Bhutan: The Last Shangri-La
"I admit that I'm too scared of dying to go on these offbeat Shangri-La adventures," said my white-knuckled friend as the Druk Air plane dove through a hole in the clouds, skirted the brown mountain crags and swooped down toward the only airport in the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. Maile and I were en route to Paro for the Buddhist spring festival.
"Relax," I replied. "Bhutan is the jewel of the Himalayas. Fresh air, no pollution, gentle people and perhaps we'll have an experience of boundless consciousness, who knows?
Maile closed her eyes in nervous prayer, her personal substitute for this Royal Bhutanese airline without radar.
We dropped steeply into the Paro Valley, wheeled sideways over green quilted land, terraces, cliffs, a castle, rock-studded roofs and the grey-ribboned Paro River. "My God," gasped someone staring out the window, "It's like we're threading a needle through the mountains!" With a jolt, we skidded expertly onto the tarmac. When I opened my eyes, we rolled up to a white castle-like building with a brown-shingled roof and hand-painted eaves. There was the happy sound of more than one hand clapping. It was the white prayer flags rippling in the chill March wind.
Whoever heard of Bhutan? Hardly anybody. And that's how the Bhutanese preferred it, at least until 1974. The size of Switzerland, this independent Buddhist kingdom ranges from 21,000 foot-high snow-covered peaks to jungle lowlands 600 feet above sea level.
Consequently, there aren't many cars, hotels or restaurants. The few roads are wildly scenic but terrifyingly narrow, so tourists must hire a car with a driver and translator.
The modern road system wasn't begun until l960 (at the same time that telecommunications reached the kingdom). And only in l983, an air link to Calcutta was established. Today, Druk Airlines owns only two airplanes, but when the biannual festival rush is on, the royal family lends its own private plane for any overflow of tourists.
In mid-March, the air is clear and crisp, fragrant with pine and wood-smoke. Waiting for us were two young men, Dorji, our translator-guide and Jevan, our driver.
Dorji instructed, "First, we go to the Druk Hotel, then to the Paro Tschechu festival. It's an important Buddhist celebration held every March according to the lunar calendar. It lasts for 5 days. At dawn on the last day, everyone comes to get special blessings when a giant appliqued thongdrol is unrolled from the top of the three-storied monastery. It pictures Guru Rimpoche, our patron saint of Bhutan who flew in from Tibet on the back of a tiger."
Our van wound up a steep road to a series of white dollhouses where children's laughter and bird songs rang through the pine forest. Ours was a hillside stone cottage decorated with floral designs. An electric heater was already warming the sitting room, bedroom and bath. The wooden porch overlooked the Paro River valley to distant snowcapped mountains.
Twice a year, in autumn and spring, crowds of extravagantly dressed Bhutanese flock to colorful religious festivals in Paro and Thimphu. We joined the hundreds of people gathered in an ancient monastery (dzong) courtyard, where masked, barefoot dancers were leaping and whirling, brandishing knives and beating tambourines to subdue evil spirits and celebrate the teachings of Buddhism.
We admired the diminutive women in their brilliant, tubular kiras of heavy silk brocade, many handwoven in the villages. Dorji whispered, "Some of these dresses cost over twenty thousand dollars."
Craftsmen and merchants spread out on the grass their wares which included many items from Tibet and India, some fashioned from human bones. Dorji explained, "Sometimes, when someone is cremated at an auspicious time and a bone falls off the pyre, it is kept as special."
There were Buddhist ceremonial objects, prayer wheels, cymbals and bells. Bowls fashioned of human skulls, horns made of thighbone, turquoise jewelry, silver knives, swords and daggers. Buddhist statues, fur hats, straw hats, embroidered felt boots and belts. Metal dragons, ancient keys and locks, conch shells decorated with silver, turquoise and coral. Wood carvings and block prints, incense holders and paint pots, purbas, hand painted thangkas, hand carved masks and even a few tee shirts.
Wooden phalluses lay on the ground for sale. "We hang these inside our houses for fertility and good luck," said Dorji. A foreign tourist picked up a large carved penis shape, examined it and quipped, "I already have one of these."
