Journey to Bhutan
Bhutan, a unique country, which seems to live in two parallel worlds. The culture of Bhutan is rooted in antiquity and has hardly changed in centuries of total isolation, yet many of the laws adopted by the state are so progressive that they outstrip those of the most developed European countries. Today we offer you a virtual trip to Bhutan, after which you will have no doubt that this country must be seen with your own eyes!
Let’s start with the fact that up to 1974 a foreigner could enter Bhutan only by personal invitation of the king or queen. The ban on entry was lifted in order to increase the income of the population, but the number of tourists were limited by high fees for each day of stay in the country. Bhutan is nestled between India and China in the Himalayas and its borders are guarded by mountains and impenetrable forests. The only international airport is located in the city of Paro, more than 2,000 meters above sea level, and only eight pilots in the world are qualified to land there. The fact is that when landing the plane must perform a complex maneuver and fly through the gorge, so the exciting adventure begins on the way to Bhutan.
It is still not possible to come to Bhutan on your own as all visitors have to be accompanied by a guide by law. But that shouldn’t discourage you; on the contrary, it is through the help of guides that you can truly understand the way of life and character of Bhutanese people.
Bhutan of the Past
The first thing that catches your eye on the streets of Bhutan is the traditional clothing worn by all locals. By law, Bhutanese are required to wear their national costumes to all official events, national holidays, and even to work: men wear Gho robes and women wear Kira skirts and Tego jackets. However, even in their free time, Bhutanese prefer to dress the same way, only occasionally young people dress “European-style. The houses and streets also retain their authenticity: low, two- or three-story buildings are decorated with hand-painted shutters and facades. Even the main streets are devoid of billboards and billboards, but there is no trash either; there are garbage cans everywhere that say “don’t forget about me.
The traditional way of life is also preserved in the customs of Bhutanese: hospitality and politeness are among the main virtues. According to the rules of etiquette, the host always offers food several times, because it is customary to refuse the first offer. Tourists are urged not to give anything to children on the streets, and children, in turn, are taught to refuse gifts: you will not find beggars on the streets of Bhutan, as in neighboring India. Bhutanese have been studying astrology since childhood, and no important decision is made without consulting an astrologer. They believe that they are looked after by the “Thunder Dragon,” who lives in the mountains and comes to the monasteries, attracted by the prayers of the monks.
The most popular sport in the country is also inextricably linked to the past: archery. In ancient times, hunters used this way to get food for themselves and their families, so every man knew how to handle a bow and arrow. Today in Bhutan they only shoot at special targets, but they do it with the same skill and passion.
Naturally, the most ancient and interesting part of Bhutan is away from the cities. Numerous Buddhist monasteries and temple complexes are hidden in the mountains. The most famous monastery is called Tiger’s Nest, located on a ledge carved into the rock, and it offers a dizzying view of the surrounding valleys and mountains, including Bhutan’s highest peak, Jomolhari. To get to the Tiger’s Nest, tourists have to sweat it out – the hike up to almost a kilometer high will take several hours. On the way you’ll repeatedly wonder how the ancient monks delivered the materials for the construction of the temple. But once up, you will understand why they did it: the opening view was worth all the work.
Bhutan of the Future
The traditional way of life creates the illusion that the kingdom of Bhutan has not changed much since ancient times. At the same time, the state laws protecting this very way of life would seem utopian to most Europeans. The main thing that sets Bhutan apart from the rest of the world is that the standard of living in the country is measured not by GDP, but by such an indicator as “Gross National Happiness”. According to the constitution, the government’s first task is to make every citizen happy, so the country has a special Commission on Gross National Happiness. Its job is to conduct regular opinion polls and assess people’s satisfaction with their standard of living. The government, in turn, is guided by this data when making decisions about the country’s economic development.
There is not a single homeless person in Bhutan. If a person has no land, he applies to the king and is given a plot of land sufficient to build a house and grow rice. The taxation system is also quite flexible – if you earn little, the government allows you to pay no taxes.
While environmentalists around the world sound the alarm about deforestation, in Bhutan the forest is protected by the state; by law it must occupy at least 60% of the land. Animals cannot be killed either, no one and no one at all. Bhutanese very rarely eat meat, and all of it is imported from India. But the country is very developed agriculture, and environmentally friendly – the import of any chemical fertilizers is strictly prohibited.
