Bhutan – Discovering a Magic Kingdom
As the aircraft weaved through the mountains of Paro in preparation for landing in Bhutan’s international airport, I realised, to my surprise, that I could make out the faces of the farmers tending to the crops on the mountainside. At just over two hours long, the flight is actually short but not lacking excitement. Taking off from New Delhi airport, the plane first made a short stop in Kathmandu, immediately recognisable by the huge and colourful Boudhanath, one of the largest stupas in Nepal.
Discovering a Magic Kingdom – All about Bhutan Tourism
As we took to the skies once more, the mighty Himalayan mountain range came into view well above the clouds, reminding us of how high and imposing these mountains actually are. Preparation for landing took on a new meaning on Druk Air – the final 20 minutes of the flight had the pilot dramatically guiding the plane through a complicated mountainous path – indeed this landing is considered to be one of the most dangerous in the world and very few pilots are certified to to fly to Paro airport.
“Why Bhutan?” is a question we get asked all too often. And there’s no easy way to answer except that both Nikki and I love the unusual. And unusual it is. Here are some fun facts about the country:
Bhutan’s constitution dictates that a minimum of 60% of the land must remain forested at all times. In fact Bhutan is the world’s only carbon negative country – it absorbs more carbon dioxide than it releases.
- Internet and television were only introduced to the country in 1999.
- Bhutan is home to a strange looking animal called the Takin best described as a cow with a goat’s head.
- The sale of tobacco is prohibited in Bhutan
- Forget the fiscal (western) GDP to measure wealth, Bhutan has its own Gross National Happiness (GNH) used to measure the country’s prosperity which is based on four pillars: sustainable development, environmental protection, cultural preservation, and good governance.
- Thimpu, Bhutan’s capital is one of the only capitals in the world without traffic lights. When traffic lights were installed the people objected and the city reverted back to the use of traffic police.
- Plastic bags are banned in Bhutan (and have been for years).
- Archery and darts are the country’s national sport.
- Bhutanese proudly wear their national dress to work and to monastic buildings.
- Erect penises (often ejaculating) are traditionally painted on the outside of Bhutanese homes in an effort to ward off evil spirits.
- Bhutan has never been colonised.
- The blue poppy is the national flower of Bhutan but is very rare to see.
Once we exited the airport we were politely greeted by Ugyen our guide and Dechen our driver for the next 12 days. As explained in another post, it is not possible to travel around Bhutan independently. Ugyen and Dechen were instrumental in making our trip a success and we have nothing but praise for the both of them especially since they helped us view the country from a locals’ perspective.
One discussion which struck us considerably was that regarding the payment of taxes to the government during which we found out that Bhutanese actually take pride in contributing to their country’s welfare. Healthcare and education (primary to tertiary levels) are free and despite the country being relatively poor in terms of economic wealth, the people seem to have great faith in their government. The first democratic elections took place in 2008, and then only after a decision taken by the then-ruling king who believed that in order to achieve “collective happiness,” its citizens must become empowered and absolute monarchy should be abolished in favour of a fairer political governance – a move which the majority of Bhutanese people themselves were not in favour of since they felt that the monarchy had always governed well!
Vajrayana Buddhism is the major religion in Bhutan and we often felt overwhelmed in trying to take in all the information that was enthusiastically explained to us when visiting temples and monasteries. Very often we just felt more comfortable enjoying the frescoes and paintings without looking into them in too much depth since, not having a solid background in Buddhism, we found the principles to be rather complex.
The Divine Madman
A fun temple to visit is the Temple of the Divine Madman or the Chimi Lakhang. Drukpa Kunley (the Divine Madman) was an accomplished Buddhist master who arrived in Bhutan from Tibet in the 15th century. Legend has it that he wanted to show that it is possible to be enlightened and still lead a very healthy sex life thus demonstrating that celibacy was not a necessity in order to become enlightened. His legacies include the phallus paintings on houses meant to drive away evil spirits. Drukpa Kunley is called the “Fertility Saint” and his penis is often referred to as the “Thunderbolt of Flaming Wisdom” (how’s that for ego?). Women traditionally visit the temple in order to increase their fertility which explains why upon entering the temple I was asked about the number of children I had and was hit on the head three times with a giant, wooden phallus after responding that I had none.
Festivals are important local events which can last for several days. Dancers wearing masks and colourful costumes entertain spectators from morning until night time. We were in Jakar during the Tamshing Phala Festival where we saw demons and animals dancing to the sound of cymbals, drums and horns accompanied by the chanting of Buddhist monks who perform religious dances of purification. We were told that people from neighbouring villages dressed in their finest clothes walk for miles to attend such festivities. The festival experience provided a brilliant opportunity to interact and socialise with the locals, most of whom did not speak English but roared with laughter as the demons teased and made fun of Nikki and myself – our lost expressions were seemingly a great source of entertainment to all the spectators!
Bhutan Tourism – Trekking to the Tiger’s Nest
The trek to Tiger’s Nest in Paro (Paro Taktsang) is unmissable and and we were lucky enough to have had the opportunity to hike up in good weather. The sight of the monastery perched on a cliff side is priceless. Legend has it that Guru Rinpoche flew here from Tibet on the back of a tigress after which it consequently became a consecrated site. The actual trek which is about two hours long is steep but not difficult. The option of riding a horse is available (at a cost) if you do not wish to walk all the way up but the horse stops you about half way up, so be sure to wear good walking shoes anyway!
One of the highlights of our trip was a homestay on a farm with local people. Amenities were basic but we got to try the traditional Bhutanese hot stone bath where large stones are heated in a fire and and placed in one section of the bath which consequently bubbles up the water. The water is obtained from a stream with reputedly medicinal properties and the traditional bath is said to cure many ailments. We had dinner with the local family during which we were served rice with pieces of pork fat and butter tea (literally tea with butter dissolved in it – very much an “acquired” taste). Breakfast consisted of the dinner leftovers and although it was difficult to stomach chewing pieces of pure, cold fat so early in the morning, we did our best to eat everything up and compliment our gracious hosts.
Bhutan tourism is very particular. It is not a destination that caters to the masses and it certainly is not for those looking for nightlife nor for those hoping for a luxury holiday, but is in contrast, a paradise for anyone seeking genuine, cultural experiences. Bhutanese people believe in the value of keeping traditions alive and are fiercely proud of their little country. It is not difficult to see why – in an increasingly corrupt and shallow world Bhutan has managed to retain an authenticity that few other countries can boast of, truly making it one of the world’s last Shangri-Las.