Travel Log | Bhutan (November 2009)
The Kingdom of Bhutan is a small country nestled high in the Himalayas. The only international airport is situated in the second largest town of Paro and only the national carrier Druk Air is permitted to land there. Paro is located in a steep mountain valley with large peaks on all sides. Such is the difficulty of flying into Paro that, at the time of writing, only eight pilots hold the special license necessary to land there. Landings are also restricted to high visibility daylight hours only. The flight into Paro from neighbouring Nepal must count as one of the most spectacular in the world. Checking in early to secure a seat on the left of the plane ensures unsurpassed views of the highest peaks in the world including the highest of them all, Mt. Everest.
To minimize the adverse effects of tourism Bhutan has implemented quotas on the number of tourists who are allowed to visit each year. To maximise revenues a minimum daily charge has been introduced. The daily charge of USD 250 covers the cost of a full time guide and driver as well as hotels, meals and entrance to tourist sites. Hotels and restaurants are selected by the local agent though in recent years a small number of higher end hotels have sprouted up where visitors can choose to stay for an additional charge. The government are said to be keen to avoid the more mass-market back-packing type of tourism seen in nearby Nepal.
There cannot be many countries in the world where an incumbent ruler has implemented democracy against the will of his own people and introduced laws allowing for himself to be impeached given a majority vote. That is exactly what happened in Bhutan when the King, and absolute ruler, Jigme Singye Wangchuck initiated political reforms back in 1999. Initially he relinquished considerable power to a newly formed cabinet of ministers. Then in 2005 he announced a full shift from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy and scheduled the country's first general elections for 2008. At the same time he announced his own abdication in favor of his eldest son Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck. Democracy was a new concept in the isolated kingdom and mock elections had to be held to teach people how to vote. Many people openly questioned why they would give up royal rule in favour of politicians who they viewed as more prone to corruption. The initial election was contested by two newly formed parties which spent much of the campaign complimenting and agreeing with each other. There seemed to be none of the mudslinging traditionally seen in other democracies around the world but, no doubt, that will change over time as democracy 'progresses'.
Bhutan is the only country in the world that measures its development based on Gross National Happiness (GNH). In recognition of the idea that progress is not purely measured in monetary terms the government spends a lot of effort trying to gauge its peoples' happiness. The king recently embarked on a three year plan to personally visit every household in the kingdom and question residents on what they were, and weren't, happy about.
Bhutan is a Buddhist country and many aspects of Bhutanese peoples' lives are governed by their Buddhist beliefs. Many of the tourist sites are temples, stupas or monasteries and monks have a revered status in Bhutanese society. Some monks undertake periods of silent retreat where they lock themselves away in mountain temples for three years, three months and three days. During this time they are not allowed to cut their hair, shave or have any contact with the outside world. Family members will deliver food for them on a periodic basis but are not allowed to see or communicate with them. Superstitions are also common in Bhutan and at the Chimi Lhakhang fertility temple in Wangdue the resident monk will bless visitors by patting their heads with a giant wooden penis. It is also common to see large penises painted on the sides of peoples' houses to bring good luck.
The Bhutanese are keen to preserve their culture from outside influences. Television was banned in the kingdom up until 1999 since it was feared it could corrupt people. Other measures have been implemented to maintain a sense of national identity such as making the national costume mandatory and forcing all new buildings to be built in the traditional style. It is usual that whenever a new house needs to be built the entire village comes together to help with construction.
Bhutan is unlikely to win many plaudits for its cuisine. A large number of the people are vegetarian and the range of food options is limted. The chilli is considered to be a vegetable rather than a spice and the Bhutanese eat copious amounts of them. The most famous dish in Bhutan is Ema Datsi (chilli with cheese) which is literally a plate of red chillies drizzled in cheese sauce. Our guide's favoured lunch dish consisted of a plate full of chillies doused in chilli oil (the chillies alone were apparently not spicy enough). Other favourites include hard dried yak's cheese and the particularly sickly and salty 'butter tea'. The food served in tourist restaurants was fairly basic but edible.
In an effort to maintain its pristine environment Bhutan has made education on environmental issues a priority in all schools. A number of Green laws have also been passed such as banning plastic bags and tabacco and making it illegal to cut down a tree without planting a new one. A government mandate says that at least 60% of the country must remain forested at all times.
Bhutan briefly flirted with the idea of traffic lights but shortly after the first set of lights were installed in the capital Thimphu they were removed again since people preferred the more traditional human traffic controllers.
In his spare time our guide was a singer, film star and somewhat of a local celebrity. One evening he invited us to the local Paro night spot to see him sing. He belted out a number of tunes from his album (recorded on cassette tape) to the delight of the assembled audience. Afterwards some girls in national costume took to the stage to perform dances on request. The process seemed to be that guys from the audience had to pay the girls to dance to their favourite songs. However, regardless of the song the girls performed the same dance and managed to hold a look of thorough boredom throughout. The majority of the audience looked equally unimpressed.
The most memorable part of the tour was the trek up to the Taktshang temple and monastery (AKA the Tiger's nest). Hanging precariously to a cliff 1,000 meters up the only way to reach the temple is by foot or donkey. The views from the top are as impressive as the structure itself. Another highlight was being invited into the private quarters of the 2nd Lama at Paro Dzong monastery (who happened to be our guide's uncle). At the time of our visit the lama was busy carving a trumpet from a human thigh bone, the origins of which remain unclear.
Bhutan is a special to visit for many reasons. The mountain vistas and unspoiled landscapes are stunning. The culture is unique and the people are reserved yet friendly. The hotel and food options are a little limited, as is the nightlife, but all considered Bhutan is still a great location.