Bhutan. This little-known Himalayan kingdom, nestled between the giants of India and China, is the world’s last remaining Shangri-La. This is an extraordinary country, unlike any on Earth, where traffic lights do not exist, buying cigarettes is illegal, the wrestling channel and MTV are banned, as well as Western-style billboards and plastic bags, and Gross National Happiness has been deemed more important than Gross National Product. While neighboring countries have catapulted themselves into the modern world and embraced tourism with such ferocity that their cultures have been both compromised and neglected, Bhutan has recognized that the only way to move forward and ensure both its survival and sovereignty is to protect the unique culture and environment that makes the country so special.
Up until 1960, Bhutan had been visited by only a handful of early British explorers and during the decade that followed the few foreigners permitted into the country were guests of the royal family. It was not until the coronation of the fourth king in 1974 that a hotel was built and the first group of paying tourists arrived, organized and led by Lars Eric Lindbald (founder of Linbald Travel) who encouraged the government to limit tourism and to charge high fees. This set the standard by which tourism would evolve in Bhutan and small groups began to enter the country, permitted only to visit the dzongs and goempas in Paro and Thimphu.
Today, Bhutan continues to embrace a strict policy of high-value, low-impact tourism intended to preserve their national culture by deterring the budget travelers and backpackers that have so profoundly altered neighboring countries such as Thailand and Nepal. Though there is no longer a limit to the number of tourists Bhutan permits each year, every non-Indian foreigner must pay a minimum of US$200 per day, making it one of the world’s most expensive countries to visit. The Royal Government of Bhutan requires foreign visitors to travel with a prepaid and preplanned itinerary, led by a certified local guide. The daily tariff includes all your accommodation, food, land transport within Bhutan, services of guides and porters, and entrance fees to cultural sights and programs. Tourists can arrange their own itinerary and are not required to travel in a group, but what you will not find in Bhutan is backpacker-style independent travel.
It comes as no surprise that the question most asked about Bhutan is, “Is it worth it?” Even for myself, on an extended trip with a limited budget, it was necessary to contemplate this question. Yet, having traveled extensively and witnessed firsthand the Westernization that has altered the face of countries worldwide, I was eager to experience one of the last places on Earth to be overwhelmed by the reach of globalization.
Most alarmingly, this is a country poised for change. Despite centuries of self-imposed isolation, Bhutan has opened their doors to the world and it is only inevitable that along with tourists comes change. In 1997, Pepsi Cola built a bottling plant in Bhutan and two years later 60 channels of satellite TV arrived. There will soon be more mobile phones in the kingdom than landlines and young people are abandoning their traditional look for Western-style haircuts and Levis jeans.
In this manner, Bhutan is unique for it is a country with one foot in the modern world and the other desperately clinging to the past. Here you will find men and women in traditional dress chatting on cellphones and Buddhist monks using computers to transcribe ancient texts. It is undeniable that Bhutan is inching itself into the modern world, though it is with a steadfast determination to preserve their distinct cultural identity that makes the country so incredibly unique.
At the helm of this change is a Royal Family who is revered all over Bhutan and sets a standard by which much of the world could follow. Since 1907, Bhutan has been ruled by a succession of five kings determined to preserve their cultural identity while making necessary steps to bring their country into the modern world. With the invasion of Tibet by the Chinese in 1959, King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck (the third king) realized that to preserve Bhutan’s independence the country had to become a member of the larger world community. So in 1961 Bhutan emerged from centuries of self-imposed isolation and began making steps to enter into the modern world. The king abolished serfdom and the caste system, reorganized land holdings, created the Royal Bhutan Army, and established the High Court, all while emphasizing the need to preserve Bhutanese culture and tradition.
The king’s early death at the age of 44 brought his 16-year old soon, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, to the throne and his coronation was the first time that the international press was allowed to enter the country. The fourth king pledged to continue his father’s program of modernization and taking advantage of a country with a small population, abundant land, and rich natural resources, he announced a plan for Bhutan to achieve economic self-reliance. With that, he introduced the idea of “Gross National Happiness” (GNH) which would measure development programs and projects in terms of society’s greater good, thereby ensuring a more sustainable happiness for each individual Bhutanese. The fourth king modernized education, health care, rural development and communications. He also created a policy of environmental conservation which gives precedence to ecological considerations over commercial interests, and today most of the country’s forests and ecosystems remain intact. Then in 2005, the 49-year old king shocked the country by announcing plans to abdicate the throne in favor of his eldest son and begin moving the country from an absolute monarchy to a democratic constitutional monarchy. A constitution was drafted which reinforced the king’s idea of having a democratic government committed to increasing GNH and not just gross national product.
While the world cheered Bhutan’s shift towards democracy, the Bhutanese people embraced their fifth king, King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck, a handsome young man educated at Oxford who recently thrilled the country with the announcement of his engagement. Like his father before him, the fifth king is a humble and gracious man who prefers to mingle with the common people than assume a royal stature. He resides in a 2-room “palace” smaller than most Bhutanese homes and is often spotted along the roads outside the palace grounds where he enjoys planting flowers. Though his photo appears in nearly every temple and home, the fifth king is a man more likely to be found playing soccer with local boys or eating a meal in a poor person’s home than lavishing in the company of royalty. He routinely invites the locals to share his company and particularly enjoys spending time with a group of schoolchildren who are deaf and blind. As our guide told us more about him, she mentioned a Swiss tourist who broke down in tears when she learned of the king; a feeling I experienced many times when told of his good deeds.
