Bhutan: Land of the Thunder Dragon
Gross National Happiness
The King of the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan made international headlines when he declared that gross national happiness is the goal of the government and the economy should not be regarded as the sole measurement of success. The current king, like his forebears, has striven to maintain a balance between progress and development while preserving the kingdom’s unique culture and heritage.
The charm of Bhutan, whose original name, Druk Yul, means Land of the Thunder Dragon, becomes apparent when flying into the kingdom. The aircraft descends through the clouds over spectacular mountain landscapes to land at Paro airport. Unlike most bland and standard international terminals the structure and design is based on Bhutanese styles with carved wooden roofs and pillars and Buddhist-themed murals on the walls. Tashi Namgay Resort, which was our main base during our stay, is conveniently located opposite the airport. Like most other buildings in Bhutan the hotel complex also draws inspiration from traditional local architecture while providing all the amenities expected at a luxury establishment.
Tiger’s Nest and other attractions
Paro is considered to be one of the most beautiful of Bhutan’s valleys. We awoke on the first full day of our visit to the sound of the fast-flowing river which runs along the base of the hotel compound from its source in the Himalayan mountains. We were met by our guide, Namgay, and young driver, Benjoy, who became our trusted and informed companions throughout our visit.
The first item on our program was possibly the most challenging. Our goal was to climb to Paro Taktsang monastery, popularly known as Tiger’s Nest, which clings precariously to the edge of a steep cliff. Sadly, I had to give up when we were less than a quarter of the way up, having to accept that I was simply not fit enough to complete the trek. My husband, who is made of sterner stuff, was justifiably proud of climbing to the monastery and enthused about the spectacular views. The monastery is believed to be located on a site where Guru Rinpoche meditated in a cave in the 8th century. It is revered as one of the holiest Buddhist sites not only in Bhutan but in the whole of the Himalayan region.
A ten-minute drive from central Paro is Kyichu Lhakhang a majestic seventh-century temple. Also in Paro district is Ta Dzong (National Museum) one of the best places to learn about Bhutan’s religion, customs and traditional arts and crafts. From here a trail leads to Rinpung Dzong a large monastery and fortress which houses the district Monastic Body as well as the Paro government administrative office. From Paro we drove to the capital, Thimphu, where we checked in at the Peri Phuntso Hotel popular on the tourist trail.
Thimphu to Punakha
Early the next morning we set off from Thimphu for Punakha across Dochula pass (3,100m) which was testing for our driver, Benjoy, since sections of the road were shrouded by a sudden downpour and heavy mist. When the skies cleared we were rewarded with an awe inspiring view of the greater eastern Himalayas including the highest peak of Bhutan.
A major landmark is Punakha Dzong a historic fortress built by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel in 1637 and located at the junction of Pho Chu and Mo Chu Rivers. Punakha was the capital of Bhutan till 1955 and still serves as the winter residence of Je Khenpo, the Chief Abbot. The fortress, which has played a prominent role in the religious and civil life of the country, was devastated at various stages of its history by fires, floods and an earthquake and was completely restored under the direction of the present King.
Myths and legends abound in Bhutan. The kingdom is dotted with temples and shrines dedicated to a pantheon of deities, monks and religious figures each credited with special powers to heal and deliver special blessings. We went on a short excursion to a temple devoted to Drukpa Kunley, a monk with an intriguing reputation. He came to be known as “the Divine Madman of Bhutan” because of his colorful life and is reputed to have had a ‘magical penis’; not surprisingly, the temple is associated with fertility. Childless couples travel long distances to offer prayers to him and photos are on display in the temple of those who believe their prayers were answered.
