Bhutan Is So Appealing, explained

Posted on December 10, 2010

Bhutan again for the 9th time. This country makes quick converts out of most all its visitors. I was smitten on my first visit, and in a sense the country changed my life, as I felt I had to return and the only easy way to do so was begin a business taking others here. Bhutan is very restrictive about who it allows in, and visitors need adhere to a prearanged itinerary and travel with a licensed Bhutanese guide. So now, 3 years later I am a tour operator and Dorji (friend and business partner) with his mountains of experience is the guide. It's an arrangement that works very well for both of us, and while I'm not raking in the money, I see more of it with each passing year. And best of all, I return repeatedly to Bhutan.

The 4th king announced in 2005 he was going to abdicate in favor of his son, and that elections would be held so that while the son would be the next king (at the tender age of 27) he'd be a constitutional monarch.

Bhutan has been a monarchy for the past 103 years. In 1907 the various regional leaders decided to put aside their difference, elected one of themselves king and thus formed a monarchy. This alone is odd, making it the youngest monarchy, and that its origins came about in a semi democratic manner. The 4th king announced in 2005 he was going to abdicate in favor of his son, and that elections would be held so that while the son would be the next king (at the tender age of 27) he'd be a constitutional monarch. This was not the only unusual action of the 4th king. It was he who promulgated the concept of Gross National Happiness in 1972. Largely ridiculed or dismissed at the time, it has proved to be such a sound model for development that it's widely imitated now (though never adhered to as strictly as in Bhutan). There are 4 pillars of Gross National Happiness, and you can ask any Bhutanese and they'll reel them off as quickly as you would if someone were to ask you, "what do Americans eat for Thanksgiving?" Sustainable economic development, protection of natural resources, protection of the culture, and good governance. Makes you want to ask "why didn't we think of that?"

It's taken me 9 visits, but I've now formulated my own 4 pillars of why Bhutan is so appealing. Maybe I'm a slow learner or maybe the altitude impeded my thought process, but only recently have I been able to (I think) distill what I find so appealing about the country. I'm ready to articulate them in the hope that it might make some sense to those that have not seen with their own eyes.

John's four pillars of Bhutan's appeal: 1. natural beauty of the country, 2. uniqueness and beauty of man's footprint on Bhutan, 3. the people, 4. the government policies.

1. The kingdom sits on beautiful real estate, perched in the Himalayas. Mountains and hills seem to speak to something within us, in a way that flat lands don't (the Midwest Plains or the Rocky Mountains, which get the press?) Bhutan's mountains are part of the highest in the world, and the peaks and hillsides are ever visible. There's barely a flat area in all Bhutan, (and only one stretch of road where you can drive faster than 30 MPH for about 2 miles). The mountains themselves are covered with forest, and from the car window you often look out into virgin forest. Untrammeled land, never cleared and in many cases never even trodden upon by a human foot. Elsewhere on the planet you'd have to get on a plane and fly for hours over Canada or Brazil to see virgin forest.

These hillsides are often so steep they don't lend themselves to being scaled or much less exploited, and are covered with grand old forest. The forest cover varies by altitude, from dwarf conifers and dwarf bamboo at the timber line, then passing through every other biome from conifer to deciduous to tropical rain forest as you move from top to bottom. One side of the mountain might have dry forest while the other side moist forest, further enhancing the biodiversity. I'm a self admitted plant geek, so this really thrills me, but the forest's appearance with its ever changing look is marked enough to capture the attention of most all, so I've noticed. The changes may occur in a matter of minutes when the road plummets or soars. In a matter of hours the vegetation can change from what you'd see in Canada, to what you'd see in the tropics. This sort of thing can be seen elsewhere when the mixture of high altitudes coincides with tropical latitudes. Though in Bhutan both forest and mountains have barely felt the hand of man upon them, so you get to see it as it was before we humans mucked it up.

OK, so that's a lot of money to spend to see some trees and mountains, (though for some it might suffice), but I've another 3 pillars to go.

John's four pillars of Bhutan's appeal: 1. natural beauty of the country, 2. uniqueness and beauty of man's footprint on Bhutan, 3. the people, 4. the government policies.

2. The steep mountains prohibited outsiders from ever successfully invading. Oh they tried, it seems an unfortunate human trait to want to take over anothers territory. The Bhutanese and Tibetans were going after each others land for hundreds of years. And the British, having colonized all of India just to the south made attempts to annex Bhutan as well. They not only failed, the Bhutanese humiliated the British emissaries who tried to make a grab for their land. A century ago the entire world lived under the yoke of several powerful countries. (That information fills vast numbers of libraries). The effects of colonialism on other cultures was immense, whether one criticizes or defends. But is unarguably left its subjects with an overlay of European society. Travel to Bhutan and you see things are they developed without outside influence. Something we give little thought to, but in fact make Bhutan unique in that outsiders never influenced manners of worship, thought, education, language, food, morals, dress, architecture, sports and leisure.