A worldly man, the fifth king is undoubtedly aware of both the progress and change that modernization will bring. Therefore, policies have been put in place that allow the country to continue moving forward while maintaining a firm grip on their past. Most notable among these, and recognized immediately by tourists, are restrictions on both architecture and dress. All Bhutanese are required to wear national dress in schools, temples, government offices, and formal occasions. The men wear a gho, a long robe often decorated in plaid or striped designs which is knee-length and fastened tightly with a woven belt called a kera. The women wear a long floor-length dress called a kira, a rectangular piece of brightly colored cloth that wraps around the body under a silk blouse called a wonju. The kira is fastened at the shoulders with elaborate silver hooks called koma and at the waist with a belt made of either silver or cloth. This style of traditional dress is seen all over Bhutan and is one of the most distinctive visual aspects of a country still so connected to their past.
Perhaps the most striking feature of the country is the architecture, in which all structures are constructed in characteristic Bhutanese style. Whether massive dzongs (fort-monasteries), remote goembas (monasteries), lhakangs (temples), or traditional homes, all the structures in Bhutan share a similar design which gives the country a feeling of being centuries old. Most of the homes are two storeys high with a large, open-aired attic, built of wood, stone, and pounded mud. Roofs are pitched and covered in shingles while the exterior wooden surfaces are painted with elaborate designs, including swastikas, floral patterns, clouds, mythical animals, and even large phalluses believed to ward off evil spirits. Finally, on the roof of all Buddhist homes stands a prayer flag which whips in the wind and carries their prayers away.
Among the architectural wonders of Bhutan, none command so much attention as the caste-like dzongs that dominate most major towns. These huge white citadels are outstanding examples of the grand design and construction of Bhutanese architecture and serve as administrative headquarters of all 20 districts, as well as the focus of secular and religious authority in each. The word dzong is Tibetan for “fortress”, an apt description for such magnificent structures. Bhutan’s dzongs are built of stone and packed mud and a considerable amount of timber. They usually have one massive door which leads into a small passage that makes two right turns before opening into a large main courtyard- an ideal design that keeps invaders from storming the dzong. The main courtyard is paved with large flagstones and overlooked by rooms and galleries along the outer walls which stand several storeys high. The central structure of the dzong is a tower-like building called an utse which contains several chapels, one on each floor. Dzongs were built by architects who prepared neither plans nor drawings, relying only on a mental concept of what they intended to build. They used roughly dressed and irregularly shaped stones and accomplished their task without the use of nails. Then in 1897, an earthquake rocked Bhutan and damaged many of its dzongs which were repaired or rebuilt in the original style using the same ancient construction methods.
Throughout the kingdom of Bhutan, there are more than 2000 religious buildings, each designed for a different purpose to suit the wish of the founders and architects. Among these are numerous monasteries, called goembas, which are often located in secluded locations, such as rocky crags or remote hillsides, where the monks can find peace and solitude. Bhutanese goembas are self-contained communities with a central lhakhang (temple) and separate sleeping quarters. The temple is located at the center of a dochey (inner courtyard) and on the outside walls are prayer wheels which monks and devotees spin as they circumnabulate the building. Entry to the temple is made through a large wooden door that opens into an assembly hall, called a tsokhang, which is usually so large that it has rows of pillars to hold the roof and every inch of the walls are decorated in wondrous, intricate paintings depicting the life of Buddha. At the far end of the assembly hall is an elaborately decorated altar (choesham) which serves as the focal point of the temple. The two-tiered altar is comprised of an often massive gilded statue flanked by smaller statues and surrounded by lavish carvings depicting dragons, elephants, horses, flowers, leaves, and Buddhas. Various objects of worship are located in front of the altar, including butter lamps and offerings of rice, flowers, water and money. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed within the temples and such a general description as this does little justice to structures which are among the most artistically impressive and absolutely mesmerizing as I have ever seen.
At the heart of all things Bhutan- from landscapes to people and architecture to dress- are the principles of Buddhism. To understand Bhutan and its people, it is essential that one possess an appreciation and basic understanding of a religion which dictates nearly aspect of life in the kingdom. One need not be a believer to be impressed by the magnificent temples, towering fortresses, and colorful prayer flags that dot the landscape of Bhutan; but without a basic respect for the faith that dictates the life of every Bhutanese, you need not visit this country. Buddhism is perhaps one of the world’s most accommodating religions and though there is no official religion in the kingdom, if a visit to Bhutan is one thing, it is a study in Buddhism. Even the history of this country is more steeped in fantasies than fact, so be prepared to let your imagination flow and accept the spirit of a country where ghosts, yetis, medicine men, lamas, and evil spirits are a central part of daily life.
For many of you, this may be the first time you have even heard of Bhutan. For others, it might be a more detailed description of a place which you have so long dreamed. But for all of us, I hope that this introduction to a small, seemingly insignificant Himalayan kingdom sparks both an interest and curiosity inside you which will carry your mind, and quite possibly your body, to a far-away land where we can all discover how life has been and what life may be. There truly is no place in the world I have yet to discover which could even compare to Bhutan- a kingdom where fantasies become facts and we can all exist in a world of dreams.