Thy king­dom come: why you should visit Bhutan this year

It’s Visit Bhutan Year, so what bet­ter rea­son to ex­plore this ex­tra­or­di­nary Hi­malayan na­tion? Gabriella Le Bre­ton re­ports

Bhutan Times - - Home - GABRIELLA LE BRE­TON

Mea­sur­ing just a third of the size of Eng­land with the pop­u­la­tion of Suf­folk, the Bud­dhist king­dom of Bhutan packs in 16 di­alects and jaw-drop­ping land­scapes that vary from sub­trop­i­cal plains to soar­ing Hi­malayan peaks, with ter­raced paddy fields and rhodo­den­dron forests in be­tween.

Some­times known as the Lost Shangri-La and Land of the Thun­der Dragon, the world’s youngest democ­racy ad­heres to al­co­hol-free Tues­days and a plas­tic bag ban, won’t slaugh­ter an­i­mals (but does im­port meat from In­dia) and, af­ter a dal­liance with traf­fic lights in the cap­i­tal city Thim­phu, takes di­rec­tions from dap­per po­lice­men stand­ing in the mid­dle of the road. This is, af­ter all, the coun­try that has fa­mously used “gross na­tional hap­pi­ness” (GNH) as a mea­sure for de­ter­min­ing na­tional poli­cies for omore than 40 years.

The adop­tion of GNH as the guid­ing phi­los­o­phy of the then 25-year-old in­de­pen­dent na­tion of Bhutan was one of many rev­o­lu­tion­ary mea­sures in­tro­duced by its fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck. The “King-Fa­ther of Bhutan” reigned from 1972 to 2006, drag­ging the coun­try out of a cen­turies-long time warp.

Im­ple­ment­ing GNH just four months into his rule, on his 17th birth­day, he went on to launch Bhutan’s in­ter­na­tional air­line, Drukair, in 1983; lifted bans on tele­vi­sion and the in­ter­net in 1999; and set the wheels in mo­tion to turn the coun­try into a con­sti­tu­tional monar­chy.

In 2006 he ab­di­cated in favour of his son, Jigme Kh­e­sar Nam­gyel Wangchuck, en­abling the fifth king to put the fin­ish­ing touches to Bhutan’s democrati­sa­tion and over­see its first par­lia­men­tary elec­tions in 2008.

The in­tro­duc­tion of tourism to Bhutan was another of Jigme Singye Wangchuck’s re­forms. Recog­nis­ing both the value in­ter­na­tional visi­tors could con­trib­ute and the dam­age they could wreak to one of the world’s most pris­tine cul­tures and en­vi­ron­ments, he im­ple­mented a pol­icy of “high value, low im­pact” tourism in 1974, oblig­ing in­ter­na­tional visi­tors to pay a daily tar­iff of $130. It has since risen to a max­i­mum of $250 but takes into ac­count ac­com­mo­da­tion, an oblig­a­tory guide and ac­cess to key sights.

The pol­icy (in con­junc­tion, per­haps, with the fact that Drukair only has five planes and five pilots deemed ca­pa­ble of nav­i­gat­ing the pre­car­i­ous route into Paro air­port) has suc­cess­fully pre­vented an in­flux of “low value” trav­ellers and their as­so­ci­ated bud­get hos­tels and tacky tourist stalls. It has also spawned a rash of lux­u­ri­ous ho­tels and es­tab­lished Bhutan as the ul­ti­mate once-in-al­ife­time des­ti­na­tion.

Within hours of land­ing at Paro and af­ter a restora­tive ginger tea at the val­ley’s flag­ship ho­tel, Uma Paro, I was fol­low­ing Karma, my guide for the week, along a fra­grant path car­peted in pine nee­dles and flanked by flow­er­ing dog­woods and Szechuan pep­per plants. Wind­ing high above the val­ley, we reached an an­cient tem­ple set amid Hi­malayan cy­press trees and flut­ter­ing prayer flags be­fore de­scend­ing to Paro’s spec­tac­u­lar dzong, one of count­less im­pos­ing fortresses that dot the Bhutanese land­scape, serv­ing as monas­tic and ad­min­is­tra­tive cen­tres.

