Landscape Bhutan

shaxhomeJanuary 18, 2012

I recently posted on a spam thread here, only because it mentioned Bhutan, where I'm currently living and working. I've linked to that thread at the bottom of this one.

But perhaps some people might be interested in this project, or just have a fascination with the local culture, as I certainly did and still do.

Anyway, I'll use this as a type of blog of our site progress, and if anyone wants information or has questions, I'm happy to oblige. I'm also open to suggestions!

This really is one of the world's last untouched regions, and I'm lucky and privileged to have the opportunity to be here.

Regards to all,


December 2010...(That Buddha statue on the horizon sits atop a shopping mall. Big!)

November 2011...

The Water Feature Takes Shape...

The Steps From Top Carpark to Main Building...(Through the Security Rooms)

Here is a link that might be useful: Other Thread

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What is the project shax can you tell us more about it and your involvement in it? Is that a monastery you are building? Is the work done by local craftsmen?

    Bookmark   January 19, 2012 at 9:35AM
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carol6ma_7ari(zones 6 & 7a)

Shax, I read a book called "Radio Shangri-La" about the experiences of a young woman who was invited there to help start the first radio station in the country. It jump-started my interest in that very distant (from the USA) and still isolated place. I hope you tell us more about the project.


    Bookmark   January 19, 2012 at 3:13PM
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Hi, Ink and Carol! My involvement? Basically serendipity! Long story short...

Early 2010 I travelled to India as a volunteer for an Australian charity. Was project managing construction of a new home and school for underprivileged kids. (Pic named "The Banyan"). Finished it end of 2010, and still visit the kids monthly.

Through that, I met the head of a large property developing company who had started this project in partnership with the Bhutanese government, building the nation's first IT Park. They were having major dramas in this difficult to work in area, and asked me if I would help move things along. Of course, I jumped at the chance.

We have about 120 Indian workers on site, mainly masons, carpenters and general labourers. It's very difficult to get local workers in a country whose entire population is around 680,000. But the local stonemasons and traditional painters are highly skilled artisans.

It was only several weeks into the job that I saw the budget for landscaping and the difficulties of getting it done locally, so grabbed the opportunity myself. I left corporate management in Australia many years ago to become a horticulturist, turf manager and landscape designer, and ran my own company, so this project is a perfect blend of my business/horticultural experience. And an incredible life experience! Such a fascinating country, and a wonderful time to be here, just as it's carefully opening its boundaries to the rest of the world.

TV was only introduced here in 1999, it is illegal to smoke, to use plasic bags, or fish in the King's rivers. By law, 65% of the country must retain tree cover for perpetuity. I was initially very worried about whether this project was going to do good or be harmful to Bhutan's future, but everyone from the King to the most remote villager wants it.

This project should be finished in the next few months, and after that, I plan to set up my own landscaping business here, and learn to speak Dzongkha!


    Bookmark   January 19, 2012 at 10:18PM
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catkim(San Diego 10/24)

Great photos and dialogue. You've got me interested, please expand on any part of your experience.

    Bookmark   January 19, 2012 at 10:41PM
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deviant-deziner(Oh zone)

fascinating !

    Bookmark   January 20, 2012 at 12:31AM
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Cher(6 SW OH)

I'd love to keep up with this also. Please keep us posted with progress if you would. Fantastic photos!

    Bookmark   January 20, 2012 at 7:11AM
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carol6ma_7ari(zones 6 & 7a)

I see a book in this for you, Shax.


    Bookmark   January 20, 2012 at 9:13AM
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woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

Very interesting! The style of the buildings you show is very appealing to me - I like the lines of the school and the shapes of the windows in the IT building. The decorative work around that placque is beautiful.

What is the market for a landscaping business there? I assume the customers of it would be the elite of the country...?! I think that area was one that 19th century plant hunters found to be a rich source of plants. Does any one there collect and cultivate their flora for export?

    Bookmark   January 20, 2012 at 9:49AM
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    Bookmark   January 20, 2012 at 9:54AM
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Woodyoak, you are correct about the medicinal plants. I have met several Western scientists/botanists/academics here who study exactly that. See my link if you are interested in more info! But while I'm curious about that area of work, it's not my passion.