The salesgirl smiled, "Yes--- but do you have two?"
Bhutan's King Jigme Singye Wangchuck was crowned in 1972 when he was sixteen. He is now married to four beautiful sisters, each of whom has her own house. Dorji elaborated about the King, "He's a good king. He travels around the country, visiting the schools that are all free. Many boarding students live on faraway farms so he inspects their sleeping arrangements. To test their food, he eats lunch with the children and encourages them to study, telling them that they are the future of Bhutan."
After the festival, we headed to Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan. The 65-mile drive from Paro takes more than two hours on steep winding roads through eerie forests of grey-bearded trees interspersed with rhododendron, magnolia, pines and larch. Dorji said, "Our king is very aware of saving our environment. For every tree cut down, the government plants three. Two thirds of Bhutan is forest. It is the source of great good."
Everywhere were evidences of the national Buddhist faith. Little white temples called chortens perched roadside. Twelve-foot tall prayer flags fluttered from every windy ridge, their colorful tongues flicking their messages of peace and goodwill to all sentient beings. Thousands of feet below, frothing rivers rotated large red and gold prayer drums. Overhead, austere dzongs presided over yellow-green valleys contrasting with white-walled farmhouses that displayed secular paintings of tigers ("for protection in the old days when there were robbers") and erect penises ("For good luck").
If we met another vehicle, there were dizzying drops and micro inches to spare. Maile shut her eyes, "Gotta admit---these hair-raising roads are certainly raising my consciousness!"
"In Bhutan," Dorji smiled, "we regard death as temporary. You're merely leaving your body behind for another life. But sometimes you don't know you're dead. To check it out, you must stand in the sun to see if you cast a shadow. If not, well---"
Maile nodded faintly.
Maile's eyebrows shot up with renewed interest, "Um exactly who is this man?"
"Drukpa Kunley was a Buddhist monk born in Tibet who blessed this temple in 1499."
Her voice tinged with disappointment, "Oh... Oh well, can we visit the temple anyway?"
"Yes. He is very popular with our people. His favorite sport was archery which, as you know, is now our national game and our only entry into the Olympics."
The fertility monk was also a hypersexed libertine who drank too much, was an obscene show-off and who was always accompanied by a white dog. His favorite line was supposed to have been, "My meditation practice is girls and wine/ I do whatever I feel like, strolling around in the Void."
The van parked on the side of the road. We set out across green rice fields crisscrossed with rivulets and hiked the uphill mile to the temple. The white courtyard led to a dimly lit altar room where we were greeted by a burgundy-robed young monk who must have been no more than ten years old. He carried a bronze water bowl from which he blessed us. With fertility? I kept my fingers crossed, just in case. Maile closed her eyes. I dared not think what she might be praying for. A madman reincarnation?
In the town of Thimpu, Bhutan's sole traffic policeman directed us to "Times Square" a squared-off garden with a clock in the center. Several tourists were stepping out of their tourist vans and entering the Druk Hotel.
In Punakha, Maile got sick. Morning sickness, I wondered irreverently? Soon, she was almost too weak to move.
"We must get her to a hospital," I urged.
Hours later, Dorji and Jevan helped her stagger into the hospital in Thimphu. "Pneumonia," pronounced the doctor. He wrote out a prescription. "No charge. Medical attention is free in Bhutan."
Later, on the turbulent plane ride home, Maile reminisced, "Bhutan must surely be Shangri-La. Free education, free medical, multiple spouses, and after surviving those roads, I'll never be afraid again. My consciousness is boundless. Look," she whirled a silver prayer wheel, "No more white knuckles." She added nervously, "Now, tell me frankly, do I cast a shadow?"
Bhutan has many monasteries and villages, chortens, dzongs and other cultural attractions, as well places of pristine natural beauty. In a ten-day tour, you should be able to take in a wide range of attractions.
Royal Manas National Park
Permits are required for trekking and can be obtained through your tour operator.
