7 things you must do in Bhutan

Bhutan Times - - Editorial -

8th Septem­ber 2016

The last of the Hi­malayan king­doms, there’s nowhere on earth quite like Bhutan. Here’s how to get un­der­neath its skin 1. Score a bulls­eye Archery is Bhutan’s na­tional sport and its pas­sion. On hills, across fields and in sta­di­ums through­out the coun­try, you’ll find multi-coloured throngs of men in their pat­ternedghos (tra­di­tional mens’ robes) tak­ing turns to shoot ar­rows at a tiny sliver of a tar­get po­si­tioned a whop­ping 140m away.

Around them, residents of the neigh­bour­ing vil­lage heckle, and cheer­lead­ers – groups of women singing and danc­ing in cir­cles in their finest silk out­fits – of­fer words of en­cour­age­ment to their team and de­ri­sion to the op­po­si­tion. This bois­ter­ous cheer­ing, singing and danc­ing from the fe­male spec­ta­tors on the side­lines is just as en­ter­tain­ing as the match.

Every vil­lage in Bhutan has a field for archery, with Changlim­ithang Sta­dium in Thim­phu the king­dom’s pre­mier archery field.

The Coro­na­tion Na­tional Archery tour­na­ment and Yang­phel tour­na­ment are the big­gest events on the Bhutanese archery cal­en­dar, as well as those held dur­ing Losar, the Bhutanese New Year. Check the of­fi­cial Bhutanese Archery web­site for tour­na­ments that co­in­cide with your visit. 2. En­ter the Tiger’s Nest Cling­ing to a sheer cliff face, 900 hun­dred me­tres above the Paro Val­ley, Tak­t­sang Lhakhang (Tiger’s Nest Monastery) is Bhutan’s Machu Pic­chu, its Taj Ma­hal – the cliff-face that launched a thou­sand post­cards. It fea­tures in every brochure, book and web­site about the coun­try. But, thanks to Bhutan’s re­stric­tions on vis­i­tor num­bers, it doesn’t feel over­run.

Of course, that could also be down to the lung­burst­ing trek up a steep, rocky track to reach it. This ver­tig­i­nous cliff, only 10km north of Paro, was cho­sen as a med­i­ta­tion site by Guru Rin­poche who, ac­cord­ing to leg­end, ar­rived here on a fly­ing tiger.

The tem­ple has been re­built twice, after dev­as­tat­ing fires in 1950 and 1998, and you’ll have to ar­rive on foot. But the view across the val­ley to the tem­ple, and the quiet aura of con­tem­pla­tion within, en­sure that a visit to the Tiger’s Nest is a high­light of your visit.

3. Search for a yeti (and other elu­sive crea­tures)

As be­fits a Hi­malayan king­dom cut off from the rest of the world for cen­turies, Bhutan has its fair share of myths and leg­ends.

The most fa­mous is the yeti, or migoi to the lo­cals, and de­spite the likes of Rein­hold Mess­ner declar­ing that what peo­ple are re­ally see­ing is a Hi­malayan bear, the crea­ture has a strong hold on lo­cal cul­ture. Every vil­lager has a tale about a close en­counter with a big, hairy migoi and advice on how to es­cape one.

In­deed, Bhutan has a Na­tional Park ded­i­cated to the preser­va­tion of the yeti, a re­mote 740-squaremile wilder­ness in the east of the coun­try called Sak­teng Wildlife Sanc­tu­ary. Your chances of see­ing a yeti are still pretty slim, but the park is also home to other en­dan­gered species, in­clud­ing red pan­das, snow leop­ards and tigers, so there is no short­age of other elu­sive crea­tures for you to track down.

4. Dance with monks at a Tsechu fes­ti­val

Ask any Bhutanese what the high­light of their year is and they will tell you it’s the tshechu, a large so­cial gath­er­ing held on the tenth day of any given Ti­betan lu­nar month, de­pend­ing on the re­gion.

It is a time of brisk trade and cer­e­mo­nial dances and a chance to catch up with friends from re­mote and out­ly­ing vil­lages. Paro tshechu, held every Spring in the Paro Dzongkhag, is con­sid­ered the most spec­tac­u­lar and colour­ful.

