Country number: 98
Territory number: 106
When? November 2009 – sidetrip from Nepal.
How? Car with driver and guide
‘If I had to name the biggest difference between Bhutan and the rest of the world, I could do it in one word, civility.’
Linda Leaming, Married to Bhutan
Bhutan is not easy to get into, both physically and bureaucratically. You have to join an organised tour with a recognised tour company and you are required to spend a relatively large number of U.S. dollars each day. This once very secretive and closed kingdom has determined to keep tourism high-end (and therefore lucrative) and reduce its impact on the country.
This is very much a country of mountains and valleys and consequently there is only one accessible international airport, at Paro. Only pilots who are especially trained are allowed to fly in. This has the effect of limiting access to two Bhutanese airlines – Druk Air and Bhutan Airlines – who fly to very few neighbouring countries and Buddha Air, a Nepalese charter airline., but in addition, Boeing have designated this possibly the most challenging landing in the world. Accounts on the internet describe the approach: terrifying, with violent turbulence, as the planes’ wings appear to brush the towering valley slopes. You can imagine that I was approaching the journey with mixed feelings. In the event it was thrilling rather than frightening, with great views of Everest. At dinner in Thimpu these stories were confirmed by two pilots, in charge of a private jet (bringing an American business whizz whose name I recognised), who had stopped to pick up a trained Bhutanese pilot before they were allowed in.
Is it worth it? It’s picturesque, but probably not as beautiful or diverse as Nepal (though the air is a lot cleaner.) It’s more modern that you might expect, for a country that was sealed off from the world until relatively recently. There is internet in most places and there is a steady stream of imports (much of it food) coming overland in huge painted trucks from India). It’s not as humanitarian as one might expect either. There are workers from other countries, such as India, who seem to have it rough. It doesn’t have much to offer other than monasteries and mountains. However, it is fascinating and the atmosphere in the monasteries, the chanting and rhythmic percussion draws you in and calms the soul. It’s difficult to tear oneself away.
The most visited monasteries (Dzongs) and their locations are stunning. Switzerland meets the medieval Orient. The renowned Tiger’s Nest, built on a rock around 10,000 feet above sea level is truly breath-taking – in both senses of the word. The trek up is a real struggle as the altitude takes its toll. I climb for four hours, with several stops to rest my lungs. The return journey is a different matter. My guide is astonished when I run down the track in much less than an hour. So am I.
Whilst there is ongoing innovation there is much about the way of life that is unchanged. The Bhutanese wear traditional dress and the villages contain shuttered wooden shops, the streets lined with markets stalls. Many of the houses and monasteries are beautifully decorated, – a phallus often features. Some big, some small, some terrifyingly huge, in various colour schemes, some of them having ribbons tied around them and some also having eyes. All of them are fully erect as this is what frightens off the evil spirits, apparently. Darts and archery are the national sports and competitions are taking place on the sides of the road as we drive through. The archers wear brightly coloured skirts with a series of swinging tails.
It’s all very controlled. There are checkpoints everywhere.
There are an awful lot of handicraft shops.
The food is a little strange. Breakfast is cornflakes, rice porridge, tomato sauce, guavas, chips and baked beans. Chilli and cheese are served with most meals.
I have a mini bus, a driver, and a guide to myself. They are informative, hardworking and sober. Until the last night when it transpires that my guide is no longer sober. I make the mistake of offering him a farewell drink at my hotel. He is not (I assume) able to tolerate alcohol well and he follows me back to my bungalow with lustful intentions. I have to physically restrain him. He doesn’t arrive, with the driver, to return me to the airport in the morning.