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Client report: BHUTAN – Ian Stubbs makes a memorable return

Intrepid traveller and loyal client Ian Stubbs returned to Bhutan in the spring of 2008 on a very personal journey.  Here he gives a moving account of his experiences…

“After three years I was returning, via Nepal, to the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon. I had a holiday organised for six months earlier but my father passed away and all kinds of plans had to be moved around. I must have driven Fiona mad with all that needed doing.  Everything was put on hold but then I came up with an idea which gave a purpose to my travels…

The flight into Paro airport in Bhutan is one of the most spectacular in the world as you fly along the Himalaya mountain range almost level with Everest. My guide and the driver who met me were to prove priceless in my achieving my main aim for the trip, to scatter my father’s ashes in a holy place, following the correct protocol within the Buddhist religion. I also wanted to visit a local festival and hopefully to see the dance of the Black Hats; to visit three of Bhutan’s most holy sites and to see the fabled Zi stones which are said to hold magic properties.

On the journey to the Bumthang region I visited the dzongs of Wangdi, Punakha and Tongsa, magnificent buildings dating back centuries, made mainly of stone and wood. While at Punakha I was lucky enough to see the Chief Abbot (Je Jhenpo), albeit from a distance, as he stopped off to bless local people. The dzong at Wangdi is one of my favourites — the building dates back to 1638 and has a strange feeling of prayers being absorbed into the very fabric of the walls, one of those moments of being able to sense the essence of holy calm.

On the outskirts of the town of Jakar we stayed at a guest house owned by a Swiss gentleman who has been there since the 1960s.  Over time he has introduced brown-eyed cattle and is setting up a dairy and a brewery (to make white wheat beer). This part of Bhutan contains some of the holiest places and at one site I was able to see the fabled Zi stones around the neck of a golden Buddha, said to contain real power. This Buddha didn’t just have a couple of these special stones but strings of them.

In the evening my guide and I worked through the plan for the scattering of my father’s ashes. The site chosen was the burning lake where Pema Lingpa found many treasures. We had to buy prayer flags in Jakar and have them blessed at a local monastery. Yeshey explained the importance of the colour (white for the deceased) and the number of panels it should have. He also arranged a visit to the monastery of Namkhe Nyingpo to see the head lama who had agreed to bless the ashes of my father.  It was very moving as he read holy text and sprinkled holy water with a peacock feather over the prayer flags and mixed some with the ashes.

We then went to the burning lake where we burned pine branches to create the smoke to carry our prayers to the sky. This part of the ceremony was particularly moving, and I left the others to string out the flag while I gathered my thoughts, then it was time to scatter the ashes into the lake…

The following day we went to the Ura Valley to witness the first day of the festival. As luck would have it, they performed the dance of the Black Hats — so all my aims were achieved.

My visit ended with a three day trek through the Gantry Valley — a good time to reflect on my return to this wonderful country and its friendly open people, all made possible through the help I had through Fiona and Far Frontiers Travel.  Bhutan is truly a magical country and to anyone planning to go I would say, do it.”