The lure of Bhutan

This tiny coun­try has man­aged to keep much of its an­cient cul­tures in­tact.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Travel - By ELLEN HALE

Prayer flags whip in the wind, fly­ing across steep val­leys and roads. Bud­dhist tem­ples, stupa shrines and ma­jes­tic fortresses called zhongs dot the land­scape. Gi­ant wa­ter-pow­ered prayer wheels spin from tum­bling falls.

Farm­ers tend yaks.

Never con­quered, never colonised, tiny Bhutan re­tains much of its deep and an­cient cul­ture. But it’s at­tempt­ing to chart a unique path in to­day’s world: Modernise and democra­tise with­out sacri­fic­ing in­de­pen­dence, cul­ture or its pris­tine moun­tains and forests.

It’s also taken a unique ap­proach to tourism, pro­mot­ing it­self as an “ex­clu­sive” des­ti­na­tion through “high value, low im­pact” tourism. Tourists can only visit by book­ing through li­censed tour op­er­a­tors with pack­ages that cost US$200 (rM780) to US$250 (rM975) a day, depend­ing on the sea­son. Some of that money is ear­marked by the govern­ment for health care, free schools and in­fra­struc­ture.

De­spite the high price tag, Bhutan was listed by both The New York Times and Afar magazine on “where to go in 2018” lists.

Wedged be­tween In­dia and China, Bhutan is the last re­main­ing Bud­dhist king­dom in the Hi­malayas. But the coun­try has tran­si­tioned from ab­so­lute monar­chy to a demo­cratic, con­sti­tu­tional monar­chy. Par­lia­men­tary elec­tions were first held in 2008 de­spite re­sis­tance from Bhutanese who revered their roy­als.

The coun­try’s fourth king, and fa­ther of to­day’s ruler, in­tro­duced the con­cept of gross na­tional hap­pi­ness (GNH) in the 1970s as more im­por­tant than gross do­mes­tic prod­uct (GDP).

The GNH mea­sure, far from a bumper sticker slo­gan, em­braces sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment, ed­u­ca­tion and health, valu­ing so­ci­etal good over economic growth. Cig­a­rettes are banned, and Bhutan is the world’s only car­bon-neg­a­tive coun­try, pro­duc­ing less car­bon than its forests ab­sorb.

The fifth and reign­ing king, Jigme Kh­e­sar Nam­gyel Wangchuck (af­fec­tion­ately known as K-5, also the name of a lo­cal whiskey), cre­ated a fes­ti­val two years ago to at­tract tourists to a poor re­gion with an eth­nic no­madic pop­u­la­tion. The Laya royal High­lander Fes­ti­val, held in Oc­to­ber, in­cludes events like yak judg­ing, wrestling matches, pony races, na­tive danc­ing and a con­test for best mas­tiff dog.

Tourists head­ing to the high­land fes­ti­val face a 58km roundtrip trek from 1,830m to more than 3,800m in al­ti­tude mostly on rocky, pre­cip­i­tous trails also used by don­keys (laden with propane tanks, tents and other sup­plies). rain can turn those trails into a slip­pery mess of mud and poop.

The chal­leng­ing route didn’t stop the king from trekking up in a few hours last Oc­to­ber. Nor did it stop a woman in na­tive dress – hand­wo­ven duri (skirt), top and shamu la, a golden crown­like hat – from march­ing up in red pumps. Most tourists, though, take two days with con­stant pauses to catch their breath. The pay­off: Breath­tak­ing views of the Hi­malayas above and roar­ing glacier-fed rivers be­low.

One fes­ti­val high­light was the nya­gay, or strong­man race (strong woman, too). Six women in yak­wool skirts dragged mas­sive planks of wood half­way across a field, then dropped the planks and heaved 23kg grain sacks onto the backs of their male part­ners. The women then climbed on the men’s backs, and the men re­trieved the wood, then raced back to the start­ing line. all this in four min­utes at an al­ti­tude of nearly 4,000m.

yak-wool tents, im­per­vi­ous to the damp, ringed the fes­ti­val field and pro­vided pro­tected seat­ing. Booths of­fered in­struc­tion on sus­tain­able prod­ucts and prac­tices, from an­i­mal hus­bandry (“use only in­fe­rior mares for mule pro­duc­tion”) to the ben­e­fits of Bhutanese honey (bees here are healthy be­cause there are few in­sec­ti­cides).

Ubiq­ui­tous Bhutanese dogs, un­flap­pable and friendly, curled up on the field like com­mas and snoozed.

The Merak no­mads wore their sig­na­ture black bean­ies, which have dread­lock-like braids that di­vert rain­drops away from the face. Ven­dors sold yak bells, yak wool hats and purses, yak cheese wrapped in leather (smelling like a good parmi­giano) and vials of the pricey fun­gus – cordy­ceps – said to be pow­er­fully heal­ing.

a tent dec­o­rated with gold swag and a throne-like chair was des­ig­nated for the king. But he spent most of his time greet­ing guests warmly and with­out pomp. He even greeted me, reach­ing into his gho (a ki­mono-like robe) for a bot­tle of cordy­ceps, say­ing: “I just bought this. Would you like to have it? It is said to be very ben­e­fi­cial.”

Be­fore a race where stubby ponies gal­loped up and down hills, feath­ered head­dresses fly­ing, lunch was served. Hun­dreds of vil­lagers and visi­tors alike sat cross-legged as helpers (in­clud­ing roy­als) la­dled rice, veg­etable cur­ries and hot but­ter tea, all com­pli­ments of the king.

The hap­pi­ness quo­tient was as high as the sky. – aP

— ALEXAN­DRA REYNOLDS/AP

The iconic Tiger’s Nest Monastery, or Tak­t­shang Goemba, perched on a steep cliff above Paro. The most fa­mous of all Bhutan’s monas­ter­ies, the holy place was orig­i­nally built in 1692.

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