BHUTAN: ITS ANCIENT PAST IS ITS FUTURE

1a Tigers Nest
Tiger’s Nest Monastery, Bhutan

BHUTAN IS ONE OF THOSE PLACES YOU CAN’T GET TO FROM HERE. And if you’re a budget traveler, you can’t get there from anywhere. Bhutan enforces a fixed daily rate of US$250 on tourists during high seasons and $200 during off seasons. You are not permitted to travel without a guide and driver, and there are some restricted areas you still can’t visit. If you travel as a single traveler as I did, you pay a surcharge of $40 per day. When I asked Kinga, my guide, why the government restricted travelers like this, he said: “To keep the backpackers out. We want to protect our culture. We don’t want Bhutan to become another Katmandu.” I guess you have to respect that kind of thinking.

2 Water Pray Wheel 0030
Water-driven prayer wheel in a forest of pine and cypress
3 WINDOW 9523
Traditional window in a wall of stone

To facilitate maintaining their culture, only two airlines fly passengers in and out of Bhutan, and both are Bhutan national airlines. They fly only to a few nearby cities in India, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Nepal. Your driver and your guide meet you at the airport on arrival, and you are whisked away immediately to begin your tour in the foothills of the Himalayas.

4 Rammed earth 9538
Ancient rammed-earth dwelling

One way Bhutan’s past is molding its future is that it has a strict architectural code in which each building’s architectural plan must be approved by the government and must exhibit on some level the ancient style. All houses do not look alike, but there is some element in them that displays an aspect of style of the traditional house, such as ornamental wood carving or the walls sloping slightly inward as they rise from the ground.

5 Ram house 2 0155
Traditional home of rammed earth with a wood shingle and stone roof
6 Two houses 0166
Rocks hold down the wood shingle roof, no nails are used
7 House Valley 0177
Fallow fields await fertilization with a mixture of yak dung and pine needles

8 Scooter house 9525

Another way the Bhutanese are protecting their heritage is by wearing traditional clothing. Although the government does not mandate that nationals wear the traditional dress, it suggests they do, and most locals proudly wear it to protect their culture. The men wear the gho, a one-piece gown with long sleeves folded back at the wrist, a kilt-length skirt. The women wear a kira, a long sarong topped with a long-sleeve jacket with lapels. All fairly colorful, and mixing and matching colors, designs, and stripes is de rigueur.

9 Girl kira 9750

9 kira 6728
A colorful kira for sale
10 Gho 6732
A man in a gho buys yak cheese from a street vendor

A third method Bhutan protects its heritage is that the government also offers free training for young men and women to become artists and craftsmen in order to perpetuate the ancient arts of sculpture, metal work, painting, and woodcarving.

11 Woodworker 9610
A young student practices woodcarving

“Ordinary” is not a word you might use to describe Bhutan. Approximately 72% of Bhutan is covered in forest, making Bhutan the only “carbon-negative” country in the world. You can almost imagine that breathing air in Bhutan, especially at a 7,000 to 10,000-foot elevation, is like no other: a luxury, a treat, a high, medicinal. What air should be.

12 Landscape 1 9917
Fields await irrigation and planting
13 Landscape 2 9712
The Sangthen Dorgi Lhundrup Nunnery sits high on a mountain

Buddhism beats at the very heart of Bhutan. Most everyone in the country is Buddhist. One in 100 people is a monk, including women. It is hard to turn around and not see a temple or a prayer flag or a stupa or a monastery or a monk or nun.

15 Dzong Punakha 9531
In Punakha Valley, the Palace of Great Happiness sits auspiciously at the confluence of two rivers
16 Woman Wheel 9990
A nun turns prayer wheels as she passes
17 Monk Shawl 9736
A monk adjusts his silk shawl before a walk along the river

Bhutan is a very spiritual country. To facilitate the continuation of the ancient spirituality, you will find old Buddhist stupas, prayer wheels, and monasteries everywhere you look.