And yes, too, about the prospective clientele for landscaping here being the elite and wealthy. And there are many of them. For the middle class and upwards (those related to royalty), this is a surprisingly wealthy country. And I've only come across one landscaper here, so there is plenty of opportunity for a growth industry (pun intended!)

Here are a few plant pics of no particular relevance to anything. I wouldn't suggest they're medicinal, except the amaranth with the butterfly on it!

They were all growing next to this river...

Here is a link that might be useful: Medicinal Plants

    Bookmark   January 20, 2012 at 10:51AM
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Also, Woodyoak, I meant to add that the school is the Indian kids' one. It was built from mud bricks which we made on site and sun-cured, from the soil excavated for the basement. 70,000 of them! It's a totally ecologically sound building...minimal glazing to allow breezes in the hot Indian summers, solar hot water, solar electricity, rainwater capture, aligned on Vishtu principles (Indian Feng Shui).

And my favourite feature, huge grates at the entrance to allow rain into the basement garden that sits between 2 classrooms. Lots of fun in the Monsoon season!


    Bookmark   January 20, 2012 at 11:13AM
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jkom51(Z9 CA/Sunset 17)

Wow - please keep us posted regularly on what's happening in your very fascinating area of the world! Thanks for showing us some glimpses of this unique country.

    Bookmark   January 21, 2012 at 11:40AM
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woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

shax - re plant hunting/plants, I wasn't talking about medicinal plants but rather ornamental plants. I think plant hunters like Frank Kingdon Ward and George Forrest etc. did some of their plant-hunting there. I gather there are a lot of species of Rhodedendrons there. Also things like lilies, blue poppies, clematis, etc. In other words, there should be lots of interesting plants available there! Are there many good plant nurseries there?

    Bookmark   January 21, 2012 at 1:23PM
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Hi, Woodyoak...sorry, misunderstood you. Yes, allegedly 47 rhodendrons here that are native to Bhutan. This photo isn't mine, but one I used from the internet in my early design stages.

It's amazing to be walking in the forests and crest a hill to see hundreds of glorious red rhodos in full bloom.

I've planted about 25 red and 25 white ones on our southern slope, along with native honeysuckle to overhang the retaining walls. Along the perimeter we've put the local blue pines and of course the national tree, Bhutan cypress.

My planting list here has more than 500 plants on it, including the local cypresses, pines, dogwoods, rhododendrons and bamboos, as well as azaleas, magnolias, willows, camellias, flowering cherries and many smaller pasture type daisies etc.
But my main job is to get this building finished contractually, and clear enough space to really get the planting under way! This is still a busy building-site.

This was our first attempt at digging what WILL be a rocky pond with waterfall soon, I hope!

I've already lost about 100 azaleas under piles of bricks, scaffolding, rocks, aggregate and sand, so have stopped for now.


    Bookmark   January 21, 2012 at 9:39PM
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An assortment of images....

Large City Hotel

Traditional Home

Intricate Painting

All Hands on Deck


Prayer Flags Send their Message on the Winds

Buddhist Temple

Queen's Brother's Home

Pagoda in the Park

Government Ministers' Enclave

My First Apartment

Buddha Statue on Shopping Mall

Archery is the National Sport. But those Carbon Fibre Bows aren't Traditional!

The King's Pavilion at the Archery Ground.

Song and Dance Between Changing Ends at the Archery Tournament.

    Bookmark   January 22, 2012 at 4:12AM
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tibs(5/6 OH)

Fascinating. Makes me want to go on a road trip. Keep us informed

    Bookmark   January 22, 2012 at 8:37AM
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Shax,I have been doing my homework via search engines and thank you for an introduction to and your pictures of Bhutan. I read the following. Is it true that visitors to Bhutan, not including those from adjacent countries but all others, are charged a $200.00 a day visitor's fee?

    Bookmark   January 22, 2012 at 9:19AM
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Hi, Nandina!

Yes, all tourists (except Indians) to Bhutan must book through an accredited travel agent, must pay a minimum US$200 per day, they have to stay in the hotels booked for them and be escorted by a local tour guide at all times.
It's expensive, but not as draconian as it sounds. And that $200 covers accommodation, travel, meals etc.

