By John S. Hamalian
Tucked away in a quiet corner of time itself, in the deep hinterlands of the legendary Himalayans, lies an elusive land overflowing with hearty people and stunning beauty. A hidden wonder that, until the 20th century, was virtually unknown to the outside world.
Now, its substantial treasures have been slowly revealed to those with enough spirit, bravery and respect to partake in its unique locale and traditions. This is Bhutan – where a shy kingdom’s inhibitions have finally diminished and paradise yet remains within reach of humanity.
Persevering Kingdom at the Peak of the World
“If you see us flying extremely close to the mountains on descent, don’t worry – this is normal procedure”, the pilot’s voice crackled on the plane’s public address system. Very comforting. True to his word, we seemed to aim straight for one of the mountain faces then made a wicked left turn to approach the narrow flatlands of Bhutan’s Paro valley. So challenging is the aviatic approach to Paro Airport, the country’s sole international air field, that all pilots must receive a special certification to land there, a distinction only a handful in the world qualify for. They will, however, be richly rewarded by what must be one of the world’s most beautiful airports. Situated in a breathtaking setting, with rolling mountains straddling the landing strips and lush greenery all around, the structure itself is built in traditional Bhutanese style, looking more temple than airport. The shaky aeronautical passage to Bhutan has also offered one surprising treat: a clear view of mighty Mount Everest herself, looking as majestic and magnificent as she always has.
Hugging the soaring Himalayan Mountains, with a few dots of lowlands scattered about, tiny Bhutan is girded by giant China and goliath India both physically and politically. It is somewhat of a miracle that Bhutan has somehow maintained its independence and the fact that it was never colonized is a matter of fierce pride among its people. In the frantic land grab that was largely a byproduct of the power vacuum left by the dissolution of British India in 1947, most of the old Himalayan kingdoms were swallowed up by their much larger neighbors. Since nearby Nepal deposed its king a few years ago, Bhutan now stands alone as the Last Himalayan Kingdom and one of the few remaining in the entire Far East.
Alluring Nest on the Mountain’s Edge
An early wake-up is in order for a visit to Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest) Monastery, a must-see for anyone traveling to Bhutan. This monastery is considered to be one of the holiest sites in the country, as it was built to commemorate Guru Rinpoche, the legendary founder of an important Buddhist sect. The Bhutanese are deeply religious, their distinct brand of Buddhism being as deeply permeated in society as Catholicism was to the Romans. The Tiger’s Nest is located in a remote recess on the very edge of a sheer rock cliff that plunges 900 meters (around 3,000 feet) to a valley far below. This sounds fantastic, but the hard part is getting there.
We trudged up the rather steep mountain as the late morning sun was blazing afire. As we are huffing and puffing, a group on mules casually passes us by. I joke and ask “Do the mules get overtime pay?” A rather large rider quipped, “No, but they do charge an overweight fee!” After climbing the mountain for several hours, we finally
gazed upon Taktsang as if it magically appeared from nowhere. Its majestic design, with bright gilded roofs and staggered fortress-like walls, is seemingly fused with the
rocky precipice it was built on, creating a truly spectacular vision. It is then that one realizes this is one of those great, stunningly photogenic places of a manmade object on the face of the earth. At that moment it was as if all that is beautiful, serene and magnificent in the world was condensed into this one wondrous scene. The long hike
was infinitely worthwhile.
A Limited Ticket of Entry
Travel to Bhutan is highly regulated, with one of the most complicated entry rocedures in the world. Those who wish to partake must coordinate through an authorized travel agency, pre-pay a fixed daily fee (minimum US$200) and also pre-purchase their airplane ticket before the government will finally grant documented
approval for a visa to be stamped later at Paro Airport. There are only two airlines that are allowed to enter Bhutan and only from a select number of cities. The government wants to limit the volume of visitors to avoid over-commercialization and environmental damage, though contrary to a lingering myth, there is no annual tourist limit.
Perhaps all this care Bhutan puts into preserving its natural resources is worth it: by law at least 60% of the land must be maintained as forest for all time and, currently,
the nation absorbs three times as much carbon as it emits.
A Dzong and a Dream
In a quiet town of the same name lies Punakha Dzong, situated on a supremely picturesque location at the convergence of two cheerful rivers. Bhutan’s largest
dzong is skirted by pleasantly purple jacaranda flowers and connected to the mainland by a charming footbridge that looks as if it came right out of a fairy tale. A word
about dzongs: these unique buildings are the perfect manifestation of Bhutanese customs and way of life. Part administrative office, part monastery, part Buddhist temple, the dzong neatly packages these all together to reflect the close symbiotic relationship between state and religion. In Bhutan, far from being separate, they are considered to be inexorably linked. Any other reality would be difficult for the
average person here to comprehend.
In an actual demonstration of this ‘one-ness’, I happened upon an important-looking entourage of government representatives and high-ranking monks in close nison, making way to their dzong in splendid pomp. The officials’ handsome traditional attire (gho), with plaid coats and high boots, coupled with the bright flowing burgundy
robes of the Buddha’s acolytes made quite an impressive and colorful scene. They also proved to be remarkably down-to-earth. After I said “hello” to one of the officials,
he turned to me, smiled warmly and exclaimed in perfect English: “How are you?” My guide later told me that man is the Governor of Bhutan’s most important state.
Where Monks Gather and Dragons Scream
As my inquisitive footsteps echoed along the centuries-old interior walls of Punakha Dzong, at once dozens of young monks poured out of one of the seemingly infinite doorways, creating a temporary sea of crimson and maroon. Their stone-faced master trailed closely behind, literally cracking a whip in insistence of discipline. Inside another door, an ancient practice blending custom, doctrine and servitude is taking place precisely as it has from generations before. To witness a Buddhist ceremony in a Bhutanese temple is a deliciously odd and truly unforgettable experience; butter lamps flickering against bobbing shadows, pungent incense permeating the still air, close-eyed monks chanting in a trance-like state of alternate reality – interrupted only
by the shuddering drawn-out baritone blows of traditional multi-sectioned horns. They all conspire to create a highly spiritual and utterly surrealistic scene more reminiscent of a fabled ritual than an actual routine.
Finally, we arrive at Tongsa Dzong, the longest and most impressive dzong in Bhutan. Hugging a broad mountain side, the dzong is an astounding feat of construction: foreboding, intricate and simplistic all at the same time. Time seems to linger here. Chimes ring. Devouts sing. Children gambol. A curious monk pops his head from behind an ornate arch, much the same as one may have done back in the 17th century when the main part of this dzong (and most in Bhutan) was built by the great hierarch Shabdrung Namgyel, who fled from Tibet and unified the country.
This pioneer, who developed Bhutan like no other before, was part of the Drukpa religious sect – Druk, meaning ‘dragon’. Legend has it that thunder, believed to be the
voice of the dragon, was heard at the consecration of its first monastery. In fact, the real name of Bhutan is actually Druk Yul, ‘Land of the Thunder Dragon’.
Echoes of Thunder in the Distance
As evidenced by Bhutan’s seemingly perpetual independence, it appears that the Thunder Dragon still protects the land and its people. Yet, even in this remote, farflung nation, the currents of change lap at the stone shores of their rugged land. In the shadows of modernization and a global economy, it could naturally be said that the future of Bhutan’s distinctive identity is uncertain, but just a few days here, witnessing the glint in the eyes of its people and the pride churning in their hearts, there is no doubt that their destiny is well established. In Bhutan, time stands still yet somehow marches on. The kingdom may have been revealed, but the deepest secrets of the Thunder Dragon may yet lie hidden forever.