18 Dzong Steps 9743

19 Dzong Ladder 9749

Until about 1960, there were no roads in Bhutan. Even now in some places, you must walk a narrow footpath to go where you want to go. Less than ten years ago, if you wanted to visit the now-famous Tiger’s Nest Monastery, you had to climb the mountain on a narrow, and very steep, footpath. Today, most roads are narrow, many only slightly wider than one lane, so cars passing in opposite directions are forced to slip one wheel off the hard surface and onto the dirt shoulder. Even so, Bhutan may be the only country in SE Asia without a traffic problem. There are no stoplights in the country. Where needed in the small cities, traffic is controlled by a policemen standing inside a gazebo-like structure at main intersections.

Archery is still the national sport. Some men continue to make their own arrows, and most use bamboo bows. The archers are remarkably skilled at hitting a target that sits so far away—about 145 meters (476 ft), a football field and a half.

21 Archer 0093
You can barely see the target, which they hit every time

Even though most people work hard at agriculture, and the average income is little over US$ 1000 a year, Bhutan’s inhabitants may just be the happiest in the world. The Bhutanese are proud to say that theirs is the only country in the world where the people’s GNH (Gross National Happiness) is more important than the country’s GNP (Gross National Product).

22 Landscape 3 9709

23 Takin 9620
The takin, rare and endangered, is Bhutan’s national animal

It is easy to see how the ancient past can remain the future for Bhutan. And even easier to see why they might desire to cultivate that kind of future: with clean air, green land, and green energy. With unique animals. With high-quality vibes, happiness, and tangible spirituality. And with no plastic (which is now illegal, though still in use). With no nails. No traffic lights. No Starbucks. No Gucci. And perhaps, none of us pesky backpackers.

You can find more entries in the DP Photo Challenge here: Future

You can find more entries in Lucile’s Photo Rehab here:   Photo Rehab

 

 

134 comments

  1. Such an enlightening read this time of the morning for me! The future looks bright for the people of Bhutan indeed. I’ve learned quite a few things today. Thanks BF! Btw, did you ever get a fleece jacket? 😉

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      • Or you can wear their ghos? Is that how you say it in plural form? It looks warm and cozy. And sexy too, any man in plaid looks hot! hahaha. Beautiful shots btw, almost having an ethereal smoky quality to it. Did you get a new camera?

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        • I think they would use ghos as the plural form, at least when they speak English. And everyone speaks English, it’s like a second national language, almost decreed. Glad you like the photos. No…same camera, but some fairly nice light from cloud cover, maybe??

          Liked by 1 person

  2. I like the idea of a government working to ensure Gross National Happiness. In our interconnected world, I doubt Bhutan’s methods would work in many other places. I say this with some regret, though. So many cities look much the same nowadays, even though they’re on completely different continents. It’s difficult not to feel somewhat sad about this uniformity and the loss of traditions that goes with it.

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  3. Ahh Bhutan. What a dream destination it really is, and the way you described life in the country is just exactly like how I’ve always imagined it to be. Glad you made it there! (hopefully I follow your path sooner than later).

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  4. I always wanted to go to Bhutan. Now I really really want to go. Don too. I can feel the energy of the place from your post. It’s beautiful. And so are your photos – you caught some really soft light, there’s a beautiful painterly quality to them. Especially love the one with the motor scooter.
    Alison

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    • I would suggest a longer visit and getting away from the two major valleys…so you can get a taste of even more remoteness.
      There were clouds most days, so they screened the sun even during the day. The scooter…so weirdly odd, eh?

      Liked by 1 person

  5. What a wonderful post about a wonderful country!
    Im so glad such a place still exists in the world, and so glad you have gone there to share it with us all.

    You are our Blogging Ambassador! 🙂

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  6. Truly fascinating. Your spirit and vibe always resonates in your posts,whether it’s positive or negative, but this one is particularly vibe-licious. I’m now curious about a country and a people I’d never thought about before.

