Imagine an unspoiled country nestled into the foothills of the Himalayas with sensational scenery, soaked in soft high altitude sunlight and with a vibrant spiritual energy that goes back centuries. A place where billboards, traffic lights and tobacco are not allowed. A place where the people have not been spoiled by inconsiderate Western tourists looking for cheap fun. A place full of ancient castles, temples and monasteries which have been in uninterrupted daily use since the 8th century. A place where a smile goes a long way, as locals focus on gross national happiness rather than gross national product. This is Bhutan.
A rarity in Asia, Bhutan is also a place where you will not be hassled on the streets by people desperate to sell you anything to generate an income.
The Bhutanese are a proud and independent people with their own welfare state and free education system in which all Bhutanese children learn English, which they are eager to practise. The Bhutanese do not readily barter or demean themselves by hassling tourists.
I was in a dusty arts and crafts shop in Bhumtang, in the spiritual heartland of Bhutan, where I witnessed a loud tourist attempting to barter with the shop owner. In a restrained manner the smiling shopkeeper advised, “Madam, this is not India. I do not bargain. These goods are sold at a fair price. Take them or leave them”. She was flabbergasted – I was impressed.
I recently spent ten days in Bhutan with my wife Chicchan. It had been a long cherished dream of ours to visit the area, but frankly we had been put off by the cost. To visit Bhutan you must spend a minimum of US$200 per person, per day, in advance. I thought it was overpriced.
Once I had arrived I quickly changed my mind.
For your money per day you will get; three good square meals a day, your own chauffeur-driven late model four wheel drive, a very knowledgeable English speaking guide and new three-star hotel accommodation, with excellent facilities, every night. It actually represents great value for money and makes for a totally hassle-free, easy-going holiday.
As soon as you arrive in this high altitude paradise your breath is taken away by the scenery and the architecture. The view from the airport runway is stunning and the airport terminal building itself is a work of art. It is also so far above sea level that once you start climbing hills to get to remote monasteries you may find there just isn’t enough oxygen to power your muscles in the manner to which you have become accustomed. All the views become breathtaking – literally.
Bhutan has an interesting history. It fought and won a war with neighboring Tibet and successfully repelled the English invaders from India. It is predominantly Buddhist and people practise their faith daily, through prayers, meditations and chants. They also celebrate significant religious events with colourful annual festivals, several of which we were lucky enough to witness.
We travelled to remote high altitude valleys where local lamas and monks, dressed in ancient costumes and masks, performed arcane dances and rituals, in the packed courtyards of crumbling monasteries. The festivals are well attended by locals and are an integral part of a vibrant living Buddhist culture. It was great to see the contained focus of the dancers as they circled, stamping out mandalas in time to the drums and trumpets of the nearby monks, some of whom played their trumpets out of the 2nd or 3rd floor windows of the monastery overlooking the square in which the festival was held. The dancers were fantastic, as were their costumes and wild hats and masks.
All cultures seem to have a jester, a Punchinello, the Commedia dell’Arte clown who like the English Punch has no respect for anything or anyone. In this case the red masked ‘jesters’ carried large wooden phalluses which they had no end of fun brandishing in front of visitors and locals alike.
One thing you will see a lot of in Bhutan are forests and phalluses. Bhutan is still densely forested and tree-cutting is strictly regulated. Phalluses are everywhere. They often adorn ordinary houses most of which have several murals on the outer walls. They are also hung from the four corners of any new building. Our guide advised us that they are there to ward off the ‘evil eye’. They repel any negative thoughts that passers-by might be sending to the house or the family inside it. The theory is that the phallus embarrasses people into taking their negative thoughts back.
Bhutan has an abundance of 8th to 16th Century ‘dzongs’ or forts. These are now occupied symbolically by 50% government administration and 50% religious institution, and their architecture is stunning. We visited dzongs built of huge solid timber beams with floorboards much thicker than standard Australian joists, Made of rammed earth, stone or mud brick, many of the dzongs do not have any nails in the timber structure at all – quite a feat of engineering and a sign of a highly developed culture. Many dzongs are being renovated by talented local craftsmen and being brought back to their original standard of building. Many are still in in their original state and still look and feel fantastic.
We were not allowed to take photographs inside the temples, which have exquisite murals and carvings close to their most hallowed parts. We saw enormous three-story-high gold Buddhas, rooms filled with 1000 statues of Buddha and an endless variety of finely painted murals. In some monasteries we were not just the only tourists, we were the only visitors there!
We visited the breathtakingly beautiful high-altitude Tiger’s Nest and Cheri monasteries, well worth the strenuous and steep climb to get there. Huge creaking old wooden doors that opened into dark inner sanctums were unlocked for us by creaking old caretakers, happy to share their secrets with us.
We found ourselves invited into the holiest section of one monastery built around a cave in which a great lama had taught. We sat with monks in a hazy incense-filled room with light from the Himalayas streaming through the small high window. This shaft of light illuminated ancient treasures and red-robed monks as they chanted and played trumpets, all part of their three-day Puja. It was a sensational experience and one which I will never forget.
We sat with the monks for what seemed like hours as the chanting washed over us and the trumpets blared around us, then in a lull in the chanting, the monks brought us hot tea and popcorn, their only sustenance during the days of chanting. I felt honoured. They could see that we really appreciated being included in their ceremony, the only people in the whole monastery who were not Bhutanese monks.
We will treasure our memories of Bhutan, travelling with our driver who quietly chanted mantras for our protection as we passed through sensational scenery. I loved the water-powered prayer wheels built by the local community to endlessly share blessings with those who passed – what a generous gesture. And the prayer flags, hundreds of them, placed wherever the wind would catch and distribute their prayers, a constant reminder of the faith practised by the Bhutanese. Always met with smiles and kind words, we found the Bhutanese to be a warm, gentle and a attractive people – their round symmetrical faces making for exceptionally pretty young women and alert fine-featured men.
If you are considering a visit to Bhutan, now is the time to go. There is a building boom taking place, with traditional style hotels and even spas springing up. There will be an influx of tourists over the next few years and there is talk of a price rise in the minimum spend. I hope this new democracy is wise enough to preserve a great asset – the unique and unspoiled energy that makes Bhutan so appealing to the genuine traveller and spiritual seeker.
Share this post