Bhutan – a Road Less Traveled

Mask Dance Festival, one of twenty or so colorful annual events.

Bhutan has emerged into the crosshairs of many adventurous travelers. Recently named as a bucket list destination by many sources, the isolated Himalayan kingdom is identified as a Shangri-La. It does have much to offer – its uniqueness alone – and while it would be an ideal journey for many jaded travelers, it doesn’t offer the well rounded experience that will be found in neighboring India or nearby Thailand. We’ve longed to go there for years, and because of 8,000 foot plus altitude and some hiking activity, we decided to do it while we can.

Thimphu, capital of Bhutan, with characteristic architecture.

We traveled in the beginning of December, and the highlands were bright and cool. The mountain pine forests were green, but fields and plains were at their fallow dullest. But for outdoor activity, it was a fine time to visit. Prime times are festival seasons March-April and October-November, when the climate is temperate and another side of the people is seen. The culture is laid back and though some of the native dress is striking, the overall sartorial look is dull. But the festivals are flush with bright costumes, masks, and energetic dances. Summer is less appealing because of the heat (the latitude is about the same as South Florida) and the prevalence of leeches in the lowlands.

Women in traditional dress.

Bhutan with a population of 750,000 nestles between the remote part of eastern India and Tibetan China. The glacial, high Himalayas protect the country from invasion from China, and the only land bridges to the outside world are through India, which acts as a protector, even paving and maintaining highways. Flights are available from Bangkok, Katmandu, and Kolkata (Calcultta), each for $400 round trip or more. From Bagdogra, India the fare is about 1/3 that price, and for those interested in Darjeeling and Sikkim as well, it is a great option.

Local cuisine. National dish, ema datshi, at right.

Except for Indians, tourism in Bhutan is highly controlled, thanks to a strategy of seeking quality tourism. For occasional travelers, a minimum daily rate of $250 per person, per day applies, which drops to $200 in low season, and you must book through a tour agency. However, for that, you receive three-star hotels, all meals, all transportation, individualized tours, an English speaking guide (English is taught extensively in schools), and a driver, so the overall value is pretty good. They throw in a few local color activities, such as trying the national sport, archery, in local dress; soaking in hot rock baths, their equivalent of hot tubs; a cooking demonstration, and a eating a meal in a home. But don’t get too fancy a vision of these. We kind of wish we hadn’t seen the cooking, as the kitchen was grim, and we would have been happier not observing the sanitation.

Festival in a dzong courtyard

There are perhaps a dozen five-star hotels, but they will cost minimally $250 apiece per day extra. We looked at a couple that didn’t warrant anything like spending $500 more per day for a place to sleep. The super luxury Aman group has several properties that are probably eye popping, but unless you have money to burn and plan to spend a lot of time in the hotel, then it’s a waste. Also, do you go to Bhutan to be confined to a hotel?

One of our most memorable events was the arrival landing. In all our travels we’ve never had one like this. Descended into the mountains, the plane banked so sharply to the left that the tilt alert sounded. Soon we banked almost equally to the right before doing another left and another right to slither through the mountains just before landing. It was like skiing a slalom in a 200 passenger plane!

Archery, the national sport.

This is a peaceful, mostly mountainous kingdom with some culture, architecture, and arts of interest, having similarities to Indo/Nepal and Tibet. Bhutan is quiet without the vibrancy of India. The distinctive dzong architecture appears in fortresses and temples, and houses mimic the style in a more modest way. Style is closely controlled, and the required artistic painting around doorways and windows must be approved for each building. The country has no factories, so handicrafts is a cottage industry, with textiles being the dominant form.  The range of goods is limited, but some of the offerings are attractive and well priced.

Takins, the national animal, grazing.

Unfortunately, the food is an amalgam of cuisines from the region, but lacks variety or pizzazz, and you can expect to see repeats of dishes. For religious reasons, there are no slaughterhouses, so meat is imported. Even fishing is severely limited, so that you see huge fish in the creeks and piles of imported dried fish in the markets. The national dish is ema datshi, mild peppers braised with a melted farmers’ cheese that tends toward watery. Butter tea is a distinctive yet pretty tasteless national drink, and the common home-made alcoholic beverage is ara, a saki-like clear wine.  You won’t find a fast food franchise, so forget finding a taste of home.  Incidentally, Tuesdays are dry days, which we learned too late, as we had hoped to check out the karaoke bars the night before our departure.

Buddist monks, a common sight.

Uniquely, feral dogs rule. They are everywhere. As Buddhists, Bhutanis don’t want to kill them, and sterilization programs have limited effectiveness. Fortunately, the dogs seem to be well fed and well behaved, and they scoot out of traffic quicker than the also loose, but domesticated, cows and donkeys. Dogs appear as solos and in ensembles. Perhaps our most charming viewing was a cluster of six black dogs of all different mixed breedings in various states of alertness and repose that were visually reminiscent of a meerkat family or a scene from Disney’s “The Lady and the Tramp.”

Speaking of traffic, there are no traffic lights in the whole country, and honking is forbidden except in emergencies. Billboards and advertisements don’t appear on the roads, but there are many driving stricture signs, all  in English, as are many other signs. Most are like our own, but a couple are particularly charming admonitions – “No hurry – No worry” and “Be predictable – Be safe.”

Paro Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest). Imagine the difficulty to build it and to reside there.

The signature tourism activity is climbing to Paro Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest), an oft photographed temple situated high on a cliff. The stated horizontal distance of the climb is a rocky 2.3 miles and the net elevation ascent is 1,600 feet above the 8,000 foot base. However, the last section is 700 steps down, then 700 steps up, so the full ascent, including the return, is more like 2,500 feet or more. We went about 2/3 of the way and had great, close views of the temple but would have needed another three hours to complete the full journey, meaning we would have returned by flashlight. Making it to the Tiger’s Nest must wait for another lifetime. Incidentally, it is worth paying $12 per person to ride ponies up the first part of the climb.  It saves the legs and gives a different perspective.

Great Buddha statue, forged in China and assembled in Bhutan.

The prime touring area is the three towns of western Bhutan, the capital Thimphu, the arrival town Paro, and the former capital Punakha. This is where the full culture of the country is most in evidence. Dominant attractions are the dzongs, fortresses and temples, of each town. Paro has a small but well targeted museum with an emphasis on the natural habitats. For extended stays, the south offers another perspective. At lower elevation, it is tropical. A greater variety of wildlife, including tigers and elephants, exists in large protected areas, but the concentration is low. For the serious trekker, the north, land of the national animal, the takin, offers a pristine environment at high elevations.

Temple in the Himalayas.  Destination of an arduous trek.

Bhutan is poor, but people are comfortable. One meaningful distinction of the society is that their ultimate economic indicator is “Gross National Happiness,” which is taken seriously.  It includes multiple measures in nine domains including environmental stewardship, tradition maintenance, psychological well-being, and governance. Unfortunately, the greatest downward pressures on the indicator are cell phones and television as well as drug smuggling from India, all 21st century phenomena for them.