The govt. here is being very cautious about who visits (no backpackers etc), because they don't want to make the mistake of nearby Nepal. I backpacked myself in Nepal in the hippy days of the late 70s, and it was pristine and beautiful, similar to Bhutan now.

However, Kathmandu (Nepal) today is a filthy, smelly, polluted, crime-ridden, drug obssessed city. Truly Paradise Lost!

I'm lucky that as our project is in partnership with the govt. here, I am free to roam as I like, with no visa fees either.

But well worth the cash to visit Bhutan if it's within your budget!


    Bookmark   January 22, 2012 at 9:48AM
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woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

It definitely sounds (and looks) like a place well worth a visit! Given the sign on the beauty parlour, I assume english is spoken by many there?

Since this is an LD forum, I'm curious about the landscaping you're doing... Are the plantings on the slope intended to blend into the trees etc. in the background? You mentioned that the country has a goal to keep a high degree of forestation. Does that require the site to be mainly planted as a forest? The pictures of the houses you posted seem to show them in a forested setting. Is there a particular reason why you chose red and white rhodos? Are there rhodos on the slope behind? Are the red and white ones planted in a specific pattern to highlight certain areas or draw attention to something or are they just mixed together sort of randomly?

I would assume there would be some significant engineering considerations in building a large retaining wall strong enough to hold back that slope when it is saturated with monsoon rain. Is the area seismically active? Who was responsible for designing and building the retaining wall - you or the architects for the building?

    Bookmark   January 22, 2012 at 10:35AM
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shaxhome answer to your questions!

English is the official first language here, as it is now in India, too. Spoken by almost all, except in remote villages. Many villagers speak obscure dialects that may not even be understood by neighbouring villagers. This is because for centuries, the people were so geographically isolated that they may not have even known they had neighbours, so different languages and cultures sprang up all over the country.

Having said that, English CAN be a difficult tongue to master...(at least it wasn't the Ministry of Education!)

The plantings on the slopes have been carefully thought out. If you look at the pictures, the surrounding hills leading down to our site have the indigenous pines, cypresses and some rhodos. I've deliberately planted those same trees just inside our boundaries, so there is a graduation or merging, before you see the more floriferous rhodos and honeysuckle. (Both of which are native, too.) And they are graduated in size, from the tallest at the road to the lowest being near the building. When viewed from inside the building, people will see the huge backdrop of pines, gradually getting lower to the front.

As far as forestation goes, this 5 acres had only 2 trees on it when we moved onto the site (and we've kept them both). The land had been cleared many years ago for terraced rice paddies, so anything we plant will increase the tree cover.

Yes, I chose the red and white rhododendrons especially to create a display from the building's POV. They won't be mixed randomly, although I do plan to do that with the azaleas closer to the building. Imagine the towering, regal blue pines as the backdrop, then a solid wall of tall white rhodos, in front of them the shorter red ones, also en masse, and again at the very front, spilling over the retaining walls, the local yellow honeysuckles. And the entire area is seeded with Tall Fescue grass, which forms a thick cover that retains its emerald green throughout the bitter winters here.

The large retaining walls were designed by our architects, but their expert construction is 2nd nature to the Bhutanese and Indian builders. I've never seen more stone walls in any other country, and if you look at the hills (Himalayas!) that cover this entire nation, you'll see why. There is very little flat land in Bhutan, and almost every road, building, dam etc is held up by these beautifully crafted walls.

Indeed, we are in an extremely seismically active area, and all construction has been designed and built to the world's highest standards to protect against earthquake damage. About 6 months ago I was in my 2nd storey apartment in Thimphu (the capital) when a large one struck. I had to wobble down a swaying wooden staircase to the safety of the road. Most disconcerting! Some older buildings and centuries old Buddhist temples were destroyed.

As an afterthought, you asked me previously about the Blue Poppy. Did you know that it is the national flower here? I was keen to plant them everywhere I could. The lady who owns the nursery from which I'm getting my other plants (she has 40 years' experience) laghed when I asked her about them. She has NEVER seen one outside of photographs and books, and neither have most Bhutanese! Evidently they are a glacial species, and grow only in the most inaccessible areas, at extremely high altitude. She said that even if she could acquire them for me, they would die at such low altitudes as ours (7,500 ft).
But oh, so beautiful!