Residents of Bhutan are distinguished by excellent health: a clean mountain air and physical labor. Bhutanese people walk a lot and with pleasure, personal and public transport in the country is small: for 700,000 people there are about 25,000 vehicles. Smoking is also banned and the importation of cigarettes by tourists is strictly regulated. All garbage is exported from Bhutan to India for recycling, so there are no landfills in the kingdom.
In Bhutan’s schools, children are taught the sciences and humanities, as well as traditional cultural values. The main lesson Bhutanese learn from childhood is that money is not important, and that is probably the secret of their happiness. Although traveling to Bhutan is not an inexpensive pleasure, getting to know this amazing country, its laws, customs and philosophy will probably make you change your outlook on life, so you will end up gaining much more than you spend.
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Bhutan – a journey that never ends.
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Bhutan – a journey that never ends.
Ani ” December 13, 2010, 23:12
I distinctly remember a moment six or seven years ago, when I first heard about Bhutan. They say there is such a country, the number of tourists there is strictly limited, and for each day of stay you have to pay a tidy sum – 200 U.S. dollars. “That’s a place I’ll never go!” – I thought at the time. “Aren’t there enough countries in the world? Travel as much as you want, and no one will ask you for $200 a day.” Then we went to Sikkim (why not Bhutan?). I didn’t like Sikkim very much. I expected something magical, but my expectations were drowned in a sea of Indian tourists from West Bengal. I never thought of Sikkim again after that trip. But in one monastery I met a monk from Bhutan, and we started a correspondence. First by mail, then by e-mail, and now we are friends and chat on Facebook. Civilization has not passed over the Buddhist monasteries. Slowly, Bhutan stopped seeming like a very distant country, and I began to pay more and more attention to information about it.
It was not more than 7 years before my mother and I decided to go to Bhutan. By that time I already firmly believed that any spending and effort to travel to that country would be worth it. And so it turned out to be.
You can only go to Bhutan through a travel agency with which you must agree in advance on a program and send them money for the entire trip (we had about 230 dollars a day per person). They say that since the New Year 2011, prices will rise. The agency sends a confirmation of visa support, and when you arrive in the country you get a visa for the number of days paid. You can enter Bhutan either by land from India or by flying in on local Druk Air. We bought tickets in advance to Paro (Bhutan’s only airport) from Kathmandu. November is the highest tourist season in the country.
Three hours before check-in for the flight to Paro, there was already a whole crowd in line! I got discouraged. We arrived early on purpose so we could get our cherished “window seat” on the left. I wanted to fully enjoy the views of the Himalayas. The Kathmandu – Paro flight is considered one of the most beautiful scheduled flights in the world. The girl at check-in smiled beamingly, “And we have a window seat for you!” We were the last lucky ones, since we were sitting in the very last row, but on the right side. We took off and ten minutes later the Himalayas began. The visibility was perfect, a clear sunny weather. There is no point in describing it, it just takes your breath away and does not let go. I wanted to pinch myself: was it really me, flying here – along this beautiful mountain range, the plane seemed quite low over the mountains! “Good morning, everyone! We’re approaching Everest,” said the pilot. “And in ten minutes, there’s a Konchenjong to the left on the course. And over there you can see the beginning of the Tibetan Plateau.” Whew! This flight was a true gift of fate!
Nevertheless, while we were flying, those magical 55 minutes, we had time to be fed cakes, and they even offered vodka when handing out drinks! Druk Air, even though they have only two planes, can certainly be praised for the service and the views!
When we began to descend, the views were no less breathtaking. The mountain ridges went one by one, and between them valleys and gorges descended somewhere far into the dark. And now our valley was below. The plane sliced in circles, flapping from wing to wing, and was descending into the narrow valley between the mountains overgrown with dense coniferous forest. At one point I felt as if I were on a paraglider, circling over endless mountain ranges. We landed. Everyone let loose on the takeoff field: sunshine, blue skies, fresh, cool and delicious air. Welcome to Bhutan!
