Bhutan Cross Country Cultural and Festivals Itinerary

Day 14 — {date14s}

Exclusive! Brokpa Cultural Program

Robin and the Brokas of Bhutan
You will meet these yak herders, the Brokpa people from Sakten and Merak, when the tour sponsors a special festival in the far eastern side of Bhutan. You will be the only foreign visitors there and after the festival dances you will be asked to help serve lunch to over 100 local villagers.
Festival Dancer Bhutan
Exclusive Brokpa Festival in Phongmey, Bhutan.

Today is a very auspicious day for us as we rise early and drive eastward through Rangjung and Radi to Phongmey village.   Sonam, our hostess while in Bhutan, is a Brokpa by birth--her father was the hereditary lama there and she is treated like royalty whenever she visits. Sonam and her company, Rainbow Tours and Treks of Bhutan, have organized a special cultural program by the Brokpa people of Merak and Sakten—you are considered the sponsor of this event and will have to ladle out food to about 150 people in the ancient temple courtyard at Phongmey. This is the custom, the visitor serves the local people and even the King does this when he comes to visit, usually pouring tea in their cups.  A group of twenty-two Brokpas will make the two-day trek from Merak and Sakten, a district that foreigners were not allowed to visit until 2010.  They will bring by horseback all of their cultural trappings as well as festival objects and costumes.  Local villagers hear the noise and turn out for the free food and festivities.  We bring a quarter section of pork, sacks of rice, chilies and vegetables and cook it all up over an open fire in huge black cauldrons in a typical Bhutanese style.  (But we eat Western food brought from the hotel.)

This all has the blessing of the local lama to ensure that the sanctity of anything religious is protected by prayer and ritual.  The Brokpas are yak herders from this remote region and have a language, culture and lifestyle that is unique even in Bhutan. An example of cultural uniqueness is the burial process--the body of the deceased is hacked to pieces and allowed to float down the river to be eaten by scavengers. Also, the dating process is something that young suitors call “night hunting”--we’ll try to get to the bottom of that when we meet them in Phongmey.

Of this unique and exclusive event, Sonam writes:

They will perform the Yak Dance, the Achi Lhamo in honor of Goddess Penden Lhamo and Lady Jomo, folk dances by Maidens, other dance with songs by Maidens, and other cultural items to be discussed with the Brokpas. The dances and singing are not done as in a stage but what they normally do in their village during festivals. It will be a recreation of the festival on a smaller scale the events will not be timed as such but can roll on the whole day with breaks for rest, festive drinking and eating, and posing for photographs. Your tour group will not be seeing the event merely as spectators but participating actively in the festivities – dancing, singing and drinking, etc. The idea is for guests not only to see the cultural performances as such but to experience a crash course in a part of Brokpa culture.

Bhutan Festival Dancers in dressing room
The temple serves as a dressing room for the dancers and we are allowed to take pictures there.
We will have the distinct honor of being some of the first Westerners to witness Brokpa folk dances, including the famous Yak Dance which narrates the story of how the Brokpas first arrived from Tibet led by Lady Jomo, revered as one of the most powerful deities of the region. Included too is the Achi Lhamo, a lion dance performed in honor of Goddess Penden Lhamo and Lady Jomo. Brokpa maidens will also sing and dance as they do during festivals in their highland home.

The Sakten and Merak region remains mostly unexplored by tourists—only about 50 trekkers made the journey in 2012 when the region was first opened to foreigners and since then numbers have dwindled.  Sakten and Merak were previously closed to foreigners in an effort to stall modernization of one of the world's last remaining "living cultural museums." Sonam has tried for years to get the government to open her ancestral home as she feels her people should not be denied the modernization that has come to the rest of their countrymen in the form of electricity, roads, schools, and hospitals. Now that the constitutional government is in place she feels strongly that the political representatives of her region will soon convince the government to build the road that is so important to modernization. 
Overnight again at the Dothejung Resort.

Bhutan Festival Dancers in dressing room
Feast at the Brokpa Festival.

Mask Dancer Bhutan
Prayer Flag Poles for Nirvana For most Bhutanese, mani or Guru prayer flags, dedicated to a loved one, are an indispensable part of funeral rituals. The ideal number is 108 and the ideal location is near a holy place or in a high pass where strong winds can carry the printed message to the deities, but that depends on each family's financial ability--other, lesser numbers are acceptable but gain less merit. The person placing the flags gains merit and then passes that merit on to the deceased to help them find peace on the White Path. These pine sapling poles must be cut from below the flag site because dragging them up the mountain proves the devotion to the deceased and earns the most merit. It is not unusual for five men, family and friends, to spend five days preparing and erecting these beautiful fluttering prayers. The wind then carries the prayers to the deities, sweetening the air around them.
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Blue Poppy Bhutan
The blue poppy is the national flower of Bhutan. Photo by co-leader Joe Breen.