Exploring Bhutan with Linda Leaming

Contact Indagare or your Trip Designer to discuss the destinations that are open for travel now and to learn more about coronavirus travel safety, new Covid-19 hotel policies and future trip-planning advice, inspiration and other ideas.“Underrated is an overstatement,” says Linda Leaming when asked about the local art scene over lattes in Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan. The Nashville-born author of Field Guide to Happiness (which quickly became my coping manual upon arriving during the riots in Hong Kong) offers to show me around. But first, the American transplant wants to be sure that I understand driglam namzha, the official code of conduct for Bhutan. This is not my first visit to the Himalayan kingdom sandwiched between China and India, so I know already that there are laws governing how men and women should dress in public. Women in Bhutan must don an ankle-length dress called a kira like the one Leaming has elegantly pinned at her shoulders. It's a rectangular fabric that gets wrapped and folded around the body, somewhat akin to a sari but more suited to the Himalayan chill. As Leaming explains to me, these guidelines cover how Bhutanese should sit, eat and behave in formal settings. They also regulate cultural assets such as art and design. Conformity is rarely conducive to creativity. Could anything globally relevant be produced in such a remote spot under the watchful eyes of a government that banned television until just before the Millennium? I’m put at ease by our first stop. Kelly Dorji, the Bhutanese model-turned-Bollywood-actor is attending to last-minute details before the opening night of his latest exhibition at Terton Gallery, an industrial second-story corner space that’s all pale-gray concrete walls, unvarnished wood floors and exposed pipes. It’s a suitably neutral backdrop for Dorji’s neon-hued, natural-pigment-covered canvases with their abstracted Buddha silhouettes crafted of local tsambakha petals, lotus flowers festooned with real gold-leaf foil and snow lions painted electric blue in homage to the body’s highest chakra. We speak about The Hidden Rainbow, his “adult coloring book” investigating the spiritual healing properties of color, scheduled for release in October by Penguin Books, and I learn that this lounge—aptly called the Grey Area, where we chat among lacquered Tibetan chests and antique, carved silver knickknacks—received the first bar license granted to an art gallery in Bhutan. Our next stop, Kelzang Handicrafts, leans more traditional, its walls lined with exquisite examples—vintage and newly woven—of the intricately embroidered fabrics for which Bhutan is known among textile collectors. The finest, explains the owner’s daughter, can take a year or more to weave in silk or cotton, mostly from the far east of Bhutan around Lhotse. The best artisans rely solely on locally sourced natural dyes derived from walnuts and rhododendrons. Leaming has spent decades combing the textile and souvenir shops around Bhutan, so I’m not surprised we’ve landed at the finest collection I’ve ever seen of these local classics, apart from the museum collection at the Royal Textile Academy of Bhutan

This history lesson proves an excellent prelude to CDK Bhutan

, where I find exactly what I’m looking for among the fresh modern dresses, skirts, blouses and handbags. Everything here is repurposed out of Bhutan’s traditional (but not especially practical outside the Himalayas_, handloomed textiles. Leaming and I make a mad dash for the jackets and ponchos made from yatra, the rough and colorful lambswool blanket typical of Chumey, near Bumthang Valley, in Central Bhutan. I start following CDK’s self-trained designer Chandrika Tamang immediately.

Next, we head for the hills and the family home-cum-studio of the Twinz, the nom de guerre of Thimphu’s contemporary artists of the moment, actual twins Tashi Dendup and Ugyen Samdrup. The identical mixed media artists work in charcoal, graphite and acrylic and oil pigments on massive-scale canvases. Their fantastical portraits blend features from real and fictionalized people in painstaking detail. The duo works together on all pieces, combining European realism and symbolism from Vajrayana Buddhism and Shamanism with street art, fashion, Japanese manga and wood block prints. Both studied thangka painting, which literally means "rolled art," in reference to their portable nature, necessary for the region’s historically nomadic cultures. Traditionally, painting such ornate, intricate renderings of deities and historical figures functioned as a form of Buddhist meditation, so I am not surprised to learn the twins each meditate and pray daily. Their hallucinatory portraits stray far from the disciplined methodology and mandala structure of traditional Buddhist thangkas, yet I find the experience as a viewer similarly spiritual. 

Impressive as I find the Twinz utterly modern approach, it's the more intimate yet equally imaginative work by another Thimphu-based painter, Phurba Namgay, that prods my wallet open. The classically trained Bhutanese artist, who has exhibited at the Rubin Museum in New York City as well as in London, Amsterdam and New Delhi, studied to become a monk, but showed artistic aptitude from an early age and was sent to the government’s school of traditional arts in Thimphu. There he learned to draw and paint, as well as how to make mineral paints and even his own brushes, which he still does, sometimes by snipping a few hairs off his cat. Today, Namgay fuses his classical Buddhist art training with the exposure to contemporary Western art and cultural icons he’s observed traveling around the United States with Leaming, his wife. His quirky works awe me, seamlessly weaving ancient Buddhist iconography, mythical dragons and demons with Americana from the Apollo 13 space ship to Starbucks cups. I purchase one of Namgay’s canvases, festooned with Tibetan prayer flags and American rocket ships, and inquire about commissioning him to paint my dog Poptart into similarly absurdist cosmos. Like the work of everyone I encountered on this Bhutan cultural safari, Namgay’s offer such an unexpectedly celebratory East-meets-West perspective. These sky-high talents embody why travel is so important, especially in our interesting times.

Contact Indagare or your Trip Designer to discuss the destinations that are open for travel now and to learn more about coronavirus travel safety, new Covid-19 hotel policies and future trip-planning advice, inspiration and other ideas.

Published onMarch 4, 2021

More Inspiration

Plan Your Trip With Us

We only feature hotels that we can vouch for first-hand. At many of them, Indagare members receive special amenities.

Get In Touch
Indagare employees walking up stiars

Enjoy 30 Days On Us!

Start your Self Planner
membership trial today.

Unlock access to 2,000+ first-hand hotel reviews, 300+ Destination Guides and the most up-to-date travel news and inspiration.

Already a member?

Welcome back,
log in to Indagare

Not a member?

Forgot Password

Enter your email and we’ll send you a link to reset your password.

Type the first 3 letters to begin