Well, the Buddhist deities were not kind to the good folks of Thimphu. It was a deluge all morning. It was looking like a rainout for the Thimpu Tscechu. It was hugely disappointing as this was supposed to be one of the highlights of my trip to Bhutan. However, despite the rain I got into the local dress I had purchased yesterday, grabbed my umbrella and met my guide downstairs.
We got all the way to the gates of the festival when it began to rain harder (if that was possible). I decided I wanted to go back to the hotel and get some additional rain gear. If I was going to sit outside in the rain, I was going to try and figure out some way to stay dry.
So after a quick trip back to the hotel, I grabbed some plastic coverings I had in my bag and my other raincoat. Once back at the site, we cleared security and managed to find some cover while we waited for the dances to begin.
Now a little bit about the festival. Tsechu are Bhuddist festivals held throughout Bhutan. The Tsechu features costumed, mask dances which tell little stories. In addition, each Tsechu features local singers and dancers. The Thimphu Tsechu is one of the most famous in Bhutan with people coming from all over the country (and world) to see the dances. So it was hugely disappointing that it was raining.
The dances were taking place in a stadium like setting with a stone seating around the perimeter of the dance area with VIP suite areas at one end of the stadium along with an area for the “band”. The band consisted of a drum, symbol and a horn.
As the time neared for the dances to begin, my guide laid down a some rubber padding and two seat cushions for a little comfort. Unfortunately with the rain, we had to keep the umbrellas up, but since we were sitting near the top row, I had a perfect view to the middle of the dance area.
The festivities finally began around 8:30 a.m. with what I called the “clowns” making an appearance. The clowns were actually called Atsaras, who apparently were more than just clowns. It is believed that the Atsaras provide protection against the entrance of evil forces during the dances. They are also apparently the teachers of the dances and frequently mimicked the dancers as they performed throughout the morning. I actually found them highly annoying as they kept getting in the way of my pictures.
Now one other thing that I quickly learned. The phallic symbol is considered a religious symbol in Bhutan both for good luck and to ward off evil spirits. Seriously. You see them everywhere. Painted on the side of buildings, hanging in doorways. So it should not have come as a surprise that one of the Atsaras was carrying around an enormous uh … well I will let the picture do the talking.
So after the antics of the Atsaras, who the locals found highly entertaining, the first group was some local dancers who turned out to be quite good. They were dressed in the traditional costume and did a lot of leg lifting and twirling.
The real show started with the Dance of the 21 Black Hats. This dance was considered a purification dance enabling all the other dancers to perform after the dancers slay the demons. This dance lasted at least a 1/2 hour with drums, symbols and the ever present horn. The dancers twirled, hopped and contorted in different directions. When the long drone of the horn sounded the dancers would twirl to the beat of the horn. It was fascinating.
After the dancers excited, some local women folk singers took the stage only to have those annoying Atsaras dance around the folk singers. The singers really didn’t do much other than supposedly sing (although when I zoomed in with my camera I did not see them signing … I was pretty sure this was poor lip syncing).
Next up was the Dance of the 21 Black Hats with Drums. I found this dance similar to the first dance except that each of the dancers carried a hand held drum that they would beat as they twisted and twirled to the music.
After this dance, there were two different local groups who sang and danced. The second group included both women and men and I actually enjoyed it better than the all women groups.
Once the local groups excited, the first masked dance took place: the Accompaniment Dance with Swords. This turned out to be my favourite of the morning. There were 16 dancers each wearing a different animal mask. There was a lot of leaping and twirling with some solo dances. The masks and clothing were incredibly detailed. It was really entertaining.
I also thought that the dancers were a little more skilled with the various leaps and poses with the swords. It took incredible skill to perform the dance.
The last dance of the morning was the Dance of the Noblemen and Ladies. This dance was without a doubt my least favourite. There was apparently a story being told about two princes who went off to war leaving behind their princesses in the charge of an old woman. The Atsaras would try and get close to the princesses and the old woman would beat them off with a stick. When the music changed with the bellow of a horn, the two princes and two princesses would raise their legs, do a couple turns and shift postions clockwise. This went on for two circuits of the dance area before I became completely bored with the whole Atsaras schitck.
