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Minmaxing Life
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Spinning the prayer wheel.

5 April, 2011 (06:04) | Life | By: Olivier


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Visited Wangduephodrang Dzong, near Timphu, where I saw antique prayer wheels from back when they were still made of leather and paper. Sadly it will soon be time to leave Bhutan. Of course, despite the heavy emphasis on Gross National Happiness, the country has some very real problems and it would be naive to ignore them. However, it is also obvious from its people and social atmosphere that Bhutan is not a sick society. I have never felt this anywhere else before and it leaves me highly impressed and slightly envious.

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Spinning the prayer wheel, let it be that I find my way back to this place. Let Bhutan trace its path to modernity while resisting the corruption of greed. Let it stay the pleasant and optimistic land I traveled. Farewell, Thunder Dragon and keep up whatever it is you are doing because, clearly, it’s working.

Trucks and dogs.

2 April, 2011 (17:03) | Life | By: Olivier


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Two things Bhutan has in abundance: colorful trucks

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…and dogs!

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The worst nuisance is not necessarily the one you would expect… As the saying goes: “The dogs of Bhutan sleep all day and bark all night”!

At Wangdicholing palace.

1 April, 2011 (07:03) | Life | By: Olivier


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In Bhumtang we were lucky to stay directly on the grounds of Wangdcholing palace, previously home of the royal family and now handed over to the monks. In the afternoon, we drank safflower tea and practiced traditional archery with the locals in the palace’s backyard. In the evening, we either sat near a bonefire to watch rehearsal dances for the Tsechu or listened to monks chanting prayers and playing their sacred instruments.

The following days were spent hiking in the wilderness and visiting many more temples and monasteries.

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Gangtey Valley

31 March, 2011 (08:00) | Life | By: Olivier


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Gangtey valley

Gangtey valley and its endless carpet of dwarf bamboo (Yushania microphilla): the favorite meal of yaks.

Gangtey is the favorite landing ground of the beloved black-necked cranes. Alas, by the time we arrived they had already all left for summer, but for one laggard. Even when the birds are not there, the valley stays home to its monks, horses, yaks and lonely chortens.

A lonely chorten

A perfect setting to take a hot stone bath at dawn while waiting for the thunderstorm.

A yak in the yushanias An old monk at Gangtey Goemba Forest trail in Gangtey valley Horses in the wild

Prayer flags for the dead.

30 March, 2011 (15:17) | Life | By: Olivier


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Prayer flags for the dead

Wandering in the mountains, one will often stumble on a small forest of white prayer flags planted in memory of a deceased relative. Just add milky mist to witness Bhutanese magic…

Trongsa Dzong

30 March, 2011 (13:03) | Life | By: Olivier


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Door to Trongsa Dzong

The mighty Trongsa Dzong – the political heart of the kingdom during many generations, and the longest dzong in Bhutan.

After reading “The hero with a thousand eyes“, it was easy to picture life inside this fortress back in the times before the Bhutanese fiscal reform, when taxes were still levied in nature. Back then, the Dzong was filled with mountains of salted butter, partially rotting meat, grains and cloth. It was at the peak of its power, bursting with activity.

A lonely monk inside Trongsa Dzong

Only lonely monks and a rooster remain today.

Trongsa Dzong's rooster

Nevertheless, the Dzong has lost nothing of its imposing presence.

Inside Trongsa Dzong

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The bridge to Trongsa Dzong

Trongsa Dzong from outside

Educating young monks.

29 March, 2011 (17:01) | Games, Life | By: Olivier


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Today, I was supposed to teach English to young monks.

Young monks huddled in prayer?..

But we quickly found a much more interesting subject matter…

...or trying to beat the hi score at Doodle Jump?

Our Doodle Jump champion for the day!

Our champion of the day!

A couple of observations:

- I was struck by how easily the young monks shared the game. Doodle Jump is addictive and it is very tempting to try “just one more time”. But they would naturally pass the device around without being asked. I’m willing to bet the behavior in a French primary school would be quite different! I attribute the cultural difference to the constant social reinforcement on collaboration, most notably through legends such as the Four Harmonious friends (Thuenpa Puen Shi).

