutan attic

The construction manager is on site, and happily gives us a tour of the building. The stone and wood are local, but absolutely everything else came from Austria and India: steel, insulation, door and window fittings, bathroom fixtures, solar and mechanical and electrical equipment…the works. The problems of procurement, detailing and construction suggest an attitude not at all interested in what the local economy has to offer, but the problems run even deeper. The local architect failed to assert himself against the will of the Austrian architect, the government procurement policies prevented wood chip making machinery from finding a home here to support the heating plant, some of the equipment requires maintenance expertise unavailable in Bhutan, and some of the double-glazed panels on the ground floor are misting as their seals were broken in transport from India.

Inside, entering some of the rooms confronts you with clear glass panels into the bathroom. I can’t think of any culture, however libertine, that wouldn’t be offended. The rooms do have nice big windows.

Upstairs, the huge cantilevered roof offers a reinterpretation of the traditionally open Bhutanese attic. I can imagine the architect searching for a modern expression of traditional Bhutan typologies, and I’m in exactly the same boat as I consider the project that invited me here in the first place, and there is no denying the drama of this incredible roof: my stingy Dutch Calvinism rebels at the expense while my secular devotion to visceral placemaking stands in awe: getting this project built took guts. Hopefully furnishings, the hot tubs and a full bar will make the attic more hospitable then it is now. I leave the project after a cup of tea determined in any case to find a local architect who will kick my butt if I do anything that makes no sense here even if it might in the US.


OK: I ripped this pic off the web. The point is that the simple whitewashed stone volumes, very nicely designed lighting, and gorgeous wood interiors lend a sense of effortless elegance missing from the Austrian project.

Afterwards we visit the Amankora resort, and it is sensible and sensual and beautiful, without the ambitions of the Austrian project but also without the unfortunate problems. The Austrian project showed an architect working incredibly hard to carve out a modern Bhutanese architecture, while Amankora appears effortless and elegant and no less Bhutanese. Amankora seems more interested in the guest, Austria more interested in the architecture. Personally, I prefer simplicity to the highly wrought, that duality far more interesting to me than east and west.

Sculpture class somehow enduring the tourist onslaught

Sculpture class somehow enduring the tourist onslaught



Earlier in the day at the School for the 13 Sacred Traditional Arts, I had hoped to see metalwork and claywork and glasswork, but none of that was in evidence. Carving, weaving, embroidering and painting were the dominant arts, each primarily concerned with preserving ancient motifs and techniques.

If art prepares a culture for change, and this culture focuses its art on the past, I wonder how it will cope with the tidal wave of western influence the country has invited upon itself. Perhaps a focus on the past, on the other hand, is exactly the antidote required to survive. Perhaps politics is the way to address change, and art is a connection to the roots required to sustain you here. I certainly hope so.

Thimphu: Delay

Saturday, June 6th, 2015

We are scheduled to fly back across the country to Paro, but the 10am plane is said to have diverted to Kathmandu. Since this is in the opposite direction from that flight’s origin in Paro, we assume business interests intervened or possibly relief efforts. In any case, after sitting at the airport for a while, we head back to town. If the plane doesn’t come today at all, we face the rather nauseating prospect of driving all the way back the way we came.

Airport at Jakar

Airport at Jakar

I end up walking around, looking at trinket stores, stopping in at a weaving shop and chatting with the ladies before buying a small wallet from them. My client has suggested I wear the traditional Gho, and the result is that everyone does a double take when I walk by. It’s a fairly functional garment, but I find it absolutely impossible to don alone. I’m told every time that I’ve done it all wrong, and then no matter where I am, public or private, have to take it off for reassembly. As amusing as it is to stand in the middle of a public street in your underwear, I’ve taken to wearing shorts and a t shirt underneath.

The group eats lunch in a small restaurant behind a store, the usual and tasty rice and chile cheese and thousand-bone chicken and broccoli and fiddlehead ferns, plus some pineapple for dessert. Back at the airport, and a few hours later, the plane does arrive and we soar up out of the overcast into a bright blue sky, Kula Kangri to the right of the plane, or possibly Gangkhar Puensum, at 7570 m (24,836 feet) the tallest unclimbed peak in the world. The peaks are sacred: no climbing allowed.

