BHUTAN, 2008

Susan's emails home
October 9

Click on these dates/links, to see Susan's emails and pictures
from her 2008 Bhutan work:

Bhutan 2008 — Main page for 2008 trip
October 5
— California to Bangkok, via Hong Kong
October 9 — Bhutan arrival, practical life, television, toys
October 12 — Mt. Everest, bathing, Tsechu, the Dzongkha language
October 16 — Observing Resa, age 2.5; school, hospital, snakes
October 20 — Thimphu school, Punakha dzong, proper dress
October 22 — Montessori talk, parents praying, the rice harvest
October 24 — Jhomalhari, Jhodake, Cheli la Pass, farmhouse, hot rock bath
October 25
— Bangladesh, incense, Four Friends, the Coronation of the King of Bhutan

Bhutan from the air
Paro airport

This picture was taken from the plane. It shows the forests and the edge of the Paro Valley in Bhutan.

The only airport in Bhutan, this might be the most beautiful airport in the world, with the traditional Bhutanese architecture still used for almost all buildings.


Before we left Thailand Gunilla and I were invited to a Montessori workshop in Bangkok. It was being given by several of our students from the AMI Montessori course Gunilla and I participated in for the last two years. The purpose was to share the Montessori philosophy with about 50 teachers in schools headed by graduates of the course. They were having such fun, as Thais can do, combining work with pleasure.

They asked me to give a talk at the end of their meeting so I talked about the fact that the high level of academic work often reached by Montessori students is a byproduct, not the purpose of Montessori education. That, like a plant, humans have an inner wisdom that can guide their health and and their development when they are given an environment that fulfills all of their needs, and time and practices that support them in working according to their inner wisdom.

Then I showed an 11-minute DVD donated by NAMTA (North American Montessori Teachers Association) and asked them to focus on the faces of the children in the DVD as they worked and were given lessons, and on the way they treated each other. The concentration and kindness was obvious. Thank you David Kahn for the donation!

Now on to Bhutan . . .

Now I am on a computer with the English alphabet on the keys—huddled in the corner of a bedroom on the floor. It is nice to be in a home where the computer is not the center of the universe. While the international stock markets plunge and the race for the president of the USA rages, I find myself quiet in the peaceful Paro Valley high in the Himalayas.

As I type I can hear the children arriving at the Paro school laughing, Bhutanese music playing, crickets joining in, and cows mooing in the background. Cows wander freely in the valley all day and make their own way home in many cases in the evening. The fields of rice are green and ripening quickly for the coming harvest. Now I can see the children from the window. The girls are dressed in kiras and the boys in ghos, the national dress of Bhutan. The dance teacher is leading them in a dance in preparation for the coronation of the king which will take place next month. Bhutan is a democracy but they still revere their royal family.

Yesterday we took Gunilla to pick out material to order a kira to be made for her. I brought mine from last trip but ordered a second as we will be wearing them often. It is important to dress this way in the schools, as well as many public areas, out of respect for the culture and traditions of Bhutan.

Paro Valley

Kira ordered

Most of Bhutan is mountainous and hilly. The Paro Valley is one of the largest flat areas in the country, and the only possible place for an airport at the moment.

The owner of the shop, a parent of a child at Dendy's school, is showing us some of the lovely kira fabric for Gunilla to pick out. Dendy is in the background enjoying the choices,

Our work here is in four parts:

  • To gather information on the culture, especially the Practical Life, of Bhutan, in preparation for Montessori training here someday.
  • To teach parents some of the Montessori ideas for children from birth to age 3.
  • To help Dendy and her husband Chencho, the heads of this excellent school, Yoezerling Primary School, prepare for the first Montessori 3-6 class which Dendy will teach when the 2009 school year begins in February.
  • To help the school use Montessori ideas in their traditional classrooms at all levels.

So, we are here to teach, but even more, to learn. Montessori education above all is to help the child adapt to his or her time and place on earth, which is why it has worked so successfully in so many countries over the last 100 years. It should not be an imposition of an educational system from one culture upon another.