Thimphu sightseeing back to Paro
The program on our return to Thimphu included a visit to the Institute of Traditional Medicines where one can learn about the indigenous raw materials used for preparing a range of health products. We went on to the Folk and Heritage Museum, which displays implements used by traditional Bhutanese farmers and gives an idea of the tough lives they still lead in less developed parts of the kingdom. Nearby is the Painting School which specializes in traditional paintings, sculptures and wood carvings
In the late evening we visited the Great Buddha Dordenma, a giant statue of the Buddha sited on top of a hill overlooking Thimphu. Almost 52 meters high (168 feet) it is one of the world’s largest and tallest statues of the Buddha. The view of Thimphu below was breathtaking. Other places of interest are a workshop where handmade paper is produced and the National Handicraft Emporium, which as its name suggests, is a treasure trove of products made in Bhutan
Culture and way of life
Although Bhutan is wedged between its giant neighbors, India and China, it has been successful in safeguarding its language, culture and customs. Its society is strongly egalitarian. While the family system is basically patriarchal, family estates are divided equally between sons and daughters. The kingdom’s official language is Dzongkha, a dialect similar to Tibetan. The Bhutanese calendar is based on the Tibetan system which in turn derives from the Chinese lunar cycle.
Men and women wear their national dress though one sees more people in western clothes in cities and towns. Men look striking in their robes with a belt tied around their waist. The women are dressed in ankle-length robes made out of colorful fabrics and wear distinctive jewelry made from corals, pearls, turquoise and precious agate eye-stones which Bhutanese call “tears of the Gods”.
Bhutanese food is simple and healthy though may not suit everyone’s tastes. Traditional fare consists of traditional bean and cheese soup, pork or beef with a variety of vegetable dishes cooked with local herbs. One can have local food at modest prices in traditional cafes and restaurants and even eat in selected private homes which have signed up with travel agencies. For tourists who wish to stick to more familiar fare, a range of international hotels serve Indian, western and other international cuisine.
Tourism a vital source of income
As noted earlier, the King is vigilant about protecting the traditions and heritage of the country from the damage that can be caused by mass commercial tourism. Bhutan is a land-locked country of only 700,000 people, with limited options for export or industry due to its mountainous terrain. Much of the country’s population is poor, and 12% lives below the international poverty line. Tourism is one of the main sources of income for Bhutan. Tourists are required to spend a minimum of $200 per person per day from December – February, and June – August and $250 per person per day from March – May, and September – November. Indians, Bangladeshis, and Maldivians are exempted from this daily charge. There are also some discounts available, primarily for students and children ages 5 – 12. This policy has drawn criticism from some for discriminating against the less well off. However, it is thanks to the income from tourism that the people of Bhutan are able to enjoy free health care, free education, poverty relief and infrastructure.
Bhutan is blessed with a stunning range of natural treasures and landscapes ranging from snow-clad Himalayan mountains and glaciers to lush jungles. More than two-thirds of Bhutan is covered with forests where exotic birds, animals and bird life flourish. The kingdom has several national parks, one of the most visited is the Manas Game Sanctuary on the banks of the Manas river which forms the border with the Indian state of Assam. Here one can find the endangered one-horned rhino, elephants, tigers, buffalo, many species of deer and the golden langur, a small monkey which is unique to this region. With many species of wildlife becoming extinct in some parts of the world as a result of poaching or loss of habitat due to urban development, Bhutan is devoting considerable resources to protecting its wild life.
Departure from Bhutan
During our short stay we were only able to see a fraction of what the kingdom has to offer. The weather, once again, became a factor as we prepared to leave Bhutan. We spent an anxious night in Paro as clouds engulfed the mountains and heavy rain lasted through the night. To our consternation the receptionist at the hotel informed us nonchalantly that flights were often cancelled because of bad weather. In the event the gods smiled on us, the rain stopped and we were able to fly out as scheduled. In less than an hour we were back in the Nepalese capital, Kathmandu, and our visit to Bhutan felt like a dream. It is no surprise that a survey in the Lonely Planet places Bhutan on top of the list of countries to visit in the world. The government is grappling to maintain Bhutan’s well-preserved culture in the face of rapid development and modernization. One can only hope that the allure of this magical kingdom will not be destroyed by invasions of tourists as word spreads about its unique charm.