Bhutan : # 9 Talo Nunnery and Punakha Dzong

Following on from our visit to the Temple dedicated of the Mad Monk, we drove back north along rural roads to visit Talo Nunnery.  And then, on this our last day in this beautiful area, we wound our way back to the confluence of the Mo Chhu and the Po Chhu, where, finally, we had our chance to enjoy the majestic Punakha Dzong.


P1000609 ©  Trevor

P1000609 © Trevor

The drive back through the Talo area was again a real pleasure… stunning scenery.


P1000611  ©  Trevor

P1000611 © Trevor

As we approached the Talo Nunnery, Trevor captured this delightful photo of four nuns rushing back up the hill.  They are used to going up and down the hill…. no huff and puff for them!  “Twas a different story for us.


P1000487  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000487 © DY of jtdytravels

And this is where they live, the Talo Nunnery, one of the better nunneries in Bhutan.  Our visit here highlighted the vital need, as in so many developing countries, to provide and support education for women and girls.  In Bhutan, this can often best be done through nunneries, in the same way that many boys receive their education through monasteries.

Together with the photos of this nunnery, we’ve added notes from a write up on the Bhutan Nuns Foundation, (BNF), which will best explain this need.  The BNF is a non-profit organization that was established in 2006 under the patronage of Her Majesty Ashi Tshering Yangdon Wangchuck, mother of the current king.

BNF’s vision is to:

” Support nuns and nunneries as an important means to ensuring that all girls and women in Bhutan are valued and have access to quality education and a fulfilling life, regardless of income, status, or geographic location. Education of nuns in Bhutan is an important development objective that strongly supports the goals of Gross National Happiness. The Foundation thus seeks to help make nunneries leading agents and self-reliant institutions for women.”


P1000680  ©  Trevor

P1000680 © Trevor

A closer view of the window glass and decorations.

This nunnery is better than most. BNF tells us that “for most of Bhutan’s nuns, life is very harsh. Most nunneries are located in very remote areas.  They often lack clean water, electricity, bathrooms for sanitation, and adequate nutrition in their daily meals. If a nun becomes ill, she often must hike for three hours or more to reach the nearest health center. Basic living conditions usually are very poor.  Nuns often lack basic essentials, such as a dry room for sleeping and private places to study and perform daily meditation practice. The physical structures of many nunneries are seriously dilapidated and some are even structurally unsafe. ”


P1000489  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000489 © DY of jtdytravels

An unusual and effective way of moving water from the roof to the ground!

More from BNF: “Unlike the monasteries for men and boys which are beneficiaries of state or private support, nunneries in Bhutan receive no government funding. Private and community support is also extremely limited leaving the girls and women in many nunneries vulnerable and neglected. It is sad that so little of their potential to serve society and contribute to its collective happiness is ever realized. That such a paradoxical situation should prevail in a country which prides itself over an absence of gender bias has never been explained. One can only rationalize that this has to do with lack of resources and too many competing needs in a poor, less developed country.

Overall, almost none of Bhutan’s nunneries provide a proper learning environment. There is great potential and passion for nuns to receive a good education at nunneries.  However, the nunneries do not have any standardized curriculum or evaluation systems. Above all, they do not have qualified teachers who are committed or have the capability to give them a proper education either for spiritual enrichment or for a productive lay life upon leaving the nunneries.”


P1000492 ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000492 © DY of jtdytravels

A close up of decorations on wood work.

More notes from BNF. “There are, of course, girls and women in Bhutan who become nuns to seek a peaceful, selfless and spiritual life. They are inspired by the belief that as nuns they can contribute to the well being and happiness of all sentient beings through direct action or, at the very least, through their prayers. But there are also those in the nunneries who have come purely for refuge from extreme poverty, overwhelming social challenges, loss of family and deprivation. Many have also joined and many more will continue to find their way into the nunneries in search of alternative education. While a few of them come from the middle class, the majority of them come from poor homes and receive no support of any kind from their families.”


P1000491  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000491 © DY of jtdytravels

Rather strange and fascinating decorations on a window and door.

“The Bhutan Nuns Foundation is building a Training Centre in Thimphu which will be the first ever gathering place in Bhutan for nuns to meet each other, and receive training, outside of their own nunneries.  BNF will provide all aspects of this center, from acquiring the land to later providing training and supplies to the nuns, once the center opens.  We are very proud to create this important space for the nuns of Bhutan.

