- text by Percy Aaron
- photos by Devjeet Kr Bhuyan
"Notice anything about the streets?” asked Tschering, our driver and guide on our first day in teeny weeny Thimphu, the capital of the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan.
We were at a traffic intersection and Devjeet and I swivelled our heads, saw nothing special and looked back at him blankly. “There are no traffic lights. At crossings cars pass or stop depending on the flow of traffic. If somebody signals that he’s in a hurry, we let him go first.” Polite drivers in this day and age? Was this about Gross National Happiness? I noticed that there was hardly any honking either. So different from India where ignitions seem wired to the horn.
On a cool wet morning, we set off up the mountains for Kuensel Phodrang where a behemoth Buddha was being constructed. When completed, it will be the highest such statue in the world. We were up in the clouds and getting pictures was difficult as every so often a giant cloud enveloped us in mist or seemingly beheaded the Buddha. Towards noon we stopped at the Memorial Chorten with its white building and golden spires, often considered ‘the most visible religious landmark in the country’. I watched mainly women and older men whirl clockwise the large red prayer wheels with great fervour.
Rituals and religiosity are so pervasive on the Indian sub-continent and I couldn’t help wondering if this was one reason why the region was relatively backward and always in turmoil.
The Royal Palace with its white walls, brown or dark red woodwork and golden spires was an amazing piece of architecture. As the sun went down, it bathed the building in a magnificent range of hues. The Bhutanese are a very attractive people and the palace was obviously a place to see and be seen. I looked appreciatively at several beautiful Bhutanese women in their elegant and colourful kira and enviously at the men, so smart in the traditional gho. The royal quarters were some distance away from the main building, discreetly hidden by thick foliage and a couple of attempts to get closer for some photographs were firmly but politely discouraged by the royal guards.
The Bhutanese have a deep respect for their king, quite unlike the mindless adulation or blind reverence displayed in other kingdoms. The previous monarch, though still young, abdicated in favour of his son, something that wasn’t happening in some other countries, our guide pointed out.
Bhutan is a fantastically scenic country and worthy of every travel writer’s cliché. The mountains and lush valleys come in numerous shades of green and when the sun sets, hues of red, orange and gold mix to make the landscape magical. Strewn everywhere are flowers in white and purple, yellow and red and every other colour in between. Set against the clear blue skies, this is a land that has to be seen to be believed.
We travelled up hills and down valleys in central and western Bhutan and were amazed at how pristine most areas were. It’s obvious that the Bhutanese are very conscious of their environment. We spotted the odd plastic water bottle but the locals don’t drink bottled water. The country is full of fast-flowing rivers and even the littlest streams seemed like raging torrents. The country is a dam builders dream and I wondered how long it would be before it started capitalising on the unquenchable energy needs of India and China.
Bhutan is determined to control the impact that tourism makes on the environment by limiting the number of tourists, hence the focus on high-end travelers. It’s unfair in a way, but the minimum mandatory spend of $200 - $250 (depending on the season) per night which covers three-star accommodation and everything else included, is quite reasonable.
Despite the idyll, poverty was visible everywhere. Runny noses and ear-to-ear smiles greeted us in villages and hamlets. The people had little but seemed contented, or maybe unaware. In Thimphu and elsewhere, we left expensive cameras and other equipment in an unlocked car. Nothing would happen our guide assured us and nothing did. Was this another example of Gross National Happiness?
I hope so. With TV and the internet now allowed in the country, can these people stay untouched by greed, that malaise of modern times? Sandwiched between two giant neighbours already on the road to rampant consumerism, one can only hope that this heaven in the Himalayas remains unaffected.
- Travel to Bhutan is highly restricted under the government’s “High Value, Low Impact Tourism” policy.
- All visitors, except guests of the government, must book their holiday through a licensed Bhutanese tour company, or its foreign travel partner.
- The cost of the visa ($40) plus the full cost of the stay ($200 per day low season / $250 per day high season in March-May, Sept-Nov) must be paid in advance. For groups of less than three, there is a further surcharge of $40-$50 per day.
By air: Daily flights from Bangkok, New Delhi and Kolkata.
Thimphu: Dorji Trozey Restaurant – the ambience is as authentic as the food. Inexpensive and absolutely yummy!
suja – Bhutanese butter tea made with salt and yak butter
ema datsi – chilli and cheese
phaksha pa – chilli and pork
Thimphu – The Folk Heritage Museum
Dochula Pass – weather permitting for stunning views of the Himalayas
Punakha Dzong – The dzong or fortress was Bhutan’s administrative centre until the capital moved to Thimphu in 1955.
Taktsang Lhakhang (Tiger’s Nest) – A 3,120-metre climb over waterfalls and sheer rocks