A latter-day Shangri-La, the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan embraces tourism while remaining exclusive, remote and unspoilt.
A small nation (roughly the size of Switzerland), Bhutan is sandwiched between its massive neighbours China and India, though natural barriers of mountains and forests, coupled with a policy of isolation, allowed the country to preserve its culture and environment over the centuries. In the 1960s the third king Jigme Dorji Wangchuck began the process of modernisation, introducing paved roads, electricity and phones. But steps towards socio-economic development were always cautious and in 1979 the fourth king Jigme Singye Wangchuck was quoted as saying: “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product.” This holistic Buddhist commitment to the balance of economic and non-economic development goals is actually enshrined in Bhutan’s constitution, ratified with the country’s first democratic election in 2008.
So, while Bhutan has seen tremendous change in a short period of time (TV arrived only in 1999 and there’s already Bhutanese Idol), it has been mindful to protect its cultural, spiritual and natural heritage: 60 per cent of the country (identified as a global diversity hot spot) is to remain under forest for all time; plastic bags and the sale of tobacco are banned. The traditional games of archery, the national sport, and Bhutanese darts are played everywhere; and still the majority of people wear the national dress, though it’s no longer compulsory. Monks may have mobile phones and solar panels to charge them, but they still rise at 3am to begin prayers and study.
Bhutan opened to international tourism in 1974, with 287 visitors. Fewer than 30,000 people will visit this year, but it is a myth that there is a limit on the number of tourist arrivals. Numbers are controlled both by the low level of infrastructure in the country – flight and accommodation availability are naturally limiting – and by government tariffs, which, in line with sustainable development policy, are designed to bring in high-value, low-volume tourism. Tourists must go to Bhutan on an organised itinerary, at a minimum price of $US200 ($242) per day per person. So it is not a budget destination – and nor should it be.
It is a privilege to visit the last of the Buddhist kingdoms, a land of majestic mountains and deep valleys studded with ancient monasteries and dzongs (fortresses). An all-pervading spirituality means even the most rugged country sprouts stands of prayer flags, dispersing their blessings on the winds. Between the mesmerising chants of monks, ubiquitous spinning and singing prayer wheels, and the silent mantras of butter lamps and incense, it must be the most blessed place in the world.
The country’s most sacred pilgrimage site, the spectacularly sited Taktshang Goemba (also known as the Tiger’s Nest Monastery) is handily at the gateway to Bhutan, in Paro. Built in 1692 (and rebuilt after a 1998 fire), the extraordinary structure clings to a crevice some 3000m up a sheer mountain rock face. It’s a two-hour hike up to the iconic monastery, but if your fitness levels aren’t up to those of the locals (these Bhutanese are made for walking), good vistas of the mythical lair can be seen from two viewpoints en route, of which the first can even be reached on horseback.
Most visitors would plan to tour at least a couple of the central valleys of the country and so would head from the airport straight to the capital Thimphu, making Paro and the Tiger’s Nest their last stop in Bhutan. This is partly to be close to the airport for departure and partly to allow time to acclimatise to the altitude. However, if time is limited and Paro it is, at least this extraordinary highlight is possible. Also don’t miss the excellent museum in the watchtower above the dzong.
There are no trains in Bhutan and travel from Paro in the west to the valleys further east is on country roads that wind endlessly up and down massive mountains, more often than not with sheer drops off one side. Between long drives and coping with altitude, some comfort amid the rugged beauty is welcome. Cue Amanresorts, which over the past six years has opened small high-end lodges in five valleys across Bhutan. The name of the lodges, Amankora, comes from Aman, the Sanskrit for “peace”, and kora, the local word for “sacred circular pilgrimage”. The properties feature a luxurious simplicity designed to reflect and respect the surrounding environment, but what sets them apart even more is the unequalled entree to the culture, history, spirituality and nature of the country. There might be a traditional song and dance program with aperitifs, or the offer to try your hand at archery or darts. Guests can even request a private talk with the director of the Centre of Bhutan Studies on the indicators for Gross National Happiness, or with the 12th reincarnate lama of Mynak Rinpoche. The access is extraordinary – and in true luxury safari style, so is the guiding. Aman’s accredited local guides provide layers of knowledge and insider insight and, along with supremely skilled drivers, add charm and humour to the journey’s days. From the comfortable SUV with pillows and à la carte picnics to the Bhutanese menu for dinner, and evening baths thoughtfully drawn to soothe hiking legs, there is no better way to explore Bhutan – literally, as there is no other accommodation at this level in the middle valleys.
From Paro it’s a scenic two-hour drive to Thimphu through mountains clad in pine forests and embroidered with beautiful rice terraces. A kilometre up a mountain will be a neatly stepped farm and stately two-storey wooden farmhouse. At the bottom of deep, folding valleys are clear rivers of melted snow water. Colourful flags flutter along bridges so the rushing waters can take the prayers downstream. Thimphu is home to government offices, the central monk body in summer and the Bhutanese royals. It’s a busy city, but the main intersection still features a man controlling traffic – the installation of traffic lights saw a sharp increase in accidents and they were subsequently removed.
There are lots of things to see and do in the area: along with the dzong (you will come to recognise these impressive structures quickly, with their towering, gently tapering white walls and traditional red collar), there are the ancient Pangri Xampa temple and astrology school; the National Institute for 13 Arts, where you can watch students learning calligraphy, sculpting and carving, the Folk Heritage Museum and the Textile Museum. There is a preserve where the rare, hybrid-looking national animal, the takin (a relative of the musk ox), can be seen; and hikers can get out amongst it and climb to the cliff-hugging Cheri and Tango monasteries. There’s even a golf course where you’ll look like a big hitter, with the ball flying further in the thin mountain air.
