Be awake for the landing.
That's the first piece of advice I would give to anyone traveling to Bhutan. The spinetingling arrival, as the plane literally arcs over mountaintops and descends steeply into the tiny airport in Paro, is a perfect introduction to a country that seems like no other.
I was certainly awake, even though we had left Bangkok at around 5 in the morning. I was in awe of the gorgeous surroundings (something you never really get over here), eager to get going and apprehensive. I really needed this to be a good trip. That's never a good attitude to take traveling, but there I was sitting in an airplane surrounded by glorious mountains, carrying enough emotional baggage to fill a carousel.
Several years ago, my girlfriend (later my wife), Marilyn, and I had come close to visiting Bhutan. We settled on another destination, but Bhutan remained high on our list. Then she died suddenly of a pulmonary embolism in late 2005, and I had not been on a really exotic, out-of-your-comfort-zone kind of trip since. When the chance arose to join a couple of close friends on a tour of Bhutan with the Backroads travel company in Berkeley, I signed up before the apprehensions could sink in. That's the way you have to do things, sometimes.
I'm not sure if I was looking to get back on the traveling horse, confront my grief by closing an old chapter or seeking some kind of answers in the heart of mystical Himalayas. Probably all of the above. There's also the fact that Bhutan is a staggeringly beautiful country, full of warm and charming people, that is going through profound changes even as it remains uniquely cloistered within its Himalayan fortress.
So here I was. And in a trip that was full of memorable moments, I experienced one that transcended all others.
The seeds for this experience were sown a few days into the trip, during a sprawling, beautiful hike that crisscrossed up a forested hill to a ridge overlooking the Paro Valley, with a backdrop of the Himalayas circling the view. The walk passed by several overlooks, where dozens and dozens of streaming flags snapped in the breeze. They were white, green, red and other colors, all with Bhutanese printing, attached by string and tied to trees or polls to capture the wind. They were prayer flags and they can be found all over Bhutan. Matt, one of the Backroads tour guides, told me they are meant to convey messages of hope, bereavement, fear, joy and pleas for good fortune in life. The idea is that by suspending them in an "auspicious" spot, where there's a breeze or nearby river, the elements carry these messages where they need to go — through time, to deities, or to the person for whom they're directed. It might sound like just another spiritual superstition, but the sight of all these billowing flags casting out their heartfelt messages is deeply moving.
During the hike, Matt and I talked about our backgrounds, and I mentioned how Marilyn was so intently in my thoughts and feelings here. Matt suggested a wonderful idea: Why don't I hang a flag for Marilyn? I loved the idea, but had no idea how it should be done. Where do I get the flags? How will I know where is the right spot? Matt told me not to worry; he could get me flags (turns out they are sold in most stores in villages), and the right time and location would present itself.
In a few days, it did.
Let me note here that Buddhism and Himalayan mysticism are a big part of life in Bhutan, and visitors here would be missing a big piece of the puzzle if they didn't try to tune it in. It's all around you. You will hear stories and legends of reincarnations, monsters and deities and demons, and Buddhist masters conquering fierce foes and enormous obstacles to further their faith and path to enlightenment. You don't have to convert to Buddhism to enjoy Bhutan, but you'll get much more out of a trip here if you at least carry an open mind about the stories. Bhutan is a magical place; you owe it to yourself to try to wrap your mind around all the magic.
A secret place
A couple of days later, we took a gorgeous hike to the top of a ridge outside Thimphu, the capital, that was home to a beautiful 17th century monastery known as Cheri Goemba. We made our way up the steep trail, with overlooks affording views of the river and valley below, and of the surrounding mountains, and I grew enchanted with the serene beauty and quietude. I realized this was where I wanted to hang my prayer flag. I excitedly told Matt of my plan and he endorsed it with a warm smile. He said there was going to be group discussion when we reached the monastery, and that I should skip it and go hang my flag, figuring I would have just enough time on my own before the group would catch up with me coming back down.
I sneaked off and headed down the trail, passing a small, quizzical mountain goat. I was headed for a cluster of trees that circled a rocky point overlooking the river, where the stirring view was shrouded in shade and silence.
About halfway to the spot, I heard someone behind me. I turned and saw a young monk, in a maroon robe, who was also descending the trail. I felt like I'd been caught doing something wrong; I had no idea if tourists were supposed to be traipsing around by themselves, hanging prayer flags wherever they liked. In a friendly tone, and with pretty good English, he asked where I was going. I told him I wanted to hang a prayer flag nearby. He nodded and smiled. There was only one path and we were headed in the same direction, so this young monk and I walked together for a few minutes in silence until we came near the spot, and I stopped and unshouldered my knapsack. He gave me an odd glance.
"I'd like to hang my flag down by those trees," I explained, pointing. I opened knapsack and showed him the flag.
He shook his head.
"No?" I asked. "I can't hang my prayer flag?" He shook his head and gestured toward my spot, as if waving it off.
I was heartbroken and afraid he didn't understand what I wanted to do and what it meant to me.
"Why not?" I asked.
"No wind," he replied. I remembered what Matt had told me, that wind and water were needed to carry the prayer flag's message. I hadn't realized that certain quantities of each were required.
"I'll show you," he said. And with that he reached over and took my knapsack. "I'll carry," he said, and we resumed our descent. He pulled out a chocolate bar and gave me half, and we walked along munching the candy and making awkward small talk. Where did I live? What was it like in America? What was it like to be a monk? (Yes, I actually asked him that.) He was 19 and was studying at the monastery; he had been training and studying to be a monk, he said, since he was 6.
He asked me if I was married and I told him about Marilyn. The prayer flag was for her, I explained. He asked me what she was like — was she pretty, was she nice — and I answered him, not sure if he was really understanding me. He asked if I would get married again soon, and I told him no; I was still sad. He nodded and stopped walking for a second, and I could see that he was sad, too.
"I will pray for your wife," he said softly. "Every day."
I thanked him, telling myself I was not going to start blubbering in front of this young monk.
We walked on till we came to a covered bridge over a river at the base of the trail head. This was clearly the right spot, as the bridge was festooned with row upon row of flapping prayer flags releasing their messages to the wind and the water; mysticism's answer to a MySpace page. The monk looked around, called over another monk, and the two of them blessed my flag and hung it up on an unadorned section of the bridge. I watched through my tears as my message — I had written our two family names on the flags with the words "we are together" — took flight.
When they were done, I went to thank my young friend and shake his hand. I extended two hands, which signals deep respect, and he did the same, as we wished each other luck. Then the two monks walked off, leaving me to savor our prayer flag.
The logical explanation is that it was just a coincidence that I ran into that monk. I know that. But it sure doesn't feel that way. It felt more like someone, somewhere, was looking out for me, looking to show me a little kindness, and for once I'm going to listen to what my sixth sense tells me. As I said, Bhutan is a magical, mystical place.
Reach Randy McMullen at rmcmullen@bayareanews group.com.