By Joan Dickerson
Bhutan … the happiest place on earth.
A land-locked country of less than a million people, Bhutan is bordered by India, Tibet and China. To the north, the southern slopes of the eastern Himalayas rise over 23,000 feet while the south features low-lying subtropical forests, lowland river valleys with mountains no higher than 5,000 feet. Accordingly, the climate varies with the elevation and ranges from warm and sub-tropical in the south to temperate in the highlands to bitterly cold in the north.
Transportation is problematic in the country. There are no trains, and roads are extremely narrow, curvaceous and harrowing. There are four airports in the country with Paro Airport being the gateway for international travelers. Situated in a valley surrounded by mountain peaks reaching 18,000 feet, approaching and departing planes make precipitous changes in altitude and direction resulting in a plane full of white knuckles and nervous giggles. Planes can only access the airport during daylight hours and flights are often canceled due to high crosswinds. Only a few pilots are certified to make the trip.
The government is a parliamentary democracy; the head of state is the Dragon King, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who sits atop a constitutional monarchy. His father, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, coined the phrase Gross National Happiness in 1972 which he said was more important than Gross National Product. The concept was subsequently enshrined in the Bhutanese constitution, enacted in 2008.
While the country enjoys an excellent reputation as the least corrupt country in south Asia, it remains on the list of least developed countries from which it hopes to graduate by 2023. While hydroelectric power is its biggest export by value, coming up on the list is tourism. Traveling in Bhutan can only be done by guided tour. Each traveler pays a government royalty of $100 per person per day, plus they are required to spend a minimum of $250 per visitor on touring and accommodations. In 1974, Bhutan allowed its first foreigners to tour the country. The numbers slowly grew from 2,850 in 1992 to slightly more than 250,000 in 2017. Unlike other Asian countries, the sights of Bhutan are not blighted by hordes of tourists jostling for the best camera angles. With an annual year to year increase of over 20 percent in tourism, the country is gearing up for larger numbers to arrive. We all felt fortunate to be seeing the country while it was still in its innocence.
In March, long-time owner of Brewster’s Restaurant, Joan Dickerson, her husband Kevin, and a couple of friends spent a week in the country. Following are some of Joan’s observations:
Cheri Gompa monastery:
Today we hiked up the mountain to Cheri Gompa monastery in a valley just outside Thimphu, the nation’s capital. After an hour hike, we arrived at the monastery, built in the 1100s. This was the original home to the Tibetan Buddhist lama Ngawang Namgyel, known today as the Unifier. He was responsible for unifying the country and developing the current system of government with two branches: a civil administration led by the King; and a monastic authority led by the Desi, the spiritual leader. Statues of the Unifier are placed in the auspicious position to the right of the Buddha. The temple honoring the Unifier is colorful and spiritual with wall paintings depicting stories from the Buddhist lessons.
Cheri Gompa monastery is currently used to educate younger monks and is undergoing renovations to expand the residences. Labor in Bhutan is increasingly equal opportunity with men and women working side by side, hauling rock to work sites, building with the minimum of mechanization. All materials from the valley are brought up on zip lines but workers hike up and down each day.
Festival time in Punakha:
In the town of Punhaka, located in rich agricultural valley of stepped farms, we experienced a local festival. Festivals in Bhutan typically are scheduled in the spring: March and April; and October. If you are planning a trip to Bhutan, I would highly recommend planning around a festival. The dances are extraordinary, but more importantly, the festival allows us a look at the community culture of Bhutan. The gathering is an opportunity to meet and greet with neighbors from different parts of the valley, and in some occasions, match young people together. Bhutanese people proudly wear traditional dress, but in festival occasions, they wear their finest. The festival includes various traditional mask dances, each one telling a story from the region. Flanking the performance grounds is a carnival area with gambling, archery and food vendors.
Paro Taktsang Monastery: The Tiger’s Nest
“Tiger’s Nest” is the western name for the monastery originally built in 1692 on top of a cliff in the mountains overlooking Paro. It is said that the site was discovered by Guru Padmasambhava in the 8th century when he arrived there on the back of a tiger. He then meditated in a cave at the site for three years, three months, three days and three hours. It is written that this is the event that brought Buddhism to Bhutan.
The elaborate structure of Tiger’s Nest consists of a number of temples and altars and is still occupied today by the Bhutanese Monastic. The main altar room worships Guru Padmasambhava, respectfully referred to as “Lotus Born.”
The hike up to the monastery takes approximately 2 – 2.5 hours each way with steady climbing uphill. The monastery hangs precariously on a cliff at 10,240 feet, about 3,000 feet above the Paro valley. When you round the last bend of the trail, you look directly across the ravine to the monastery, an awe-inspiring and spiritual sight. From this point, you follow a series of stone stairs down the ravine, across a wooden bridge, then back up the rock face to the monastery. A strict code of ethics is enforced when visiting all monasteries, including appropriate dress and checking all cameras or video devices.
We were fortunate to be hiking on an “Auspicious Day,” a spiritual day in the Buddhist religion, as determined by astrological charts and the Buddhist calendar. Many Bhutanese have apps on their phones that will suggest appropriate days to perform various activities.
Within the walls of the monastery, many celebrations were taking place. Outside one temple, a family had gathered to send off a recently departed member; in the original altar room built to honor Lotus Born, young monks gathered to chant and perform their traditional horns and drums. We entered the small altar room just prior to the ceremony, and were instructed to sit around the perimeter, cross legged on the floor to meditate along with the monks.
Our guide, Namgay, led us to another altar room to light candles to pray for those who have touched our lives: wishing those departed a safe journey; and those living, long and healthy lives. This was an emotional moment with visions of all for whom I prayed.
The day was glorious and the company special, a perfect way to cap off our fascinating trip to Bhutan. Our guide Namgay and driver Sonom, both Bhutanese, expertly guided us in Bhutanese history and tradition. Namgay is a special man, passionate about his country. We shared his traditions and ours on similar subjects, while learning about the mystical country of Bhutan. On our descent from Tiger’s Nest, Sonom produced prayer flags to string up along the trail to mark our passage and our hopes for the future. He had carefully selected a place where our flags would constantly wave in the wind, a place they would pass on each tour, to remind them of us.
Heartfelt thanks to the “& Beyond” team that worked tirelessly to ensure our experience was truly memorable. A special thanks to Rishi Sarma for his professional guidance to select accommodation to meet our budget and needs.
If you or anyone you know is considering a trip to Bhutan or would like some hands-on information, please contact me directly. I am happy to share our experiences, consult with you on accommodations, and provide you a quote for your trip.
(Dickerson owns and operates UNIQ Destinations, a local travel agency that specializes in small-group or individual travelers. Her forte is in developing personalized itineraries that reflect the travelers’ interests, desires and comfort level. She may be contacted at info@UNIQdestinations.com or by phone at 360/510-0242).
Photos by Joan Dickerson