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