The mystical kingdom of Bhutan stands tall and proud, veiled within the folds of the Himalayas. Untouched and refreshingly pure, it is perhaps the closest to utopia that you may find anywhere in the world.
As the plane effortlessly glides between tall mountains, to land on one of the toughest landing strips, you gaze out of the window spellbound. The beauty beneath seems unnatural. How could something so pure still exist in today’s world? But exist it does. Albeit under a cloak, partly due to the mountainous terrain and in part due to the kingdom’s decision to remain at arm’s length from the world.
Also called The Last Shangri-La, Bhutan could possibly be the only untouched country left in the world. Away from the gnarly hands of commercialisation, the mountain kingdom revels in its traditions and ancient culture. Mystique hangs heavy in the air. It is the first thing you notice when you disembark from the plane at Paro. The second thing, of course, is the overwhelming beauty all around. Natural beauty that rivals Switzerland, Canada and even New Zealand, Bhutan is picture-postcard gorgeous. Tall mountains, abundant rivers, low-rise traditionally decorated buildings and a general sense of contentment.
It is this sense of contentment that sets Bhutanese people apart from anyone else you may meet. There is no rush, no race to be won here. Everyone is happy counting their blessings and trying to earn good karma. It is a way of life often forgotten in the fast-paced cities of today. But here, deep in the Himalayas, it is what drives the people who focus on the country’s Gross National Happiness instead of Gross Domestic Product.
But it would be a mistake to misjudge Bhutan’s simplicity for naivety. The country balances on the fine beam between modernity and tradition, between economic progress and preservation of values and culture. The government’s policies are forward looking, encouraging students to study overseas on the government’s expense as per the National Service Plan. Most students choose to come back to their country and work for the government after obtaining world-class education, such is their deep-rooted sense of belonging and pride. This intrinsic pride is also reflected in adulation and reverence of their king. Though former King Jigme Singye Wangchuck voluntarily gave up absolute powers and converted Bhutan from a monarchy to democracy, the people still look up to the royal family and his son, the present king with undulating love.
Bhutan is also the only carbon negative country in the world, a feat that often goes unnoticed in global affairs. The country has pledged to protect its forest cover and maintain it at 60 per cent in perpetuity, come what may. This translates into the fact that the country’s green lungs absorb thrice as much carbon dioxide emissions as its population creates. While the world debates the ill-effects of climate change, with nine per cent of its land under glaciers, Bhutan faces the ripple effects of temperature changes much before the world does.
High Value Tourism for Sustainability
The tourism policies are also built on the same principles. Bhutan positions itself as a high-end tourist destination, keeping budget travellers at bay and thus controlling the influx of tourists in the country.
In fact, foreigners are required to pay a substantial per-day ‘tourist tax’ ranging from US$200 to US$290 per day. This charge covers food, transport within the country, services of a guide, accommodation as well as government tax. It is this measure that allows Bhutan to keep a veil on its sacred kingdom, limiting tourists to about 60,000 each year. The money is well utilised, with the government further encouraging the tourism sector by giving 10-year tax-free holidays to hotels and other such policies.
A visit to the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan should ideally not be shorter than five days. If time and resources permit, a week would be preferable so that you can tour Thimpu, Punakha and Paro, the three must-visit destinations in the country.
As the world lines up for hours to enter the Louvre and jostles outside the gates of Buckingham Palace, a tiny piece of land remains hidden within the folds of the Himalayas. Bhutan is a magical kingdom, nurtured with love and care and its culture protected fiercely. It is not stuck in time, rather it has its eyes on the future while its feet are firmly planted on the ground. A land where the wind whispers secrets in your ears, where you find more spiritualism than cynicism, more contentment than burning ambition. A land that promises to leave its imprint on your soul and make you question the very reason why we are always in a hurry, to get somewhere, to reach a position, to achieve the illusive next milestone. The last mystical utopia left on Earth—Bhutan.
The capital city of Thimpu lies merely an hour away from Paro, home to the country’s sole international airport. The meandering drive along rivers and valleys is the perfect introduction for the days to come.
The largest and busiest town in the country, Thimpu is a delight, especially for food lovers. The city has many international cuisines on offer, from coffee houses to pizzerias. Choitsho Eudel Dorji, proprietor, Gaki Travels suggests, “Pizza-lovers should head to Seasons Pizzeria for its cosy feel and delicious food. For a taste of local food, try Babesa Village House”. The 16th century village-house has been converted into a restaurant serving delicious Bhutanese dishes. San Maru, a Korean restaurant that locals swear by, is run by a Korean lady and a Bhutanese gentleman and serves authentic Korean fare.
Thimpu offers a multitude of stay options, most of which are high-end, in line with the country’s efforts to attract high-value tourists. Five-star hotels like the Druk Hotel in the centre of town, stately Taj Tashi and newly-opened Le Meridien offer Western comforts in luxurious settings.
While in Thimpu, Takin Zoo is a must-visit. The highlight is the national animal called takin which resembles a cow with a goat’s head. A 10-minute drive out of the city takes you uphill to a picturesque spot where you find yourself looking up to a larger-than-life statue of sitting Buddha. With the gentle breeze, views of the valley below and Lord Buddha smiling down at you, there are few spots as serene elsewhere. Before you leave Thimpu, do make sure you go to the city’s post office. For a small fee, you can get customised stamps created with your own photo on it. A lovely keepsake to take back home.
Arguably the country’s prettiest dzong (monastery) lies in the golden valley of Punakha. The imposing dzong sits majestically at the confluence of two rivers, one believed to be male and the other female. The waters of the rivers converge but do not mix, flowing ahead side by side for a distance. Perhaps a wonderful metaphor for marriage—two people who retain their individuality as they walk down the road of life together.
While in Punakha, a trek up to the Temple of Fertility is also recommended. A 20-minute walk through paddy fields, the temple is considered holy and is visited by expecting parents who travel from afar. Do not be surprised to see phalluses painted on walls and homes, symbolically considered to drive away the evil eye.
Many travellers only transit through Paro, as it has the sole international airport in the country. However, the town deserves a day or two as well, with sites like a dzong built like a fortress and a local market great for picking up handmade craft. The piece de resistance though, is Tiger’s Nest. A monastery precariously perched off the edge of a cliff, it is one of the holiest sites in the country. It is believed that you will make the trek up when the time is right and your stars are aligned. The tedious two-and-a-half hour trek can make you question your fitness levels, no matter how much you have been working out. But when you turn a corner and see the gravity-defying structure for the first time, from a bridge built over a massive waterfall, you are left awestruck, each step worth the effort. It is a humbling day, one where you feel at peace as you descend down the mountain after visiting the monastery.
Planning Your Trip
Unlike most countries in the world where you can do your own research, book online and just land up, your trip to Bhutan needs to be planned in advance. It is mandatory to make all travel arrangements through a Bhutanese government-approved travel agent. Ad hoc travel is not allowed in the country. Even permits to travel by car from one town to another may have restrictions on certain days of the week. Other sensitivities to keep in mind are local laws and rules. Smoking is banned in many areas and though locals usually dress in traditional attire, respectful Western attire is acceptable, especially in monasteries and places of religious or political importance.
This story was first published in Wine & Dine’s July/August 2018 issue: Southeast Asia − A Journey of Flavours.