Thanks to the generosity of Drathshang Lhentshog (the Central Monastic Body of Bhutan), the Bhutan Nuns Foundation was awarded 9+ acres of land in Tsalu Maphey on the outskirts of Thimphu for the purpose of creating our Training Center. We are deeply grateful for this donation to BNF.

The center will provide a space for nuns from across Bhutan to meet each other, enhancing the sense of community between the nuns of Bhutan, and receive training on health & hygiene, nutrition, management & leadership, teacher training, basic entrepreneurial skills, and instruction in many other hands-on skills.  This center will not only help the nuns develop their own self-reliance and sustainability, but also create a ripple effect for the society at large, as the nuns will be trained to later provide similar instruction and services to the people of Bhutan.”


P1000495  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000495 © DY of jtdytravels

When we are privileged to visit countries such as Bhutan, it is important, I believe, to look a little deeper than the beauty of the countryside, and to learn something of the reality of the life of the people and their aspirations for the future.  We wish the BNF all the very best in their endeavours to improve the lot of Bhutanese women and girls.


P1000497  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000497 © DY of jtdytravels

We left the hills of Talo to drive back down into the valley, to stop once more at that wonderful view of Punakha Dzong built at the confluence of the Mo Chhu and the Po Chhu, the Mother and Father Rivers.


P1000498  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000498 © DY of jtdytravels

It was lunch time, and this time lunch was served from traditional tiffins.


P1000499  ©  DY  of jtdytravels

P1000499 © DY of jtdytravels

Punakha Dzong holds great significance for the people of Bhutan.  Not only is it the most beautiful Dzong in the country, it is the second oldest.  It was designed by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, who built the Drugyel Dzong near Paro ( the one that we visited earlier in this series).  The building was started in 1637 and completed in 1638, at a time when the Shabdrung was the first religious-political leader of Bhutan after he had worked so hard to unify the country.  He died here at Punakha and is embalmed in a casket in a room within the Dzong.  His casket is cared for and guarded by two lamas.  The only other people permitted to enter that room are the King and the Head Abbot. It is traditional for them to visit this room when they first take office.

This Dzong has been the venue for the coronation of every Bhutanese King and was the seat of government until 1955 when the Capital was moved to Thimphu.  It’s still the winter home of the Head Abbot and about 600 monks from Thimphu because the climate here is much more temperate than in the city.


P1000502  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000502 © DY of jtdytravels

The entrance to the Dzong is quite impressive. Because originally the Dzong was built as a fort, the steep wooden staircase, above the stone steps, are designed to be drawn up at night before a heavy wooden door is closed.

Let’s go inside and have a wander around this most impressive Dzong.


P1000503  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000503 © DY of jtdytravels

The Dzong is highly decorated and has some beautiful prayer wheels.


P1000504  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000504 © DY of jtdytravels

An elegant stupa within the Dzong.


P1000505  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000505 © DY of jtdytravels

Almost every piece of timber in these buildings is highly decorated.


P1000516  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000516 © DY of jtdytravels

Our guide, Leki, used the main courtyard to gather us together to explain the story of this Dzong. He’s wearing the traditional costume of a gho, a knee-length robe somewhat like a kimono. It’s tied at the waist by a belt known as Kera. The front of the gho forms a pouch which originally was used for carrying food bowls and a small dagger. Now, however it is more likely to be used to carry a mobile phone and a wallet! Across his shoulder he wears a white scarf, or Kabney. These scarves must be worn when in a Dzong and different colours denote rank and position in society.  The King and the Je Khenpo, the head Abbot, are the only ones who can wear a saffron coloured scarf.  Ministers in Government wear Orange; Judges wear green; a District Administrator wears Red with a small white stripe; and commoners wear white.

Women also wear a scarf, a Rachu, but they wear it over a shoulder and there is no rank associated with colour. Rachus are usually woven from raw silk and are richly embroidered in various patterns.


P1000508  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000508 © DY of jtdytravels

It was a fairly quiet day in the courtyards of the Dzong.  It’s probably better to visit here earlier in the year, like I did in 2003, when the monks are in residence and the place is full of activity.


P1000509  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000509 © DY of jtdytravels

 Another courtyard.


P1000511  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000511 © DY of jtdytravels

A close up of some of the decorations.