Here are some examples of the Bhutanese daily life that I have already learned:

Until recently all Bhutanese homes were made of wood, rocks, and pounded earth. Since water could damage the walls traditionally any water activities are carried out outside the home. The baths, the washing of dishes and clothing, etc.

There are no tables or chairs in the many traditional homes and schools (which are monasteries). This practice of getting up and down from the floor in most countries of the world means that people stay agile well into old age and do not have the back problems we have in the West. So, meals are taken on the floor. There is no silverware, but at each meal a large amount of rice, red Bhutanese rice or other varieties, is served along with one, or two, or several small bowls of hot peppers, butter, veggies, cheese or meat, called "curries" although there is no curry powder so this must be an imported word from India to the South.

Bhutanese dance teacher cleaning with a rice ball
The dance teacher is demonstrating the new dance for the coronation as the older children (50?) imitate him and the younger ones (150?) watch. This rice ball will be used to clean the hands before eating, Then it will be set aside and larger rice balls rolled to eat with the other parts of the meal.

I just noticed a change in the music and looked out the window. The large group of children, about 200, spread over the asphalt field, are now singing their national song as the orange and yellow Bhutanese flag with a dragon in the middle is waving in the early morning breeze. Now they are chanting a prayer; now singing again. This is the practice every morning before class.

Back to the Practical Life of eating. A small bit of rice is taken in one hand and rolled into a ball on the palm of the other. This is done first to clean the hands (remember, no running water in the house) and even to pick up any obvious dirt from ones clothing. Then this used rice ball is set aside until the meal is over and thrown away. The meal continues with rice rolled into larger balls and then daintily dipped into the curries.


Children do not have toys or TV. Actually, the last time I was here this family had a new TV in the tiny living room and were watching it during the meal. After they asked me what I thought about the value of TV (and not before they asked me!) I told them that although it might be good for learning English, it has been linked to an increase in violence and materialism in children in the West. And I worried that TV would replace all the wonderful singing and dancing, and shared family time, that exists in Bhutanese culture now. They decided to remove it. When I arrived this time Dendy and Chencho told me that after removing the TV from the living room they noticed a big difference in the behavior of their children. Now they constantly advise the parents of the children at their school to keep the children away from TV.

Susan and Dendy in traditional class Dzongkha color chart
Dendy is showing Susan the work in her traditional English classes that has been made more interesting because she is using ideas learned in her Montessori 3-6 training. Dzongkha is the national language of Bhutan. Children in pre-school learn English and from age 6 or 7 years on they study in both English and Dzongkha. It is a lovely script, isn't it.


I will tell you more about toys another time, but let me say that I have seen this situation in Tibetan homes, Thai homes, Indian homes, and now Bhutanese homes, and the lack of toys seems to have excellent results. It reminds me of Dr. Montessori's first Casa dei Bambini in Rome, Italy.

Her first experimental school was outfitted with the best of toys, and dolls, from her wealthy friends, and the children played with them. But after the children themselves asked to be allowed to participate in the real work of caring for their school, and themselves, and after she had child-size real tools made for them so they could work more successfully, they no longer played with toys. And this is true in all Montessori schools today. New children are given toys while they begin to learn the real work of the classrooms and eventually they too stop using toys. It took several trips to Asia for me to realize that this policy could be applied to the home in the USA!

I just thought of something specific to the elementary Montessori children at home who are reading this: it is regarding the spread of Montessori to other countries. If you can study the history of the British Empire and the American Empire, you can learn a lot about the importance of a respectful attitude toward an existing culture as one brings in elements of another. Each one has its own strengths and weaknesses.

Today I will spend time in the school here, and tomorrow go to the capital, Thimphu, to visit other schools and to learn more about the culture of Bhutan. Now I must get dressed in my kira to visit the school.


Students in kiras Students in ghus

Here are three of the girls from Dendy's school, in their traditional kiras.

And four of the boys from Dendy's school, in their traditional ghos.

Return to the Bhutan Montessori Project home page — Bhutan, 2006

Return to Michael Olaf Children's Projects — Projects