LOCAL TOUR OPERATORS
Last year, there were over 5,000 visitors to the Kingdom of Bhutan and the Bhutanese Government has strict controls on the number of foreign travelers it allows into the country. Although a (very!) limited number of independent travelers are allowed - mostly for business, educational or political purposes -- it is almost impossible to travel in Bhutan without a guide. Hiring a private tour company to make your hotel and touring arrangements is not only easy, but necessary, particularly during festival season.
Rates are controlled by the Bhutan Tourism Authority. A rate of $200 per person per day is collected for groups of more than four. For a group fewer than four, there is an additional surcharge of $40 each for one person, $30 each for two people and $25 each for three people. For a group of 15 and above, one person goes free; for a group of 11 to 15, one person goes half price.
All tour operators leading groups in Bhutan must be approved by the Bhutanese Government. You must make your tour arrangements before you arrive in Bhutan. The following are recommended:
Rainbow Tours and Treks
Sakten Tours and Treks
Individual travelers may also make arrangements directly through:
Groups may make arrangements through the BTCLs US representative:
Most tour operators will accommodate you in the Druk Hotels and others owned by the Bhutan Tourism Corporation. However, you can request other hotels and homestays are possible.
If you are not with a tour operator, independent travelers' hotel costs, double occupancy are:
Most hotels have restaurants featuring traditional Bhutanese food, tempered somewhat for the Western palate. Otherwise, your tour operator will direct you to restaurants. It might also be possible to arrange a meal with a family.
Typical Bhutanese dishes include vegetables with peppers, mountains of rice and various meat stews, sometimes including bamboo, wild beans and even orchids. Spicy chilis and cheese are also used. As a precaution, never drink unboiled or unfiltered water.
Festival times bring out merchants of all types. Artifacts, textiles and jewelry are popular and easy to find. At other times, try:
The Sunday Market
Government Handicraft Emporioum
There are many festivals throughout the year in Bhutan. The most important ones are:
Losar (the Tibetan New Year) in February
For more information on exact dates of festivals and those taking place elsewhere in the Kingdom, visit kingdomofbhutan.com
Weather conditions can vary between the southern and northern regions. In general, fall and spring-early summer are the best seasons for travel, with warm days (80s) and cool evenings. Bring layered clothes, good hiking boots, raingear, sunglasses and a flashlight.
The monsoon season is from late May to early October, bringing rainy days and obscured views. But the rains also bring the flowers and Bhutans Rhododendron fields are spectacular. Winter is rarely snowy, despite the altitude, and is often quite temperate though temperatures can get below freezing at night and high mountain passes can be impassable due to snow and ice.
Druk Air has only 72 seats per plane, and reservations must be made at least 90 days before departure to ensure seating.
There is no public transportation to speak of in Bhutan, so travelers must hire a car and driver. More importantly, outside of Thimphu and Paro, the roads are often narrow and treacherous, so its best to leave the driving to someone who knows them.
VISAS AND OTHER OFFICIAL DOCUMENTS
Visa applications for entry to Bhutan must be submitted prior to arrival in Bhutan and are handled through your tour operator. All travel arrangements must be paid in full before your visa will be approved and processed at the airport (or your Indian border entry).
The Bhutanese currency is the Ngultrum (NU), equivalent in value to the Indian Rupee, which can also be used in Bhutan. Recently, the rate was NU 40 = US$1. Credit cards and checks are not accepted. Bring traveler's checks and US dollars in small denominations to exchange at banks and in larger hotels.
HEALTH AND SAFETY
Altitude sickness is common in Bhutan, especially with trekkers, as most treks begin at over 3000m. Give yourself plenty of time to acclimatize, even in the cities. In severe cases, get to lower altitudes immediately.
While medical attention is free in Bhutan, it is advisable to bring all medications and a full first aid kit with you, as medicines are not easy to find.
The official hotels (owned by the BTCL) offer direct dial international phones and fax machines, but you can also make calls from the public phone booths in Thimphu and Paro (though it is expensive and sometimes difficult).
Eat with only the right hand.
Note: Show appreciation with $2 to $3 per tour day tip to your guide and driver.
Read more GoNOMAD stories about Bhutan
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