If you are smaller, the old adage goes, you have to look outward.
Sandwiched between the world’s two most populous countries, closer to heaven than to Earth, in hidden valleys between the mighty Himalayan ranges, Bhutan is a kingdom where an enlightened monarch, having married four women who were all sisters, prioritized Gross National Happiness over Gross Domestic Product, and placed environmental conservation amongst his highest priorities: for every tree cut, three had to be planted.
Every visitor is treated with impeccable care, as I found out when I checked in to the Drukchen Hotel in Paro, offering stunning views of the airport on one side, and the valley on the other. Roads in and out of Bhutan to neighboring India are far and few, and perhaps the best and easiest way to reach Paro, one of the two Bhutanese cities with an operational airport, is to fly in via Druk Air.
Until recently, only 8 pilots were qualified to land in Paro owing to the elevation and approach that required navigating between two peaks over 18000 feet, and the turbulence caused by winds at high speeds at an altitude where the length of the runway is lesser than the altitude of the airport. At a distance, the Rinpung Dzong stands majestically in the slopes leading to the valley.
Bhutan currently remains a solitary Buddhist Kingdom in the Himalayas, with neighbors Sikkim and Tibet having fallen prey to India and China. It boasts never having been under the influence of any other power, having defected colonization and Christian missionaries. Guru Rinpoche, having set foot in Bhutan during the 16th century is revered and his monastery, Taktsang, is a place of spiritual importance to the Bhutanese.
This is a nation home to over 500 varieties of mushrooms, where monks refused to make honey because “… it meant killing bees …”, where the cities and towns have not one beggar nor traffic lights and the traffic often directed by, as Lonely Planet eloquently puts it, “ … a white-gloved policeman with the balletic grace of someone doing a 1980s robot dance.”
Travel writers have referred to this place as a Shangri-La, and it isn’t an inaccurate comparison given how inaccessible Bhutan was until its first airport was opened in the 1970s. Foreign nationals, barring neighbors, have to pay a royalty tax of USD 200 per day: so unless you genuinely cared and were interested in experiencing the culture and spirit of Bhutan, you wouldn’t make the effort to get here.
Until 10 years ago, Bhutan had only one newspaper, and televisions didn’t enter the country large-scale until the dawn of the 21st century. Tourism wasn’t opened to the rest of the world until 1974. You couldn’t visit the country if you hadn’t booked a tour guide in advance, for wandering, the Bhutanese believed, could consequentially impact conservation of their lands.
This a kingdom where the laws of physics are violated because time stands still: the Bhutanese, jokingly, refer to their time as Bhutanese Stretchable Time (BST) because you are never late for an appointment. I was told this dates back to old customs where people walked through the treacherous, mountainous landscapes to meet others (and still do so on foot today) and were often delayed due to breaks, or having to climb trees to take precautions from wildlife predators.
This is a nation home to over 500 varieties of mushrooms, where monks refused to make honey because “… it meant killing bees …”, where the cities and towns have not one beggar nor traffic lights and the traffic often directed by, as Lonely Planet eloquently puts it, “ … a white-gloved policeman with the balletic grace of someone doing a 1980s robot dance.
Traditions remain grounded in-tact for the locals, who have embraced pockets of modernization, still retain a strong sense of cultural identity. The Bhutanese traditional dress – the Gho for men, and Kira for women – is the attire worn in temples and government buildings alike. If you wanted assistance from the government, you could raise a kidu to the King and he would review it himself and grant medical or educational support.
While traditional and environmental conservation remain steadfast, climate change is slowly having an adverse effect on melting glacial lakes. Bhutan is home to over 3000 high altitude lakes, and hydroelectric power is a valuable export.
A quick visit to the Bhutanese Museum of Natural History throws an insight on to Bhutan’s varied flora and fauna, the endangered snow leopards, the very many thousands of lake that provide freshwater, and varied Bhutanese iconography depicting religious beliefs and rituals. A nominal fee of 25 Ngultrum was charged, and the caretaker spoke to me in flawless Hindi while mentioning he was equally happy to accept Indian Rupees (the Ngultrum and the Rupee are valued the same).
The museum also offers a stunning view of the valley: the small town of Paro (you could count the number of buildings from above), the river Paro Chu running through the landscape, and a wooden bridge that runs across the river adjacent to Rinpung Dzong.
The trek down the slopes to the Dzong and the town is a short one – in fact, it takes much longer by road. The Dzong houses shrines and administrative offices, while the fortress was used to defend the valley from Tibetan invasions. A prayer hall within the Dzong exhibits traditional Bhutanese murals. It also serves as a district headquarters for Paro.
A walk down through the streets of Paro (and I vividly recall having not counted more than three or four roads in town) reminds you of how small the town is. Dotted by provision stores and restaurants, I walk into a traditional-looking café offering Ema Datshi, a Bhutanese national dish made using chilly and yak’s cheese.
At a distance, I see prayer flags fluttering against the wind. They were the real thing, the last remnant of the hidden Himalayan Kingdom.