Every 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.
The peace, harmony and serenity that is Bhutan awaits you on your journey to Bhutan with John and Dorji They seem to know everyone and we were greeted with open arms and big smiles wherever we were. I went to Bhutan to feed my soul and that I did. - Joan Eckart, San Francisco, CA September 2010
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 neighbors.
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 was affirmative.
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.
This little changed kingdom does permit a small number of tourists. Limited to no more than 4000 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 pre-planned 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.