Education & A King’s Celebration

Education through high school is free for everyone in Bhutan, and most classes are taught in English (though everyone also takes courses in Dzongkha, the national language).

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But the educational system came late to Bhutan — there were no schools outside of the main cities prior to the 1960s, and even when schools were established, many families prevented their girls from attending (in a matrilineal and rural society, girls are vital to the family economy). And as of 2014, 60% of the schools in Bhutan had no access to the Internet, and 36% had no access to roads. The adult illiteracy rate hovers just below 50%. Bhutan is also not a culture with any history of reading or libraries — in fact, there are no public libraries outside of the capital city. So several nonprofit groups have been established to increase literacy, public health awareness, and manual skills around the country, especially in more rural areas. One of these groups is READ Bhutan.

I traveled to Bhutan as the sponsor of a Singapore American School service trip that went to two READ (Rural Education and Development) centers to offer English enrichment skills to Bhutanese students. We started our work in the capital city of Thimpu, where we spent a lot of time running with kids on the next door playground:

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A few of our kids also teamed up with a local hip-hop troupe (and one brave READ kid) for a dance routine:

In addition to a rather extensive library (for Bhutan, at least) …

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… the READ Center in Thimpu has also amassed a group of sewing machines to teach textile skills …

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… and the machines are all manual (meaning there’s not a plug in sight — you have to use the pedals):

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We spent the bulk of our time in Bhutan in the rural district of Haa, west of Thimpu up into the mountains. The READ Center there sits in a low-slung building at the edge of the village of Yangthang:

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This is one of the newer and more isolated READ centers in Bhutan, so its library is small and its rooms are spare. But that didn’t stop our kids from having fun there — we taught crafts, read books, and played games:

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The Bhtanese kids, who ranged from ages two to sixteen, were warm and welcoming (the tiny ones were the most photogenic).

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The Singapore American School kids and I learned how to play darts back behind the center:

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In Bhutan, you play darts outside. The game involves throwing a very large and heavy dart down a very long field …

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… and trying to hit a very small target:

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I never came close, but my guides from Bhutan Tours and Travels and the READ Center coordinator had more success:

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We ended our last evening at the Yangthang READ Center with a photo session (joined by one of the many random town dogs) …

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… and a bonfire (which involved many of us sharing the pictures we’d taken on our phones with our new Bhutanese friends):

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The speeches around the fire led to one boy sharing a rap song he’d written …

… and then the performances broke out into an impromptu dance party!

We danced until the sun went down over the village.

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These girls taught me several Bhutanese dances, which had a lot in common with Bollywood dancing. I’m not very good, but I had fun!

IMG_0961.jpgMany of the kids who go to the Haa READ center also attend the Chundu Armed Forces Public School down the road.

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This is a boarding school for children of military families all over Bhutan. It has about 700 students in grades K-10, and the classes are quite large (usually over 30 students — and sometimes more than 40 — per class). But it allows the students to have a steady, consistent education rather than moving around Bhutan with their military parents every few years.

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Classes weren’t in session, but we did get to see the kids practicing for the King’s Birthday celebration:

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The school is in a stunning location …

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… and our Singapore kids were incredibly happy to be reunited with their READ Center friends.

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We had a picnic lunch on this field (it was beautiful, but incredibly chilly):

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And our kids had fun walking over the swaying pedestrian bridge that links the school grounds to part of the nearby village:

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We were fortunate to be in town — and to be invited to the school — on the king’s birthday. This was a big deal; the kings in Bhutan are treated almost like deities. Their birthdays are national holidays. King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, or K5 as he is more simply known, has been the king since 2006, and he turned 39 years old on February 21 (and yes, he always looks like a dreamy Bhutanese version of Elvis).

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The school had a big celebration for K5, complete with a flag-raising ceremony…IMG_1015.jpg

… speeches (this is the school’s vice principal, wishing the king long life and prosperity) …

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… the singing of the national anthem …

… marches …

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… and dances:

Not only did we get to attend this celebration — we were the guests of honor! We sat in the fancy tent …

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… which had dragons and dharma wheels on top …

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… and had front row seats for all of the action (including this dog, which kept wandering in front of the scene — you may notice a theme here).

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Our hosts fed us rice, tea, and cookies as the ceremonies were unfolding (I can’t explain why, but I couldn’t stop laughing about my Waffy bar):

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Our tent was right next to the king’s altar, where the officiants said prayers and lit a butter lamp:

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It was a fascinating experience to be the guests at this school’s celebration — it felt like a real privilege to have been invited.

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