    Bookmark   January 22, 2012 at 11:55AM
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woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

Thanks Shax. It sounds like it will be beautiful. Yes, I did note that Blue Poppies were the national flower - that popped up somewhere when I was looking for info on Bhutan. I'm surprised they won't grow there since they can be grown in areas with cooler summers here. The summers are too hot where I am though. Are the summers hot there?

Do the stone retaining walls have reinforced concrete behind them? While places like that have been building stone walls for many centuries, collapsing stone structures are also what one associates with a lot of deaths in earthquakes in places like that. So I would think that combining it with reinforced concrete would be prudent. I wonder if one of the original advantages/ intents in dry stone construction in places like that is that, while they fall down easily in an earthquake, they are also easy to reconstruct (by the survivors, if any!) That sort of principle applied to the old 'chattel houses' in Barbados - their design allowed them to easily collapse in hurricanes but were also easy to rebuild - although the original intent of building that way was so the houses could be easily dismantled and moved to a different site (making them 'chattels', rather than fixed assets.) The local architecture in Bhutan is very attractive. Have they regulated that too for new construction or has there been an invasion of global-bland modern style buildings?

    Bookmark   January 22, 2012 at 1:06PM
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Those naked hillsides worry me. Are mudslides a problem?

Maybe part of the landscaping effort could go into growing trees for reforestation on the hills and some sustainable harvesting on the flatter areas for building timber. At that altitude, solar heat for buildings and water should be ludicrously easy.

    Bookmark   January 22, 2012 at 3:36PM
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Yes, mudslipes and rockslides are a constant problem here during the Wet season (June to September). Roads are regularly washed away and lives are lost. But it literally comes with the territory. Any flat land here is used for housing, not timber plantations. Wood/lumber is vary hard to get, and of course, expensive.

The retaining walls are built for permanency, and I honestly have never seen a capsized one, although it must happen sometimes. They're not dry-stone, but built on top of about 300mm (12") of reinforced concrete footings, have steel bars inserted vertically, huge amounts of internal mortar, drainage pipes laid through the face every couple of metres, and a new horizontal concrete layer every metre or so as they go up.

As for the architecture, yes, the government is very strict about following traditional guidlines. That beautifully painted exterior cornice work you see on buildings here is compulsory for EVERY structure. I've seen a couple of cow-sheds without it, but rarely. That architecture is one of the many joys of living in this surreal land.


    Bookmark   January 22, 2012 at 9:59PM
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I've been meaning to return and update this post, but work has been hectic. I've started a real blog for family and friends, so if anyone wants to follow the progress of this project, please feel free to visit it! If you don't want to, that's okay too...

I do hope it's not against forum rules to link this...suppose I'll find out soon enough if it is.

Regards to all,

Here is a link that might be useful: Landscape Bhutan

    Bookmark   February 16, 2012 at 5:41AM
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Wonderful stuff shax. I am not sure of the rules either so I have bookmarked your blog just in case. I am glad you showed that scaffolding system, I have seen similar pictures from India and I admire anyone who goes up there. Eager for more though so crank up that camera.

    Bookmark   February 16, 2012 at 6:11PM
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woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

Ditto here... I've added your blog to my Favorites list.

    Bookmark   February 16, 2012 at 9:28PM
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Thank you, both.
And Ink, I remember travelling through India in the 70s, and even huge city skyscrapers in Delhi and Mumbai were constructed using that bamboo scaffolding. Frightening!

Nowadays they use the correct steel stuff in the big cities, but bamboo still in the towns and villages.

And on our site, the workers erected bamboo supports from the ground floor up to the ceiling of the 3rd floor atrium! They planned to support our steel reinforcing, timber shuttering and hundreds of tons of concrete on that. I made them pull it down, then we welded steel beams across the gap and built on top of that.

And you should see the electrical work I saw in Hanoi, Vietnam 2 years ago...Yikes!

    Bookmark   February 17, 2012 at 2:28AM
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