Snowman Trek Bhutan – Buddhist Arts & Birthdays

Oct 8, 2019 | Bhutan

Handicraft school – woodcarving class – dragon in progress

For a journey that was mostly in the remote mountains, our group was happy for an extra day or two of cultural connection and sightseeing. All of the hiking was behind us, so it was easy to relax and enjoy the town…plus it’s always fun taking people to my favorite off-the-beaten-path places.

In a small town outside of Thimphu, we visited a handicraft school that trains students in traditional Buddhist arts such as painting, woodcarving, and embroidery…all of which offer good employment opportunities in Bhutan. As part of its cultural conservation initiatives, Bhutan requires that homes be built and painted in traditional style, with carved wooden lintels and detailed geometric patterns. This makes it easy for basic artisan painters and carvers to find work. Across the country, people are also devout Buddhists which means they purchase art for home altars and monastery gifts, and they paint their homes with the four powerful animals for protection. Artists with advanced skills find even better employment.

Some women are beginning to train as painters, but more often they learn sewing or embroidery to become tailors or artists who make everything from clothing accessories to 3-story hanging images of Buddhist figures. The school provides full scholarships to students from poor families. Because it’s such good employment afterwards, many youth want to attend. A highly competitive application process means only the most dedicated are admitted, and students who are accepted train all day for many years. The classes we entered were quiet, with everyone working diligently on their new trade. The school covers the cost of materials and fees completely, which is part of why everyone in our trekking group was happy to offer support through purchases of student art from the school shop. After meeting the students in each class and seeing the school in action, nearly everyone went home with handmade Buddhist artwork in one form or another.

Handicraft school – painting class
Handicraft school – embroidery class
First woman to graduate from the 7 year painting program at this school.

In the afternoon, we found a large meadow and met our trekking staff for a picnic complete with local red-rice beer and a game of frisbee. It was great to have a final few hours with the team we had grown to love. I actually had three frisbees, and most of us didn’t have much aim, so the chaos of throwing-and-catching was equal entertainment for those who played and those who watched from the sidelines (beer in hand). We also took the opportunity to stop by a beautiful and rarely-visited Tara temple on the outskirts of town. Tara is a feminine deity associated with compassion, enlightened action, and the support of women on their spiritual path. The central statue is a stunning 8-foot tall goddess made out of silver, glistening in the dark, cool temple (per usual in Bhutan, no altar photos allowed).

Frisbee in the forest with our trekking staff.

In the evening, we were reunited with our lead guide and his wife (the office mastermind and operations manager extraordinaire). They had arranged a happy hour and cultural performance for us, bringing one of Bhutan’s best dance troupes to a nearby hotel to showcase dances from various ethnic groups and from different religious festivals. The Buddhist art Bhutan is most famous for is dance. Festivals happen throughout the year with monks performing a series of religious dances in brocade costumes and animal-headed masks, interspersed with village locals performing folk dances. This night we got a taste of dances and songs from all across the country. The group of men and women played traditional instruments, sang, and danced in a skillful demonstration of the diversity of song and dance across Bhutan.

A delicious dinner followed, with a pink ice cream cake for dessert. When it arrived, it read, “Happy Birthday, Deana!” and everyone started singing…again. It was my second birthday celebration this year—and I was entirely surprised both times. During the trek, I came to breakfast one morning to discover the table set with fresh flowers, a card, a chocolate bar, and a cake (because you can have cake for breakfast when you’re trekking!). The clients and staff were all gathered together singing happy birthday, and I was touched that one of my clients who had travelled with me before had remembered my birthday, come prepared with card and gift, and organized with the kitchen and clients into a celebration. When we returned to Thimphu, my friends who own the tour company had heard from the trekking cook that it was my birthday, and they arranged a cake and celebration all over again!

Birthday cake for breakfast

For most of my birthdays in recent years, I’ve arrived home in May after 2+ months in Nepal too mentally and physically tired to plan anything, so I’ve rarely celebrated beyond a low-key dinner with a few friends. This year, I had not one, but two, birthday celebrations, and I felt very joyful and loved!

In the morning, we drove to Paro, where we began, where the international airport is, where our trip would come full circle. In Thimphu, our office had managed to magically arrange hotel rooms despite the town being at full occupancy in the nicer hotels. However, in Paro where our flight was departing from, our office had been hitting a wall for accommodations. I ended up reaching out to a hotel owner in Portugal for a favor in Bhutan—and he was incredibly gracious to oblige. After all the struggle and weather and diverted plans, we spent our final two nights at a brand-new luxury property, enjoying 6-course gourmet dinners and sweeping views of the valley from every room. Another serendipitous experience forced by the unexpected—and an amazing way to end our journey!