demons, clowns - Bhutan's fun and beauty revealed
I gave my beloved a choice of two destinations for my 40th
birthday present - the Okavango swamp in Botswana or Bhutan.
I was quite merciless in taunting him with his choice as he
struggled for breath just turning over in a sleeping bag at
4,000 metres in Bhutan's Eastern Himalayas. The Kingdom of
the Thunder Dragon is literally and metaphorically breathtaking.
But the joy of Bhutan lies as much in its unspoilt people
as it does in its awesome (not keen on that word but it is
appropriate in this case) landscapes. Picture-postcard snow-capped
peaks, rivers and forests conceal serene monasteries and monks,
farms and villagers.
Strictly following their Buddhist principles, the Bhutanese
number less than a million and are polite, friendly and eager
to make sure you enjoy their country. And they are so refreshingly
Andy and I wore traditional dress to an annual festival in
the capital, Thimpu, that celebrates the arrival of Buddhism
in Bhutan from Tibet more than a millennium ago. Our guide,
Sonam, positively swooned over His Nibs' robes without mentioning
mine. I eventually gave in and asked what he thought of my
attire. "I don't like the colour," he grinned rather
Then there were the invitations into the small, isolated monasteries
nestled on top of the mountains. Sonam would lead us into
the prayer rooms where the monks would be performing some
ritual or ceremony and we would protest that it was intrusive
and voyeuristic. Well, he was having none of that. The Bhutanese
were apparently happy to show visitors their work, play and
prayer and perhaps we should just get over it. But it was
a bit like a bunch of Bhutanese tourists showing up at a wedding,
standing at the back of the church while the tour guide explained
"this is how they get married in the UK". I don't
think the bride's mother would have been as ecstatic about
it as a Buddhist Abbott.
I trudged up a mountain with 3kg of Buddhas in my backpack
ready to be blessed by the monks in a Dzong. The smooth, polished,
wooden floors of the gompa surrounded by the technicolour
icons and enveloped by incense imbued calmness and serenity
- just like the rest of the country. Yet some of our party
felt there was a sinister control and oppression at work.
It's true that parliament is just a few years old, the monarchs
having finally relinquished absolute power. Smoking is not
permitted anywhere (foreigners must be discreet) and a bottle
of wine costs £20. There is no crime and the homeless
are taken in my the monks, who beg for their own living from
the people. Not democracy as we know it because there is no
"I" and decisions are made for society and a greater
good but the internet and satellite TV are freely available.
Teachers are rated higher than medics and engineers and tiny
schools in the middle of nowhere are being upgraded with Japanese
money into high-tech centres of learning. Squished between
a billion Indians and a billion Chinese, the Bhutanese government
sees its future in maintaining its national identity (everyone
wears traditional dress, all the time) and thoroughly educating
Those who don't buy into it are free to leave and a young
Sonam couldn't wait to get out and study for his degree in
India. He told us he soon became disillusioned with the avarice
and people trying to rip him off. He came home to stay, although
he admitted he'd quite like to go on a shopping trip to Thailand.
They're not perfect and there is a none-too-small problem
of Nepalese refugee camps deporting/repatriating people who
claim Bhutanese citizenship. But they don't hold their citizens
under house arrest (unlike the UK and Burma).
Having briefly experienced the corruption, crime and pollution
that came with the millions of tourists who now visit neighbouring
Nepal, I can see why Bhutan only lets 15,000 foreigners visit
every year (and for a very high price). It's a magical place
that receives a lot of money from the EU and US to preserve
its forests that face an increasing burden of breathing for
the planet. But that might just save it as one of the last
few remaining places where you can feel like an explorer from
100 years ago discovering a new paradise.