Bhutan: Land of the Thunder Dragon

California Native founder Lee Klein with driver and guide in Bhutan.
California Native founder Lee Klein wearing traditional gho with Bhutanese driver and guide.

Seated astride a flying tiger, Guru Rimpoche entered Bhutan in the year 747 AD, to conquer demons and introduce Buddhism in this isolated area of the Himalayas. In this far off kingdom, mythology and history intermingle and ghosts, yetis, and demons are part of daily life.

The name Bhutan is probably derived from the Sanskrit word Bhotant meaning “the end of Tibet” or Bhu-uttan meaning “high land.” The Bhutanese, however, refer to their country as Druk Yal, “Land of the Thunder Dragon,” and the Bhutanese flag, with its rampaging dragon, proudly reflects that.

Bhutan is nestled in the Himalayas between China and India. On its southwestern border is the Indian state of Sikkim. To its north is Tibet. Almost the entire country is mountainous. The southernmost part begins in the humid jungles of India’s Assam Plain, but soon climbs high into the Himalayas.

There is only one airport in the country and that is in Paro, a deep valley at 7,300 feet elevation, surrounded by 16,000 foot mountains. Only one airline flies into Paro, Druk Air, the Royal Bhutanese Airline. The flight to Paro is one of the most spectacular in the world. Flying over the Himalayas, the plane descends steeply between snow capped peaks flying through the narrow valley to land at the tiny airport.

Bhutan’s capital is Thimphu (pronounced “Tim – Pu”), a thriving metropolis of around 40,000. The population of the entire country is only 750,000.

The country is a monarchy, ruled by His Majesty King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, 31 years old, making him the world‘s youngest monarch.

Being a tiny country sandwiched between two of the largest countries in the world, Bhutan makes it a top priority to maintain its traditional culture. For all business, official, and religious occasions people dress in the traditional costume, men wearing the gho, a long attractive robe made out of wool or silk and tied about the waist, and women wearing the kira, an ankle length dress made from fine woven fabrics with traditional patterns. School children all wear their school uniform ghos and kiras. The schools, incidentally, are required to teach their students in English as well as the official language which is Dzongkha.

Houses and other buildings in Bhutan are built in the traditional style, as dictated by religion and law. The houses are generally two stories, constructed of wood and mud and elaborately decorated with carvings and paintings of Buddhist symbols. The roofs are made with wood shingles held in place by stones. On the top of every house is a colorful prayer flag.

The major towns are dominated by the dzong, a huge white fort which serves as a combination government headquarters and monastery. The system of dzongs began in the twelfth century and the newest dzong was constructed in 1998. There have been many fires in the dzongs over the years due to the hundreds of burning yak butter lamps.

According to the Buddhist religion, when a person dies he is reincarnated. When a great lama dies his reincarnation is identified and the child is taken and educated so that he may continue the good work of his previous incarnations. Lamas may marry, but only in every other lifetime.

On a recent trek in this beautiful country, I was accompanied by a Bhutanese guide, a Tibetan cook, two village lady “wranglers,” and four horses. As we headed up into the mountains, the clean air and pine forests reminded me of California’s Sierra Nevada. Unlike other Himalayan countries, Bhutan’s mountains have not been deforested. Soon, the sight of shaggy yaks grazing in the high meadows, the colorful prayer flags blowing in the wind at the top of each mountain pass, and the red-cloaked monks wandering the dirt paths, reminded me that I had come a long way from California—perhaps I had found the real “Shangri La.”

Happy Valentine’s Day in Mexico

No date for Valentine’s Day this year? No problem if you are in Mexico.Happy Valentine's Day from The California Native.

Although St. Valentine’s Day probably started as a pre-Christian observance, it later became a minor religious holiday honoring St. Valentine. It was celebrated in Europe privately as a day near the end of winter and the beginning of Spring to express romance. It started to become a more public holiday in the U.S. in the mid 1800’s when a Massachusetts stationer started mass producing Valentine’s Day cards and selling them in her shop. It has grown and grown and is now celebrated in most countries of the world as a day of love and romance (seemingly not at all private!).

In Mexico, the day is called día del amor y la amistad, which means day of love AND friendship. It has evolved as a day to show appreciation for people you care about—and that doesn’t mean it has to be your significant other—it can be anyone you care about, from your teacher, your co-worker or best friend. Flowers, poems, gifts and food are exchanged as much with friends as with lovers. So, think about taking your significant other to enjoy the friendship of Mexico on Valentine’s Day or any time of year. Or join us on one of our tours to Mexico’s Copper Canyon or Yucatan.

