Vivian Liu-Ionides visited the last Himalayan Shangri-La where she learned to do without SMS
My official excuse to visit Bhutan was to unravel the mystique behind this last Himalayan Shangri-La. But what I was really after was the bragging rights to say
I had shared this pristine sanctuary – the size of Switzerland – with the likes of Donna Karan, Demi Moore,Kate Moss, David Tang, and even Fergie.
Joking aside,“Druk Yul”, as the locals call Bhutan, means Land of the Thunder Dragon, an irony considering how peaceful and serene this country of only 750,000 people really is. The streets are often quiet and deserted,which is perhaps the reason why there are no traffic lights anywhere in the country. I was told that for a brief period one was installed in the capital Thimpu, but that it did not last long as the king did not like it.Yes, they are set in their ways in Bhutan, and its individuality is a big part of what is so appealing about it. The moment one steps out of the airport at Paro Valley there is a feeling of having travelled back in time, to a medieval society where everyone walks around in traditional costumes and the pace of life is a few notches slower.Men proudly don their ghos – tartan checked knee-high robes – while women wrap themselves up in long Bhutanese kimonos called kiras. In the higher elevations, yaks graze peacefully in the deep green pastures afar,while others pull wooden carts around picture-perfect rice terraces.And all this time, I thought this woolly beast was just a myth akin to the Loch Ness monster and Sasquatch of the Great White North.
Before visiting Bhutan, it was hard to imagine such a place existed where all the houses are built in traditional 14th century style, white-washed with shingle roofs, and not a single piece of modern-day architecture anywhere. That is indeed what it is like in Bhutan, where the air is so clean and the lungs seem to fill up much larger than they do at home. The window frames and doors are adorned with red, gold or black painted flowers or dragons.And on the wall beside many front doors is a painting of the male organ – to ensure that constant drive, stamina and productivity run through the household. Local children take great delight in laughing at the tourists taking photographs of these colourful phallic symbols.
Even the valleys, home to varied flora and fauna, exude a certain aura of quiet beauty and calmness. It conjures up scenes from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. The country is blessed with spectacular mountain terrain, and to protect its fragile natural landscape, strict environmental standards are imposed, resulting in around 70% of the land still under forest cover.
Bhutan is overwhelmingly Buddhist, which is not just a religion there but a way of life. The Bhutanese are peaceful and calm, though they can also be conservative and rather stoic in their nature. Every one man in 10 is a monk and families often send one of their male children away to the monastery at a young age. Prayer flags adorn the Kingdom with every cloud in the sky. The sounds of chanting and bells ringing seem to resonate from every wall and echo down to the bottom of every valley. Although Bhutan is regarded by many as the must-visit destination of the moment, the number of foreign tourists remains miniscule. Last year, there were just 13,643 tourists, which looking at it another way, translates into just over 37 per day.Hardly a big number of course, but the growth in demand has been phenomenal, rising nearly 50% last year over 2004, when only 9,259 tourists visited. Tourism is effectively restricted heavily by the availability of hotel space and a minimum US$200 per day amount per person –including a government royalty – is imposed to keep the backpackers away.
Bhutan has long measured its success in terms of Gross National Happiness, which means putting the spiritual well being of its citizens over the economic welfare of the country.However, the country is changing very quickly, and those who told me in advance that now really is the time to visit were not wrong. Salaries are rising rapidly and many of Bhutan’s citizens are now able to travel abroad,which coupled with the steady increase in foreign travellers means there are fresh influences from outside – not all of them good.
The people are still doing things in their own way, however, and there is hope that their home will not lose its charm as it is exposed to more outside influences. In 2004, Bhutan became the first country in the world to ban smoking in public, and it is refreshing to walk down one of the quiet streets in the main towns and not have puffs of smoke in your face. Television was also only introduced in 1999 and mobile phones in late 2003. Thankfully, the state-owned telecom provider has very few roaming agreements with foreign providers, which meant my mobile phone did not work there.After a few days itching for a network connection to send SMSs, it became remarkably easy to forego being in constant contact.Now, can that be said of other places? The Kingdom’s national sport is archery, which provides weekend entertainment for Bhutanese elite.Unlike the children with their wooden bows, these archers use top-quality bows and arrows similar to those used by Olympic sportsmen.
Anyone who has visited Lhasa will know that the Potala Palace is a magnificent piece of architecture. But in Bhutan, there are similar sorts of structures in every district.Called dzongs, these majestic fortresses continue to be used to this day as monasteries and administrative centres. These ornate marvels are found in every settlement, almost always perched on the side of a cliff or lodged on the banks of a crystalline river.
Once inside their large courtyards, I could not stop clicking away at the intricate wood carvings and paintings on the beams, doors and window frames. In the schools within the dzongs are playful, little monks with shiny heads, togged in burgundy red robes. These mischievous boys are always excited to see foreign visitors, especially female ones, often stopping at nothing to provide a photo op. Travelling through the country is done exclusively by car, and the roads are tiny and often winding, making journeys between towns very slow. But the scenery makes it well worth the effort, and the smallness of the place is what truly stands out. Don’t be surprised if you spot one of the Bhutan’s four queens, who happen to be sisters. Sightings of the king are less common, although not unheard of. I was fortunate to have spotted one of the queens as well as the country’s religious head, who holds the same rank in society as the king. In Bhutan, everyone truly seems to know everyone.At one point,my husband and I were forced to stop due to some roadworks, and got to chatting with the occupants of the car in front of us. By pure coincidence, one of them happened to be the general manager of the Aman hotels in Bhutan, someone I was due to telephone the next day to arrange a meeting with.He told me that what would be considered a chance encounter occurs far more often in Bhutan than one might expect.
There is a certain sadness having to leave a society which refuses to be dictated by modern technology, and which is still untarnished by the fast food icons of McDonald’s and Starbucks – at least for now. But at the same time, after being immersed in Gross National Happiness for over a week, I returned home grateful for being one of the few lucky ones to have savoured a culture so few people may ever get to experience.
Getting to Bhutan is not the easiest as only one airline flies there – the national carrier Druk Air (Royal Bhutan Airlines) – and its schedule (flying to seven cities including Bangkok and New Delhi) is not exactly one that allows for flexibility in terms of date changes and last-minute itinerary alterations. However, It is well worth the flight in on the carrier as passengers will be rewarded with wonderful views of uniquely gorgeous terrain.
Before touchdown, expect the captain to advise passengers (especially first timers to the capital Paro) not to be alarmed by the approach. The modern Airbus A319 usually banks sharply to the left and right before touching down on the runway at the tiny airport – the only one in the country.
• Lodging options are increasing in Bhutan, which traditionally only offered the authentic, rustic yet comfortable experience of staying at one of the local government-run hotels. Nowadays, there are much more luxurious options. There is the indulgent chic luxury of Christina Ong’s Uma Paro (uma.como.bz), near the airport in Paro, for example. And for die-hard Aman fans, one now has four Amankoras to choose from: in Paro, Punakha, Gangtey and Thimphu. (amanresorts.com).