Make Believe Country

Posted on December 05, 2009

Just a few weeks ago Dorji, my Bhutanese guide was traveling to London, and had to make connection in Munich. Immigration officer stopped him as she had never seen a Bhutanese passport nor heard of Bhutan, She thought he was traveling on a fake passport from some make believe country. It took some minutes to sort this out.

The sloped roof has a dormer in the center, protruding above the rest, so that air circulates, as the top story is where food is stored, and grain is dried.

Yet it does feel like a place out of a fairly tale. The plane crests the Himalayas, and the range of snowy peaks are all one sees (well, if you sit on the left side of the plane). Soon you are far below the peaks and flying inside the valley walls for minutes before the jet alights. As in earlier days of air travel, you actually step out of the plane on to the tarmac. And face the terminal, a building unlike any you've seen before. The first timers are apparent, snapping photos of it as they approach. It's stacked timber and stone, the timbers carved and painted elaborately with Buddhist motifs, which you don't understand, and then the stone, all stuccoed white, and painted with creatures from this world and the realm of fantasy. Eye catching it is, and might lead one to wonder why they chose this design. Before the day is over, it's apparent. This same design governs all construction, be it 4 centuries or 4 months old, Bhutanese architecture adheres to the same style.

Bhutanese build to suit the climate and terrain. Most homes are sturdy 3 story structures. The first floor is stone or rammed earth, with vertical timber supports. The beams of second and third floor all hand hewn and fitted together without nails even today. Each visible piece of wood carved and painted. Windows all in rows of 3,4, or 5, set in painted wood frames with rounded bubble like tops, meant to imitate clouds. The sloped roof has a dormer in the center, protruding above the rest, so that air circulates, as the top story is where food is stored, and grain is dried. Once most roofs were plank like wood shingles, weighted down with small boulders. Or slate shingles. Now most roofs are corrugated metal, all painted red or green. The government recognizes the durability of these roofs, so it made one of its few concessions to non traditional building style. Government decree states that all structures must be built in traditional style, which gives everything a harmonious and pleasing aesthetic. It is not unlike traditional building in Tibet, before Chinese occupation. Though Bhutan is mostly forested, while Tibet is above the tree line, so they did not use wood extensively as does Bhutan. The local style, in 3 words: Tudor meets Tibet.

Buddhist prayer flags dominate the vistas. Either multicolored squares strung horizontally, from trees, buildings and bridges, in places so dense they blot out the scenery beyond, reminiscent of the work of the artist Cristo. But these are not the doing of one mans oversize ego, but rather the collective expression of faith in this devout Buddhist country. The flags are printed with the script of many prayers, and as they flap in the wind they release prayers. Other prayer flags are attached vertically to 20' poles. Generally in groups of 108, they commemorate a deceased person, and themselves appear groves of ghostly trees in the forest.


When taking pictures in Bhutan, if you can shoot a vista that contains neither a vehicle nor electricity cable, you could pass it off as a picture taken in the 16th century. Yes I know, no cameras back then.................