Why visit Bhutan?

Why visit Bhutan?  This was an interesting question which was discussed in Drukair's inflight magazine which I read while waiting to depart from Bangkok on the 4:45 am flight to Paro.  Other than the spiritual aspects of visiting an overtly Buddhist country, and the option to trek in the high mountains, there really wasn't an answer to this question, so I will attempt to describe here what I found fascinating about Bhutan; afterall, I am neither a Buddhist nor a mountain trekker, so what was left for me?

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So, firstly, it has to be the fresh air; something the Bhutanese will take for granted.  Living in Hong Kong, one tends to forget the chronic effects of poor air quality until confronted with the freshest air possible!  I don't think this is something Bhutan's tourist department would consider, but with an increasing number of mainland Chinese tourists in Bhutan, it's probably time to think about this as a major marketing feature!

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Secondly, it has to be the incredible views.  Our visit was entirely in the west of Bhutan, focussing on the capital Thimphu and the two major towns of Paro and Punakha.  As we flew into Paro, the plane followed the river and its wings appeared so close to the hills on either side; hadn't known this in advance so it was rather a shock.  I think that flying into Paro is a fair match for the old terror of landing in Kai Tek airport, Hong Kong.  

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The towns are spread out in these valleys, and with the mountains in between hindering easy travel, it's no wonder the locals learned to make the best of their surroundings.  But, even when the weather masks the views of the Eastern Himalayas and everything is covered in mist, the ghostly trees took on a life of their own and the views took on an ethereal quality.

Bhutan has a population a little over 700,000 which is merely 10% of that of Hong Kong and with a much larger land mass!  Only rarely did it feel crowded, such as when we visited Thimphu dzong which is the administrative and traditional heart of Thimphu.  On weekdays, visitors wait to see the flag lowering ceremony at 5 pm, and are then allowed inside once the King as left at the end of his working day.  The Bhutanese are very conscious of protocol, and the ubiquitous guides wear a plan white shawl over their Gho to keep off the evening chill.  The white colour symbolises their humbleness, so monks wear saffron and the King wears red; thus Lawrence was asked by the guards to remove his red scarf before entering the dzong.

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The newest place to visit in Thimphu was the spectacular Buddha of Compassion on the hillside overlooking the city.  This monument was still under construction, and as with many tourist destinations in Bhutan, it could do with a a good road and a tea shop!  Yes, I know, travel means experiencing something different and should not have to be easy!  But, travelling around Bhutan is difficult, with major highways looking more like English B-roads.  Thankfully, most drivers are quite aware of the potential fatal consequence of bad driving and for the most part are very courteous.  The roads are chiseled into the hill sides and landslides are not uncommon, so repairs are constanly needed.  When we arrived at a road block (for rebuilding parrt of the road) and discovered we would have to wait for over an hour, no-one tooted their horns, no-one complained.  They just got out of their vehicles and took in the views and chatted until the road block (a man lying in the middle of the road) removed itself.

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This calmness and acceptance does indeed have a practical benefit; but what benefit did we get from walking clockwise three times around the Memorial Chorten in Thimphu?  Well, who knows because we do not have a proper control for this experience.  

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We did try our hand at a bit of the national game of archery, but not with the sophisticated equipment of these gentlemen.  The target must have been 200 yards away as it was barely visible.  Nevertheless, these archers could still hit the target!  This was 4 pm on a week day afternoon, but still there are plenty of people out on the archery grounds that day.

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For vegetarians, Bhutan is a paradise!  While some Bhutanese consume meat (especially the dried variety), the diet for most will feature chillis, potatoes and cheese.  The cheese is like smelly pressed cottage cheese and makes a handy sauce.  Our guide said that he has to have three servings of chilli per day, or his day won't be a good one.  We learnt to enjoy their 'chilli and cheese' dish to spice up the otherwise relatively bland food served up for the tourists.  The best food options were the simply cooked vegetables, with asparagus and a delicious fern as favourites to accompany the local red rice.  Given the economic value of the 'grey dollar', the government has done a lot to improve restaurant hygiene and make sure that visitors are well fed and safe from food poisoning.  Even when were at the campsite up in the hills, we had five food dishes for dinner and a huge breakfast (omelette, chips, salmon, tomatoes, apples and toast).  And yes, we did our best to eat everything!

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The fresh food in the weekend market in Thimphu looked very tasty, but the food at the Sunday market in Paro was less appertising.  Here the people looked quite different from those in Thimphu and Punakha, looking more Indian in face and size.  Bhutan has a very close relationship with India and major roadworks in Paro were contracted to Indian companies.  Sadly, despite the availability of modern road building equipment, much of the road building was done by hand by immigrant labour.  Trucks would dump boulders on the roadside, and men and women would squat nearby and hammer the boulders into small rubble. 

If you can only spare a brief time in Bhutan, then we would recommend a visit to Paro during one of the festival occasions.  From here you can travel daily to some wonderful places.

Of all the wonderful places we visited, the part of our trip to Bhutan which will remain most strongly in our memories has to be our 2-day trek to Bumdra.  Listed as 'moderate to challenging' in the travel brochure, we'd say is was more in the direction of challenging; we could barely walk properly for several days afterwards.  Our guide was so patient with us, so we didn't have to rush, and we even had a 'boy' to carry the rucksacks with our warm clothing.  Still, it was 7 hours before we got to the campsite beneath the Bumdra monastery cut into the hillside.  We had walked through beautiful forests and passed by isolated temples where young monks would spend 3 years, 3 months and 3 days in solitary contemplation and learning.  We slipped and slided on snow-covered muddy trails, and were overtaken by the pack ponies and their singing handlers taking food supplies up to the campsite.  Except for a much needed lunch break, there was little time to take in just how high we were climbing.  Even though the surrounding mountain tops were hidden behind the clouds, nightfall made for a glorius sunset and a bitterly cold night.  We found refuge in the cook's tent and Lawrence tried to  obscure his terrible toothache with a dose of local Whisky.  After dinner, everyone in the campsite collected around a glorious fire before attempting to sleep while ponies, dogs and the odd bell-clanging yak wandered through the campsite.

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At the end of March, Bhutan brightens up with trees in blossom everywhere, and brilliant red rhodendrums were starting to populate the hillsides.  Our descent from the campsite took us behind the mountain which had been our home for the night, and around and down another mountain opposite the famous Tiger's Nest monastery.  Given the jelly-like state of our knees by this time, we opted not to take the 1400 or so steps to the monastery and back, but rather focus on getting down the mountain safely.  Our guide declared that he has had to carry tourists down the mountain before, but he wouldn't be able to help us as our legs were too long and would drag on the ground!  So, there was nothing for it but to continue one step at a time.  You can visit the Tiger's Nest by a more conventional day trip from Paro, but this still requires a hard walk uphill on unmade paths, and the numerous steps at the end.  We did suggest installing a cable car, but apparently if you don't have to work hard to get here, then there is little point in doing this.  And this sums up why you should visit Bhutan: to experience the reward of a challenge and to appreciate the art of being a traditional Bhutanese in an otherwise modern and often indifferent world.

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© Helen Gray 2020