P1000514  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000514 © DY of jtdytravels

Every door and window is decorated.


P1000513  ©  DY  of jtdytravels

P1000513 © DY of jtdytravels

A close up of a window and door.


P1000515  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000515 © DY of jtdytravels

There are always some areas of the Dzong decorated with of these brightly coloured hangings. But when there’s something really special to be celebrated at the Dzong, the whole building flutters with such colour. I was lucky enough to see the Dzong in full decorated glory in 2003 when preparations were being made for a visit by the King.  He was coming to celebrate the renovation of the Dzong after a devastating flood in 1994.  Twenty three people perished in that flood and a memorial to their memory was erected just outside the dzong.


P1000512  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000512 © DY of jtdytravels

There’s so much to see here and never enough time to absorb it all.


P1000517  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000517 © DY of jtdytravels

When our time at the Dzong was up, we walked back across the Mo Chhu by a fairly new covered cantilevered wooden bridge.  This bridge with a span of 55m (180ft) was not here when I was in Bhutan in 2003.  The original bridge, that was built at the same time as the Dzong back in the 17th Century, was washed away by a flash flood in 1957.   There was just a temporary bridge here until this new bridge was completed and opened in 2008.  That opening timed for celebrations of 100 years of the Wangchuck Monarchy. It was also ready for the Coronation of the current King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck.


 photo from the web

photo from the web

And King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck would have walked across this bridge in October 2011 when he married Jetsun Pema, a commoner, daughter of one of the Druk Air pilots. This young King follows in his father’s footsteps, determined to guide his people through the challenges associated with the modernization of his country.


P1000522  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000522 © DY of jtdytravels

Back at the hotel, umbrellas were in readiness at the door!

We had visited Punakha Dzong just in time… the weather was indeed about to change!


P1000360  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000360 © DY of jtdytravels

This was our last night at our Punakha hotel … and a last look at that view!

I hope you have enjoyed your short armchair holiday in this wonderfully scenic valley.

Just maybe, one day you will get there to enjoy it in reality.

More anon


Photography copyright ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

more of our travel stories can be found on





Bhutan #8 : Sosokha and Legends of a Divine Madman

After a rather uncomfortable afternoon and evening, I was feeling much better by the next morning and ready to join in more exploration of the scenic Punakha Valley.  We planned to travel south along the Mo Chhu to the fertile Lobesa farmlands and make a stop at the village of Sosokha.  This village makes the most of the tourism and souveneir trade associated with the ‘Divine Madman’, Lama Drukpa Kunley.  The phallic symbolism, so prevalent in rural Bhutan, grew up around the legends associated with this rather wayward monk’s life in the 1500s.  The Chimi Lakhang Temple, built in his honour in the 1500s, is a 25 minute walk through rice fields from the village.


P1000339  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000339 © DY of jtdytravels

On the drive south, we passed by the beautiful Punakha Dzong and were promised a visit there on the way back.  I just hoped the weather would hold.  The forecast threatened rain and this was one place in Bhutan that we did not want to miss out on or, indeed, have our visit spoiled by rain.  But the itinerary, as planned, had to be adhered to, no matter what… that’s the nature of group tours, is it not?


P1000454  ©  DY of jtdytravels

P1000454 © DY of jtdytravels

However, we did demand that the bus at least stop at the entrance to the Dzong when we noticed a group of women singing.  Sometimes you just have to take the moment when it presents itself!  And this is where we heard the Talo singers performing those special songs from Talo which, by centuries old tradition, could, until recently, only be heard at the Talo Festival in March.  The songs were, in my view, quite durgy, but they are obviously of great import to the locals.


P1000458  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000458 © DY of jtdytravels

Hanging over a fence watching the ladies sing, were a group of locals.  Now I don’t know, and I shouldn’t make assumptions, but it appears from their faces that they are perhaps not too pleased, or at least surprised, that these songs are being performed outside of Talo and outside of Festival time.  Or maybe they were just listening intently to the words which, of course, I didn’t understand.  Whatever …, there’s not a lot of smiling.

This was just one of those small moments of happen-stance that can occur when travelling if we are willing and able to stop and take in what is actually happening around us and not just follow the scripted itinerary.

