Summer 2002: Journey to Bhutan

Summer 2002, Volume 8, No. 3

A Journey to Bhutan

by Bruce Meade

The small passenger jet dropped out of the clouds, darted through a heart stoppingly narrow pass, then settled onto the single landing strip of the Paro Airport. I stepped out into the sweet smelling spring air. I was in Bhutan, the last Buddhist Kingdom.

The main reason for my journey was to experience the culture of this isolated Himalayan realm, but I also had a paper trail to follow.For by coincidence no sooner had I made my travel arrangements than we began to carry handmade paper made in Bhutan here at Hiromi Paper International.

Bhutan is a small Kingdom about the size of Switzerland, with Tibet as its neighbor to the north and India to the south. The current king is a very enlightened ruler, more concerned with his countries Gross National Happiness than its Gross National Product. By his decree the protection of Bhutan's pristine natural environment is the stated policy of the government.

To enter Bhutan, whether in a group or by yourself you need to be with a Bhutanese guide and a driver. This, as well as your visa, must be arranged through a licensed Bhutanese tour agency and you must pay $200.00 per day while in the country, which includes food, lodging, and vehicle.

For me the opportunity to visit an isolated Buddhist country high in the Himalayas far outweighed any of the aforementioned limitations. As far as the $200.00 per day I figured, hey, that's why credit cards were invented.

And that how I came to be standing in a field of blooming Daphne at a 10,000 foot high pass in Bhutan! To touch this shrub whose bark would eventually become a sheet of paper selling in the store where I worked halfway across the world was an incredible feeling of being part of a full circle.

I was en route to the Paro festival, an important rite of spring in Bhutan. The festival is part county fair, part religious ceremony. Vendors from all over the Himalayas set up to sell their wares. Colorful masks, beautiful jewelry, antique prayer wheels, and exotic foods were all on display.

On its final day the Festival is capped off by the unfurling at dawn of a four story high banner depicting Guru Rimpoche, who brought Buddism to Bhutan in 650 A.D.

So blessed is the huge banner (called a Thondrol) that it is believed one achieves liberation simply by viewing it. So there I stood in the cool light of dawn, staring up at the massive image of Rimpoche seated upon his lotus throne. Bhutanese people had come from all over, many walking for days to see the Thondrol. It remains up for only a few hours, on this one day a year, as the monks do not let the 300 year old work of devotional art be touched by direct rays of the sun, least it fade.

I then made my way to the booth of Mangala Paper, who make the paper we import, and introduced myself to Kezang Udon. Her Eco Friendly hand made paper was doing a brisk business, with many western tourists checking out the beautiful sheets, as well as handsome photo albums and journals crafted from Bhutan paper. I told Kezang how proud I was to be part of the introduction of Bhutan paper to the United States and she graced me with the warm smile that is so typical of the Bhutanese people.

I promised to stop by her factory on my way back from my journey to the remote central valley, and began an arduous day and a half drive on the only paved road in the country.

I traveled over passes towering above the clouds, through dense forests punctuated by flaming red rhodendrums. I visited the cave where Guru Rimpoche first meditated when he arrived in Bhutan from Tibet. A temple has been built around the cave and a huge cypress tree stands beside it, supposedly having sprung up from Rimpoche's walking stick. I touched the tree with deep respect for the man who is believed to be the second incarnation of Buddha.


On the return journey it began to snow. We were heading for a monastery at the top of a pass, and arrived to the sound of deep guttural chanting of monks, accompanied by the plaintive cry of conch shell horns and thudding bass of drums. A healing ceremony for the Lama (Teacher) was in progress and we were allowed to observe.

The interior of the monastery was a treasure trove of wall paintings depicting various spiritual heroes battling demons. Bhutan is a Tantric Buddhist nation, thus visualizations of inner states of mind are constantly on view, serving as signposts on the path towards enlightenment.

Leaving the monastery I noticed the snow had stopped, and the sky was now a dazzling blue. I stood at the top of the pass gazing out at the Himalayan range in all its monumental glory. Massive snow crowned peaks stood as silent sentinels between the border of Bhutan and Tibet. Bathed in the clear light the mountains seemed to be the liar of Bhutans legendary Thunder Dragons. It was a sight that will linger forever in my memory.

Continuing westward I entered Thimphu, the only world capitol without a traffic light. I made my way to the paper making facility, which sits above the river at the southern end of the city. Colorful prayer flags fluttered by the entrance, sending hopes for peace out to the world on the breeze.

Over tea Kezang shared with me the story of how she came to be involved in the making of handmade paper. It was not a family business by any means. She learned about the long tradition of paper making in Bhutan, and was most impressed with the rich character of the paper. Realizing the art was slowly dying she decided to take it up despite the objections raised by her family.

Since she didn't know very much about papermaking she went to Japan to study their techniques. After returning to Bhutan she set up the Mangala House of Handmade Paper, knowing full well she was bucking all the modern trends. The labor intensive, time consuming handmade methods were being fazed out in search of higher profit margins, but she did not want to see the handmade paper of Bhutan disappear. With lots of imagination and hard work Kezang Udon is helping keep an ancient tradition alive. As I told her, we at Hiromi Paper are happy to be part of this effort, introducing these beautiful sheets to artists all over the world.

All too soon it was time for me to climb onto a Druk Airlines jet to fly up and over the Himalayas towards home. I knew how fortunate I was to have been able to visit this magical realm of beauty and insight. And someday I hope to return. Until then I can content myself showing our customers gorgeous sheets of paper that come from the Land of the Thunder Dragon.