So much to say about Bhutan

three bhutan monks

Exploring in countries like Bhutan so often leaves an indelible impression, and that was certainly the case for Cate Gaston…

“LOL as I am writing this in Kolkata, a herd of goats were just ushered by along the main road, I just love travelling!

“Coozoozambo La from Druk Yul”, Hello from the Land of the Dragon.
Well what can I say about Bhutan… Oh so much. I will start with some interesting facts about the last Shangri La…

* Bhutan is a land locked country between India and Tibet
* it is the size of Switzerland
* has a population of nearly 650,000 people
* you have to pay the Kingdom the privilege of entering and touring the country and last year they only issued 17,000 visas
* there is only one bitumen road that travels through the country
* Buddhism is the main religion, well the only religion for the Bhutanese and is intrinsically linked with Tibetan Buddhism
* the Kingdom measures the growth of the country by Gross National Happiness, their world ranking is 8th out of 178 countries
* most people still wear the traditional dress, Gho for men and Kira for women
* TV and the internet only reached the country in 1999
* their main source of income is hydro electricity which they export 90% of to India, they generate without the construction of dams.
* I believe they have a national park that is devoted to the Yeti (abominable snowman)
* they are in the top 10 of biodiversity in the world
* 72% of their land is covered by forest, and is still growing
* smoking is banned by the kingdom but for tourists they turn a blind eye
* they chew betel nut and lime leaves instead
* life expectancy is around 66 years
* 70% of the population live off the land
* they have no desire for cultural assimilation
* lowest altitude is 300m and the highest is over 7000m
* their national carrier is Druk Air and it consists of only 4 planes and they are the only airline able to land on their runway.

My mind is a mix of thoughts, ideas and emotions when I think of Bhutan. I was only there for 8 days and I really feel I didn’t even get to scratch the surface and get a full understanding of Bhutan, its people and culture.

When you fly into Bhutan you realise very quickly that there is little flat land and that the only part there is, is either the airport runway or cultivated into rice or buckwheat fields. You shake your head as you view mountain after mountain that seem very densely covered in forest of varying types depending on the altitude.

As you step off the plane your first impressions are how quiet it is (especially after Kathmandu), the impressive architecture and how Japanese the traditional dress seem on the men.

You crane your neck up to see the tips of the mountains and marvel ast how isolated some of the houses and farms are scattered around what seems to be the top of the world. The air is crystal clear making the colours of the forest seem vibrant and the sky almost too bright to look at.

Paro is the closest town to the airport and when you drive in you wonder is this for real. No one is blaring their horns, there is no litter on the ground, all the buildings are of the same architectural design and there are no beggars. Walking around I wondered if I had stepped into a film set where extras were just ambling around. People young and old were dressed in traditional clothing but there were also a few in western clothing.

People stared at you with passive faces but when you smiled and nodded your head at them they slowly came out of their shyness and hesitantly smiled back at you. I felt as though you could shoot a cannon down the main street and it wouldn’t have hit or disturbed anything. The town lacked vibrancy (except for the hundreds of red chillis you saw drying on roofs or on strings hung from windows) in my opinion and I felt disappointed. I asked myself what was I expecting and all I could say was not this. I told myself to take a deep breath, be the observer that a traveller is and take Bhutan for what it is, a country that has been isolated from the western world for a long time and which the Kingdom decides what can and can’t happen. Thoughts of my experience in Sweden came to mind.

I was one of the last to arrive and so I had to catch up on meeting the group. The group mainly consisted of Aussie women in their 60s with a couple of men in their 40s. All were seasoned travellers and had the same reason for travelling here as I did, we were intrigued by “Gross National Happiness” and the unspoilt nature of the country.

Our guide was Paldin and driver Chimmey. Paldin had been leading groups for nearly 10 years, had an excellent command of English and showed a depth of knowledge and respect to both us and his country. I was quickly known as Miss Catherine and my many questions to him over the first couple of days I believe made him wary as to what to say to me. Because of my unease I asked many questions trying to understand what I saw. By the end of the trip he knew that all I was being was an interested observer that wanted to know as much as possible. More about this later….

Lunch together was the first of many meal times that reminded me of the movie Ground Hog Day. Sorry I should explain something first. When you pay your daily fee to the Kingdom it covers the cost of your local guide, transport, accommodation and all meals. However I was to learn that 65% of what you pay is tax that goes directly to the Kingdom and that is why tourism now is the number 2 earner for the country.

