This post was originally featured Jan. 10, 2009 in Ashok Vaish's blog. Check out some additional photos from Bhutan: http://web.me.com/avaish/Site/Selcted_for_upload.html.
Nestled in the Himalayas between two giants, China to the North and India to the South, Bhutan is a country the size of Switzerland with a population of only 700,000 people. Bhutan comes from the Sanskrit, Bhu – atan, or earth at a height. The Bhutanese however call their country Druk, the land of the Thunder Dragon, and the people are called Drukpa’s.
We just returned from a magical journey through this beautiful and pristine land with majestic snowy peaks piercing through the clouds, monasteries built on impossibly sheer cliffs, and spectacular terraced landscapes. Hiking in the remote, high, unspoiled mountains of Bhutan gave us a sense of being in harmony and peace with nature. The air was cool, invigorating and completely free of pollution – just as God must have designed it in the Garden of Eden!
As we hiked through the altitudes we could hear the singing of birds, the rustling of mountain trees, the lapping of tumbling brooks and the splashing of waterfalls.
We passed the occasional stupa, dusted with snow, at times still in use as a place of worship as evidenced by a rising curl of smoke and the faint chiming of temple bells. It’s high winter here in the Himalayas – we see a sprinkling of snow at 7000 feet, but it is surprisingly warm during the day. We realize that we are in a near-tropical latitude (29 deg. N) and that Bhutan has the highest tree line in the Northern hemisphere at 14,000 feet.
We crossed many different ecological zones as we hiked from a river valley across a mountain ridge to another valley on the other side. Nature has lavishly filled every niche here with flora and fauna to adapt to the different micro-climates. Lots of birds and wild animals abound as man has largely stayed away. Pine and spruce trees and cacti gave way to lush broadleaf forests of mossy oak and rhododendrons with scarlet flowers, monkey apples and elderberry. We passed one picturesque little village after another, each one built around a monastery. In these villages live the simple Bhutanese farmers who plow their little patches of terraced land, herd their cattle and goats, put up their prayer flags for good luck, meditate, love, toil, laugh and seek spiritual solace through the age old teachings of Buddha. There is subsistence farming here – you survive on what you grow. Killing animals is prohibited although meat is eaten – from animals that have died accidentally or naturally, they say.
Bhutan has been a monarchy for a century now – the hereditary Wangchuk dynasty started in 1905 - and has recently coronated its fifth King, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk, who is 28 years old and the most eligible bachelor in the land.
His father, the fourth king, was one of the most progressive leaders a country could hope for. Under his guidance Bhutan became the only country in the world that measures progress not in terms of GNP, the Gross National Product, but in terms of GNH, the Gross National Happiness. The fourth king also brought Bhutan some carefully paced modernity – roads, cell phones, the internet, modern tourist amenities and other infrastructure. He decided to voluntarily retire at the age of around 50, passed on the monarchy to his son, and initiated a constitutional monarchy in which a democratically elected assembly can remove the king. The people of Bhutan absolutely revere their king, so the chances of one being deposed right now are zero.
Bhutan now has several excellent but small 5-star hotels in the major towns, such as the capital, Thimpu and the former capital Punakha. Tourism is carefully controlled so as to not overwhelm the country – all non Indian tourists are required to pay a government mandated tax of $200 per day of stay.
There is only one commercial airport in Bhutan. This is in the town of Paro about 35 Km from Thimpu. You can only fly in on Drukair, the Bhutanese airline which has exactly two airplanes.
Bhutan has a special relationship with India going back to the days of it being a British protectorate. The Indian army trains and collaborates with Bhutan to ensure its security – Bhutan has to fight the separatist terrorists to its south such as the Bodo’s, and also has to resist the Chinese claiming a large part of its northern territories as part of Tibet. The currency of Bhutan is pegged to the Indian rupee and the rupee is also legal tender in Bhutan. Indian tourists do not need a passport or a visa to visit – only a permit that can be obtained at the border crossings upon showing some proof of being Indian, like a ration card.
Bhutan remains one of the few countries that is virtually untouched by modern clutter and materialism. It is extremely peaceful and the Bhutanese people move at a rhythm of their own – an unhurried and calm pace in keeping with the deeply meditative nature of their religion – a special branch of Buddhism combining their earlier animism with a tantric flavor.
Many Bhutanese families encourage one of their sons to become a Lama, or a priest, learned in the ways of their religion and in-charge of one of the many monasteries that are central to a Bhutanese village. To become a priest the inductee must meditate and study under the tutelage of a teacher for three years, three months, three weeks and three days. During this intense period of training he may subsist on just one meal a week and is essentially shut-in in a monastery for endless hours of ascetic meditation.
80% of the Bhutanese people are farmers – they own a patch of terraced land where they grow rice and other crops and raise some cattle, sheep or even yaks at higher elevations. Bhutanese people are accustomed to long treks through the mountains and generally are quite physically fit. The Literacy Rate (55%) is comparable to India and Life Expectancy is 66 years.
Buddhism came to Bhutan in the year 640 AD, when, legend has it, Swami Padmasambhava came here from India via Tibet (where he also spread Buddhism) riding a flying tigress. He then meditated for three days at the location of the Tiger’s Nest and subdued the thunder dragons and other ferocious demons who became docile and part of his team as he spread the religion of Buddha. Guru Padmasambhava is known as Rimpoche here and many regard him as the second Buddha. You see his statues in virtually every temple (or Lakhang) that you visit in Bhutan.
Visiting Bhutan is travel at its most exotic but comfortable as modern amenities are now available. You see a culture frozen in time and can also hike the unique untouched mountains of the Eastern Himalayas. In Paro, they have the newest Zhiwa-Ling Hotel, a beautiful sprawling complex with villas, located in the valley with a ring of majestic Himalayan peaks visible. From the hotel grounds you can also see the Tiger’s Nest perhaps Bhutan’s most famous site.
Thimpu is the capital, a neat and clean city of 90,000 along the Wangchu river valley. It has several very good hotels such as the Taj and the Aman Resort.
Punakha, the former capital, has one of the most magnificent Dzongs (a castle with a temple complex) on the river. Here too is the Amankora hotel, a small but luxurious little place with extreme grace and hospitality.
We went on a Geographic Expedition tour. It was superb as all our travel and hiking was meticulously planned and we were escorted everywhere by knowledgeable, English-speaking Bhutanese guides. By the way most Bhutanese speak fairly good Hindi – a result of cable TV dominated by Indian channels.
The national sport of Bhutan is archery. Almost everyone indulges in this from youth and they become quite good. They can hit a small target at 140 meters (460 feet) and occasionally get a bull’s eye! The competitions are quite intense with lots of whooping and shouting – a fun time is had by all!