Our next stop was Sosokha.  And before we go on with the photos, let me warn you that it can be somewhat embarrassing, for those of us who live outside of Bhutan, to walk into a village such as this where every house, restaurant, cafe and shop is painted with a large and quite explicit phallic symbol.  They are just a fact of life here.  Bhutanese tradition has it that these symbols will drive away the evil eye and malicious gossip.


P1000465  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000465 © DY of jtdytravels

Various paintings and window decorations, including a phallic symbol, are common on village houses such as this one in rural Sosokha.  However, this symbol is now not often seen on modern houses in the capital city of Bhutan, Thimphu.  That’s perhaps just another aspect of this country becoming more in tune with the outside world.  And this symbolism is not generally part of the decorations on most monasteries and dzongs which are revered as places of worship.  But, just about everywhere else in Bhutan… yes, it’s a big and very obvious feature.  Some are ‘gift-wrapped’ with bows and the like, others a little less ornate but most seem to arise to the occasion!


P1000461  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000461 © DY of jtdytravels

A local cafe, suitably embellished.  No malicious gossip here, please.  Although, what we can gossip about are the myths and legends that underpin how this symbol became such an important part of Bhutanese custom.

Oral history in Bhutan infers that the phallus was an integral part of an unorthodox form of animistic and shamanistic religion called Bon which existed in Bhutan before Buddhism became the state religion.

And although there are many legends, myths and stories surrounding the use of this symbol, most of them refer to Lama Drukpa Kunley, a monk who lived in the late 1400s and early 15oos.  Referred to as the “Mad Saint” or “Divine Madman”, he was known for his bizarre lifestyle and total lack of inhibition and for his ‘shock-treatment’ ways of teaching.  He’s said to have used poetry, song, dance, humour, drink, and, not least, sex to teach his contemporaries the great lessons of life. He was a great seducer of women and apparently sired many children across the countryside, although he was never married.  I’m not sure how he would be viewed today in a time when monks have adopted a celibate lifestyle!

According to some, the mere mention of Drukpa Kunley will, ‘invariably, draw a mischievous smile on the face of most Bhutanese men and a red tinge in the face of many Bhutanese maidens’.  He is possibly partly responsible for the very strongly male dominated Bhutanese society, something which may change with the modernisation of the country.  (By the way, the current changes in Bhutan are termed modernisation NOT westernisation… there is a difference!)


Book Cover

Book Cover

Above is a photo of the cover of a book about the life of Drukpa Kunley.  He was, it seems, a relentless critic of the common man, be that man a monk or a farmer.  He mocked both secular and religious establishments, was not bound by commonly held views of morality and conventionalism, and spoke out against what he saw as the narrow-mindedness of people who do little more in life than ‘stake out and defend their own insular existence’.  He now has legendary status.

Our walk from this village of Sosokha would take us through farmlands to Chimi Lakhang Temple, the so called ‘Temple of Fertility’, which is dedicated to Drukpa Kunley.


P1000469  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000469 © DY of jtdytravels

On that walk, I was reminded very strongly of the paintings of Monet!


P1000470  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000470 © DY of jtdytravels

But a slight turn in direction and I was firmly back in Bhutan!

Mountains, rice fields, a chorten and prayer flags – all so very Bhutanese.


P1000471  ©  DY  of jtdytravels

P1000471 © DY of jtdytravels

Along the way, we came upon this test field of the various varieties of rice already released in Bhutan.  Research into rice growing and improved farming techniques is one of the key on-going programs in Bhutan today.

According to a report on the economic impact assessment of the rice research program in Bhutan,  D. PEMA CHOEPHYEL, Director of the Council for Research and Extension in Bhutan, states that rice is “indispensable in the Bhutanese diet and culture; without rice, hunger remains insatiable and divine offerings stay unfulfilled.  In the good old times, there was enough rice for every-one, even a little extra for trading with neighbouring Tibet.  Now, Bhutan needs to import (some) milled rice annually.  The situation would have been worse if not for the national rice research and development program.

The remarkable journey of rice research in Bhutan began in 1984… and has… come a long way, starting from scratch to now building a redoubtable national research system that has started paying rich dividends.  This report attempts to document the impact in the country.  As uncovered in the study, we are proud to note that rice production has been increasing steadily over the years, improved rice technologies have led to an increase in national rice output, farmers have been adopting improved technologies with high net returns, and household food security has improved markedly.”


P1000472  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000472 © DY of jtdytravels

A view back to the village across the rice farms.


