Getting into Bhutan
Bhutan is not easy to get into, both physically and bureaucratically. You have to join an organised tour with a recognised tour company. And you are required to spend a relatively large number of U.S. dollars each day. This once very secretive and closed kingdom has determined to keep tourism high-end (and therefore lucrative) and reduce its impact on the country.
This is very much a country of mountains and valleys. Consequently there is only one accessible international airport, at Paro. Only pilots who are especially trained are allowed to fly in. This has the effect of limiting access to two Bhutanese airlines – Druk Air and Bhutan Airlines – who fly to very few neighbouring countries and Buddha Air, a Nepalese charter airline.
In addition, Boeing have designated this possibly the most challenging landing in the world. Accounts on the internet describe the approach: terrifying, with violent turbulence, as the planes’ wings appear to brush the towering valley slopes. You can imagine that I am approaching the journey from Nepal and India with mixed feelings. In the event it is thrilling rather than frightening, with great views of Everest. At dinner in Thimpu (the capital) these stories are confirmed by two pilots, in charge of a private jet (bringing an American business whizz whose name I recognise), who have had to stop en route, to pick up a trained Bhutanese pilot before they are allowed in.
Bhutan - Background
- Bhutan is known locally as "Druk Yul" or "Land of the Thunder Dragon". Bhutan is a constitutional monarchy with a king (Druk Gyalpo) as the head of state and a prime minister as the head of government. Vajrayana Buddhism is the state religion.
- Much of early Bhutanese history is unclear, because most of the records were destroyed when a fire ravaged the ancient capital, Punakha, in 1827. The Drukpa dynasty rose to power in the 16th century.
- Bhutan claims to base its success as a country on Gross National Happiness rather than Gross Domestic Product. The GNH Index includes areas such as living standards, health, well-being, education, use of time and ecology.
Modern Day Bhutan
- Is Bhutan worth it? It’s picturesque, but probably not as beautiful or diverse as Nepal (though the air is a lot cleaner.)
- It’s more modern that you might expect, for a country that was sealed off from the world until relatively recently. There is internet in most places and there is a steady stream of imports (much of it food) coming overland in huge painted trucks from India).
- Bhutan is the first country in the world with specific constitutional obligations on its people to protect the environment -plastic bags are banned - and so is tobacco
- It doesn’t have much to offer other than monasteries and mountains. (Bhutan has the world’s highest unclimbed peak, Gangkhar Puensum, a mountain so sacred by the Bhutanese that the government has banned mountaineering here). However, it is fascinating and the atmosphere in the monasteries, the chanting and rhythmic percussion draws you in and calms the soul. It’s difficult to tear oneself away.
- The most visited monasteries (dzongs - whcih literally means fortress) and their locations are stunning. Switzerland meets the medieval Orient.
The Downsides of Bhutan
- When you're here it's all very controlled. There are checkpoints everywhere.
- There are an awful lot of handicraft shops.
- The food is a little strange. Breakfast is cornflakes, rice porridge, tomato sauce, guavas, chips and baked beans. Chilli and cheese are served with most meals.
- Bhutan is not as humanitarian as one might expect either. There are workers from other countries, such as India, who seem to have a rough time.
The Punakha Dzong is picturesquely situated between two rivers, one male, one female. There's an ancient wooden cantilevered bridge, beautifully decorated. It is the second oldest and second-largest dzong in Bhutan and was the centre of government until the capital was moved to Thimpu in 1955. It's also the present winter home of Dratshang – the head monk
Rinpung Monastery (Fortress on Heaped Jewels) is the administrative headquarters of Paro and stands proudly on a hill slope. In addition to the towering walls, this one has splendid wall paintings, and 14 shrines and chapels.
National Museum of Bhutan
Just up the slope from Rinpung Dzong is the National Museum of Bhutan, housed in a circular building that was once the watchtower for the monastery.
Gangteng Monastery is another must see on the tourist trail in Bhutan; it boasts colourful temples, a famous 11 faced Avalokitesvara Lhakhang Buddhist statue, Shedra’s Assembly Hall, and a (too large for my liking) collection of weapons and armoury.
The renowned Paro Taktsang Dzong (try saying that fast) is built into the cliffside above the Paro Valley, around 10,000 feet above sea level. The sacred site is a relic of historical Tibet; the complex was built up around one of the 13 caves, where Guru Padmasambhava (one of the founders of Buddhism in Tibet) meditated. They are all known as Tiger's Nests and this one is truly breath-taking – in both senses of the word. The gold plated pagoda like towers, colourful flags, golden prayer wheels, and cave temple totally rewards the effort it takes to get there. The trek up is a real struggle as the altitude takes its toll. I climb for four hours, with several stops to rest my lungs. The return journey is a different matter. My guide is astonished when I run down the track in much less than an hour. So am I.
Thimpu and The Royal Palace
The capital of Bhutan is Thimpu, at roughly 2,500 metres above sea level. It's best seen from above where you get great views of the Royal Palaces and the National Assembly. The other main tourist stop is the National Memorial Chorten. With another spectacular view, this white stupa is surrounded by golden spires, bells, assembly halls, paintings, and a venerated photograph of the King, Druk Gyalpo (Dragon King), in ceremonial attire.
Thimpu is the only capital in the world without traffic lights. In fact, when traffic lights were installed the people objected and the city reverted back to the use of white-gloved traffic police.
Life in Bhutan
Whilst there is ongoing innovation there is much about the way of life that is unchanged. The Bhutanese wear traditional dress.
For men, the gho, a knee-length robe tied at the waist by a cloth belt known as the kera. Women wear an ankle-length dress, the kira, which is clipped at the shoulders with two identical brooches called the koma. It's tied at the waist with a kera. Bhutanese law stipulates that all Bhutanese government employees must wear the national dress at work, as must all citizens when visiting schools and other government offices.
Architecture is traditional wattle and daub, no nails. The streets are lined with markets stalls. The village shops have wooden shutters, Many of the houses and monasteries are beautifully decorated, - a phallus often features. Some big, some small, some terrifyingly huge, in various colour schemes, some of them having ribbons tied around them and some also bearing eyes. All of the phalluses are fully erect as this is what frightens off the evil spirits, apparently.
Darts and archery are the national sports. Competitions are taking place by the sides of the road as we motor through. The archers wear brightly coloured skirts with a series of swinging tails.
I have a mini bus, a driver, and a guide to myself. They are informative, hardworking and sober. Until the last night when I make the mistake of offering my driver a farewell drink at my hotel. He is not (I assume) able to tolerate alcohol well and he follows me back to my bungalow with lustful intentions. I have to physically restrain him. He doesn’t arrive, with the driver, to return me to the airport for Nepal in the morning.