Progress and preservation

Rita Payne reflects on a recent trip to the Land of the Thunder Dragon, where happiness is as great an aspiration as wealth

The King of the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan made international headlines when he declared that ‘gross national happiness’ is the government’s goal and a thriving economy should not be regarded as the sole measure of success. Like his forebears, he has striven to maintain a balance, encouraging progress and development while preserving the kingdom’s unique culture and heritage.

Bhutan’s charmis apparent as soon as the aircraft descends through the clouds over spectacular mountain landscapes to land at Paro Airport. Unlike most international terminals, the structure and design is far from bland, based on Bhutanese styles with carved wooden roofs and pillars and Buddhist-themed murals.

Tashi Namgay Resort, our main base during our stay, is conveniently located opposite the airport. Like most other buildings in Bhutan, the complex draws inspiration from traditional local architecture while providing all the amenities expected of a luxury establishment.

Tiger’s Nest and other attractions

Paro is considered one of the most beautiful of Bhutan’s valleys. We awoke on our first morning to the sound of the fast-flowing river which runs along the base of the hotel compound from its source in the Himalayas. We were met by our guide Namgay and young driver Benjoy, who became our trusted and informed companions throughout our visit.

The first item on our programme was possibly the most challenging. Our goal was to climb to Paro Taktsang monastery, popularly known as Tiger’s Nest, which clings precariously to the edge of a steep cliff. Sadly, I had to give up when we were less than a quarter of the way up, as I was simply not fit enough to complete the trek. My husband, who is made of sterner stuff, was justifiably proud of climbing to the monastery and enthused about the spectacular views. The monastery – believed to be located where Guru Rinpoche meditated in a cave in the 8thcentury – is revered as one of the holiest Buddhist sites, not only in Bhutan but in the whole of the Himalayan region.

A ten-minute drive from central Paro is Kyichu Lhakhang, a majestic 7thcentury temple. Also in Paro district is Ta Dzong (National Museum), one of the best places to learn about Bhutan’s religion, customs and traditional arts and crafts. From here a trail leads to Rinpung Dzong, a large monastery and fortress that houses the district Monastic Body, as well as the Paro government administrative office. From Paro we drove to the capital, Thimphu, where we checked in at the Peri Phuntso Hotel, popular on the tourist trail.

Thimphu to Punakha

Early next morning we set off from Thimphu for Punakha across the Dochula Pass (3,100m) which was testing for our driver Benjoy, since sections of the road were shrouded by a sudden downpour and heavy mist. When the skies cleared we were rewarded with an awe-inspiring view of the greater eastern Himalayas, including Bhutan’s highest peak.

A major landmark is Punakha Dzong, a historic fortress built by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel in 1637 and located at the junction of the Pho Chu and Mo Chu rivers. Punakha was the capital of Bhutan until 1955 and still serves as the winter residence of Je Khenpo, the Chief Abbot. The fortress, which has played a prominent role in the religious and civil life of the country, was devastated at various stages of its history by fires, floods and an earthquake. It was completely restored under the direction of the present King.

View of Tiger’s Nest Monastery Photo credit: Rita Payne
View of Tiger’s Nest Monastery
Photo credit: Rita Payne

Myths and legends abound in Bhutan, whose original name, Druk Yul, means Land of the Thunder Dragon. The kingdom is dotted with temples and shrines dedicated to a pantheon of deities, monks and religious figures, each credited with special powers to heal and deliver special blessings. We visited a temple devoted to Drukpa Kunley, a monk with an intriguing reputation who came to be known as ‘the Divine Madman of Bhutan’ because of his colourful life. He is reputed to have had a magical penis and so, not surprisingly, the temple is associated with fertility. Childless couples travel long distances to offer prayers to him and photos are on display in the temple of those who believe their prayers were answered.

The programme on our return to Thimphu included a visit to the Institute of Traditional Medicines, where one can learn about the indigenous raw materials used for preparing a range of health products. We went on to the Folk and Heritage Museum, which displays implements used by traditional Bhutanese farmers and gives an idea of the tough lives they still lead in less developed parts of the kingdom. Nearby is the Painting School, specialising in traditional paintings, sculptures and wood carvings

Great Buddha Dordenma Photo credit: Rita Payne
Great Buddha Dordenma Photo credit: Rita Payne

In the late evening we visited the Great Buddha Dordenma, a giant statue of the Buddha atop a hill overlooking Thimphu. Almost 52 metres high (168 feet), it is one of the world’s largest and tallest statues of the Buddha. The view of Thimphu below was breathtaking. Other places of interest are a workshop where handmade paper is produced and the National Handicraft Emporium, a treasure trove of products made in Bhutan.

Culture and customs

Although Bhutan is wedged between its giant neighbours, India and China, it has been successful in safeguarding its language, culture and customs, and its society is strongly egalitarian. While the family system is basically patriarchal, family estates are divided equally between sons and daughters. The kingdom’s official language is Dzongkha, a dialect similar to Tibetan, and the Bhutanese calendar is based on the Tibetan system, which in turn derives from the Chinese lunar cycle.

Although in cities and townspeople tend to favour western clothes, men and women still wear their national dress. Men look striking in their robes with a belt tied around the waist, while the women sport ankle-length robes in colourful fabrics and distinctive jewellery made from corals, pearls, turquoise and precious agate eye-stones, which Bhutanese call ‘tears of the Gods’.

A vital source of income

As a land-locked country of only 700,000 people, Bhutan has limited options for export or industry due to its mountainous terrain. Much of the country’s population is poor, with 12 per cent living below the international poverty line. Tourism is one of the main sources of income, though the King is vigilant about protecting the country’s traditions and heritage from the damage that can be caused by mass commercial tourism.

Tourists are required to spend a minimum of $200 per person per day from December to February and June to August, and $250 per person per day from March to May and September to November. Indians, Bangladeshis and Maldivians are exempted from this charge. There are also discounts available, primarily for students and children aged 5-12. While this policy has drawn criticism from some for discriminating against the less well off, it is thanks to the income from tourism that the people of Bhutan are able to enjoy free healthcare and education, a strong infrastructure and poverty relief.

Lovely landscape

It is no wonder tourists flock to Bhutan. It is blessed with a stunning range of natural treasures, from snow-clad Himalayan mountains and glaciers to lush jungles. More than two-thirds of the kingdom is covered with forests where exotic birds and animals flourish, and it boasts several national parks.

One of the most visited is the Manas Game Sanctuary on the banks of the Manas River, which forms the border with the Indian state of Assam. Here one can find the endangered one-horned rhino, elephants, tigers, buffalo, many species of deer and the golden langur, a small monkey unique to this region. With many species of wildlife becoming extinct in some parts of the world as a result of  poaching or loss of habitat due to urban development, Bhutan is devoting considerable resources to protecting its wild life.

During our short stay we saw only a fraction of what Bhutan has to offer. It is no surprise that a survey in The Lonely Planet places the kingdom top ofits list of countries to visit. The government is grappling to maintain Bhutan’s well-preserved culture in the face of rapid development and modernisation.

One can only hope that the allure of this magical kingdom will not be destroyed by invasions of tourists as word spreads about its unique charm.

Rita Payne is President Emeritus of the Commonwealth Journalists Association, and former Asia Editor, BBC World News

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