country is unique. Bhutan however stands farther
out from the crowd of nations than most others.
And in a good way, it must be added. The Kingdom
of Bhutan is one of the very few countries to have
escaped conquest and colonialism at the hands of
another nation. So for starters, a visit to Bhutan
is a visit to a country unsullied by the power of
another. The demerits, or merits of colonialism
can be argued in another venue, but it is correct
to say that it leaves many traces of the mother
country upon its former colonies. Which can make
for interesting cultural fusion, and makes visits
to much of the globe somewhat familiar.
If you plan a visit to Bhutan, prepare yourself
for something entirely different from what you may
have seen in Asia, or elsewhere. Bhutan marches
to its own drumbeat, and until 1960, this drumbeat
was a medieval one. At that time the Kingdom was
more noteworthy for what it did not have: no roads,
cars, electricity, indoor plumbing, newspapers,
TV, radio, no schools or hospital, no currency or
postal system. Pretty close to no outside influence.
And no outsiders allowed in. And no one spoke English.
What it did have in 1960: a benevolent king, a strong
Buddhist culture, a small population of farmers,
who lived and farmed as their forebears did 400
years before. They built large and sturdy stone
or rammed earth houses, and worshipped at the same
centuries old monasteries and temples as did their
ancestors. The Switzerland sized mountainous country
was sparsely inhabited, with great swaths of unsettled
land. The population was entirely self sufficient,
and the country was at peace, with itself and its
The terrain is extremely mountainous. No fertile
plains here, instead snowy or treeless peaks, and
mountainsides covered with forest of conifer, bamboo,
rhododendron, and magnolia. Any place deemed sacred
is covered with a myriad of multihued prayer flags.
Steep valleys cradle rivers etching away at their
floor with subtropical vegetation climbing the steep
hillsides. Terraced rice fields cling to mountainsides,
and small patches of wheat, barley or potatoes are
cultivated at higher elevations. Yaks and ponies
maneuver across the hillsides. Vast areas of unbroken
forest, filled with tigers, leopards, bears, monkeys,
and (so say the Bhutanese) the yeti.
The small towns always guarded by a DZONG, a massive
fortress constructed 4 centuries ago to repel invading
Tibetans, and to this day serving as administrative
headquarters and housing the monastery, with its
hundreds of red robed monks. Many monasteries and
other holy buildings dot the countryside. The people
dress today as they did centuries ago, the men wear
a kimono like robe (the GHO), while the women wear
an ankle length skirt and tunic like vest (the KIRA).
All construction is in traditional Bhutanese style.
So despite the fact that all Bhutanese speak English,
carry cell phones and use computers, and have a
good understanding of the world, the kingdom in
many ways still looks as it did 400 years ago. With
time travel still not on offer by Champaca Journeys,
a trip to Bhutan is the closest approximation.
Located high in the Himalayan Mountains, with India
to the south and Tibet to the north, the Bhutanese
saw their culturally similar Tibetan neighbors invaded
by China in the late 1950’s. Alarmed and worried,
the King at the time decided it would
be prudent to initiate relations with the outside
world. To do so they needed a road from the Indian
border, and to have his citizenry be familiar with
the outside world. This meant the introduction of
schools, and a language with which they could communicate
to others. English was chosen. Many countries have
rushed, leapt, been prodded or dragged into the
21st century, and the results not always pretty.
Bhutan has taken the past 48 years to cautiously
and slowly make this move, always on its own terms,
and the outcome has been amazing. Part of this move
included debate over whether or not to permit tourism.
If you are contemplating a visit to Bhutan, you
ought to be grateful that the answer to that debate
The wise fourth King Jigme Singye Wangchuck took
the throne upon the death of his father in 1974.
He continued Bhutan’s path of modernization,
and made education, health services, rural development
and protection of the environment central to his
rule. It was he who instituted the concept of GROSS
NATIONAL HAPPINESS, not a measure of smiling faces,
but a well conceived notion that stresses good governance,
sustainable development, environmental protection
and preservation of culture. In 2005 the fourth
king announced he would abdicate in favor of his
eldest son, and the country would hold elections
so as to become a constitutional monarchy. Democracy
lessons were held across the country, a national
mock election was held (complete with 4 dummy political
parties) in 2007, and in April of 2008 elections
were held, ushering Bhutan into that all too small
group of countries whose citizens freely and fairly
choose their leaders.
little changed kingdom does permit a small number
of tourists. Limited to no more than 300 at any
one time, and this to protect the local culture
from an excess of outside influence. As a visitor
one must travel with a government licensed Bhutanese
guide, and adhere to a preplanned and prepaid itinerary.
Many of us do this in our travels elsewhere, so
in this sense travel to Bhutan may seem familiar
to those of you who do explore the world with a
local guide on a planned journey. Champaca Journeys’s
guide, Dorji, is full of information, personality,
charisma, experience and energy. Patience and humility
as well. With Dorji to shepherd you throughout his
country, your experience will be comfortable, fascinating,
and memorable. Dorji and I invite you to come and
see his remarkable country with your own eyes.