Getting into Bhutan

Bhutan is not easy to get into, both physically and bureaucratically. You have to join an organised tour with a recognised local 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 control its impact on the environment and the culture.

Bhutan 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, the landing at Paro Airport is thrilling, rather than frightening, preceded by 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. They have had to stop en route, to pick up a trained Bhutanese pilot, before they are allowed in.

Bhutan - in a Nutshell

  • 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 (Tibetan) 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, but there have only been designated kings for the last century or so. .
  • 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.

Around Paro

Rinpung Dzong

I'm touring on my own, so have a whole mini bus, a betel chewing driver, Nima, and a guide, Payza to myself. I'm starting in the west of Bhutan, in the historic Paro area, which seems sensible, given that's where I've arrived. First, Rinpung Dzong (Fortress on Heaped Jewels). This is the first, it transpires, of many dzongs. It's the Tibetan word for a monastery which also serves as a fortress. The Bhutanese word, for the same thing, much less commonly applied, is goemba. The administrative headquarters of Paro stands proudly on a hill slope. In addition to the towering walls, it has splendid wall paintings, and 14 shrines and chapels. It's a hive of activity, with youthful monks wandering the astonishingly decorated wooden courtyards.

National Museum of Bhutan

Just up the slope from Rinpung Dzong, is the National Museum of Bhutan, housed in a circular building, which was once the watchtower for the monastery. Museums are a very long established tradition in the Tibetan Buddhist monasteries of Bhutan. This one has been adapted to hold over 3,000 works of Bhutanese art, covering more than 1,500 years of Bhutan's cultural heritage. That's Payza, in the painted doorway.

Tiger's Nest Monastery

Starting in the Paro area, however, does mean that Bhutan's piece de resistance, the fabled Tiger's Nest Monastery is next up, very early in the itinerary. 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.

Legend tells that Padmasambhava, a great Indian master, also known as Guru Rinpoche in Tibetan, was known for subduing demons in Tibet, in the eighth century, was summoned to Bhutan, from Tibet, to vanquish demons who were harassing the people of the Paro Valley. He made the journey, flying on the back of a tigress, found a cave high up in the cliffs above Paro and meditated there for three years, three months, three weeks, thus routing the demons. Some say that the tiger who carried the Guru was actually a manifestation of his disciple and consort, Yeshe Tsogyel.

The Guru, made many visits to the country in the eighth and ninth centuries, (I'm not sure if they were all on the back of a tiger). During those times he hid many sacred treasures, such as images and scriptures (called terma), at various places in Bhutan, 'to avoid their desecration or destruction during troubled times'. They've been retrieved over the years, by 'treasure finders'.

This place became known as "Tiger's Nest" and the fantastical stories grew and grew. Guru Rinpoche, it seems, returned to the site hundreds of years later, reincarnated as Tenzin Rabgye, the man who built the structure which turned the meditation cave into today's temple. A plethora of celestial beings and objects were involved in the process.

Whatever, Guru Rinpoche is regarded in Tibetan Buddhism, as the second Buddha. The monastery has become a sacred place of pilgrimage, known for its amazing energy. A complex was built up around this, one of 13 caves, where Guru Padmasambhava meditated. They are all known as Tiger's Nests and this one is truly breath-taking - in both senses of the word. The gilt pagoda like spires, colourful flags, golden prayer wheels, and cave temple totally reward 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.

After I've done my own meditation, (I could listen to the chanting for hours), 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.

In the Himalayas

I'm already being treated to incredible mountain views. Wandering on the Himalayan slopes, above trickling jade streams, are the Bhutanese takin, also called cattle chamois or gnu goats. As in Tibet, yak are ubiquitous.

Thimpu and The Royal Palace

The capital of Bhutan is Thimphu, at roughly 2,500 metres above sea level. It replaced the ancient capital city of Punakha, in 1961, as part of a modernising movement, by third Druk Gyalpo, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck. Although increasingly tourist orientated Thimphu's main focus is still on agriculture and livestock. Modernisation included a structure plan which took the city into the early 2000s and oversaw expansion up the long Thimphu Valley. No room for airports in this capital.  

