After a few days of driving through Bhutan, we settled for a while in the Bumthang district (usually called Bumthang Valley) and it’s main town, Jakar. The town itself is small and dusty with a bit of a Wild West feel, except with Buddhist monks instead of cowboys. It’s not uncivilized, but it’s rustic. From what we could tell, there were only a few other foreigners in Bumthang – mostly older Japanese people – even though it was prime tourist season.
Back in the 1930’s, a gentleman from Switzerland who was one of the first westerners ever to travel through Bhutan settled in near the town of Jakar and started a guest house. Today, the Swiss Guest House is one of only a few lodging options in Bumthang Valley, and is a small outpost of western-style food in a place otherwise completely devoid of it: homemade bread, butter, and jam, locally made cheese, and beer (on tap!) from one of only two breweries in the country.
In a country full of historical religious sites, Bumthang Valley has perhaps the highest concentration of them anywhere, and some of the holiest. Those sites are the main reason people venture this far into Bhutan, and they’re completely worth it.
Perhaps the most unusual is Membartsho (“the Burning Lake”). Five hundred years ago, a famous Bhutanese saint named Pema Lingpa performed a miracle by diving into the lake, visiting a hidden temple there, recovering some important teachings, and then returning – all without his yak butter lamp being extinguished. Today, people commemorate the event by hanging prayer flags and placing small tsa tsas. Although it’s not really a lake (more like a deep spot in the river), it’s very atmospheric and obviously quite sacred. We were the only ones there, aside from some workers building a new hand rail on the path to the lake (perhaps a sign of the government’s push to develop tourism in Bumthang?)
Jambey Lhakang, built in 659 AD, is one of Bhutan’s oldest and most sacred temples, partially because it was visited in person by Guru Rinpoche – the guy who introduced Buddhism to the Himalayas around the time of Jambey Lhakang’s construction.
Compared to Christian churches, which are fairly uniform, Buddhist temples vary widely in layout. Tibetan Buddhism doesn’t have church “services,” so temples don’t have pews, pulpits, or choirs. Jambey Lhakang, for example, is a complex with a variety of rooms and courtyards. The most sacred room, the inner temple room, is surrounded by an outer room (sort of like a hallway) that features 108 prayer wheels. Visitors enter in one corner and spin each wheel as they complete a clockwise circuit through the outer room. After that, you enter the cramped inner temple room, which is only large enough to squeeze maybe 10 people. The room is dominated by large, golden statues of Buddha and Guru Rinpoche, and decorated with murals, yak butter sculptures, altars for leaving offerings of money or food, and a variety of smaller statues.
Visitors are strictly banned from taking pictures inside any temple or monastery in Bhutan, but there are always interesting things to see outside… where photography is allowed:
Just a short distance down the road is Kurjey Lhakang, a temple that’s the resting place for Bhutan’s first 3 kings (kings #4 & 5 are still living).
Tamshing Lhakang was an important site for one of Bhutan’s most famous saints (Pema Lingpa – the guy from the “lake” I mentioned above), and is currently the home of a man who is believed to be his 11th reincarnation. The temple houses Pema Lingpa’s chain mail, which visitors can drape around themselves and schlep (there’s no other word) three laps around the temple. Although we don’t have any pictures, everyone in our group was able to manage it – said to be a very auspicious act.
Only a small percentage of visitors to Bhutan make it as far east as Bumthang, but the government is trying to promote tourism to the valley. Bhutan’s third airport recently opened there, which is easily the smallest “airport” I’ve ever seen.
I’m conflicted about whether increased tourism would be a good thing; there’s no harm in more people knowing about – and appreciating – the awesome historical sites there, but I can also see those sites easily getting overrun (none of them are large or equipped to handle visitors). Still, I got to go there, so I can’t begrudge anyone else wanting to visit Bumthang also. If you’ve already incurred the cost and effort to take a trip to Bhutan, a jaunt to Bumthang is a no-brainer.