Happy Valentine’s day to all our California Native friends!

In Copper Canyon, The Doctor is In

Tarahumara Indian lady and children in Copper CanyonDeep in the heart of Mexico’s Sierra Madres, in the town of Creel, the center of Copper Canyon country, is the clinic of Santa Teresita. The lives of thousands of Tarahumara Indian children have been saved here because of the dreams and dedication of one man, Father Luis Verplancken.

Father Verplancken was a Jesuit priest who first visited the Tarahumaras in the late 1950s. He saw a great need for health care for these Indians who inhabit this remote area of mountains and canyons. At the time their children had an alarmingly high mortality rate.

Verplancken put his ideas into action by starting a traveling health care facility, housed in a 4-wheel drive station wagon. He quickly discovered that a little help went a long way—one dollar’s worth of penicillin, for example, could treat hundreds of children.

The word spread and by 1964, Verplancken and his volunteers received enough donations to establish a small hospital in an old railroad warehouse. The demand for medical care was so great that some Tarahumaras walked three days from their remote villages to reach the hospital.

A major obstacle that both the town and the hospital faced was the lack of a dependable water supply. With the help of more donations, a pipeline was built from the nearest fresh water source, which was four miles away over extremely harsh terrain. Three handcrafted pumping stations had to be constructed to lift the water 600 feet up to the level of the town. For the first time, Creel and the hospital had a dependable supply of fresh water.

In the mid-1970s, plans were drawn for a more modern hospital. With the help of his nephew, who was studying architecture at the time, Verplancken designed what today is known as the clinic of Santa Teresita. This clinic was literally “hand-made.” Along with a dedicated group of volunteers, Father Verplancken quarried the stone, crafted the brick and cut the trees.

The clinic opened in 1979, and houses a seventy-bed hospital with x-ray and laboratory facilities, a pharmacy, dental facilities and an outpatient clinic.

After 52 years of service to the Tarahumara community, Father Verplanken died of cancer, but the clinic lives on.

Today, the clinic still depends on volunteers and donors. Over 90% of the services and medications are provided free of cost, and the remainder are provided to the local residents at a token fee.

Many guests on California Native Copper Canyon tours have visited the clinic and donated money, medicines and supplies. One woman, after returning from a recent trip, sent four sets of crutches that she purchased at a garage sale in the United States.

Myanmar and Me: Traveling With the California Native

We appreciate it when our guests share their stories with us and allow us to post them on our blog for everyone to enjoy.

Earlier this month, Nancy King and Richard Keltner, from San Francisco, traveled with us on our 11-day Myanmar (Burma) Explorer Trip. Here are Nancy’s reflections on the trip and a few of her beautiful photos:

Dear Lee,

We loved it! It was an incredibly well organized trip from our arrival in Yangon to when we left 11 days later.

We had four guides and they could not have been more accommodating. They were educated, spoke excellent English and we had such good connection I found myself crying one time at parting (and we had no guide more than 2 -1/2 days). It is strange now in thinking I asked you about tipping because we wanted to give each a huge tip and did! And drivers couldn’t have been better as well, pulling over when I wanted a photo.

The resort you put us in on Inle Lake was fabulous. I even had our boat man take us to the Princess Hotel, which is where my sister had stayed. I wanted to check out the gift shop. To my delight, our motor boat was stopped on the entry to the Hotel and a [leg rower] jumped in our boat to quietly do his one-leg rowing the entire inlet to the hotel. I did not like the Princess Hotel nearly as well as Inle Resort [where we stayed].

Yangon was very hot and humid in January but all the other cities were quite comfortable. Plus the car was always air conditioned as were the places we stayed. We were upgraded to a suite at the Trader’s Hotel and that was especially nice with the full window view of the city.

The food was outstanding! Our guide ate with us and we let him order [for us] every time. Each guide handled it so smoothly.

We loved having the guide and driver all to ourselves. I like the opportunity to really build a relationship among us.

The excellent guides are important, as we spoke with others who had guides through someone else. They were such a strong part of our trip with our connections with them.

I’m deeply into our trip and reliving it as I process my photos and edit them and get them ready to put in my 71st photo album of our life.


Nancy King

Oxcart in Myanmar
Oxcarts drive alongside the highways in Myanmar.
Myanmar Broom Vendor
In Myanmar, an entrepreneur sells brooms from his bicycle.
Myanmar Merchant
A merchant weighs produce in a marketplace in Myanmar. The white cream on her face, thanaka, is made from tree bark.
Hotel on Inle Lake
Farms, houses, temples and hotels are all located in the waters of Myanmar's Inle Lake.