Thimphu is also the best place to shop in Bhutan. After checking out the Farmers Market, cross the carved-wood cantilever bridge to the souvenir market to see all sorts of religious items (old prayer books and wheels and printing blocks), jewellery, domestic goods (lovely bowls, baskets and yak tail dusters) and handmade souvenirs. Head to Lungta Handicraft (www.lungtahandicraft.com) for quality antiques and repros (ancient cowskin trekking bags – the original backpack, century-old cheese and butter pots, teapots, religious trumpets); and Yak Souvenir for more arts, crafts and jewellery. D Singye 1st Boutique – Design and Handicrafts, a shop run by famous actor, ex-model and designer Sangay Choden, specialises in textiles ranging from fabulous silk-on-silk kiras (women’s national dress) to yak wool ponchos and, along with jewellery and select souvenirs, there’s a good range of books on Bhutan. The Jungshi Handmade Paper Factory sells beautiful cards.
If you want to do the town over, for coffee and snacks head to The Art Cafe or Karma Coffee; for a beer there’s The Zone or Benez (or Om Bar for a cocktail); and to dance, hit Space 34.
After the whirl of Thimphu, it’s back on the road and up to the 3140m Doche La (pass), where a fabulous vista of the Eastern Himalayan Ranges awaits. The majestic snow-clad peaks seem to be lit from within. While most people visit Bhutan in spring and autumn for big festivals, winter is brilliant: there is little cloud, so views such as this are dazzlingly clear and you feel like the first visitors to come through. In January you more than likely won’t see another tourist after heading east from Thimphu.
From the pass, it’s down to the lower-altitude Punakha Valley, where the dzong is the most beautiful in the country, thanks partly to its setting near the confluence of two rivers, mountains all around. The fortress’ carved and decorated woodwork and towers are in impressive condition, having been substantially rebuilt after floods in the 1990s. The dzong is the winter home of the monk body. Amid richly coloured woodwork and hanging silks, lit by the flames of butter lamps, sit rows of young monks in red robes. As you watch from a gallery above, the sound of their deep reverberating chanting becomes almost mesmerising.
The subtropical valleys and mountains of Punakha are great for hiking, and the Chimi Lhakhang fertility monastery built by the Divine Madman in 1499 is a popular walk. The weekend market has locals selling fruit and vegetables, and also nomads from the north such as the Layap women – who are recognisable by their long hair and conical bamboo hats – selling yak cheese.
The Amankora lodge in Punakha is perhaps the most beautiful in the country. It is reached via a suspension bridge, and the common areas of the lodge are in an elegantly converted farmhouse. The upstairs chill rooms are a cool mix of traditional decoration and contemporary style, while the eight suites are beyond in new buildings.
Heading east from Punakha, the road leads to Wangdue, a 14th-century village built right on the cliff edge. The government, fearing landslides, is trying to move the occupants. Next stop is Gangtey in the Phobjikha Valley, famous for being the winter habitat of the rare black-necked crane from November to February. There is a Crane Centre with telescopes, but usually some of the 300-400 holidaymaking birds can be seen in the ploughed fields and wheeling around the skies. There’s great walking to be done in this valley, too, as the nature trails are unusually flat.
Amankora Gangtey is set in a stand of pines on a spur, with superb views of the goemba (monastery) and the peaceful valley. Visit the monastery in the morning, when there’s a light haze over the valley and birdsong and the mellifluous rumble of monks chanting are the only sounds, and it really could be any century in this remote valley at the top of the world.
The drive from Gangtey to Jakar (Bumthang) is five hours, but the mass and majesty of the mountains, particularly between the 3390m Pele La and Trongsa, provide awesome distraction. From the deep valleys, densely forested ridges rise up to the sky like the backs of mythical beasts. In the midst of these highlands in the centre of the country is the town of Trongsa. It boasts the largest fortress in the kingdom, with views hundreds of metres down to the river below. The recently opened watchtower, which is located a little higher up the mountain, houses another excellently curated museum.
Continuing on (with seven hairpin turns per kilometre, apparently) the road leads to Bumthang, home to one of Bhutan’s most sacred monasteries: the richly adorned Kurje Lhakhang, whose altar walls are lined with glass cases containing row upon row of brass and gold-painted statues of Buddha. Jampa Lhakhang also features an elaborately decorated altar with beautiful paintings and silks, and serene Buddhas glowing in the half-light.
Here also is the Wangdicholing Palace, currently in disrepair, built by the father of the first king and the summer residence of the first and second kings. A turn-down gift at Amankora is a copy of The Hero With A Thousand Eyes: A Historical Novel by Karma Ura. Its descriptions of the court, including a list of the palace’s permanent retainers – more than 150 butlers, valets and men-in-waiting, five conversation companions and nearly 400 other menials, silversmiths, blacksmiths, weavers, chefs, etc – bring the palace back to life.
The Amankora lodge is right beside the palace; a game of archery on the lawn between the two conjures images of royal competitions past. Among the many cultural experiences the lodge offers in Bumthang is lunch in a farmhouse prepared by the family who cooked for the kings for many years. Seated on the floor beside the kitchen, guests are served local staples straight from the wood stove: wheat and buckwheat pancakes, rice from this very valley, dried beef and beans, and chillies and cheese – emadatse, the taste of Bhutan.
A journey such as this through the hall of the mountain king offers a taste of a unique country. Go now, before everyone else arrives.
Source Qantas The Australian Way July 2010