Destinations

On top of the world

The ancient Himalayan nation of Bhutan has long shied away from fast-paced modernity, but is now embracing upscale tourism. Peter Hughes takes to the hills to discover the charms of this quantifiably happy land.

December 14 2011
Peter Hughes

Bhutan, the hidden Himalayan kingdom that shunned the outside world for almost 400 years, is throwing open its doors. Having dipped its toe in the 20th century, it is now plunging headlong into the 21st. It is coming out.

What’s perhaps surprising is that one of the main drivers of the transformation is tourism, an industry that has been treated warily in the past. New hotels, new airports and a new airline are spreading holidays deeper into the realm. But don’t get the wrong idea: it’s not Bhutan that will be transformed – it’s Bhutan’s visitors. This, at least, is what the Bhutanese believe. If you consider the idiosyncratic little country that is Bhutan today, you understand that they could have a point.

I climbed to a temple at the top of a hill. It was a squat, square building with coarse, whitewashed stone walls and wide eaves that projected like a mortarboard. The track leading to it ascended through paddies of ripening rice, crossed an archery field and passed a prayer wheel, driven by water and busily rotating in its little stone kiosk. Beside the temple, a thicket of slender prayer flags on tall masts quivered in the wind. Another, larger prayer wheel – they are more drums than wheels – pinged as it turned, like an insistent receptionist’s bell, supposedly relaying the entreaties of the mantras stored inside.

It was a microcosm of Bhutan: mountains, rice, Buddhism and the national sport, archery. All that was momentarily missing was the monarchy. But Bhutan is culturally too unruly to be confined by microcosms.

In the temple prayer hall, my guide whispered: “He would like to give you a blessing.” I turned to see a young monk. He wore maroon robes and a complexion burnished by high altitude. In his left hand he held a bow and arrow; in his right a yellowing length of elephant tusk and a disconcertingly realistic wooden phallus. It had a silver hilt, from which dangled long red tassels. The monk pressed the objects to my temples and murmured a short prayer.

Chimi Lhakhang (temple) was built in 1499 to honour the notorious lama Drukpa Kunley, aka the Divine Madman. “Pious Lecher” would be more accurate. The bow and arrow were his, and so, allegedly, was the phallus. His life was devoted to earnest dissipation. “My meditation practice is girls and wine,” he wrote. Considering he was supposed to have seduced his mother and committed a lifetime of outrage in words as well as deeds, that was one of his more restrained pronouncements.

Whether Kunley’s unorthodoxy led to his or anyone else’s enlightenment is a moot point, but it fast-tracked him into the higher echelons of Bhutanese folklore. And there he remains. His legacy is not only the replica of his “magic thunderbolt of wisdom” kept in the Chimi temple, but in murals of flying phalluses painted on houses all over Bhutan, and model penises hung from their eaves. They are said to ward off demons. As the Queen of Bhutan, Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, comments in her book, Treasures of the Thunder Dragon, “Bhutanese culture is both deeply spiritual and robustly earthly.”

It is also constantly surprising. Propped up on the choshom, or altar, of the temple, amid the Buddha figures and butter lamps, was an AK-47 assault rifle with bayonet fixed. The current king’s father distributed weapons to selected temples as souvenirs of the 2003 campaign to expel Assam separatists. It was probably the last time any king led an army into battle. That too is entirely in tune with the country’s quixotic image.

For most people, the entrance to Bhutan involves a trip through the looking glass. On a clear day, flying from Delhi, you look the high Himalayas in the eye. First Everest, then Lhotse and Kanchenjunga line up to the left of the aircraft, like an icy guard of honour. The plane descends and enters a valley. Mist and mountains close in. Through a striptease of cloud at the wingtips there are glimpses of whitewashed monasteries buried in hillsides dense with pine. Skimming a ridge, the plane banks with the contours, left then right, to come to earth in a Himalayan cul-de-sac.

Immediately, the world is different. Paro airport feels like the portal to a secret garden. If it weren’t for the big control-tower windows, the terminal building could be a 300-year-old temple, complete with painted religious symbols.

Most people are in costume, not uniform, but national dress. It dates from the 17th century, the men in ghos, a cross between a kilt and kimono with huge white cuffs, and the women in long sarong-like dresses called kiras. Both are made from bright Bhutanese textiles.

The regulations have been relaxed, but ghos and kiras still have to be worn on formal occasions, and by schoolchildren, and when visiting temples or government offices. In winter, men are allowed to wear warm socks, or long johns, but tradition requires them to wait to do so until the monks from the capital repair to their winter quarters.