    Liked by 1 person

    • LRose…that is interesting that you liked the vibe in this one because I didn’t realize I was actually doing a real post. I thought I would write a real post later about Bhutan, so I’m glad you like this one.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. As always, loved the photos, especially the one sort of stuck in there with no caption, no info. It does beg for a title…the almost paragliding woman (?) and her/his accompanying bird!
    Thank you so much for what you do and how you do it. New perspectives every time I visit you!
    Oh and I loved the ladder up to the window (elopement? window cleaner?) And the variety of shoes worn by the archers. And that the men at least get to wear long socks with their “skirts”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The one with the red shawl and bird is a monk just leaving the monastery for a walk along the river. And yeah…that ladder up to the window…so cool, eh! The men traditionally wore high boots, but I guess they don’t want to wear those any more. It actually looks a little disconcerting to see the outfit so traditional and then penny loafers or Reboks on their feet.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I did love the archery. I don’t see how they actually hit that target so far away!
      Favorite? Hmmm. Of course, I loved the Tiger’s Nest…but didn’t like the hike back down. I really loved the Dzong in Punakha, but they wouldn’t let me photograph inside (awesome stuff in there). I think maybe the highlight was the meal Kinga took me to for lunch at a local restaurant where I was the only foreigner, and most were eating with their hands.

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  8. This is a wonderful post…. You have accomplished so much, begin to focus on all your wonderful successes, you will soon realize you have over shadowed your feeling that you are a procrastinator.

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    • Ha! Those seem like wise words of wisdom, but I don’t know…I just let everything slide and wait and wait and wait. But thanks for the advice, we’ll see if I can listen to it!!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Tradition. It’s refreshing to see how these people have foreseen the necessity to retain tradition and customs. What has always made traveling fun and interesting are our differences. Great post! Glad you got to go. Love the adventure.

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    • Jo…you know, that is why I don’t travel much in Europe–they are so similar to our country. I like the “differentness” of Asia and this part of the world. Truly an adventure!

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      • I get that. I try to talk Russ into going places but he’s not like us. He wants to stay here in the US of A. We’ve been to almost every state in the union and I will admit he makes it adventurous, exploring the out of the norm places, but I miss traveling abroad. If I recall, you and I did travel well together, didn’t we?

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  10. How I love this post. Your photos, your adventures, your history and giving us so much facts that we – and the world – needs…to understand how we should have run this whole world. They have watched and learned, the people of Bhutan. I have always wanted to go – now I must. Your photos are excellent as well.

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  11. Badfish we were just watching a documentary on Bhutan last night. We want to go while all of their beautiful rules are still in place. Look at you posting on the road and video too!

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    • Well, I don’t think you are the only one who never heard of that animal. I never had!! And yeah, rocks hold the shingles on! Pretty big rocks. But not hurricane-force heavy. They did look cool.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Fantastic post. It must really be a special place to visit. There are a lot we in the west should learn from this way of living. Thanks for sharing this.

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      • I just realized that some blogs don’t show all posts in the reader and thats why I missed a lot of yours :/
        But now that I know I can run over to your place from tome to time to check you out 😀

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    • You know…you are right. It was a huge, major GIFT for me to be able to go there after all those years of thinking about it, but not getting there. And though I did not like paying the extra money, I do believe their system is going to save them from what it could easily become without it.

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  13. Your post is a hard poke in my ribs to go, go, go to Bhutan soon. I’ve taught a short reading on Bhutan – and its king who came up with the GNH measure – for many years, and every year I think the next one I will have been there in person. Your tone is dreamy, dare I say almost reverential – hope it really was that wonderful.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hate hitting people in the ribs usually…but if it gets them going to some place like Bhutan, then fine. You gotta love a country, and king, who believe in their GNH factor above their GNP, eh!!