A stroll around the food mar­ket re­vealed strings of chugo, yak cheese boiled in milk and dried in the sun; hes­sian bags over­flow­ing with dried chillies and pow­dered ju­niper in­cense; and squares of khoo: dried, jel­lied cow skin. Their lips stained ver­mil­lion with be­tel nut juice, the ven­dors of­fered us sam­ples, their weath­ered faces break­ing into wide smiles at the re­ac­tion of the chilip (for­eigner).

Even if you know lit­tle about this Hi­malayan king­dom, chances are you’ve seen a pho­to­graph of the Tiger’s Nest: the stu­pen­dous Tak­t­sang monastery that clings to pre­cip­i­tous, prayer-flag be­decked cliffs 10,240ft above Paro val­ley. Noth­ing, how­ever, could have pre­pared me for see­ing this mys­ti­cal place my­self, a gen­er­ous re­ward for a steep climb past prayer wheels and wa­ter­falls and through rhodo­den­dron forests.

Lis­ten­ing to crim­son-robed monks play­ing drums and flutes in shaded court­yards, and watch­ing the richly painted tem­ple walls come alive in the light of flickering yak but­ter can­dles, was be­witch­ing.

We’d hiked up to the monastery first thing in the morn­ing, en­sur­ing we had the place al­most to our­selves for a cou­ple of hours, leav­ing time for another steep walk to a tem­ple set across a ravine from Tiger’s Nest.

Pass­ing be­neath a rowdy fam­ily of golden lan­gur mon­keys, we reached the tem­ple, which de­liv­ered sweep­ing views of the monastery. As I mar­velled at the view, Karma took out a slen­der bam­boo flute and be­gan to play a lilt­ing folk tune. Builders ren­o­vat­ing the tem­ple roof soon downed tools and sang along, the flut­ter­ing prayer flags keep­ing a gen­tle beat.

Over the com­ing days, as I trav­elled be­tween Paro, Thim­phu and Pu­nakha, Karma would play his flute and re­count tales of war­ring deities and pro­mis­cu­ous saints as we walked through lu­mi­nous paddy fields and dense poin­set­tia forests to reach richly-dec­o­rated tem­ples and stu­pas. He coaxed me across sus­pen­sion bridges above tur­bu­lent rivers and took me on a long, bu­colic bike ride along­side the Paro river. He taught me archery, Bhutan’s na­tional sport, and an an­cient form of darts called kuru in the shade of pine trees at Uma Paro.

Both this ho­tel and its sis­ter prop­erty, Uma Pu­nakha, re­flect how rapidly Bhutan is catch­ing up with the rest of the world: the Paro prop­erty, which opened in 2004, is all tra­di­tional Bhutanese ar­chi­tec­ture with a dash of colo­nial grandeur. Uma Pu­nakha, eight years younger, comes com­plete with floor-to-ceil­ing win­dows, low-slung white so­fas, wa­ter­melon mar­gar­i­tas and Wagyu beef burgers. The lat­ter is said to be a par­tic­u­lar favourite of the King when he’s at his sum­mer res­i­dence nearby. As the ho­tel’s man­ager, Thamu Kr­ish­nan, con­firms: “Given how lit­tle there was here 10 years ago, the progress is as­tound­ing: ev­ery monk has a mo­bile, ev­ery lama has a lap­top.”

Sim­i­larly, tourism to Bhutan has in­creased rapidly. In­ter­na­tional ar­rivals were just un­der 10,000 in 2004, in­creas­ing to al­most 60,000 last year. That said, this is still less than the num­ber of visi­tors Venice re­ceives in a sin­gle day.

Novem­ber 11 will her­ald the 60th birth­day of the vi­sion­ary KingFather, a mile­stone which is be­ing cel­e­brated by the coun­try through­out the year with spe­cial literary and dance fes­ti­vals, con­certs, tree plant­ing and fire bless­ings. It’s billed as Visit Bhutan Year and re­ally you should, to glimpse an ex­tra­or­di­nary coun­try that’s catch­ing up with the world but at its own pace and in its own way.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Bhutan

© PressReader. All rights reserved.