Humanities Programme Trip: Land of the Thunder Dragon

By Zara Nicole Toh (13A01B)

To many of us here in modernised Singapore, Bhutan is somewhat of a foreign concept. Not just because it’s literally a distant land, but also because we don’t quite understand the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH), which plays such an important role in the lives of the Bhutanese. While they choose to focus on quality of life as measured in terms of things like environmental and mental wellness, Singaporeans remain caught up in the pursuit of the 5Cs (car, condo, cash, credit card, country club) and our government still places a greater emphasis on Gross Domestic Product (GDP). With these significant differences in the way of life of Singaporeans and Bhutanese, how 67 students from the Humanities Programme, as well as our 6 accompanying teachers, survive 9 days in a foreign land? And out of those 67 students, how would 29 of them survive trekking through the untamed Bhutanese wilderness? We will find out soon enough…

After the skillful pilot on our DrukAir flight successfully maneuvered a series of winding valleys – at times bringing the plane as close as 100 feet to the side of a hill slope – and landed our plane on the tarmac of Paro Airport, the only international airport in Bhutan, we were treated to breathtaking sights as we walked towards the sole building that made up the terminal. Not only was the air clean, crisp and fresh, there were mountain ranges as far as the eye could stretch. This would become a familiar sight to us over the course of the trip; our eyes would be greeted by the hilly terrain just about every waking moment of the day.

The beautiful sight that greeted us as we first stepped foot in Bhutan
The beautiful sight that greeted us as we first stepped foot in Bhutan

With heartfelt goodbyes, the trekking team separated from the non-trekking group. As we boarded the bus, we did not know what to expect and were more concerned with taking numerous pictures of the magnificent scenery surrounding us. After all, one can never have enough pictures of a herd of yaks!

Over the next 2 days, we got acquainted with the sights and sounds of Bhutan – both of the architectural and natural kind. We had time to interact with the Bhutanese youth during our visit to PunakhaHigherSecondary School, even enjoying a thrilling game of basketball with them (it was quite an even match)! Given a 3000 metre difference in altitude, some of our boys reported experiencing breathlessness, or even bleeding in their throats.

To our surprise, the Bhutanese youth spoke English flawlessly, as English was the medium of instruction in all their schools. We were very curious about each others’ lifestyles. One question we frequently asked was: “What do you do in your free time?” Indeed, we had a hard time imagining a life without handheld games and huge shopping centres in every neighborhood. We also found that the rigor of education, which was compulsory until high school, matched Singapore’s as many students boarded in school and had to follow strict study schedules outside normal curriculum hours. Despite the differences in culture, we found it easy to talk to them about common topics such as pop music, movies and sports! Naomi Lourdesamy (13A01B), a hardcore Harry Potter fan, was ecstatic to learn that one of the students she met was also a Harry Potter fan whose favourite character was Hermione! In an age of globalization, common experiences like these are not inhibited by national or cultural borders.

Ms Chan happily accepted a challenge at hand-wrestling issued by a student from Punakha Higher Secondary School
Ms Chan happily accepted a challenge at hand-wrestling issued by a student from Punakha Higher Secondary School

We also enjoyed the variety of Bhutanese architecture that we came across during our bus rides and stops in the cities. As a pillar of GNH is “cultural preservation”, traditional architecture remains an important part of Bhutan. A royal decree passed in 1998 ensures that all Bhutanese buildings bear similar characteristics such as wood frontages, arched windows and sloping roofs. The Dzongs (fortresses) we visited were works of art: towering exterior walls surrounding a complex layout of courtyards, offices, temples and accommodations. The interior of the Dzongs were brightly coloured in Buddhist-themed motifs and paintings. Each painting depicted a legend of an important character in the Buddhist teachings.

A Bhutanese farmhouse with pounded mud making up its foundations
A Bhutanese farmhouse with pounded mud making up its foundations
The simple interior of a Bhutanese farmhouse that we were fortunate enough to visit
The simple interior of a Bhutanese farmhouse that we were fortunate enough to visit

Similar to how the low-rise buildings bore no resemblance to the skyscrapers Singapore boasts, the landscape of Bhutan itself was worlds apart from our flat island. Besides the mountain ridges and valleys, which range from 160m to 7000m above sea level, Bhutan also had 64% forest cover. This explains the crisp and unpolluted air that we enjoyed during our stay.

As part of the trekking team, we had the opportunity to get up close and personal with the Bhutanese landscape during the 4 days that we spent trekking on the Samtengang Winter Trek. Trekking through the wilderness, sleeping in tents, not showering; these were all features of the 4 days we spent braving the Bhutanese forests. During the trek, important values such as co-operation and perseverance were not forgotten. When the pathways were slippery or unstable, we had to rely on the strong and comforting grip of the person in front of us who would kindly offer his or her hand for support. Toh Jie Min (13A01A) gamely offered to carry the bag of a fellow trekker when she needed help as he felt it was “a simple thing he could do, [since] trekking is after all, a team effort”. When the ascent seemed unending, we had to push ourselves to take yet another step, telling ourselves that the summit was coming soon. Even though the trek was classified as “easy/medium”, it was physically demanding even for the fittest of our group. Joshua Ling (13A01C), the boys’ swimming captain, remarked, “While I exercise on a regular basis, the trek was a different sort of ‘tiring’ as you go at a steady pace for long periods of time. This made it very mentally challenging as well.”

The trek begins!
The trek begins!

The fact that we had no warm hotel room to return to at night also needed getting used to, which we all did readily enough as we gathered in the mess tent for card games or chitchat before meals and during our free time. Over the 4 days, we were separated from daily comforts like showers and cellphones. However, we chose to make the most of the wonderful experience by filling our time with activities such as darts or archery and marveling at the sumptuous and delicious food the cooking crew was able to whip up without the aid of modern cooking appliances.

Relaxing in the mess tent after a day’s worth of trekking
Relaxing in the mess tent after a day’s worth of trekking
An example of one of our nutritious and delicious lunches!
An example of one of our nutritious and delicious lunches!

After the trekking experience, the first time we stepped into the hotel seemed like entering a whole new world. Many of us marveled at how much dirt had gathered on our skin during the 4 days of “unshowering”, leaving the bath water brown and murky. The remaining days passed in a quick blur, mostly consisting of visits to more Dzongs and schools. We also made a 2-hour trek up to Tiger’s Nest, a monastery perched beautifully on the cliff of the upper Paro Valley. At this popular tourist spot, we met others there on Buddhist pilgrimages.

Tiger’s Nest: perched precariously on a cliff
Tiger’s Nest: perched precariously on a cliff

All in all, this trip was both educational and eye-opening for us. We got to experience a culture vastly different from our own and spent 9 lovely days immersed in the sights and sounds of Bhutan.  While the days were long, the roads were rough and the trek was exhausting, we managed to get through it (unscathed and unharmed) with the help of our friends, teachers and the guides. We were fortunate enough to have hospital guides, drivers and trekking crew who made our trip all the more worthwhile and unforgettable (and who kept us well-fed during the entire trek!). Personally, I am sure that all of us who went on the trip count it as one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences that we will always remember and treasure!

The trekking group with our guides and trekking crew
The trekking group with our guides and trekking crew
Byebye Bhutan!
Byebye Bhutan!

On behalf of the group, the writer would like to thank the accompanying teachers who painstakingly planned and watched over the group during the entire trip.

Photos courtesy of Sum Xin Yi (13A01B), Kimberley Pah (13A01B), Aidan Mock (13A01B), and Marjorie Pang (13A03A)

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