BHUTAN: THE LAST SHANGRI-LA

The mys­ti­cal king­dom of Bhutan stands tall and proud, veiled within the folds of the Hi­malayas. Un­touched and re­fresh­ingly pure, it is per­haps the clos­est to utopia that you may find any­where in the world

Wine & Dine - - CONTENTS - WORDS HARNOOR CHANNI-TI­WARY

Un­touched and re­fresh­ingly pure, Bhutan is per­haps the clos­est des­ti­na­tion to utopia

As the plane ef­fort­lessly glides be­tween tall moun­tains, to land on one of the tough­est land­ing strips, you gaze out of the win­dow spell­bound. The beauty be­neath seems un­nat­u­ral. How could some­thing so pure still ex­ist in to­day’s world? But ex­ist it does. Al­beit un­der a cloak, partly due to the moun­tain­ous ter­rain and in part due to the king­dom’s de­ci­sion to re­main at arm’s length from the world.

Also called The Last Shangri-La, Bhutan could pos­si­bly be the only un­touched coun­try left in the world. Away from the gnarly hands of com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion, the moun­tain king­dom rev­els in its tra­di­tions and an­cient cul­ture. Mys­tique hangs heavy in the air. It is the first thing you no­tice when you dis­em­bark from the plane at Paro. The sec­ond thing, of course, is the over­whelm­ing beauty all around. Nat­u­ral beauty that ri­vals Switzer­land, Canada and even New Zealand, Bhutan is pic­ture­post­card gor­geous. Tall moun­tains, abun­dant rivers, low-rise tra­di­tion­ally dec­o­rated build­ings and a gen­eral sense of con­tent­ment.

It is this sense of con­tent­ment that sets Bhutanese peo­ple apart from any­one else you may meet. There is no rush, no race to be won here. Ev­ery­one is happy count­ing their bless­ings and try­ing to earn good karma. It is a way of life of­ten for­got­ten in the fast-paced cities of to­day. But here, deep in the Hi­malayas, it is what drives the peo­ple who fo­cus on the coun­try’s Gross Na­tional Hap­pi­ness in­stead of Gross Do­mes­tic Prod­uct.

BALANC­ING ACT

But it would be a mis­take to mis­judge Bhutan’s sim­plic­ity for naivety. The coun­try bal­ances on the fine beam be­tween moder­nity and tra­di­tion, be­tween eco­nomic progress and preser­va­tion of values and cul­ture. The govern­ment’s poli­cies are for­ward look­ing, en­cour­ag­ing stu­dents to study overseas on the govern­ment’s ex­pense as per the Na­tional Ser­vice Plan. Most stu­dents choose to come back to their coun­try and work for the govern­ment af­ter ob­tain­ing world-class ed­u­ca­tion, such is their deep-rooted sense of be­long­ing and pride. This in­trin­sic pride is also re­flected in adu­la­tion and rev­er­ence of their king. Though for­mer King Jigme Singye Wangchuck vol­un­tar­ily gave up ab­so­lute pow­ers and con­verted Bhutan from a monar­chy to democ­racy, the peo­ple still look up to the royal fam­ily and his son, the present king with un­du­lat­ing love.

Bhutan is also the only car­bon neg­a­tive coun­try in the world, a feat that of­ten goes un­no­ticed in global af­fairs. The coun­try has pledged to pro­tect its for­est cover and main­tain it at 60 per cent in per­pe­tu­ity, come what may. This trans­lates into the fact that the coun­try’s green lungs ab­sorb thrice as much car­bon diox­ide emis­sions as its pop­u­la­tion cre­ates. While the world de­bates the ill-ef­fects of cli­mate change, with nine per cent of its land un­der glaciers, Bhutan faces the rip­ple ef­fects of tem­per­a­ture changes much be­fore the world does.

HIGH VALUE TOURISM FOR SUS­TAIN­ABIL­ITY

The tourism poli­cies are also built on the same prin­ci­ples. Bhutan po­si­tions it­self as a high-end tourist des­ti­na­tion, keep­ing bud­get trav­ellers at bay and thus con­trol­ling the in­flux of tourists in the coun­try.

In fact, for­eign­ers are re­quired to pay a sub­stan­tial per-day ‘tourist tax’ rang­ing from US$200 to US$290 per day. This charge cov­ers food, trans­port within the coun­try, ser­vices of a guide, ac­com­mo­da­tion as well as govern­ment tax. It is this mea­sure that al­lows Bhutan to keep a veil on its sa­cred king­dom, lim­it­ing tourists to about 60,000 each year. The money is well utilised, with the govern­ment fur­ther en­cour­ag­ing the tourism sec­tor by giv­ing 10-year tax-free hol­i­days to ho­tels and other such poli­cies.

A visit to the Hi­malayan king­dom of Bhutan should ide­ally not be shorter than five days. If time and re­sources per­mit, a week would be prefer­able so that you can tour Thimpu, Pu­nakha and Paro, the three mustvisit desti­na­tions in the coun­try.