OK back to the food. You had to eat in designated restaurants and from what we experienced these restaurants only catered for tourists, I never saw one local eating there. You have no choice in what you eat, the meals are set up buffet style. Before you say, boring, the food wasn’t but it was consistently the same food. Starting with rice, red or white. The red rice was delicious and it was a short grain rice like arborio and looked like it had been cooked with a slug of red wine as the colour was just a hue, not like brown rice. Then there was 3 or so vegetarian dishes and one meat dish. Despite seeing all the chillis drying around town and in villages the food was not spicy at all except for one dish, the national dish called hemadatsi (chilli cheese). Chillies are treated as a vegetable so the dish was made up entirely of them and served with a cheese sauce (thank god it wasn’t yak cheese!). It was delicious but too spicy for most of the group.

Our days exploring the country were very much like this, we trouped into the bus, wove our way along mountain sides and explored many Dzongs (forts), museums, handicraft centres and temples, with very little free time to explore on your own. During the first few days I felt restricted and frustrated that I wasn’t experiencing the real Bhutan. My attempts to see inside a farm house was met with polite resistance and excuses without being told ‘No’ and requests for free time to explore was always met with hesitancy. At night I sat on the bed talking to Julie (English banker spending 2 years volunteering as a financial advisor to NGOs in Bangladesh) and discussing what we were and weren’t seeing. I found it hard to believe that Bhutanese people were happy and wondered how the Kingdom can measure this. The local people seemed very passive and the Kingdom very dictorial on the direction the country was being taken. Many times I told myself to take a deep breath, just be in the moment and take the reality of Bhutan for what it is, a reality that is so alien to what I know and have experienced.

I should move off this topic because by the end of the trip my frustrations disappeared and wonder and amazement filled me when looking around. The key changes for me was realising that the basis of my frustrations were actually with myself, that I thought I was being too cynical, that if I scratched the surface far enough I would witness a harsher reality. Also, getting out of Paro and Thimphu (the capital) and seeing the rural areas where the majority of people stilled lived and were at one with their surroundings opened my eyes to the many wonders of the country.

I won’t go into details of each of the many Dzongs, chortens (stupas) and temples that we visited, but I will talk about the architecture. I really believe that this style would do well in Australia’s climate! Rural houses consist of one or two storeys with a sort of third storey being an open cavity before the roof. The ground level houses farm animals and implements and storage for food and has narrow windows. The second level has many windows and is used for living in and traditionally divided into small rooms for the drop toilet (which is raised so you don’t have to squat but stand with legs either side), kitchen, a little chapel and bedrooms. The top level is used for storing hay and drying vegetables and roof is made from either shingles or more recently corrugated iron.

The outside is white-washed and tastefully decorated. Intricate wood carvings adorn windows, doors and roof line and many of the houses have designs painted on the walls. These designs can depict the 8 offerings to buddha, the penis (to ward off bad luck and to ensure fertility), or the key symbols of the Bhutanese culture – the dragon, phoenix (or Garuda), snow leopard and hmmm, seems to have escaped my memory for now.

When looking out across the country you can’t help but think this isn’t real. The beauty of this relatively untouched landscape makes you wonder if the aura emanating from this country is as big as the one that emanated from Mother Theresa. Majority of the forests are virgin and thoughts of the book Celestine Prophecy kept coming to mind.

You never once see industrial views, if there are any they are carefully camouflaged. Forests are only stopped by rivers filled with the most pure water you can ever imagine, patchworks of green paddy fields, the occasional track and the one road in the country, houses dotted around and small unimposing villages. When looking around you also realise how intrinsically linked the Buddhist religion is in their lives. Chortens, prayer flags, monasteries, water powered prayer wheels are everywhere and it made me realise that the Tibetans are also the same (and both countries histories are intertwined). Their religion, for me, make them who they are in my eyes and that is the memory that will stay with me forever.

There is so much more about this magical country that I can write about, its festivals, flora, fauna and a view that took my breath away more so than seeing Mt Everest!”

Tour Bhutan with Intrepid on trips like this great small group adventure:
Bhutan – 9 days ex Kathmandu


Photo: Jenny Piché

About the author

Sue Elliot - Like many of us, Sue contracted a serious travel bug at an early age. She's visited over 90 countries in search of a cure, but her wanderlust just seems to get worse. Thankfully at Intrepid Travel she's amongst people who understand the affliction and since 1998 Sue has enjoyed being our blog and newsletter editor. Here you'll find helpful travel advice and inspiring tales from Sue and other Intrepid travellers.

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Sounds facinating. Can’t wait to go.

It’s amazing how we can sometimes find it hard to release ourselves from our reality, so we can truly experience another cultures. But it’s certainly worth it.

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