By now, my feet were soaked, and I was cold, wet and rather hungry. Thinley suggested that we go get some lunch and perhaps shift the schedule around a bit. Rather than come back and sit in the rain in the afternoon, we would visit some sites we were supposed to visit on Sunday and that would free up Sunday afternoon for a return to the festival in what we hoped would be better weather. Fine by me.
We stopped for some lunch at a rooftop restaurant where I had some delicious pumpkin curry soup and a local dish: chile and cheese. Now this dish was perhaps one of the spiciest dishes I have ever eaten. It was really good, but by the time I was done, I could not feel my tonguge. (I later found out that both my guide and driver found it really, really spicey so I was glad it was not just me.)
So with lunch under our belt, the first stop of the afternoon was the Simply Bhutan Museum which showcased the historical lifestyle of the Bhutanese. There was a display showing traditional housing, a typical kitchen, how the locals make rice wine, how grain is ground on a stone wheel, the history of the phallic symbol in Bhutan and typical clothing of the locals. And wouldn’t you know it. As I was visiting the museum, the rain stopped and the sun actually came out. Good grief.
Anyway, after the historical part of the visit was behind us, we stopped by a kitchen area where I was served grilled rice (which is a favoured treat in Bhutan … it was OK, but not really flavourful) and a cup of butter tea. I took one sip and called it good. It was not as bad as the yak butter tea in Tibet, but this stuff was pretty blech.
The last stop was to try my hand at archery, which is the national sport of Bhutan. I actually faired pretty well if I do say so myself.
Before we took our leave, I visited an art studio where a young man, who was severely handicapped, used his feet to carve and paint. He apparently appeared on CNN’s the Wonder List last year and has been heralded by Bhutan’s prime minister as well as the King. His art work was amazing and I ended up buying a momento simply because this young man was so remarkable.
Our last stop of the day was to the Changangkha Lhakhang Temple, which is one of the oldest temples in Thimphu. And wouldn’t you know it … the temple was perched high up on a hill above the downtown core. So … off we set hiking up, up, up in, of course, the sunshine.
The temple dated to the 12th century and is popular with parents who come here with their newborns for blessings of the little ones. In fact, while we were there, we saw two couples with babies seek blessings from one of the monks.
We wandered around for a bit, took in the magnificent view and then called it a day. I was done in.
I ended up meeting my guide and driver for dinner around 7:00. The first restaurant we went to turned out to be awful. It was set up buffet style and on the tour group circuit. There were already two large tour groups when we arrived. I quickly told my guide I did not “do” group tour food restaurants. My experience has always been bad. The food is mass produced and never has much flavour. I didn’t want to embarrass anyone, but there was no way in hell I was eating there.
My guide suggested I sit down and we could get menus and wouldn’t eat with the tour groups. However, five minutes later, a server was delivering to me a cup of soup, which apparently everyone around me was eating. I took one taste, put the spoon down. I looked at my guide, shook my head and said sorry, but I am not eating here. The restaurant clearly wanted to lump me with the tour group, force me to eat the buffet and then get them heck out of there.
Once my guide realized I was serious, he finally agreed and we got up and left after I paid $30 Bhutanese BTN (about $0.50 USD) for the teaspoon of soup I ate. We walked down the street, and I explained to my guide (as I often seem to have to do with guides) that I was on a private tour for a reason. I want to eat local. If I wanted mass produced food, I would join a tour group and eat whatever they gave me. I wanted a choice, and I wanted local.
So with that understanding, we headed to a little restaurant filled entirely with local people. We ordered a couple rice dishes, a spicey pork dish, a mushroom and cheese dish and a chile and cheese dish (Bhutanese use a soft cheese in a lot of their dishes). We also ordered some Chai tea (called ja in Bhutan).
The food came and it was terrific. Spicey, but not too spicey. And the tea was wonderful. So what started out as a D- dinner turned into a A+ event. As I headed back to my hotel (which was actually just across the street from the restaurant), we all kept our fingers crossed for a better weather day on Sunday.