Tucked between China and In­dia, the tiny Hi­malayan King­dom of Bhutan isn’t afraid to do things dif­fer­ently.

Good - - CONTENTS - Words and pho­tog­ra­phy Fionna Heiton

Ex­plor­ing the cul­tural coun­try of Bhutan

Melodic chant­ing drifts on the breeze as we stroll through the his­toric cen­tral Bhutan town­ship of Trongsa. Fol­low­ing the sound, we turn a corner to find our­selves in an an­cient court­yard filled with danc­ing women in bright tra­di­tional cos­tumes.

They are cel­e­brat­ing the ap­point­ment of the re­gion’s new rep­re­sen­ta­tive for Bhutan’s king, or pen­lop.

One of the dancers proudly in­tro­duces us to her hus­band, the new pen­lop, and be­fore we know it, we are pos­ing for pho­tos with him. It is one of many un­ex­pected ex­pe­ri­ences dur­ing our two-week tour around this tiny moun­tain­ous king­dom, which is a third of the size of the North Is­land, and is nes­tled in the East­ern Hi­malayas between In­dia and Ti­bet.

Never colonised, Bhutan re­mained to­tally iso­lated un­til the mid-1970s, when its bor­ders slowly opened and tourists be­gan trick­ling in un­der strictly con­trolled reg­u­la­tions.

The present-day gov­ern­ment en­cour­ages tourism and levies a tourist tax of US$65 (NZ$90) a day to help pro­vide free ed­u­ca­tion and health­care for the en­tire pop­u­la­tion. Vis­i­tors must join a tour com­pany, but in­de­pen­dent trav­ellers need not worry about that ham­per­ing their free­dom be­cause some, such as Nel­son-based Be­yond The Clouds, run trips for just one per­son.

Re­gard­less, tourist num­bers are mod­est, with fewer than 23,000 vis­it­ing in the first half of 2016. This pales in com­par­i­son to Thai­land’s whop­ping 16.5 mil­lion tourists for the same pe­riod.

This land­locked coun­try is re­mark­ably user-friendly to ex­plore, de­spite not hav­ing had sealed roads, cars, tele­phones, post or elec­tric­ity un­til the early 1960s. Dur­ing our tour, we drive along wind­ing roads that climb nu­mer­ous high passes dec­o­rated with colour­ful prayer flags and lined by Bud­dhist prayer walls. No­mads herd yaks on the moun­tain slopes and huge rhodo­den­drons cre­ate a riot of colour.

With 50 species of rhodo­den­dron na­tive to the Hi­malayas, and more than 770 na­tive bird species, Bhutan show­cases di­verse ecosys­tems, from high moun­tains to lush, steamy jun­gles. With a pop­u­la­tion of just un­der 800,000, 72 per cent of the coun­try is forested, al­low­ing it to be­come the world’s first to be­come car­bon neg­a­tive.

“We did not see a cig­a­rette or plas­tic bag – they are il­le­gal.”

It is also home to one of the world’s small­est cap­i­tal cities, Thim­phu, which has a pop­u­la­tion of about 100,000 – and pos­si­bly no traf­fic lights. We spot white-gloved traf­fic war­dens con­duct­ing cars.

The cur­rency is rather ec­cen­tric too. The Bhutanese Ngul­trum’s ex­change rate dif­fers de­pend­ing on whether you have a sin­gle US$100 note or two US$50 notes, for ex­am­ple. And Bhutan must be one of the only coun­tries in the world where you can send post­cards with your photo as the stamp.

Thim­phu’s laid-back, small-town feel makes it the per­fect place for a stroll be­fore din­ner. A great place to eat is Bhutan Aroma, a stylish down­town restau­rant which serves Bhutanese del­i­ca­cies of as­para­gus and fern ac­com­pa­nied by di­vine veg­etable mo­mos (dumplings). You can try the na­tional dish,

ema datse, made of chill­ies and soft cheese, which is an ac­quired taste and is served with red rice, a Bhutanese sta­ple with a nutty flavour sim­i­lar to brown rice.