Something to Kwai About

Bridge on the River Kwai
Onlookers move to the side as a train approaches the famous Bridge on the River Kwai.

I stroll across the railway bridge whistling “Colonel Bogie’s March.” Others on the bridge give me strange looks as if thinking “Who is this weird man?” But I feel good and my whistling is appropriate, for this is the famous “Bridge on the River Kwai.”

Most of us first heard about the bridge through the 1957 film, based on Pierre Boulle’s French novel. Set in a World War II Japanese POW camp in Burma, it is a fictional account of a battle of wills between a harrassed Japanese camp commander and a doggedly-stubborn British colonel. The story climaxes when allied commandos blow up the bridge.

Prisoners build Bridge on the River Kwai.
More than 300,000 Allied and Asian war prisoners were forced to build the railroad bridge over the River Kwai.

The true story is different. During the Second World War, the Japanese planned a railway from Bangkok to Rangoon to shorten the distance between Japan and Burma by 1,300 miles. The railway would cross some of the wettest and most inhospitable terrain in Southeast Asia and require the construction of 688 bridges, but they considered it critical to the war effort.

For labor they used 250,000 Asian forced-laborers, mostly Thai, and more than 60,000 Allied prisoners—30,000 British, 18,000 Dutch, 13,000 Australians, and 700 Americans. Estimated to take five or six years to build, the project, which began on September 16, 1942, was completed after only 16 months, and cost the lives of 16,000 POWs and 75,000 Asian workers. The deaths from cholera, beri beri, malaria, typhoid, exhaustion and malnourishment, earned the railroad the name, “The Death Railway.”

Allied war prisoners in barracks at Kanchanaburi, Thailand
Allied war prisoners in barracks during construction of Bridge on the River Kwai.

The Japanese actually constructed two parallel bridges across the River Kwai, just outside of the Thai town of Kanchanaburi—the first made entirely of wood, the second made of steel and concrete. The Allies destroyed both on February 13, 1945.

In the film the commandos detonated explosive charges fastened to the bridge’s supports. The real bridge was bombed. Failing to destroy the bridges with conventional bombs (some hitting POW camps) the American flyers brought in a new weapon, the AZON (Azimuth Only) bomb. The precursor of today’s “smart” bombs, it had a radio-controlled tail and ten times the accuracy of a conventional bomb.

After the war, engineers repaired the steel bridge over the River Kwai. It is still in use. Visitors to Kanchanaburi, Thailand, now walk across the bridge (the fortunate ones having the opportunity to witness me whistling the theme from the movie), and visit the Allied war cemetery and a museum run by Buddhist monks, featuring a reconstruction of a prisoner of war camp. The monks built the museum “not for the maintenance of hatred among human beings but to warn and teach us the lesson of how terrible war is.”

Bangkok, Thailand, is the cross roads of Southeast Asia. Most passengers traveling to our California Native destinations of Myanmar (Burma) and Bhutan stop in Bangkok before resuming their journeys, and it is well worth spending an additional day to visit Kanchanaburi with its memorials and famous bridge.

Join Us for Easter in Copper Canyon

Tarahumara Indians celebrate Easter in Copper Canyon, Mexico.Now is the time to book your trip for Easter in Mexico’s Copper Canyon. The Easter, or Semana Santa, celebrations of the Tarahumara Indians make this time the high season of the year. Small towns which are sleepy most of the year are now alive with celebrations, 24-hours a day. The Tarahumara, who call themselves the Raramuri, celebrate for a week, with dancing, parades, bon fires, ceremonies in the churches and much drinking of tesguino, the Indians traditional corn liquor.

To begin to understand the Tarahumara ceremonies, one has to have a basic understanding of the Indians’ religion. Read our story about this unusual version of Catholicism practiced by these colorful cave-dwelling people.

Images of the World: Color it Yellow

Colors set our mood and add an important dimension to our feelings and memories of the places we visit. I thought it might be fun to group some of the photos from our library of California Native images by their predominant colors. This first collection is based on the color yellow.

“How wonderful yellow is. It stands for the sun.“—Vincent Van Gogh

The delightful city of Izamal, located on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, is a magical town whose buildings are all painted yellow.

All of the buildings are painted yellow in the city of Izamal.