The Four Harmonious Friends

It goes like this: “There were once four friends, an elephant, a monkey, a peacock and a rabbit who wished to have a constant supply of the fruit they all loved to eat. After some deliberation, they decided that through cooperation they could achieve this. So, the peacock found the seed and planted it in the ground. The rabbit then watered it and the monkey fertilized it. The elephant, being the largest of the four guarded it day and night. The seed germinated and grew and grew until it became a mature tree and produced the longed for fruit. When it was ripe, none of the animals could reach up to harvest it, so they made a tower by climbing on each other’s backs; first the elephant, then the monkey, the rabbit and finally the peacock. Through their friendship and cooperation the four were able to share in their favorite fruit.”

- Some of the monks had their own cellphones. Although nothing as fancy as iPhones (yet), they would still watch short music videos on it and I suddenly realized how profoundly mobile internet will change the world. As in many poor countries, access to knowledge has historically been very difficult in the remote kingdom of Bhutan. Getting up-to-date manuals and good teachers in the country is expensive and hard. Today they struggle to find teachers. Tomorrow they’ll have access to Khan’s Academy, Wikipedia and many other sources of useful knowledge. Even if only 0.01% take advantage of it, it will impact society massively. We should push hard to give internet access everywhere.

Punakha Dzong

29 March, 2011 (03:36) | Life | By: Olivier


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Punakha Dzong

There is a Dzong in every region of Bhutan. Impressive white fortresses circled with a red khemar band just below the roof, they are the heart of the political and administrative systems, serving simultaneously as seat of local government and as temple. Dzongs are architectural marvels, built without any plans and using no nails, under the sole direction of a high lama.

Punakha Dzong

Punakha Dzong, also known as the “Palace of Happiness”, is perhaps the most splendid of them all and certainly the most lavishly decorated.

Punakha Dzong

Chimi Lhakang

28 March, 2011 (09:24) | Life | By: Olivier


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Chimi Lhakang

Chimi Lhakang, Drukpa Kunley’s temple, is a renown pilgrimage site as it is widely believed that childless couples who pray there will then conceive children. Inside, a monk blesses you with an ivory and wood replicas of the saint’s lingam as well as his bow and arrow.

The temple is also home to little monks and I arrived just as their teacher was giving them an english lesson.

Little monks having an English class Little monks trying to follow their teacher

Drukpa Kunley, the divine madman.

28 March, 2011 (07:51) | Hedonism, People | By: Olivier


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A most surprising sight for a foreigner in Bhutan is that you will see penises everywhere.
Yes, you read that right. Turgid phalluses proudly painted or sculpted on houses and doors and even flying dicks hanging from the corner of roofs. No joke: it’s even worse than Second Life!

Penis on a wall Another penis

Penis on top of a door

This is, in fact, to ward off evil spirits and honor the Bhutanese’s favorite saint: Drukpa Kunley, the divine madmen – an irreverent figure, constantly ridiculing the establishment and corrupt priests in particular. Philosophically, he is an extravagant cross between Aristippus and Diogenes with a dash of Nassredin Hodja.

Drukpa Kunley

It is indeed easy to grow fond of the whimsical character after having heard of his many exploits, usually involving lots of drinking and use of his “flaming thunderbolt of wisdom” to subdue demons or enlighten women.

In the words of the “saint of 5000 women” himself:

“I am happy that I am a free yogi
So I grow more and more into my inner happiness
I can have sex with many women,
Because I help them to go the path of enlightenment.

Outwardly, I am a fool
And inwardly I live with a clear spiritual system.
Outwardly, I enjoy wine, women and song
And inwardly I work for the benefit of all human beings.

Outwardly, I live for my pleasure
And inwardly I do everything in the right moment.
Outwardly, I am a ragged beggar
And inwardly a blissful Buddha.”