As the world lines up for hours to en­ter the Lou­vre and jos­tles out­side the gates of Buck­ing­ham Palace, a tiny piece of land re­mains hid­den within the folds of the Hi­malayas. Bhutan is a mag­i­cal king­dom, nur­tured with love and care and its cul­ture pro­tected fiercely. It is not stuck in time, rather it has its eyes on the fu­ture while its feet are firmly planted on the ground. A land where the wind whis­pers se­crets in your ears, where you find more spir­i­tu­al­ism than cyn­i­cism, more con­tent­ment than burn­ing am­bi­tion. A land that prom­ises to leave its im­print on your soul and make you ques­tion the very rea­son why we are al­ways in a hurry, to get some­where, to reach a po­si­tion, to achieve the il­lu­sive next mile­stone. The last mys­ti­cal utopia left on Earth—Bhutan.

THIMPU The cap­i­tal city of Thimpu lies merely an hour away from Paro, home to the coun­try’s sole in­ter­na­tional air­port. The me­an­der­ing drive along rivers and val­leys is the per­fect in­tro­duc­tion for the days to come.

The largest and busiest town in the coun­try, Thimpu is a de­light, es­pe­cially for food lovers. The city has many in­ter­na­tional cuisines on of­fer, from cof­fee houses to pizze­rias. Choit­sho Eudel Dorji, pro­pri­etor, Gaki Trav­els sug­gests, “Pizza-lovers should head to Sea­sons Pizze­ria for its cosy feel and de­li­cious food. For a taste of lo­cal food, try Babesa Vil­lage House”. The 16th cen­tury vil­lage-house has been con­verted into a restau­rant serv­ing de­li­cious Bhutanese dishes. San Maru, a Korean restau­rant that lo­cals swear by, is run by a Korean lady and a Bhutanese gentle­man and serves au­then­tic Korean fare.

Thimpu of­fers a mul­ti­tude of stay op­tions, most of which are high-end, in line with the coun­try’s ef­forts to at­tract high-value tourists. Five-star ho­tels like the Druk Ho­tel in the cen­tre of town, stately Taj Tashi and new­ly­opened Le Meri­dien of­fer Western com­forts in lux­u­ri­ous set­tings.

While in Thimpu, Takin Zoo is a mustvisit. The high­light is the na­tional animal called takin which re­sem­bles a cow with a goat’s head. A 10-minute drive out of the city takes you up­hill to a pic­turesque spot where you find your­self look­ing up to a larger-thanlife statue of sit­ting Bud­dha. With the gen­tle breeze, views of the val­ley below and Lord Bud­dha smil­ing down at you, there are few spots as serene else­where. Be­fore you leave Thimpu, do make sure you go to the city’s post of­fice. For a small fee, you can get cus­tomised stamps cre­ated with your own photo on it. A lovely keep­sake to take back home.

PU­NAKHA

“A LAND THAT PROM­ISES TO LEAVE ITS IM­PRINT ON YOUR SOUL AND MAKE YOU QUES­TION THE VERY REA­SON WHY WE ARE AL­WAYS IN A HURRY, TO GET SOME­WHERE, TO REACH A PO­SI­TION, TO ACHIEVE THE IL­LU­SIVE NEXT MILE­STONE. THE LAST MYS­TI­CAL UTOPIA LEFT ON EARTH—BHUTAN.”

Ar­guably the coun­try’s pret­ti­est dzong (monastery) lies in the golden val­ley of Pu­nakha. The im­pos­ing dzong sits ma­jes­ti­cally at the con­flu­ence of two rivers, one be­lieved to be male and the other fe­male. The waters of the rivers con­verge but do not mix, flow­ing ahead side by side for a dis­tance. Per­haps a won­der­ful metaphor for mar­riage— two peo­ple who re­tain their in­di­vid­u­al­ity as they walk down the road of life to­gether.

While in Pu­nakha, a trek up to the Tem­ple of Fer­til­ity is also rec­om­mended. A 20-minute walk through paddy fields, the tem­ple is con­sid­ered holy and is vis­ited by ex­pect­ing par­ents who travel from afar. Do not be sur­prised to see phal­luses painted on walls and homes, sym­bol­i­cally con­sid­ered to drive away the evil eye.

PARO

Many trav­ellers only tran­sit through Paro, as it has the sole in­ter­na­tional air­port in the coun­try. How­ever, the town de­serves a day or two as well, with sites like a dzong built like a fortress and a lo­cal mar­ket great for pick­ing up handmade craft. The piece de re­sis­tance though, is Tiger’s Nest. A monastery pre­car­i­ously perched off the edge of a cliff, it is one of the holi­est sites in the coun­try. It is be­lieved that you will make the trek up when the time is right and your stars are aligned. The te­dious two-and-a-half hour trek can make you ques­tion your fit­ness lev­els, no mat­ter how much you have been work­ing out. But when you turn a cor­ner and see the grav­ity-de­fy­ing struc­ture for the first time, from a bridge built over a mas­sive wa­ter­fall, you are left awestruck, each step worth the ef­fort. It is a hum­bling day, one where you feel at peace as you descend down the moun­tain af­ter vis­it­ing the monastery.

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