The Kingdom of Bhutan 2014 Trip Report

By Don Lyon on Dec 02, 2014

Our group of nine photographers stepped from the Air Bhutan jet after an exhilarating swoop down from the clouds between steep green terraced hillsides to Paro—the gateway to the Land of the Thunder Dragon. Bhutan is a magical little country tucked up in the southern foothills of the Himalayas—Tibet to the north and India to the south. In many ways, Bhutan still lives in the Middle Ages and therein lies much of its photographic appeal. Some of us were here because we wanted to capture images of the nation whose king had proclaimed he was less interested in his country’s GNP than he was in its GNH—or Gross National Happiness. Some were here because Bhutan is the closest, culturally and physically, to Tibet. For others, Bhutan was number one on their bucket list. All of us had seen colorful and dramatic images of dancers at the Tshechus, the religious festivals, and we wanted to be a part of that drama. Then, there is the Tiger’s Nest. Like the iconic ruins of Burma’s Bagan, Greece’s Meteora, Jordan’s Petra and Peru’s Machu Picchu, images of the monastery that seems to have grown from the side of a cliff like a great mushroom, gnaw at the photographer. The only cure is to go.

October is the harvest season. Rice terraces cling to steep hillsides and chilies dry in the sun. The weather is balmy—we were in shirtsleeves and skies were blue with white puffy clouds. Even when we stopped to photograph at the crests of 10,000-foot and 11,000-foot mountain passes a fleece jacket was sufficient. That first day we visited Paro Dzong, the gigantic medieval fortress that commands the Paro Valley. Our guide, Ugyen, talked as he led us across the covered bridge and up to the castle gate—while we shot images the entire way. We were in luck! There would be a Black Hat Dance in one of the chapels that we could photograph from balconies above. Swirling masses of color were our photographic capture as monks in elaborate costumes of embroidered robes and scarves danced in a trance below. The low light allowed wide-open apertures and slow shutter speeds that suggested the otherworldliness of both the event and the experience.

Everything was fresh and different as we wound our way up and over Chen La, the 10,000-foot-high mountain pass between Paro Valley and Haa Valley. Rice terraces were sculpted from the hillsides. The rice, green and golden, was ready for harvest. At the summit, colorful prayer flags stretched in every direction, releasing the prayers written on them as they fluttered in the breeze. To the north, 22,000-foot Mt. Jomolari, occasionally revealed herself. For images, the trick was to line up the prayer flags to frame those mountain peaks.

Descending into Haa Valley, we were now well off the tourist track. The Tshechu here was the first of five we would visit. Even though the dances were similar at each one, the shooting opportunities were all very different and we eagerly attended each one in hopes of upping our game and coming home with the quintessential festival image. Remote Haa was the perfect place to begin. From an open courtyard at the monastery known as the “White Chapel,” we had the opportunity to shoot from every viewpoint—looking up at the dancers and framing them against the sky, or looking down from above and creating graphic designs like swirls of rainbow paint against a “canvas” of beige stone.

In a typical dance, a dozen monks in brilliant costumes twirled their heavy skirts, bending as they turned and waved their scarf-festooned arms overhead. Some of our group used long lenses to compress the mass of dancers, while others chose a single costumed monk and isolated him against a soft-focused background with a large aperture lens. We were so close to the dancers we could see they were in a deep trance as they turned and glided to the beat of the drum and clang of the cymbal. Seven-foot-long copper horns blown by monks in red robes and hats announced the progression of the dance. The “Dance of the Stags and Hounds” told the story of how an early saint persuaded a hunter and his dog to give up killing and become protectors of all living things. I found my 18‒135mm zoom covered 90% of my shots, while my 70‒300 was great for details and capturing faces in the crowd. Tshechus last for three days. We generally stayed for 3 to 4 hours before regrouping with tales of images captured or ones that got away.

Each afternoon we made excursions in the Haa Valley. In a small remote monastery we were invited to photograph in the chapel—a rare treat—as Ugyen explained the religious practices of Tantric Buddhism. Youngsters were just coming home from school so we had great opportunities with very cute kids in their school uniforms as willing models. We walked through villages along the caravan route to Tibet. In one, a VW-sized mani stone had the classic chant, “Om mani padme hum,” carved into it—a prayer we were to hear repeated many times as grizzled old timers turned prayer wheels, sending their hopes and dreams aloft. We drove alongside the Haa River Valley through larch forests and past small farms, stopping where a family and neighbors were building a new house of rammed earth. The walls were three feet thick at their base. We photographed men carrying loads of earth up to the second story where women were pounding mud in wooden forms. Other men cut door and window frames from heavy timbers with simple sharp hand tools.

Thimpu, Bhutan’s capital, bustles compared with Haa, but our hotel was perfectly located—central, yet quiet. In the busy city, hundreds of carved and painted shop fronts invited exploration. The Farm House Museum was an opportunity to see the interior of a traditional house with a central kitchen providing heat and an open attic used for storing fodder and foodstuffs for the winter.