Just writing that gives me pause: sacred. Is anything really sacred anymore? I’m reminded of a moment in my youth, when I was admonished for mowing my aunt’s lawn in Harmelen, the Netherlands on a Sunday. It was a hand mower (no noise, hardly!), but mowing was forbidden on Sundays. Sundays were sacred! I could never quite figure out, however, if Sundays were literally considered sacred (my family was never very religious, my mother’s protestations notwithstanding…she married a Protestant after all), or if this was a form of community policing. I might disturb the neighbors. I remember the admonishment in any case as a real affront: I had in just a few years abroad fully absorbed both the work ethic and sense of freedom or perhaps entitlement demanded by life in the United States. It never even occurred to me that I myself, or at least my industriousness, might be an affront to the Sunday tranquility expected by the neighbors.

The peaks in Bhutan, in any case, are sacred. Climbing them would be an affront to…again the question: community norms, an actual religious belief, a practice born from experience that life stops at the treeline…? So many religious tenants taken on faith today apparently stemmed from the practical requirements of ancient life, it is easy to imagine a culture naming the peaks sacred in acknowledgment of the fact that they were deadly. Research for another day.

The plane ride is so unnervingly bumpy, they hand us our snacks as we disembark in Paro.


Ricefields near Paro

It’s a 75 minute drive to Thimphu, and though we drove it on the first day in the country it looks and feels completely undiscovered. I don’t recognize a thing and keep looking at a map to see if this is some other route, but there is no other route. Its possible the trip here from the US had put me in a hallucinatory state. Thimphu at least looks like a place I’ve been to before.

There aren’t enough rooms in the hotel, so I get a room a few doors down from the main group. Its immediately clear that very few people where a Gho here, so I put my regular clothes back on, take advantage of the free 20 minute chair massage offered by the hotel, and then get whisked off for dinner with one of the partners of the project that invited me here. At his home we drink way too much beer, the alcohol heavy “11000” type, chat about the project, munch on yak and chicken and asparagus and salad, top it off with ice cream (It’s been weeks!), and then finally, hours after the ladies have retired, head back to the hotel.

The headache hits me the next morning, an 8 hour delay.

Jakar: Construction

Friday, June 5th, 2015

Today we’re visiting construction sites: restoration projects, historical expansion projects, new construction, whatever we can find and barge in on.


We start at another monastery, this one expanding with a new two story residential wing as well as a new temple that artfully swallows a much smaller temple originally on the site.
I learn about statues made of clay and paper containing scrolls and sandlewood and precious stones all hidden from view.


I learn how they make mud bricks here, the process exactly as I saw it in the Sahara only with pine needles here providing the tensile strength. I learned how they carve wood and fabricate ornate reinforced gypsum panels.



Jakar 7

Jakar 6

I see statues intricately formed, containing forever hidden from view various scrolls or jewels or valuables…

Jakar 8

For a moment we consider a good CNC machine, a computer driven cutter or router that could produce elaborately carved wood in a fraction of the time and expense of traditional carving, but then we imagine an entire craft laid to waste by the power of those machines and the whole enterprise feels obscene and quite antithetical to gross national happiness.

Jakar 2

Afterwards we stop at a new Thai hotel under construction, a vast complex devoted to only 9 guest rooms charging thousands of dollars a night when complete. The site superintendent allows me to review the construction document set, and he offers details as well about material pricing and labor cost. The complex is almost alarmingly modern, with huge expanses of glass, but in the end it is only selling a room for the night, albeit a room with its own private courtyard. I feel that our project will be selling a powerful, visceral experience, not just a room, and that distinction feels important.


Next we find the Aman hotel, easily the most refined and modern interpretation of traditional Bhutanese architecture we’ve seen. The manager happily spends an hour with us, showing us the entire hotel, explaining the financial picture, offering us coffee and cookies, and relating his own background. After training in the army he started in the laundry of the hotel, working hard and moving up slowly until he was offered training so that he could eventually become the manager. It’s what we might recognize as the American Dream: only it’s universal. No surprise. I only wish we’d chuck this American exceptionalism…which is just another name for nationalism…which is probably also universal. Sigh, I’m glad we’ve had this talk.