P1000473  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000473 © DY of jtdytravels

Closer to the temple, we came across a handicraft shop, selling, amongst other souvenirs, various representations of the famous phallic symbol.  Many Bhutanese tourists as well as international visitors, come to this temple.  It is one of the most visited temples in all of Bhutan so the people of the village do a good trade.  I wonder what the mad monk would think of this use of his name and his lifestyle for commercial gain.


P1000474  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000474 © DY of jtdytravels

As usual when travelling, I looked for something suitable to hang on our Christmas tree.

I decided on one of these small dolls.


P1000477  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000477 © DY of jtdytravels

Although archery is the main traditional sport of Bhutan, Khuru is another popular game played with the aim of striking a small target.  Unlike archery, Khuru requires only a relatively simple kit of darts and target and can be enjoyed in any village field.  We stopped for awhile to watch a group of young men show off their skill at this sport.


P1000478  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000478 © DY of jtdytravels

The dart has to be thrown over a long distance at a very small target.


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P1000480 © DY of jtdytravels

As we neared the Temple, a group of monks approached us.

They wore the typical red robes of Bhutanese monks.


Black Chorten at …. (photo from web)

Chimi Lakhang Temple (photo from web)

The Chimi Lakhang (or ‘No Dog’) Temple was built late in the 1500s, in honour of the mad monk. Legend has it that Lama Drukpa Kunley earned this honour by subduing a demoness at Dochu La.  She, it is said, had been demonising the locals and he probably subdued her in his usual seductive way, using his ‘flaming thunderbolt of infinite wisdom”… now there’s a fancy euphemism for you if ever I heard one!  He then killed the demoness, who by then, legend affirms, had taken the form of a dog.  After saying “No Dog”, he then buried the remains of the dog under a mound on, presumably, this hill. And then he’s said to have built the black chorten seen on the right in the photo. 

This temple is also referred to as the ‘Temple of Fertility’ and infertile couples come from all over Bhutan to receive a blessing to help them conceive a child.  Since the mad monk was known for his uncontrolled lust and womanising, one of his greatest gifts to countless beneficiaries of his lust was: children; the gift was life itself.

And there you have it, a couple of  legends associated with this temple.


P1000483  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000483 © DY of jtdytravels

Nowadays, the monastery associated with the temple, is a place of education for young boys since monasteries are one of the best ways for poor people to have their boys educated in Bhutan.  The boys don’t have to stay as monks once educated but they can choose to stay on if they so wish.  I wonder what the future holds for these two?

And just before we leave this famous temple with its various legends,

here’s your flower for today…


P1000482  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000482 © DY of jtdytravels

… a beautiful waterlily in a pond by the temple.

Now you didn’t expect that, did you?

more anon


All photography © copyright David Young

Thanks to Jennie for the research for this story

More of our travels stories and photos can be found on



Bhutan : # 7 Talo Village and the Royal Queens

The afternoon drive took the group to the south west of Punakha.  It was a rather slow drive along winding, hilly roads up to a height of 2,800 m to the village of Talo, high above the Mo Chhu.

Photo : Trevor

P1000623   ©   Trevor

With houses scattered along hill slopes, this village is known in the brochures for its ‘cleanliness and hygiene’ among Punakha villages – a tidy town contender!  It’s also known for its beautiful women, a fact we’ll discover later.


p1000524  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

p1000524 © DY of jtdytravels

But I didn’t get to the village of Talo.  My only view for the afternoon was one you know quite well by now;  the view from our hotel – again.  Why? Well the truth is that my usually cast iron stomach had let me down in a really bad way;  I had come down suddenly with a tummy bug and was thus confined to a place somewhere in close proximity to the ‘loo’ for a long afternoon and evening of discomfort.  As I said to someone, I could have hit a target at thirty paces with accuracy, the force of my ‘discomfort’ was so strong!

Still, I did have that view from our room to enjoy, so it was not such a bad place to be confined to quarters.  Mind you, I slept most of the afternoon!  You’re not tired of that view are you?  I don’t think I could ever tire of it.  On and off during the afternoon, I sat here, in solitude, as some small clouds wafted across the valley.  The light was ever changing and it was in no way boring to be there; just uncomfortable and at times painful.