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Bhutan is an amazing country with very enlightened leaders. What sort of government do they have? Do they have democratic elections? How very privileged to get to see this country. I’m sure it must be a highlight of your travelling life, thank you for taking the time to take us with you through this fascinating country. This country is a model that other countries could look to for an enlightened lifestyle. But maybe it is too late to turn back the clock, backpackers have invaded every where else. Do they have TV?

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  15. I must confess that I have been eagerly waiting for this post, as Buthan was the place I most wanted to hear your impressions. Your header is so sharp and truthful.
    The gorgeous and soft photos attest to it. It is almost surreal to think of a place that keeps itself inside a virtual bubble, protected against modernization and its harmful effects to Nature, Culture and traditions. But how about the positive effects? How do they live?
    At least as tourists we don’t have to see all the brands your mentioned, in every quarter. But it is a pretty expensive place to visit. Can I ask you how many days you were allowed to stay? And is hotel and other costs also too high?
    I’ve always been curious about the GNH factor, and on how authentic this is, after all, they are a monarchy, and seem to have people who are “have and have-nots”, like everywhere else. Or am I wrong?
    I have wondered if a happy country would have invented some new to structure to lead its society and institutions, that do not resemble anything from capitalism, socialism, communism, etc. I am still so curious to hear your thoughts. Would you please post again about Buthan? Share a little more…
    Great post as usual, you’re da man, and you’re peerless.
    Cheers.

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  16. Lucile sounds a tiny bit sceptical and I have to say that reading this (and it obviously was an enormous privilege to be there, and not something that will happen in my life, sadly) I half wondered if the government sensor blog posts? You’ve written this in a very straight style with few of your usual off at a tangents. I’m not complaining, because it’s totally beautiful. Out of respect for the place? 🙂 I’m appreciative.

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    • Jo…I’m glad you noticed the change in style. But the government had nothing to do with that. I was simply trying to get a brief piece onto the blog, not meant to tell the story I want to tell. But then stuff just came flowing out, and it got put into the post.
      Will you be “doing” your walk posts while you are gone? I was gonna do a walk through Katmandu. Should I wait till you return?

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      • I have one 2/3rd written for 25th April but after that it will be 3 weeks till I post again. I only have phone abroad and I usually just drop off the planet when I’m away. Neighbours in Algarve have Wifi but I don’t have laptop. Free and easy x

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        • I think that’s the way to travel, and not with a heavy (supposedly light) laptop. Maybe one of those Apple Airs? Or a tablet? I can’t do anything on my phone yet…don’t know how. But I’m liking the idea of “free and easy” more and more these days. Lugging luggage is not fun. Dropping off the planet is fun.

          Liked by 1 person

  17. Wow! Carbon negative….Role models as providing thought leadership for the world on the concept of measuring happiness as opposed to financial and industrial output.

    We have long pondered a trip to Bhutan – yes put off by the high prices ( keeping the riff raff like us at bay) and also the instant presence of a guide. I guess the individual personality of ones guide would be a huge factor as to the enjoyment of the trip. Given both of these factors, would you still recommend a visit? The forests and temples and people (positives) no doubt outweigh the negative factors…

    I do love those outfits in the archery photo.

    Thanks for the terrific insight into Bhutan.

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    • Peta, the price and the constant presence of a guide (and driver) are huge negatives for me. And right, hopefully you will get a guide that fits your personalities. To be honest, I’m not sure I’d recommend Bhutan to everyone. Unless you just must see Tiger’s Nest Monastery before you die, as I did.