We find the stan­dard of tourist ac­com­mo­da­tion ex­cel­lent, par­tic­u­larly in Western Bhutan, where there are nu­mer­ous four-star ho­tels. A great ex­am­ple is Nak­sel Bou­tique Ho­tel and Spa in Paro, built in stun­ning tra­di­tional Bhutanese style with or­nately carved win­dows and elab­o­rate wooden cor­nic­ing. The ho­tel is lo­cated on the edge of a lush for­est and we wake to breath­tak­ing views of Hi­malayan peaks from pine-clad rooms fit­ted out with fine li­nen and cloud-like pil­lows. Af­ter din­ner, we lux­u­ri­ate in hot stone baths scented with fra­grant herbs.

An­other place to visit in Thim­phu is the na­tional takin re­serve, home to a na­tive an­i­mal said to have been cre­ated by a Ti­betan saint called ‘The Di­vine Mad­man’. The shy takin re­sem­bles a cow crossed with a goat, and is bred at the re­serve.

In keep­ing with Bud­dhist val­ues, Bhutanese peo­ple live in har­mony with na­ture. We did not see a sin­gle cig­a­rette or plas­tic bag – they are il­le­gal.

Bhutanese peo­ple have enor­mous pride in their coun­try and adore their young king, who likes to mix with the lo­cals in their vil­lages. His of­fice is based in the cap­i­tal’s Tashichho Dzong and it’s a fas­ci­nat­ing build­ing to visit.

This is a coun­try that isn’t afraid of do­ing things dif­fer­ently. No one for­gets their birth­day be­cause the en­tire pop­u­la­tion turns a year older on New Year’s Day. Pros­per­ity is mea­sured us­ing a con­cept known as Gross Na­tional Hap­pi­ness, which the fourth King in­tro­duced in the 1970s. It en­sures a holis­tic view of progress, con­sid­er­ing good gov­er­nance, sus­tain­able so­cio-eco­nomic devel­op­ment, cul­tural preser­va­tion and en­vi­ron­men­tal con­ser­va­tion.

Road signs on our trav­els pro­claim ‘Life is a jour­ney’ and ‘Let na­ture be your guide’.

English is widely spo­ken, al­though the of­fi­cial lan­guage is Dzongkha (sim­i­lar to Ti­betan) – one of 23 lan­guages spo­ken.

The high­light of our trip is a half-day trek up to Tak­t­shang Pal­phug Monastery, Bhutan’s most fa­mous and iconic land­mark. The tem­ple com­plex was built in 1692 but un­der­went a ma­jor restora­tion in 2005 af­ter it suf­fered se­ri­ous dam­age in a fire. It sits on a cliff high above the Paro Val­ley, and the trail lead­ing us there climbs through soar­ing blue pines and nu­mer­ous wa­ter-pow­ered prayer wheels. From the monastery, the views are fab­u­lous and it is ex­tremely peace­ful.

The best time to visit Bhutan is from March to May or Septem­ber to Novem­ber, when the weather is set­tled with clear skies and mild tem­per­a­tures between 15°C and 22°C. It’s a good idea to co­in­cide your visit with one of the many tshechus or fes­ti­vals held through­out the year. Full of colour and drama, these fes­ti­vals are per­formed by monks and are a feast for the eyes, with amaz­ing masks, cos­tumes and danc­ing in the stun­ning set­ting of a monastery.

Be­fore leav­ing Bhutan, we at­tend a tra­di­tional vil­lage fes­ti­val in the beau­ti­ful Bumthang Val­ley. We are sur­prised to bump into our new friend, Trongsa’s pen­lop, who in­sists we join him in the royal box, packed with dig­ni­taries, to watch stun­ning per­for­mances by multi-coloured dancers and chat over cups of Ti­betan tea.

For trav­ellers in Bhutan, the un­ex­pected awaits just around the next corner. g

Tribal women gather in East­ern Bhutan. Be­low: Nak­sel Bou­tique Ho­tel and Spa, Paro.

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