In the 1600's they constructed vast citadels from stone and timber to serve as fortresses against invasions from Tibet. Four and 5 stories tall, built of stone with inward sloping walls, and perched on hill tops or valley bottoms. Painted white with a red band near the top, and with at least one and sometimes 3 towers jutting above the perimeter walls. Most of the exterior construction is stone, though it's complimented and augmented by massive hewn logs, intricately carved and painted with myriad colors and then each piece cut and fitted to the next so that no nails or screws are used. This sort of construction makes you shake your head in wonder,('how did they manage?' the common query) it's building unseen elsewhere in the world, and most were built in a year during the mid 1600's. Known as dzongs and still standing today, they are fixtures across Bhutan, and are used for their original intended use: monasteries, offices for civil servants and district governors. Centuries ago the army was garissoned within, now the army has its own barracks. When we visit a dzong we seldom see another foreigner there, unlike Europe's majestic cathedrals often overrun with tourists.

The same building principle applying to dzongs governs other structures in Bhutan. Houses are all build from stone or rammed earth, almost all three stories tall. The first floor mostly made from stone or earth, the third story mostly timber and the second story a blend of timber and stone/earth, in what might be called Bhutanese Tudor, but is really nothing of the sort. The sloped roofs of homes are covered with 1'x3' thick wood shingles, lashed together and then lain with big rocks to further keep them in place. The houses are always painted white with animals then painted on them. Mythical and real animals and also (I have to point it out as everyone visitor notices) penises, in full glory (if you get my drift) and often adored with ribbons and bows. They commemorate one of Bhutan's most most beloved figure, Drukpa Kinley, the Divine Madman, a wandering yogi and Buddhist proselytizer of the early 16th century. A devotee of wine, woman and song, I'll leave the rest to your imagination.

These homes dot the country, sometimes set singly on a hillside or hilltop sometimes in small clusters, in what passes for a village or hamlet. They catch your eye, and your mind thinks, 'Swiss chalet', as though the Alps and Himalayas collided. As a side effect of the Gross National Happiness and its desire to protect national cultural identity, it was decreed some 20 years ago that all buildings must be built in traditional style. In what passes for the city (Thimphu, the capital with 80,000 people) you see new buildings using concrete and re bar, but the finished result is just like what you see elsewhere.

Protection of the culture also figures in the dress of the Bhutanese. Another historial figure Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, lived in the 17th century. It was he who unified Bhutan and had the dzongs constructed. He also designed clothing for his people, so as to set them apart from nieghboring people. Does another founding father have fashion designer on his resume? Fortunately for the Bhutanse, he possesed a good aesthetic and his garments are today worn by all. At least (by decree) when going to work, school or into a government building. Women wear a kira, an ankle length skirt with a tunic like top vest, held in place but metal brooches. Men wear an ankle length robe (known as a gho), which is folded and tied so that it falls to thier knees and looks like a dress. Knee socks complete the ensemble. Think what you will, but on Bhutanese men it looks either dignified or sexy. Western men (including myself), cannot seem to pull it off sucessfully and just look dorky in a gho. I have the pictures to prove I'm a fashion criminal dressed in a gho. Drive or walk across Bhutan and where you're not in wilderness you find big houses, dzongs and monasteries, and people attired in ghos and kiras. Makes you feel you've time traveled or entered into the movie set of some creative genuis. Jim Ratcliff who visited Bhutan with me summed it up well, saying, "I've never seen an aesthetic so foreign yet so comfortable as that of Bhutan." Thanks, Jim.

Bhutan is so lightly popluated that they've been able to tread lightly on the land, so ones view of the country is mostly nature with villages and villagers dotting the country. As they grow their own food, and the country is all mountains, they've terraced some of the hillsides, carving rice fields out of the slopes, beautiful as contour maps come to life. In the warm months these fields are green with rice, yellow with mustard flowers, or pink with buckwheat flowers. In autumn they are fallow and shades of brown and tan, and dotted with evenly spaced small and large piles of manure, all laid out neatly, so that from a distance the fields have the appearance of the textiles patterned with geometric forms you see woven all over the country. If dance is poetry in motion, agriculture in Bhutan is poetry writ large over the land.