We stop at a handicraft store to buy trinkets, and later that night there’s traditional dancing and way too much arra, this time mixed with hard cider in glasses rimmed with honey and salt. We name the drink “thunderbolts of infinite wisdom”, though I doubt I’m any smarter for the encounter. They have this awesome bowl of fried potato shavings with a touch of red chile in it that is better than potato chips. In any case, despite overindulging I feel only slightly buzzed and later feel no hangover at all. It’s a miracle.

The dancing is highly stylized, relies heavily on hand gestures, and to my untrained eyes and ears feels very repetitive. When I ask if their dances ever express masculine energy or ever celebrate randomness, I’m told that’s a different category of effort. I also get dubious looks from the group, all of them aware that I’m not a practicing Buddhist and really should try meditating for a few years before asking questions. They’re very nice about it though!

Something about seeing the dances in the hotel feels inauthentic or strange. Perhaps the problem with inviting dancers into a hotel for the guests is that it makes the dancers the visitors instead of the tourists. If we were to visit the dancers outside of the hotel, then we would be the invitees on their turf, and perhaps the relationships would feel less awkward. Or perhaps the lack of a stage, a backdrop set apart from the audience, infected the performance with the mundanities of real life even though the costumes and music set them apart. I don’t fully understand the problem, but I do know these dancers brought a lot of effort and talent to bear, and they deserve a venue free of these social or psychological impediments.

Tharpaling Monastery: Two heads not better than one

Thursday, June 4th, 2015

Above and to the east of our site lies the Tharpaling Monastery that gives our company in part it’s name. We spend the day there, the event a bit of a pilgrimage for the rest of the group.


The hour drive from Jakar has become familiar to me now, winding through the Blue Pine forests of Bumthang and ultimately turning off the main road onto the farm track that leads past the entrance to our project site, up past some new paving work, past the Monastery’s gift shop, winding up finally to the main gate where we park. That paving job had young children and nursing mothers on a public works crew unlike any I’ve ever seen anywhere. I keep noticing that the women do all the heavy lifting in this culture, on this paving project but also on all these construction sites I visit.  If it’s rammed earth then its the women lifting huge bags of earth and tamping with these heavy tools, with the men standing around pointing. Sort of like my house…(hi Polly!)


The Monastery sits on a steep slope, and though it looks modest at first we discover there are many more buildings sprinkled up the slope. Far above, on the ridge line, there’s a modest chapel commemorating the site of one particularly important monk and his notable meditations, and that’s where I set my sights. The climb is steep, the altitude is high, and I could frankly be exercising more, but I take it slow and easy all the way to the top. Along the way, a variety of monks check out the white guy in a Gho (Kazuzampo-La!), but at least I’m wearing it correctly today. Somewhere around 11,000 feet my head begins to suggest alternate plans, but some other  head disagrees and both heads and I continue up. The unheard head starts to throw a tantrum as I hit the tree line and then the ridge line, and its obvious the argument will not be settled. Stubbornness prevails, and finally all three of us make it to the final alter somewhere around 12,000ft I’m told.



There’s a great view into the next valley, which the Buddha statue turns his back to in favor of the way I came.  Far below lies Tharpaling, and were it not for the headache I might have lingered. Unsure of what the rest of the group might be up to, it seems just as well that I head back. As it turns out, they got an audience with the head monk and it was an incredibly emotional experience.


We eat a late picnic lunch up there at the monastery and head back to town, the hour late enough that we skip another visit to the project site.

Jakar: Drinking it all in

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2015

We’re up at 4:30 am at my insistence that we experience the site at dawn.


Site, facing south, just after dawn

The valley is such that your first experience of the sun in the morning is not facing east but facing west, the light illuminating the western edge of the bowl: the fir trees on the western crest. Obvious intellectually, but now made visceral by simply being there and seeing it. There’s a lot of manure on the site, and not many mature trees, and the sound of the adjacent stream provides a soft and reassuring…not musicality, but perhaps aurality?


Upper, northern, end of site remains wooded with reasonably mature trees

In any case, the sound of falling trees and chainsaws obliterated it. The logging is prescribed and not at all like the commercial clearcutting we might expect, and a story recognizing the many perhaps responsible uses of land may resonate, but there’s nothing remotely pleasing about a machine killing trees. There’s a challenge to this project.


Panorama from upper site sweeping east, south, west

The former owner of the land, a lady who lives nearby, walks the perimeter with us so that we might understand the boundaries of our plot. I have a Google Earth image and I have a site survey, but I need help overlaying the two. Slowly, simply by spending time there, a conception of how to organize this project starts to take shape in my mind.