The high­light of any tsechu is the Cham dance, where monks don fear­some masks and elab­o­rate cos­tumes and per­form en­er­getic rou­tines to rau­cous tra­di­tional mu­sic. Each dance has a moral mes­sage, par­tic­u­larly with re­gards to show­ing com­pas­sion for sen­tient be­ings, and is con­sid­ered a form of med­i­ta­tion, al­beit a lively one.

The un­furl­ing of a giant thangka or throng­drei, marks the end of pro­ceed­ings and the point where rev­el­ers gather to re­ceive bless­ings be­fore head­ing home again.

5. Get to the bot­tom of a phal­lus fix­a­tion

The tiny vil­lage of Sop­sokha in the Pu­nahka re­gion of Bhutan is not for the eas­ily shocked. Nearly every build­ing is adorned with a giant phal­lus. Some are un­adorned. Oth­ers are dec­o­rated with rib­bons. But as the vil­lage is on the path to Chimi Lhakhang, a monastery ded­i­cated to Drukpa Kun­ley, Bhutan’s favourite saint and a man who re­ferred to his pe­nis as the ‘divine thun­der­bolt’, they are ev­ery­where.

n such a de­vout and moral coun­try, the fix­a­tion with phal­luses seems strange, par­tic­u­larly when you con­sider that it is women who in­herit prop­erty in Bhutan and the men who move to their wife’s vil­lage. But

some­thing about the in­tem­per­ate and ir­rev­er­ent monk, who taught lessons through fart­ing and sub­dued ogresses by turn­ing his pe­nis into a thun­der­bolt, ap­peals to the Bhutanese psy­che – and pro­vides tit­il­lat­ing con­tent for your In­sta­gram feed.

6. Trek into the un­known

Snug­gled up against the some of the world’s high­est moun­tains, and free from the tourist hordes that de­scend upon Nepal, Bhutan is the gold stan­dard for trekking in the Hi­malaya. From gen­tle treks through an­cient rhodo­den­dron forests to a chal­leng­ing, 25-day hike that tra­verses half the coun­try, Bhutan of­fers some­thing for trekkers of all lev­els

The Jho­mol­hari Trek is Bhutan’s most pop­u­lar and fol­lows an an­cient trade routes through Jigme Dorji Na­tional Park to fan­tas­tic views of sa­cred 7,314m Jho­mol­hari peak on the Ti­betan border. The Bumthang Cul­tural Trek avoids the high peaks and of­fers in­stead a time­less suc­ces­sion of pic­turesque tem­ples, monas­ter­ies and tra­di­tional vil­lages. And bird­watch­ers will love the Gangte Trek that fo­cuses on spot­ting black­necked cranes.

If time and money are no ob­ject, you’ll want to tackle the no­to­ri­ous Snow­man Trek. A mini-expedition through the re­mote Lu­nana district, it is con­sid­ered one of the world’s tough­est (and most ex­pen­sive) treks and will see you scal­ing peaks 5,320 me­tres high.

7. In­crease your Gross Na­tional Hap­pi­ness

Bhutan is fa­mous through­out the world for fo­cus­ing on a bet­ter qual­ity of life, rather than a bet­ter set of trade fig­ure. The then-King Jigme Singye Wangchuck called it Gross Na­tional Hap­pi­ness back in 1972. And it is a con­cept that the coun­try’s lead­ers have tried to ad­here to as they at­tempt to steer Bhutan into the fu­ture with­out sac­ri­fic­ing what makes it so spe­cial.

For the vis­i­tor, it is a chance to con­tem­plate a dif­fer­ent ap­proach to life and so­ci­ety, where hap­pi­ness and well-be­ing of all peo­ple is the ul­ti­mate pur­pose of gov­er­nance. It’s a phi­los­o­phy that man­i­fests it­self in dif­fer­ent ways. Whereas the Hi­malayas have been largely de­for­ested in other coun­tries, 75% of the trees re­main here.

The re­sult is a world that is strangely fa­mil­iar but patently dif­fer­ent. And one bound to get you ask­ing your­self how you can in­crease your own GNH.

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