It's best seen from above, where you get great views of the Tashichho Dzong. This Buddhist monastery/fortress, on the northern edge of the city, has traditionally been the seat of the Druk Desi the head of Bhutan's civil government. (The office has been combined with the kingship since the creation of the monarchy in 1907). It dates back to the 1200s, but was rebuilt in traditional style as part of the renovation programme. Alongside is the Royal Dechencholing Palace, the official residence of the King. There are also other new political buildings, including the National Assembly.

Not to mention the world's highest golf course. Up here also, is the National Memorial Chorten. (Chörten is the Tibetan word for stupa.) With another spectacular view, this snowy stupa is surrounded by golden spires, bells, assembly halls, paintings, and a venerated photograph of the King, Druk Gyalpo (Dragon King), in ceremonial attire.

Thimphu is the only capital in the world without traffic lights. In fact, when traffic lights were installed the people objected and the city reverted to the use of white-gloved traffic police. Like most capitals though, it has plenty of shops and a string of handicraft centres, with artisans at work making statues, jewellery and carving wood. They all have to be visited. There's also a weekend market, primarily to serve the locals and replete with yak butter.

Gangteng Dzong and the Phobjikha Valley

Venturing now, through long winding mountain passes and icing sugar dusted peaks, east, into central Bhutan, Gangteng Monastery, in the beautiful Phobjikha Valley, is another must see on the tourist trail. Legend here tells that the idea of building a monastery 'on top of the mountains' , was first mooted by the famous fifteenth century treasure seeker Pema Lingpa, He was believed to be an incarnation of Guru Rinpoche, later known as King Terton. This enabled him to discover 108 treasure troves, their locations revealed to him in dreams. Then, he had to establish monasteries, to house the many sacred items, so establishing Buddhism firmly in the country.

Pema Lingpa visited the valley, but didn't build. He predicted that one of his descendants would instead. His grandson Gyalse Pema Thinley took up the challenge, in 1613, and the monastery expanded over time. It has a prime position, above the valley and boasts more amazingly decorated and 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. It was completely restored, in the 2000s. This is also the home of the famous cham dance, but not today.

The valley is U shaped and glaciated, almost 3,000 metres high. It's home to two rivers, so is partly marshland habitat, where lanky black necked cranes, from Tibet, migrate for the winter. the cranes circle the monastery three times, when they arrive in November and again, three times, when they depart in March. Phobjikha is not only stunning, but filled with more historical relics. A gorgeously painted gate and a shrine made from a wall of stupas feature. I'm very comfortable, the only tourist in my palace on wheels. My driver, Nima is shown below.

Wangdue Phrodang Dzong

Now, we're returning west, into Wangdue Phrodang, Bhutan's pastureland, with cattle, yaks and horses. Wangdue Phodrang Dzong is famous for its beautiful location, at the confluence of the Punakha and Tsang rivers. The dzong was built by Zabdrung Gnawang Namgyal, the founder of the Bhutanese Kingdom, in 1638. This dzong is definitely a fortress, designed to defend against invasion from the south. Again, the courtyard of Wangdue Phrodang Dzong is full of young monks, engaged in assorted games.

Punakha Dzong

The scenery has been sublime and the monasteries incredible. I'm almost dzonged out. There are plenty more we've passed by and not visited. But, finally, we have to take in the dzong at Punakaha, the old capital, on our way back to Paro. The Punakha Dzong is again, wonderfully 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 the Dratshang - the head monk.

Well, maybe just a brief stop at, close by, the relatively modern Khuruthang Lhakhang dzong, with its smiling chorten. The Lateral Road from Punakha to Thimphu, crosses the Dochu La (pass) at 3,116 metres. It features 108 chortens, built to commemorate the expulsion of Assamese guerrillas.

Life in Modern Day Bhutan

Whilst there is ongoing innovation in Bhutan, 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.

My tour crew are informative, hardworking and considerate. Until the last night, when I make the mistake of offering Payza 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. He says his wife doesn't understand him...I have to physically restrain him. Driver, Nima, arrives alone, in the morning, to return me to the airport, for Nepal.

Is Bhutan Worth It?

  • Is Bhutan worth it? It’s hugely 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 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 to the western palate. 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. There are workers from other countries, such as India, who seem to have a rough time.

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