Built around the 6th century, the Shwedagon Pagoda is the most sacred Buddhist pagoda in Myanmar (Burma). It’s gilded stupa looks down on the city of Yangon (Rangoon).

Myanmar's Shwedagon Pagoda

A young Tarahumara girl carries her little sister in a yellow shawl, in Mexico’s Copper Canyon.

Young Tarahumaras in Mexico's Copper Canyon

A smiling yellow buddha looks down at worshipers in one of the thousands of temples in Thailand.

Yellow Buddha in Thailand
Buda Castle in Budapest, Hungary

Shining yellow light into the night sky, Buda Castle, in Budapest, Hungary, overlooks the Danube River.

Happy New Year 2011!!

Happy New Year 2011As we come to the end of another year, it’s time to reflect on what we have accomplished in the last year and what we are looking forward to in the new year.

Last year was quite an eventful year for The California Native. We made another exploration trip to Patagonia, sailing around Cape Horn on a wonderful expedition cruise, hiking on glaciers with crampons, and whitewater rafting through Argentina’s beautiful countryside. We also made several trips to Mexico, one at the invitation of President Calderon to attend a luncheon with him and celebrate the initialization of a campaign to promote the wonders of Mexico’s colonial cities.

For the upcoming year we will be offering new trips in Patagonia and China, as well as additional departure dates for our Copper Canyon trips. And of course we’ll continue to offer our exciting tours of Costa Rica, Peru, Galapagos, Bhutan, Myanmar and Ireland, and our other off-the-beaten-track destinations.

Images of the World: The Street Musicians

The world is a fascinating collage of cultures, each with its own traditions, customs and history, which gives them a uniqueness and sets them apart from all of the others. But the more we travel the more we find that so many things are the same and we are more united by our similarities than divided by our differences. In our series, Images of the World, we group our similarities to enjoy them and appreciate their cultural differences.

The Street Musicians: No matter where you are in the world, everyone enjoys music, and entertainment provided by street musicians is universal.

In Iquitos, Peru, a musician plays huayno music, the traditional music of the Andes, on his mandolin.

A Peruvian musician plays huayno music on his mandolin.

A Tarahumara musician, in Mexico’s Copper Canyon, plays guitar for visitors.

Tarahumara guitar player in Mexico's Copper Canyon

In Sydney, Australia, a colorful street-musician entertains passers-by.

A street musician in Sydney, Australia

A street violinist plays on a Budapest bridge on the Danube River.

Street violinist in Budapest, Hungary.

In Argentina, the tango is extremely popular, and in Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital, street music takes the form of tango dancing.

Street tango dancers in Buenos Aires.

In Chiang Mai, Thailand, a street musician entertains at the annual flower festival.

Street musician at Chiang Mai flower festival
Street musicians in Prague, Czech Republic.

A Street quartet plays classical music outside of the Prague Castle in the Czech Republic.

Reports from Mexico’s Copper Canyon

We receive many queries about current conditions in Mexico’s Copper Canyon, so here are some of the latest reports from recent guests on our Copper Canyon tours:

David Martin, from San Diego, CA, enjoyed our October 9, 11-day Ultimate Tour. “The whole trip exceeded [my expectations]! Food, lodging, views, train trip, Jessica. Could not have asked for a better guide on this trip. Personable, sense of humor, and a love for Mexico that pours forth in her discussions…it was wonderful! She really made the trip. Super knowledgeable.” His travel companion, Ann Cunningham, concurred, “I have collected articles since 1986 on Copper Canyon—my dream was realized to the nth degree.”

On the same trip, Irene and Randy Pollard, from Farmville, NC, reported that, “Jessica was one of the best guides we have ever experienced (We have traveled a lot). Her maturity and efforts to insure each person’s comfort and satisfaction was remarkable. We thoroughly enjoyed every part of this trip. Jessica provided opportunities at all ability levels. I wasn’t expecting the excellent accommodations—when materials mentioned ‘local’, I had expected much less.”

As a single traveler on our 8-day Independent Trip, Bruce M. Hale, from La Crescenta, CA, returned on November 17 and reported: “I liked all the hotels and staff. They all provided excellent lodging and personalized service even though I was solo. I particularly like Paraiso del Oso—the rustic atmosphere, the remote location [and] the chance to go to Urique. You made it easy to travel alone and your providers all performed as expected. Also, I’m pleased to have confirmed the safety aspect. I never felt in any danger, everything was fine.”

We, at California Native, value our guests comments, opinions and suggestions. These together with reports from our guides and inspection trips by our staff help us to keep our trips safe, fun and educational.