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  18. Simply a beautiful place, while we could not imagine putting the same rules in place, I believe somewhere in the near future a lot of place will be looking to Bhutan as what to do to save the cultures and natural resources we are losing so quickly. You always capture things so eloquently…

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    • Keli…thanks so much! And I think you may be right about the future and looking to Bhutan. However, it just may be too late for some?? And sadly…others just may not care enough because their bottom line is GNP, and they like it that way. Happiness may be highly over rated…to them

      Liked by 1 person

      • I do believe you are right…here the Napali Coast is accessible only by hiking or boat..they removed trash by the tons this last winter that people had left, the very kind of people you think hike for the beauty and the peace and happiness of nature leaving their s**t behind…places like that need to follow the Bhutan way I think…too bad some peoples happiness comes at the expense of nature and all things that brought us to be..or maybe they just don’t know what true happiness is anymore, I don’t know, but I do know reading your posts make me happy and always make me pause to think a bit…thanks for that!

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        • Keli…you’d think those people would know better, or even desire, to keep the place natural and clean. Who likes garbage? Who is that lazy, or uncaring? You can’t Californicate Hawaii.
          But I’m so glad you feel happy reading here, and pause to think. That makes me happy.

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  19. I’ve been meaning to come and visit you since I ‘met’ you on Sue Slaght’s blog but somehow never got around it to it. Saw Leya had reblogged this post and just knew I had to drop in. I was lucky enough to visit Bhutan last year and I was nodding my head all through your post. I found it the same. I’m only sorry I only had a week there – I wish I could have trekked in the mountains – but it was a sneaky tack-on to a trip to Nepal before I had to come home to the Husband and Three Boys. 🙂 Mind you, one week in Bhutan with flights to and from Kathmandu cost me the same as three weeks in Nepal with flights to and from Australia! Definitely not a cheap place to visit.
    Also, I wish I could steal your photos – they’re much better than mine!

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    • Master of Something…welcome aboard, so glad to have you here! Sue is so good at introducing people to people. So thanks for dropping by. And you’re right, Bhutan is not cheap. But unique and interesting. My guide said most people stay two weeks. YOu were lucky to have a week. I stayed only four days, didn’t get deep into the interior where, perhaps, the even-more original people hang out.
      Glad you like the photos!

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  20. Beautiful place. It looks like a place where they could have filmed Lord of the Reins, except that would be impossible based on your post. The privacy and how they continue to honor the history is admirable. Love the street vendor :)) Gorgeous photography Badfish.

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  21. What a fabulous post. I really enjoyed reading it and looking at the lovely photos. It’s funny I just saw Prince William and Duchess Catherine on the TV this morning and Catherine was trying her arm at archery in Butan and then I read your post. What an amazing time you had – very jealous as it sounds such a beautiful country with clean air and as you say ‘no Gucci’.

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  22. I want to breathe that air! Color me jealous. I love every image in this post and am thrilled that Bhutan is doing such an amazing job of maintaining its culture. A visit to Bhutan is in my future.

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      • ….and your comment on my post reminded me that there were some beautiful Red Robes here :-). You are allowed to buy a new camera if you want, but only if you continue taking color in addition to BW.

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        • I don’t really WANT a new camera, and larger with all those lenses. I’ve moved away from that. I now want tiny but with very fine quality…which, of course is not available.
          I tried answering your previous comment, it won’t go…let’s see if this one goes

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          • What do you shoot with right now?

            I shoot with a Panasonic Lumix GX8 and an Olympus M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 40-150 f-4-5.6R LENS. I recently upgraded from my beloved Panasonic Lumix FZ200 Bridge Camera. I miss the f -2.8 throughout which is why I want a better (but far more expensive than the one I have) lens. But really….I probably just need to improve my skills. I am sure that Henri Cartier-Bresson could have taken amazing photos with my current kit. I am sure you could too 🙂

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  23. The Bhutanese seem to embody my principles. But they probably eat meat, presumably not of the takin.

    Happiness is so elusive in America that it seems a shame we can’t mandate a trip to Bhutan for every citizen, just so they can return here in a transformed state of mind.

    I am glad they are keeping backpackers away. From my time at an ashram, they do tend to be a messy and smelly lot.

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  24. That is cool about the building having to maintain the old style. We may have made advancements in many areas, like iPods and airplanes, but buildings have sure become ugly as hell.