But at least Trevor was able to join the group and take the afternoon tour, so the photos for this sojourn come from his camera, an identical one to mine, a Panasonic TZ 40.  We bought them just before we left Australia and are both very happy with them.  And the research and commentary has been undertaken by Jennie.  So my thanks to Trevor and Jennie, for taking everyone, including me, to this beautiful part of the Punakha Valley.


Photo : Trevor

P1000635  ©  Trevor

The main destination for the afternoon was a visit to the Talo Sangnacholing Dzong, built on a high plateau above the village.  Trevor says, “We walked up the steep hill to the Dzong.  There we found some older monks engaged in very physical and competitive games of Volley ball and Soccer.  The principal monk of the Monastery was pleased to see us and gave us a warm welcome.  He wanted to keep speaking English with us, so we were able to have a good chat.”


Photo : Trevor

P1000616  ©   Trevor

This Dzong is famous for a three day Tshechu, or Festival, held in March every year.

Masked dancer

Masked dancer ( from web brochure)

This festival has been held each year for over 300 years.

People come from all over the country to see the masked and Atsara dances.


Talo Dance and Song Group

Talo Dance and Song Group (from web brochure)

Another favourite part of this event is the ‘Zhungdra’ which includes three very special traditional songs performed by a dance troupe made up only of local Talops – the name the people of Talo call themselves.  Practice starts 16 days before the Tshechu and the songs must be sung perfectly or, as tradition has it, the village will suffer ‘misfortune in the form of natural calamities and outbreak of diseases’.

These songs have traditionally been performed only during the Talo Tshechu so that the blessings they bring will not be lost.  But just as change is coming in many ways all across Bhutan, so change has come even to the traditions of Talo.  Much to the disappointment of old timers, the songs are now sometimes performed in areas outside of Talo and outside of the period of the Festival.  As well as that, other songs are being performed at the Festival as the people attending want to hear more lively folk songs and more modern Bhutanese songs.  (David: I don’t really blame them; I heard those special Talo songs the next day and they are rather durgy!  But maybe that’s just me!)


Masked Festival Dancers

Masked Festival Dancers – from a brochure

There are several such special festivals throughout the year at various Dzongs across Bhutan and it’s possible to organise a tour to coincide with some of them.  The masked dancing, in particular would be great to watch.


Photo : Trevor

P1000624  ©  Trevor

Even without a festival, Trevor says this Dzong is worth a visit for the spectacular views.


Photo : Trevor

P1000631  ©   Trevor

After a pleasant visit to the Dzong and the monks, the group began the walk back down through farms.  In the temperate climate enjoyed here, most houses have their own vegetable garden and a cow or two.


Photo : Trevor

P000642  ©  Trevor

And most householders here also grow flowers in their garden.

That’s unusual in a place where farming is mainly at subsistence level.

This valley is one of the most productive in Bhutan.


Photo : Trevor

Photo : Trevor

This Dahlia is your flower for the day.


Photo : Trevor

P1000637 ©  Trevor

The back basket is much in use for carrying goods in Bhutanese villages like this one, built on such steep slopes,


Photo : Trevor

P000639  ©  Trevor

This little one was somewhat bemused by the visitors.


Photo : Trevor

Photo : Trevor

Further down the valley, Trevor met three young girls.  This could have been the scene when four sisters lived in this valley in the village of Talo Nobgang in the late 1950s and 1960s.  Those four sisters, daughters of Yab Ugen Dorji and Yum Thuiji Zam, were all destined to become equal wives of Bhutan’s King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck.  After 34 years as monarch, he chose to stand down in favour of his son. As a result of that decision, his four wives are now known as Bhutan’s Queen Mothers.


Bhutan's Four Queen Mothers (from the web)

Bhutan’s Four Queen Mothers (from the web)

Those four girls who became Queens, won the hearts of the Bhutanese people and between them produced five princes and five princesses. In the photo above, they are, left to right: Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck (the first wife of the King); Ashi Tshering Yangdon Wangchuck (mother of the current King, the first born of all of the Princes); Ashi Tshering Pem Wangchuck; and Ashi Sangay Chodon Wangchuck. All four  women are involved in working towards bettering the lives of the people of Bhutan.  Reading about their work has been inspirational.

Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, the eldest of the Queen Mothers, (on the left), has been Chief Patron to the Ministry of Agriculture since 1999.  This is a role she has taken very seriously.  Since the vast majority of Bhutanese are farmers, and most of those are subsistence farmers working in difficult conditions, she has found ways to initiate numerous programmes to improve their quality of life especially in the rural areas.  She has trekked to many of the remotest parts of the country to meet her people and find out for herself their needs.  What she did is not an easy thing to do for even the fittest of people, let me assure you.  As a result of these visits, she created the Tarayana Foundation which, in consultation with the villagers,  helps about 40 of the remotest villages.  The Foundation helps with housing schemes, scholarships and training as well as the production and marketing of rural products to increase cash income for these impoverished families.  Crops such as mountain indigo, turmeric and ginger help provide medicinal, aromatic and dye products for the markets.  She also has a keen interest in environmental conservation, and this is an aspect taken into account in all the projects supported by Tarayana.

This energetic Queen Mother is also an author and I’m told that her books are good reading, giving an insider’s view into life in Bhutan.  If you’re interested, I believe they are available for sale on the web in paper form though not as ebooks.

“Of Rainbows and Clouds” is the biography of her father Yab Ugen Dorji, and is said to be not only a fascinating saga of a family who lived in this valley, but also a window on Bhutanese culture, society and history.

“Treasures of the Thunder Dragon – A Portrait of Bhutan” is partly her personal memoir and part history, folklore and travelogue.

Another of the Queen Mothers, Ashi Tshering Yangdon Wangchuck, was responsible for the building of the beautiful  Khamsum Yuelley Namgyal Chorten that we visited earlier in Punakha Valley. She is mother of the current KIng.  Her passion and focus is on the education, training and well being of girls and women, especially from impoverished rural areas.  She proposes to improve and establish more  nunneries throughout the country to act as education centres for girls and women. We’ll visit one of those nunneries in the next episode and learn more of her vision, see how the current programs need to be improved, and why such education is so important in a country like Bhutan.

In 2004, Queen Mother Ashi Sangay Chodon Wangchuck founded an NGO in Bhutan called RENEW:  Respect, Educate, Nurture and Empower Women.  This organization is dedicated to empowerment of women and girls in Bhutan, especially the victims and survivors of domestic violence.  Believing that gender-based violence stands in the way of achieving gender equality, RENEW campaigns to prevent and eradicate Gender Based Violence (GBV) and to help victims and survivors of domestic violence and those trapped in helpless circumstances, to integrate them back into their communities as independent, socially and economically productive members of society.

RENEW provides counselling, temporary shelter, legal assistance and vocational training in selected skills and micro-enterprises as a way of providing opportunities to help transform lives of many women.

The fourth of the sisters, Queen Mother Ashi Tshering Pem Wangchuck, is focused on developing the Bhutan Foundation.  She is greatly concerned about the wide array of social problems faced by Bhutanese youth today.  The development achievements of Bhutan over the past four decades has introduced some social problems that are alien to Bhutanese Buddhist culture, and these have affected traditional Bhutanese family life and social structure.  Some of the issues to be dealt with, before they get out of hand, are juvenile delinquency, school dropouts, unemployed youth, drug and substance abuse and prostitution.

Interestingly, a Professor from the University of Newcastle and HMRI is currently in Bhutan providing consultation on just such issues.  It will be most interesting to speak with him on his return.

While wandering in the spectacular countryside and enjoying the hospitality of the friendly Bhutanese people, one can easily overlook undertones of unrest.  For centuries Bhutan was insular and there are bound to be issues as the country chooses to be more ‘involved’ in the world.   Change is never easy.


Bhutan's Royal Family (from the web)

Bhutan’s Royal Family (from the web)

In the photo above, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck is seen with his son, the current King, and three generations of the family including his little grandson.  His reign was marked by great change and development. Roads and bridges, schools and hospitals, basic services in agriculture and livestock now reach right into the remote corners of Bhutan. There are now more industries including  lucrative hydro power projects which are  fed by Bhutan’s many mountain streams and rivers. Even many of the remotest villages are now connected by a digital telecommunication system.

This photo of King Jigme Singye Wangchuck and his family, epitomises the basic Bhutanese philosophy of the importance of happiness to everyday life in Bhutan.  This is a country that measures Gross National Happiness as well as Gross Domestic Product… a philosophy we could all do well to follow.

More anon


with many thanks to Trevor for sharing his photos

and for Jennie’s research and write up of this part of the journey in Bhutan