January 2011

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Peter Loved Bhutan

by H. P. Davis

Thirty-four years of exploring our planet, 117 trips and 45 countries later, I can say, quite unequivocally, that Bhutan is one of the most extraordinary places I have ever visited, and our Purple Dragon holiday there one of my most enjoyable and memorable experiences.

Bhutan DecorationMy travelling companion and I took the ten-day Grand Bhutan Tour, with our own guide, driver and 4-wheel drive, from the international airport at Paro, across the great passes to the spiritual heartland of Bumthang in central Bhutan, visiting all the major sites in our round journey. As with all visits to Bhutan, our itinerary was planned in advance, with all accommodation, meals, and most ancillary costs included. Nevertheless, we found our schedule sufficiently leisurely not to be tiring, in spite of quite long hours necessarily spent driving along slow mountain roads (the spectacular scenery was more that compensation for this), and the daily routines quite flexible. The latter was facilitated by a guide who seemed able to anticipate our every need.

For all its remoteness from the rest of the outside world, and the fact that we stayed entirely in locally owned and operated hotels, the general standard of accommodation and service was quite acceptable and, in some instances, outstanding. It is a pity that the same cannot be said for the food (although, again, there were notable exceptions), but, for all the many delights of a visit to Bhutan, I hesitate to recommend it as a gastronomic destination. The local fare consists predominantly of red rice accompanied by ‘ema dhatsi’ (chillies, as a vegetable, in cheese) and rather scrawny looking vegetables. Much of the meat seemed to have the consistency of yak leather, so be warned. The local brews are perfectly palatable, while unlikely to become international brands.

Take Warm SocksArrival at Paro airport is an apposite preparation for the remainder of the trip: first the spectacular Himalayan scenery as one descends into Paro Valley, then the traditional greeting outside the airport by one’s guide with the offering of a khadar (greeting scarf), indicative of the warmth and hospitality of the Bhutanese people. All were in plentiful supple throughout our journey.

This is a deeply and devoutly Buddhist culture, which, its origins in, and close links with Tibetan Tantric Buddhism, notwithstanding, remains distinctly its own. The exploits of the colourful national figures like Guru Rimpoche (Bhutan’s ‘Second Buddha’) and the Divine Madman, are vividly represented throughout the many wall paintings in Bhutan’s indigenous Dzongs and Lhakangs.

The Dzong is the most characteristic and distinctive element with Bhutanese architecture. Originally built with a defensive purpose in mind (they survive from the seventeenth century) and, therefore, frequently spectacularly sited, they are often accompanied by a higher watchtower (at least two of which now function as significant museums). They became regional administrative and religious centres, and are now usually occupied by both monks and civil administration, maintaining the close historical link between Buddhism and the state.

Dzong DrainsThe other important architectural type is the Lhakhang (temple or monastery – the distinction is not a very helpful one), the most significant of which go back to the seventh century. The most spectacular is undoubtedly the famous Tiger’s Nest near Paro, sited precipitously on a cliff face 800 metres above the valley floor, and well worth the arduous climb. (Although near Paro, this undertaking is best saved until the return visit to Paro, after one has had time to adjust to the altitude. We had no problem with altitude sickness, but were certainly aware of the thinness of the air, whereby even a moderate hill or flight of steps became a bit of a chore.)

Other types of architecture abound: chhortens (stupas or chedis), palaces, suspension bridges thrown high across mountain rivers, and various styles of domestic house, many of the latter characterised by their vivid external phallic paintings, done to bestow both good fortune and fertility upon the household.

But our trip wasn’t just about spectacular scenery and amazing architecture, although there were both in abundance. Every day seemed to bring a fresh surprise: turning a mountain bend to encounter a herd of yaks; entering a monastery to find an orchestra of young monks producing their otherworldly sound; coming across a group of dancers in the courtyard of a dzong practising for a forthcoming festival.

Dzong in the MistThere are plenty of opportunities for shopping for local wares. It should be pointed out that high-quality textiles and paintings are quite expensive, and that bargaining is not a local custom. Cheaper imitations can be purchased readily enough, but for the superior quality of the traditional forms it is worth paying the extra. Antiques cannot normally be exported, but, as traditional skills are alive and well contemporary work exhibits all the same characteristics, except age.

Bhutan is a conservative society in which traditional culture continues to flourish, and it is imperative that this be respected. This means dressing with restraint at all times and not exposing unnecessary body parts. Head covering must be removed in all dzongs and lhakhangs. A simple rule to follow is ‘if no shoes, then no camera’.

It is now almost a month since I returned, yet I find, as I reflect on my experience to write this, how much of it remains so vividly in my mind’s eye, which would be sufficient proof of what an extraordinary adventure it was – if proof were needed – and a little of which I have tried to convey. I eagerly await the opportunity to return.


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