We quickly got through all the formalities. We were greeted by our guide and driver, two cheerful guys from eastern Bhutan. The agency I chose was called Blue Poppy Tours & Treks. Many good things were written about it on the LP forum, and although I was asked for a little more money for the tour than the other two agencies where I went, I decided to rely on recommendations. I will say at once that our expectations were met by the agency, or perhaps even exceeded. All our requests were met immediately, hotels and restaurants were chosen to a very high quality, the guide was excellent, and the driver – the most cheerful animator, a source of endless fun on the road. But while we did not know all this, and quickly got acquainted, of course, not remembering what anyone’s name was. Then it turned out that the guide was Dakpa and the driver was Ugyen. They tied welcoming white scarves around our necks and took us to get acquainted with another member of our team – a brand new Toyota Prado. I don’t even feel comfortable driving such a car, because it is too comfortable (excuse the pun). I recently read in Paul Theroux, “luxury is the great enemy of observation. All the senses are dulled, and one is drawn to relax, instead of noticing everything and being alert.” Well, you’ll have to make an extra effort not to miss anything.
The houses of Bhutan caught my eye immediately. All the buildings in the country are built in the traditional style, it is very picturesque, you want to admire each house. The local men all wear go – a kind of robe, which is tied in a special way folds at the waist, under which they usually wear a shirt. Women wear kirs – a piece of cloth, wrapped in a special way and tightened at the waist (then we tried it, it is really hard to breathe, maybe with the lack of habit) and silk jackets, under which they put a blouse. It all looks very colorful. Perhaps, I was similarly impressed by the local look only in Yemen – you unwittingly want to point your camera at each of them and take a picture. In the past the national costume was compulsory at all times, but now it’s only in public institutions and at work or school. That’s why in the evenings especially men try to change into jeans and blouses, and many young girls in the capital look quite modern.
“Look at those big buildings to the right,” the guide says. I take a closer look. At first in vain. Then I realize it’s a group of three-story buildings by the road. The notion of “big” is a very elusive one. We’re going into town. The road is very good. It is heaven compared to Nepal. There are almost no cars, too – the roads are empty. And this is near a fairly large city. Paro is the third largest city in the country, 20,000 inhabitants. The total population of Bhutan – about 700 thousand people, the crowds of people here just do not have to suffer.
Paro is located in a valley, at the bottom of which runs a river – Paro chu. “Chu” means water or river in Dzongkhae (the official language of Bhutan). For example, next to Timphu, the capital of Bhutan, runs Timphu chu. So in Bhutan you always know the names of the rivers beforehand. The water in the rivers is very clear, icy, fast flow, beauty. All around are high walls of mountains covered with forest. The contrast with Nepal we have just left is great.
We enter the town and immediately get to the archery competition in the central stadium in Paro. I had heard a lot about this national and Bhutan’s most beloved sport: the targets at these competitions are tiny, shooting from about 120 meters. For us, it’s hard to see the target at the other end of the field, let alone hit it. We used to shoot with traditional bows, but now more and more people are buying American models, which are more accurate and easier to handle. It is no less interesting than the shooting itself to watch the behavior of the opposing team. Who first shout provocative jokes (often sexually suggestive) to throw the shooter off, and then accompany the shot with songs and dances, either shaming the loser or worrying that the target has been hit. During this time, the shooter’s team also sings and dances something of their own. My mother, who had not read about the sport beforehand, even thought at first that they were putting on this “show” for the few tourists. It is really hard to imagine that a crowd of men in golfers and robes will spend the whole day shooting at invisible bags and at the same time singing and dancing.
Next we went to Kyichu Lhakhang Monastery, one of the oldest monasteries in the country, built in the 7th century by King Sronjen Gampo. According to legend, the king wanted to build 108 monasteries on the body of a demon who was interfering with the spread of Buddhism in Tibet and Bhutan. The famous Jokhang Temple in Lhasa was built on the site of the demon’s heart, and this Bhutanese temple is somewhere around his knee. Inside the temple is a Buddha statue also from the 7th century, one of the main relics in Bhutan. Unfortunately, on the first day we could not fully experience it all. It is better to visit such important places later, when you have already entered the history and atmosphere of Bhutan. We walked around the temple, played the drums, looked at the statue of Buddha inside and the locals who were reverently doing prostrations outside. There were quite a few tourists around. We were not yet elbowing at every pillar like in Egypt, but it felt like the high season was in full swing. The government of Bhutan intends to continue developing tourism at a brisk pace. It is the second largest revenue item in their budget, after electricity sales.
