Bhutan - No ordinary place
The story about the marauding Himalayan Black Bears didn’t come out until they were well into the forest.
Miranda Turner and Gavin Strang, were in Bhutan, a tiny country perched high in the Eastern Himalayan Mountains between its powerful neighbours, China and India. As the Wellington couple hiked through Phobjikha, a remote high- altitude valley of primeval forest, embraced on all sides by mountainous peaks, their guide casually mentioned the threat of bears to people and crops. “Bears,” he explained philosophically, “will always go for your face”. He made a clawing motion across his mouth and jaw.
“Bhutan is 75 per cent Buddhist – we knew he didn’t have a knife in his sock or a rifle on his back because harming animals isn’t allowed,” says Gavin.
“In Bhutan there’s always another hill higher, so we kept trekking – but we began to feel uneasy and wondered about arming ourselves with a stick,” says Miranda. “Our guide walked in silence for a while, then told us brightly, ‘ it’s not the bears you have to worry about, it’s the tigers’,” before launching into a story about tigers so fierce they can toss a cow across a paddock.
It became obvious that Bhutan is no ordinary place.
Steeped in magic and mystery, it’s the world’s last great Himalayan Kingdom – a picturebook landscape of snowy peaks, Jurassic Park forests, majestic fortress- like dzongs, and centuries- old monasteries. In Bhutan, the rice is red, and chilies are served as a vegetable - not a spice. The kingdom boasts highaltitude hiking trails, beautiful textiles and crafts, spectacular tsechus ( dance festivals) and traditional archery competitions that gather an almost medievallooking audience.
“We have done a lot of travelling in the last 20 years, but Bhutan is not like anywhere we’ve ever been before,” says Gavin. “It is small and serene - and unlike other parts of Asia, there’s no bustle, no tooting horns. We saw traditional archery competitions, monks praying and practicing their festival dances – and it’s not for the tourists, it’s active and it’s real.”
Bhutan is a land lost in time; a deeply Buddhist nation that holds fast to its ancient ways.
The country coined the phrase ‘ Gross National Happiness’ in the 1970s, and therefore aims for collective happiness, harmonising with nature and its traditional values. By law, at least 60 per cent of the country must remain forested, and not only is Bhutan carbon- neutral – it actually absorbs more carbon than it emits.
To add to the intrigue, the tiny nation is ruled by one of the youngest monarchs in the world, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck - an Oxford Universityeducated king who is a regular fixture in the society pages of Hello-magazine. He’s fifth in the line of hereditary rulers who have ruled for the last 100 years – and unlike neighbouring Nepal where the King was deposed nearly ten years ago, monarchs are revered in Bhutan.
“Bhutan is known as the ‘ Land of Dragons’, the king is the ‘ Dragon King’ and the people are the ‘ Dragon People’ – it’s like something out of Game Of Thrones,” says Gavin.
Tourism numbers are carefully monitored in Bhutan, and all foreigners pay an all- inclusive fee of at least US$ 250 ($ 362) a day, which covers food, accommodation, transport and an official guide, plus a portion that goes to the government.
Our style of travel has always been about doing the research, then getting off the bus and roaming with our backpacks until we find a place to stay,” says Miranda. “We’ve stayed in some interesting places from unexpected luxury to mosquito- ridden dives. In Bhutan the accommodation was excellent – palaces, remote guest houses and four star hotels.”