    The big question: Is it worth the money?

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  25. I feel so relaxed, such a nice journey on which you have brought us. I want to stay.
    So many questions still.
    Is this the place where you needed to have the crisp (what was it? $20) bills? I can see why. No dirty money for them.
    So, what if someone like yourself (or like me, were I the traveling type) wanted to move there and become a citizen. Would that even be possible?
    Every place you showed us was thrilling, especially in it’s quiet and peaceful beauty.
    I love the idea of prayer wheels. I wonder if plain ordinary people can have such things in their own home? I’ve seen people who walk down a row of them, twirling them with such joy. It almost feels as if somewhere in a far distant past I’ve done that. And that traffic gazebo, how cool is that. He looked at once like a flight controller (or whatever they’re called) and at the same time, as if he was conducting an orchestra!
    You realize I’m going to have to go and research what the climate is like, and things like that, just because.

    So you told us a lot about this amazing country. How did you feel about it? Would that you could, do you see yourself hanging out there? Inquiring minds want to know.

    Ever grateful for your generous sharing.

    Fim

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  26. Between you and Master of Something, this is the 2nd time in the past year I’ve *visited* Bhutan. It sounds beautiful, intriguing, and perhaps even a little addictive. It’s nice to know there are still places on earth that have managed to keep out the claws of *progress* and all the ugliness it brings with it.

    I had not known what a prayer wheel was and had to look it up. You’ve added to my education today 🙂

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  27. It is interesting how Bhutan goes to lengths to preserve its culture. From the sounds of it, it seems that the locals go along with and are proud of their culture. Earlier in the comments, restlessJo raised an interesting question about censorship. Love it that you write it like it is.

    I would love to be up there breathing in the fresh medicinal air. And I will certainly bring layers of clothes to keep me warm while I’m at it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mabel…yeah, it will be interesting in the future to see how things work out there. Got to respect them for trying. And it is interesting that they like wearing traditional clothes….if they actually do. When my guides were finished for the day, they showed up in Western clothes for dinner. Don’t know what that means.

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      • That is an interesting observation, your guides wearing whatever they want to wear. Maybe it was the weather, maybe they felt like they wanted to blend in with the tourists group.

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        • It’s funny how Western clothes seem to be “catching on” all over the world. I mean, where can you go where a local isn’t wearing a baseball cap? I LOVE seeing people in traditional gear, but some of those things just aren’t…effective, and some, no longer needed. I would have liked to have traveled 100 years ago.

          Liked by 1 person

  28. the bird where the monk is adjusting his shawl – well it looks photo shopped in – I mean 0 i can tell it is real – but with so much editing these days – I wondered…
    and cool, artsy shot s- like dat video of the police – the man has some graceful arm movements….

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  29. I watched the Bhutan prime minister’s TED talk a couple of days ago and found it extraordinarily inspiring. I really enjoyed this post in light of it. What an extraordinary country. Super photos too!

    Liked by 1 person

  30. BF, you just photoshopped that bird in, didn’t you?!? Surely not just a lucky shot???? Is it a falcon of some sort? Your photos have a misty, dreamy quality to them – different to your usual shots. I loved the photography, and your take on life there. In some of the remoter places that I’ve travelled to in this huge country, it was refreshing to also see the minorities in traditional dress, and that their houses were also very traditional – because they wanted to continue with their unique culture.
    That really is a very expensive trip, and I suppose, as you stated, it was worth it to you, so one is willing to pay the cost for the experience.

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    • I have PS on my laptop, but do not know how to even put a photo into the thing, let alone how to use it. Just so happened the bird flew by at that moment. So you got to see some of the more “hidden” places in the country…lucky you!!!

      Liked by 1 person

      • haha! Yes, I know what you mean – lots of wonderful new tools (technology) out there, but you need to know how to use them!
        I did – an amazing experience, one I should write about one day….

        Like

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