Then we went to the Dzong of Victory (dzongs are traditional fortresses built throughout the country). This dzong was built in honor of the victory over the Tibetan invaders in the mid-17th century. Now only walls and ruins remain at its place, as the dzong burned down in a candle in 1951. There is talk that it will be rebuilt. Fires in Bhutan are a serious problem. Most of the buildings are made of wood, and there is a lot of forest around too (70% of the country is covered with forest). We encountered a completely burned-out temple and a library on our route, and even in the town of Bumthang, in central Bhutan, several blocks (half a town by local standards) had burned down a couple of weeks before our visit. The residents were in deep shock and mourning. Making fires in the forest in Bhutan can get you several years in jail.
The views around the dzong are magnificent. And there are numerous prayer flags hovering on a hill nearby. The guide explained that the flags on ropes are traditional Tibetan flags and the flags on vertical wooden poles are Bhutanese flags.
It was already dark when we arrived at the hotel, the Olathang. It stands high on a hill with beautiful views of the valley. The hotel was built in 1974, before the coronation of the 4th King of Bhutan, and it housed different important people. So even now the hotel is like a palace with beautiful traditional paintings on the walls, vast grounds and an air of dignity. We liked it there.
Speaking of kings, a little about Bhutan’s fascinating history. It is amazing because this tiny kingdom was able to withstand such powers as England, India and China and still maintain its identity and independence to this day. Perhaps it is somewhat of a miracle. Until recently Bhutan was an absolute monarchy. Bhutan’s first king, Ugyen Wangchuck, united the country under his rule in 1907. It was not an easy task as each valley of Bhutan with its dzong, language (the country has 25 languages for 700,000 people) and traditions had a very separate self-rule. Ugyen Wangchuck was a talented politician and also ruled the dzong and the adjoining district of Trongsa in the central part of the country. There is only one road from west to east in this area, along a deep gorge. There is no other way. The new king was able to use his influence and, having agreed with England not to interfere in the internal affairs of the country, began to rule. In the middle of the 20th century, when India gained its independence, the question of Bhutan’s self-determination came up. Under the rule of the 3rd King the country was again able to maintain its independence. However, after the Chinese invasion of Tibet, Bhutan made a pact with India to protect its territories. Now on the territory of Bhutan are Indian military bases. In 1971, Bhutan secured its independence by becoming a member of the United Nations.
The 4th King of Bhutan who acceded to the throne in ’72 has gradually opened up the country to the international community. The first tourists came to Bhutan. In addition, the king introduced numerous reforms to improve life in the country, especially in the fields of education and medicine. He proclaimed the “Gross National Happiness” theory, which has already become world-famous. According to him, it doesn’t matter how rich we are financially, it matters how happy we are. This theory is sometimes laughed at among the locals. For example, stroking his rounded belly, our driver might utter: “And this is my personal product of our gross national happiness!” Nevertheless, the 4th King of Bhutan is universally loved and revered and almost in the rank of a saint. He leads a modest life full of work for the benefit of the people, and the people sincerely love and appreciate him. “And where is the king’s palace?” – we once asked. “He lives in a very humble house,” the guide replied. – He doesn’t need a palace.” Coming from Russia, it’s almost impossible to believe such a thing. Are there really such rulers? Who don’t need anything themselves? Are they doing it for the people? Here, come to Bhutan. This same King decided to make Bhutan a democratic society by declaring the first elections in the country. The guide told me that before the first elections, in 2008, the country practiced voting for months. It was such a new and unfamiliar business, and the literacy level in many villages was not good, so we had to organize many practice votes to make people feel more confident. Now the country is ruled by parliament, there are 2 parties (Crane Party and Horse Party – this is how the locals distinguish them, but the parties have quite official names). A few years ago, the 4th King abdicated in favor of his son. So now the 5th King reigns with the parliament: a 30 year old young man educated in Britain.
Ani traveller Posts: 1247 Photo: 5097 Registration: 10/23/2003 City: Dubna / Prague Thanked (a): 182 times. Thanks: 329 times. Age: 44 Countries: 97 Reports: 39 Gender: Female