Cut off from the outside world until the early 1970s, the enigmatic Kingdom of Bhutan is slowly revealing itself to travellers.
That is, travellers willing to pay the high daily tariff imposed on all foreign visitors.
Bhutan’s relatively young tourism industry remains highly controlled by government regulators whose job it is to ensure only the most discerning visitors, with respect for the country’s deeply Buddhist cultural values, traditions and the natural environment, are granted access.
As such, the Tourism Council sets a non-negotiable minimum ‘daily package’ of between USD$200 and $250 per person per night, depending on the time of year. This tourist tax includes accommodation, meals, a licensed Bhutanese guide, camping equipment for trekking tours and a sustainable tourism royalty of $65, so it’s not all bad and the mystic scenery is certainly worth it.
Nestled high in the Eastern Himalayas, Bhutan’s diverse landscape ranges from subtropical plains in the south of the country, to the sub-alpine Himalayan heights in the north where peaks surpass 7000 metres and a network of swift rivers form deep valleys.
While much of the country’s awe-inspiring summits and glowing green forests remain largely untouched, earning it the moniker ‘the last Shangri-la’, conservation is still high on the agenda. Population pressures, hydro-power development (the sale of hydroelectric power to India is an important part of the economy), tourism and rapid social and economic development all pose a threat to the country’s pristine natural beauty.
Equally as important is the preservation of centuries-old Bhutanese traditions and culture – so much so that in 1990 the government enforced a law known as Driglamnamza, strict policies regarding the preservation of ancient custom, that were imposed on all citizens. Outlining rules on manner and etiquette, the Driglamnamza dictates what to wear, how to eat, how to talk, and bow down before government officials and the clergy.
Under this law, all Bhutanese citizens are required to observe the national dress code, known as Driglam Namzha, while in public. Similar to the Tibetan or Ladakhi dress, Bhutanese men are required to wear a gho, a heavy knee-length robe, while women wear colourful blouses over which they fold a large cloth, called a kira.
Another custom that separates this landlocked country from its South Asian neighbours is its particularly spicy cuisine. Chillis are an essential part of nearly every meal and dishes like Ema Datshi, a heady mix of chillis and vegetables in a soft, locally made cheese; Phaksha Paa, pork cooked with spicy red chillis; and Goep, tripe cooked with fresh chilli and chilli powder; are among the most popular and worth a try if you’re a spice fiend, but not for the faint-hearted.
One of the more unique practices, and perhaps the most amusing, is the worship of the ‘Divine Madman’ and the phallic symbolism attached to it. On almost every building – whether it be a painted fresco on the façade or a wooden sculpture dangling from the roof – are large, colourful penises. All are erect and most are spraying a life-giving fluid from a rounded tip. But this isn’t smut; it’s a reference to the Divine Madman, also known as Lama Drukpa Kunley, who lived during the 15th century.
One of Bhutan’s most revered deities, the Divine Madman’s unorthodox teachings included sleeping with countless amounts of women and vanquishing a female demon by hitting the woman with his ‘flaming thunderbolt of wisdom’. So while these phallic symbols are meant to drive away evil spirits, women also make pilgrimages to the Madman’s temple, built in 1499, to be similarly anointed by his silver-handled wooden phallus as a fertility blessing.
The temple is certainly worth a visit, but so too is a trek to Bhutan’s most celebrated site, the Taktsang Monastery, or Tiger’s Nest.
An iconic cliff-face temple complex in the Paro District, Tiger’s Nest was first built in 1692, around the Taktsang Senge Samdup cave where the so-called Second Buddha, and the man credited with introducing Buddhism to Bhutan, Guru Padmasambhava, is said to have meditated for three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours in the 8th century.
The ascent to the temple is no easy feat, with steep, almost vertical rocks to climb on the way up, 900 metres above the Paro valley. But there are many routes one can take to see the almighty structure, such as the northwest path through a pine forest, or a mule track used by devotees from the south.
Both the trek up and down the mountain and the temple itself offer a truly mystic experience steeped in history, tradition, and sheer wonderment. And a traditional hot stone bath is a great way to soothe aching muscles after the hike – take the plunge and bath nude like some of the locals do.
Also in tune with its innate Buddhist beliefs, is Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness index – where prosperity is measured by gauging citizens’ happiness levels, not the GDP. Since 1972, the Buddhist monarchy has rejected GDP as the only way to measure progress and in its place championed a new approach to development, which measures prosperity through the spiritual, physical, social and environmental health of its citizens and natural environment.
The high return rates of Bhutanese graduates studying abroad suggest there is something to Gross National Happiness as most return home even though salaries are significantly lower than overseas.
Perhaps the pursuit of happiness necessitates a lack of material goods and removal from the ever-consuming societies dominating the Western world… or maybe a trip to Bhutan will be enough to quench our consumer-driven desires to find solace.
Travellers may enter Bhutan from Druk Air’s Asian hubs (including Bangkok, Delhi, and Kathmandu). Druk Air flies daily between Bangkok and Paro. Fly direct from Heathrow to Bangkok with Royal Brunei Airlines, British Airways, Eva Airways or Thai Airways. Fly direct from Heathrow to Delhi with Jet Airways, Air India, British Airways or Virgin Atlantic.
Independent travel is forbidden for foreign visitors inside Bhutan. As a condition of receiving a visa your itinerary must be pre-arranged before arrival. Domestic flights are limited and most internal travel is by car.