Bhutan: A Hi­malayan king­dom

Hu­mour, hap­pi­ness and har­mony lie at the heart of this Hi­malayan king­dom, writes Sarah Mar­shall.

Bhutan Times - - Editorial - (Source: http://www. nzher­ald.co.nz/)

Build­ing a house in the Hi­malayan King­dom of Bhutan is not a quick ex­er­cise. Dif­fer­ent sec­tions must be erected on dates de­ter­mined by an as­trologer and a pro­fes­sion­ally trained artist is re­quired to give the fi­nal cos­metic flour­ishes.

But along­side de­tailed draw­ings of dragons and red-faced deities with snakes wound through their nos­trils, I am sur­prised - stunned even - to find gar­ishly graphic car­toon images of enor­mous three-me­tre wil­lies.

Yes, that’s right - big, throb­bing male or­gans of the sort you might ex­pect to find daubed on a school­boy’s pen­cil case.

Spout­ing and spurt­ing, they float across fa­cades like fat worms in crash helmets rid­ing fur-trimmed Seg­ways, and one joker has even scrawled “Wel-cum” across the door­way - all in del­i­cate script, of course.

Snig­gers aside, this is not some smutty at­tempt to en­ter­tain tourists; the phal­lus has great cul­tural sig­nif­i­cance for the Bhutanese.

“It be­longs to the Mad Monk,” ex­plains my guide, 25-year-old Kin­zang, as we walk to­wards the Chimi Lhakhang monastery, built in hon­our of the un­ortho­dox 15th cen­tury wise man.

Also re­ferred to as the “Saint of 5000 women” (for ob­vi­ous rea­sons), he en­light­ened masses with his “thun­der­bolt of flam­ing wis­dom”, which has since be­come a tal­is­man, mass pro­duced as key rings, neck­laces and even pe­nis pa­per­weights.

Cou­ples strug­gling with fer­til­ity reg­u­larly visit the small wooden-and-stone struc­ture just out­side the coun­try’s for­mer cap­i­tal, Pu­nakha, and Kin­zang mis­chie­vously tells the tale of a Ja­panese tourist who gave birth to a child bear­ing a sus­pi­cious re­sem­blance to a Bhutanese guide.

Such open­ness about sex and a will­ing­ness to crack crude jokes seems in­con­gru­ous to the pi­ous and dis­ci­plined Bhutan I had imag­ined, but hu­mour, hap­pi­ness and har­mony lie at the heart of this Hi­malayan par­adise.

This is, af­ter all, the coun­try where the only traf­fic light was ripped out for dis­turb­ing the peace and re­placed with a “danc­ing po­lice­man” who con­ducts cars with his white-gloved hands, as if they were mu­si­cians in a sym­phony or­ches­tra.

Closed to the out­side world for many years, this Bud­dhist moun­tain king­dom has been slowly open­ing up to tourism since 1974.

The process of open­ing up is a slow on. A manda­tory daily tax, from $273 , cov­er­ing food, ac­com­mo­da­tion, trans­port and li­censed guides, helps keep the num­ber of vis­i­tors at a sus­tain­able level, but in­ter­est in the coun­try is rapidly grow­ing: in the past decade, vis­i­tor fig­ures have jumped from 13,000 a year to 133,000, ac­cord­ing to the Tourism Coun­cil of Bhutan.

I have joined a tour with ad­ven­ture travel com­pany Ex­plore, trav­el­ling along bumpy roads sub­ject to fre­quent clo­sures, mean­ing jour­neys must be planned with mil­i­tary pre­ci­sion.

As we drive through chir pine forests fes­tooned with prayer flags, stop­ping to ad­mire the rubyred rhodo­den­dron plants in bloom, I ask Kin­zang how life has changed in the past few years. Tech­nol­ogy has played a big role: the first TV sets ar­rived in 2001, and now most peo­ple have mo­bile phones and in­ter­net ac­cess.

“Be­fore, it would take days to pass mes­sages through the val­leys,” says Kin­zang, who says he en­joys surf­ing the in­ter­net for up­dates on his favourite pop band, One Di­rec­tion.

Re­mote com­mu­ni­ties still ex­ist in Bhutan, but with the ad­vance of elec­tri­cal ca­bles and tar­mac comes in­evitable Western­i­sa­tion.

Re­li­gion forms the back­bone of Bhutan, and tem­ples, stu­pas and dzongs (fortresses) are sta­ples on a vis­i­tor’s itin­er­ary.

Or­nate paint­ings, silk ban­ners and night­mare-in­duc­ing icons form a com­mon theme.

Bhutan’s most sa­cred site is the Tiger’s Nest Monastery, lodged into a cliff face 900m above the Paro Val­ley.

“Ev­ery Bhutanese would like to come here at some point in their life­time,” says our older and more ex­pe­ri­enced guide, Singye.

Le­gend sug­gests Guru Rin­poche, who brought Bud­dhism to Bhutan, spent months here med­i­tat­ing in a cave af­ter ar­riv­ing on the back of a fly­ing tiger. As we gather at the start of the tir­ing up­hill trek, devo­tees are pros­trat­ing them­selves in the dust.

A low pop­u­la­tion den­sity - most of the 750,000 in­hab­i­tants live in val­leys and on moun­tain slopes spread across 38,000sq/ km - means Bhutan has plenty of space and re­sources avail­able.

Pro­vi­sion of ba­sic needs forms the foun­da­tion of GNH (gross national hap­pi­ness), which the government fa­mously uses to mea­sure de­vel­op­ment in place of the gross do­mes­tic prod­uct pop­u­lar else­where.

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