The old people of Bhutan often gather at the monasteries where prayer wheels—brass cylinders varying from coffee can size to VW bug size—are located. They spend their afternoons circumnavigating the monastery, mumbling their prayers and turning the wheels as they walk. They generally were as bemused by us photographers as we were intent upon capturing rich images of their sun-wrinkled faces as they trudged along. Some members of our group, more used to photographing lions in Africa or raptors in Alaska, were a little shy about photographing strangers. My job was to show how to make friends through photography, how making a picture with perfect strangers recognizes their humanity and opens the door to communication. Soon there would be smiles and giggles from the “oldsters” as they made their way around the monasteries. The best approach in this kind of street photography is to be direct about your photographic intention (while still being sensitive to those who show they don’t want to be in your picture). Sneaking a picture and then not making eye contact is what engenders ill will.

Archery is Bhutan’s national sport and, boy, are they good at it. Just as businessmen play golf to relax and network at the same time, the civic leaders in each community we visited held archery tournaments. Dressed in their colorful traditional bathrobe-like ghos and cross trainers with black knee socks, and armed with the latest $400 compound bow, these civil servants made a colorful “only in Bhutan” subject. The target, not much bigger than a fence post, is 150 yards away. Darned if they didn’t hit it! One of our daredevil photographers made a great shot of a bowman aiming directly at him. Riveting!

Day Eight of the tour took us over another 10,000-foot-high pass where we again photographed through prayer flags toward peaks over 20,000 feet high. The flags have a horse with a lotus and a jewel, symbolizing the prayer—hail to the jewel in the lotus. Thus the flags carrying the prayers aloft are known as “wind horses.” In the afternoon we walked through rice terraces where villagers were threshing rice and distilling a spirit called arra from fermented rice mash. Fun images to capture!

The dzong in Punaka is considered the most majestic in the country, partly because of its location at the confluence of two rivers—one clear and one cloudy with powdered glacial rock. Our images show the rivers merging to create a storytelling image. To the Bhutanese mind, the two rivers were now married and the resulting river is their offspring—such is their belief in the living earth.

On Day Ten we left the tourist track again to attend a Tshechu in remote Phobjikha Valley. The monastery here is wonderfully old and picturesquely decrepit, but the monks danced with a vigorous spirit and colorful costumes. As at Haa, there were few tourists, the background added to the story, and it was easy to move about and photograph.

Our next few days took us to Bumthang Valley—the most easterly point of our journey three-quarters of the way across Bhutan. Our pine-paneled hotel rooms had wood burning stoves, and while we did not need them for heat they added a satisfying sense of being far away from it all. The Tshechu here was in an ancient monastery in a small village. We arrived early enough to claim front row seats on the ground—which put us at a great angle to shoot up at the dancers. We made some terrific and powerful close-up images today! A cleansing ceremony for the dancers was created by two bonfires hot enough to singe the eyebrows of anyone who ran between them for purification. Nearby, a fair was in full swing with religious relics, such as conch shells inlaid with turquoise and thanka paintings that represented the cosmos, for sale.

On the return drive to Paro we came upon two yaks munching bamboo beside the road. Normally yaks were still pastured in the high country at this time of year. We captured perfect portraits of them against the golds and reds of the approaching autumn. While all of our accommodations on the tour were pleasant and characteristic of Bhutan, we’ll all remember the lodge at Trongsa where our rooms looked out over a vast valley of farms and terraced fields. Assuming pride of place was Trongsa Dzong, strategically located so that any trade caravan would have had to pass through the fortress where taxes were levied. In the morning we waited for the golden rays of sunlight to illuminate the fortress so that it stood out from its surroundings.

But the best was left for last—Tiger’s Nest. On Day Sixteen we got an early start for the climb up to the iconic monastery. Half of our group charged up the ridge on foot, while the other half rode sturdy ponies and mules up the very steep hillside. It was much more pleasant than we tenderfeet had anticipated. We arrived at the top, relaxed and ready to go to work on creating the definitive Tiger’s Nest image. We were going to take all day, if necessary, to get this right! At first, the monastery was still in shadow while the cliff face was in full sun. We scouted different vantage points to best tell a story. Looking up suggested a lofty temple in the clouds, while looking down onto the monastery was a reminder of its legendary origin—when Guru Rimpoche first reached the cave in the cliffside on the back of a flying tiger. My personal favorite was the view from the cliff where prayer flags stretched across the chasm to the monastery. That dramatically colorful lead-in line immediately connects the viewer with the spiritual nature of the scene. As the sun progressed westward the monastery revealed more and more of its gilded roofs and other details until it was in full sun and a bit less dramatic. It was the perfect photo session to end a great trip that we’ll all retell for years to come.