Facing south. The tracks are clearly visible on Google Earth.


This remarkable creature stopped by to check us out, but didn’t have much to say:


Nap disturbed, but unperturbed.

We are invited to have breakfast, and find ourselves at a tall and imposing farmhouse arranged around a courtyard. We shed our shoes on the second floor, and find seats on thick and colorful rugs just off the kitchen. Our hostess offers tea and bowls of rustic maize flakes and cookies, followed by red rice and chile cheese, the latter quite common but here absolutely delicious. One of two sisters lives here alone, the place untenably huge but maintained nonetheless by what must be an absolutely cast iron will.


Approaching the Farmhouse

One room of the house is dedicated entirely to an altar, a candle lit perhaps always, the walls papered with newsprint, musical instruments lying here and there. The house is the opposite of modern, dense and old and rich in color and detail, and while I feel painfully enclosed and claustrophobic, I leave both grateful and impressed.


Entry to the Farmhouse

No breakfast is apparently complete without a stiff drink, and so we end our visit with a bowl of arra.


Farmhouse Courtyard

Later we stop at a local brewery ato taste hard cider and apple brandy, because, you know, one bowl of booze in the morning will barely get you through to lunch.


Kids in front of the Brewery

Trongsa: Buddha Day

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2015
Approaching Trongsa

Approaching Trongsa

We spend the next day in Trongsa Castle. Its Buddha’s birthday, so merits are worth a million times their usual value. Kindness pays today! I’m helping little old ladies up stairs, I’m handing out bits of cash at alters here and there, and I’m thinking only benevolent thoughts. I’m banking some serious merits, but it also starts to feel a bit burdensome. Later in the day though, I discover I can dedicate my merits to all sentient beings with the proper incantations. It’s a big relief.

Trongsa 9

Bridge over the moat: it is a castle after all

It’s also my mom’s birthday. Gefeliciteerd moedertje!

Monks inside the Dzong in Trongsa

Monks inside the Dzong in Trongsa


Lower courtyard

We sit in on the monks and their Buddha birthday ceremony, which I record on my phone. Photography is not allowed, but honestly it feels like watching a group of goofy guys eating lunch; except for this one guy in a yellow robe with a whip and a chain of wooden beads who maintains pacing and discipline. In any case, it’s an interesting spectacle, I root for the guys having fun when the disciplinarian steps out, and we finally leave them mid ritual. It can go on for a couple of hours, and we don’t understand a word of it, but it feels like a privilege nonetheless.

This little offering was parked outside the main entrance to the Dzong:

Trongsa 10

Offering outside main entrance

We head to Jakar, another long drive on the same narrow national highway, squeezing past oncoming traffic, dodging cows and dogs, past crenelated precipices and flag festooned chortans, over another fog shrouded pass, until we meet the governor of Bumthang prefecture along the side of the road with his wife, and we stop for a few bowls of arra. It tastes like pine, but pleasantly so, this version slightly pink and poured from a 2 liter Fanta bottle, packing a hefty kick in the pants. A couple of people can’t drink it, but you know I hate to see anything go to waste. It’s a Dutch thing.

Yotang La

Chortan and prayer flags, Yotang La

The governor (actually he’s not elected but appointed, the role similar to a French Prefect) is a partner in Tharpaling Norbu, the company that invited me here to help them plan and design a resort. I leave the group on the bus for the guv’s chauffeured 4×4, and 4 of us now head to the proposed site for the project. Down a rutted dirt road, past farms and farmhouses, we turn off suddenly to an even worse mud logging track, fording several stream crossings until we rise up into a vast clearing surrounded on all sides by pine forest.

It is a damaged site, cleared and farmed once for buckwheat, then converted to a dairy operation and finally left for itinerant grazing. High on the site stand some older trees and vestiges of the original forest, with new growth beginning to fill in the flanks. A healthy stream borders the west edge, a more tepid and marshier flow to the east. The entire slope faces south, towards more distant hills and a distant temple and of course the sun. To use the project to repair this place, to make it whole, feels like a truly worthy intention.

We head to Jakar after dark, the journey quite jarring but only an hour, get lost in the darkness but finally locate the hotel, share a small meal, and call it finally a night.