My journey to the Land of the Thunder Dragon a year and a half ago illustrated one overarching truth: "Expect the unexpected in Bhutan."
These were the words trip leader Tsewang used to greet our Hiker's Paradise
group when we arrived at the Paro airport. And within 20 minutes, almost as if he'd arranged it especially to illustrate his point, we found ourselves amidst a spectacular, unusual, and hard-to-predict Buddhist ceremony. Tsewang had just caught wind of it before we landed and whisked us straight there.
Joining the crowds of locals, decked in their brightly colored traditional gho (for men) and kira (for women), we zigzagged our way up a prayer flag-lined path to the massive Paro Dzong and then across the hillside overlooking the Paro Valley to the center of activity. A five-story-tall and equally wide thongdrel(a cloth-on-cloth appliqué work) was being unfurled and consecrated. Generally when these thongdrels are displayed, it's only for a couple of hours one day a year, so the fact that we were catching this was, in Tsewang's words, "an auspicious start to the trip."
Hundreds of villagers lined up to pay homage and visit with their friends and neighbors. They welcomed us warmly into the convivial atmosphere with big smiles and shy greetings. Children waved to us, said hello, and mugged for our cameras. Monks chanted and Chief Abbot Je-Khempo (making a rare appearance) delivered a blessing and explained that some 40 artisans had worked together to create this inspiring hanging. We soaked it all in, in awe of the scene around us and of our good luck.
And that was only the beginning of a string of serendipities that would grace our 12–day journey. We also managed to hike past the hilltop village of Samtengang just as school let out and “walked home” with a group of children who were tickled to interact with foreigners (the eldest was an eloquent 14-year-old girl who explained in very good English that she planned to go to medical school in the United States). In another hamlet, a woman generously invited us into her family home, showed us around, and let us sample her freshly brewed butter tea (she couldn’t speak English but we still managed to communicate). During one of our rambles in the Phobjikha Valley, we basked for hours in the elegant sight of endangered black-necked cranes, though it was early in their migration season. And when we were at our most remote, Tsewang managed to find a cell signal just long enough to tell us that President Obama had been re-elected (I’ll always remember how each and every one of us huddled around him in nervous anticipation).
Over and over again, we seemed to find ourselves in the right place at the right time, reveling in some delightful, meaningful experience that was totally unexpected. For our group, as for most travelers who visit this Himalayan mountain kingdom, the Land of the Thunder Dragon resounded as an enchanted realm.