A Natural Souvenir from Bhutan

Impermanence, a Buddhist philosophy, like light filtering through paper
Impermanence, a Buddhist philosophy, like light filtering through paper

Remember when we were younger travellers and spent hours looking for souvenirs for ourselves and our friends and family? If you’re like us, you’ve stopped buying stuff that recipients neither need nor want. (Okay, there are Kit Kats for Brandy, wine for Ward, a rubber chicken for Gail…) And at this decluttering stage of our lives as jubilados, there’s little we ourselves need or want besides memories and photographs. (Right? Mostly right?)

Still, when you travel to a place like Bhutan—out-of-the ordinary, a poor country and a once-in-a-lifetime trip—it feels necessary to buy something. Before we left home, I knew the souvenir that was going to be added to my suitcase.

Paper, I have a passion for paper. Japanese washi papers. Book cover papers. Opaque tissue papers. Which is why I asked Wind Horse Tours to add the Jungshi Handmade Paper Factory just outside Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital city, to our itinerary.

Papermaking is an ancient Bhutanese tradition originally practiced in monasteries as the basis for woodblock prints, prayer books and manuscripts. In 1990, the Ministry of Trade and Industry established the Jungshi Factory to revive the country’s old-fashioned method of papermaking. As our guide Namgyel explained, the Jungshi Factory was privatized a few years later and is now run by the son of the man hired to manage it in 1990. The company is a success, providing employment and scholarships for graduates of the local art school that we’d visited earlier in the day and exporting its paper products to the US, Japan, Europe, India and Nepal.

Every step of the three-day papermaking process is done by hand. Workers begin by soaking the bark from different trees in water for 24 hours. The Factory makes a lot of its paper from the bark of the Daphne Papyri bush whose sweet-smelling flowers Namgyel warned us about. (Inhaling their fragrance can cause altitude sickness.) They also use the bark of the Edgeworthia Papyri and Dhekap trees.

After the bark is soaked, it’s boiled, washed and cleaned before it’s pounded into a pulp. Next, they add more water and a bit of starch from local plants, like Hibiscus roots. They swish a thin layer of this mixture over a wood-framed bamboo screen to filter excess water. Then they transfer the sheet of pulp onto a smooth surface to dry into a single sheet of Bhutanese paper. I especially like the last part of the process. To create patterns and textures, they add local flowers and leaves and even their ubiquitous red chiles (Bhutan’s national dish, ema datshi, is chiles and cheese).

In addition to plain and decorated paper sheets, the Jungshi Factory sells scrolls, cards, notebooks, lampshades and calendars. I bought cards and after much deliberation, a sheet of paper.

Ever-so practical, Magellan said, “It’s beautiful. But how are you going to transport that sheet of paper for the next five weeks?”

“We can roll it up and besides, it’s quite dense so I don’t think it will wrinkle,” I said.

“Where will we put it when we get home?” he asked. (We live in a one-bedroom townhome.)

“We’ll find a spot.”

We found a small tube in an art store in Paro, perfect for protecting this sheet of paper. And when we got home, it was clear where it should hang it to showcase the textures in the paper.

“How about here?” I suggested, holding it up to the  glass-block window in our hallway.

I had it framed between two sheets of glass. “How are you going to hang it on glass?” asked David at his shop, Framed. “My husband says he’ll figure out a solution,” I smiled. “I’ll send you a photo when it’s done.”

Every day, especially when the morning sun is shining in Vancouver, we’re reminded of our trip to Bhutan.

BTW, “jungshi” means natural—and that it is.


Without the skills of David Kelly at Framed, this piece of paper would not have turned into a work of art.

Bhutan requires that travellers be on a guided tour. We chose Wind Horse Tours. In business since 1998, Wind Horse lives up to its aim of

…bridging gaps between faiths and cultures and proving thereby that we live in a small world, a world with both constructive similarities and fascinating differences. For us, travel is about experience; the experience of becoming involved with a place and its people and therefore bringing you closer to cultures, cuisines, traditions, natural beauty and change…As a cost effective measure, we refrain from mass advertising, and instead focus on guest service.

2 Responses

  1. Just checked out Jerome’s work—impressive kinetic sculptures, a few that remind me of Calder’s iconic, delicate pieces whose hushed movements you can barely discern.

  2. What a beautiful object. I am fascinated by any art that is made to move or change because of natural effects like light, wind, rain, clouds, cloud shadows, reflections, or any other physical phenomena. This is beautiful and I’m sure continually changing from day to day as well as throughout the day!
    ps. Have you seen Jerome Kirk’s breeze driven kinetic sculptures?

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