For centuries, Bhutan maintained self-imposed isolation, and the last of the whimsical Himalayan kingdoms was a strategic latecomer to the modern world. A trickle of tourism only started in 1974. Television was introduced officially in 1999, although there were plenty of unofficial video players and satellite receivers before that. Mobile phones have only recently become commonplace, and both Paro and the capital, Thimphu, now have ATMs.

Architecture, reminiscent of Alpine chalets, is much the same in 2011 as it was in 1711, and even in the capital I never saw a building taller than six storeys. Windows in any building must have ornate wooden frames with trefoil heads, although there are two offices in Thimphu that have got away with incongruous façades of reflective glass.

Bhutan has entered the 21st century on its own terms, not simply by trailing remnants of the 18th century with it, but by rejecting the bits of this century it doesn’t care for. It is one of the few countries to have forbidden the use of plastic bags, and the only one to ban the sale of tobacco. (It simultaneously seems oblivious to the meadows of marijuana growing wild on the hillsides.)

Tourists cannot travel independently; they have to be accompanied by a guide, and there is a minimum charge for holidays of $200 a day, which is about to rise to $250 (on January 1). Advertising hoardings are nonexistent and shop signs are standardised: blue boards with white lettering for private businesses, and gold on red for government offices. Neon is a no-no, though it isn’t banned any more.

In her perceptive memoir Married to Bhutan, Linda Leaming, an American writer who has made her home in the country, says Bhutan competes with the developed world by not competing – “by taking its ball and going home”. The Bhutanese, she notes, have foregone opportunities to make money from their considerable natural resources, such as timber, water and minerals, in favour of their quality of life. She could have added mountaineering as another potential source of profit, but scaling the country’s highest peaks is taboo for fear of offending the resident deities.

The best-known example of the Bhutanese world view is the king’s declaration in 1979 that GNH (Gross National Happiness) is more important than GNP (Gross National Product). But 32 years later, just as the rest of the world was starting to sign up to the notion, in Bhutan it has been hijacked by the marketing men. Drukair, the national airline, calls its in-flight shopping catalogue Happiness; the slogan of Bhutan’s Tourism Council is “Happiness is a place”. Actually, happiness here is a brand, and with such a priceless set of national quirks to plug, a winsome one at that.

The question now is whether Bhutan’s cultural eccentricities can retain their age-old integrity, or whether they will be appropriated as saleable curiosities by the impresarios of international tourism. Will Bhutan go the way of the long-neck women of the Karen people on the Thai-Burmese border, or the dance troupes in African tourist lodges?

The government, while preoccupied with protecting Bhutan’s identity (how to let in enough of the 21st century to prosper, but not so much as to corrupt), has high expectations for tourism. Around 100,000 visitors will be permitted in 2012, more than double the number in 2010. Three new airports, one designed for international flights, are being opened in an effort to spread tourism eastwards away from Paro and Thimphu, and a second airline is being introduced to fly the new domestic routes. International services will follow. And new, small, luxury hotels are being built in line with a policy of “high value (to Bhutan), low impact”.

I travelled east from the 2,300m, thin-air altitude of Paro to the lower and warmer elevation of Punakha, the country’s former capital. In a nation of dramatic buildings, the 17th-century Punakha Dzong is among the most spectacular. Dzongs are fortresses containing both monasteries and government offices. The massive Punakha Dzong, part-castle, part-cathedral, is where Bhutan’s kings are crowned and the Thimphu monks, with their abbot, the Je Khenpo, spend their winters. It occupies a spit of land at the confluence of two rivers, the Mochu and Pochu.

Follow the Mochu up towards the end of the valley, just before the sides become too pinched to be laminated with rice paddies, and you reach the site of one of two new five-star hotels opening next year. This one is being built by Como Hotels. In Bhutan, the company already has Uma Paro, a luxury mountain lodge perched above the Paro Valley and enfolded in Bhutanese culture and scenery. It looks like a monastery populated by butlers rather than monks.

The new 11-room lodge, Uma Punakha, is more rustic. Built on royal-estate land high above the river, it will resemble a small farm. As well as fruit trees and rice, Uma Punakha will have a spa, terrace restaurant and huge, 270-degree views to the big mountains layered across the end of the valley. For the active, there will be white-water rafting, trekking and mountain biking.

The other new hotel is still further east, at Gangtey. You get to it through scenery like Scotland on steroids. The road, formed of a single lick of pitted Tarmac, is scratched high across the mountainside and writhes with bends. Usually there is nothing between its crumbly edge and chasms, teeming with trees, which reach so far into the earth their limits can only be guessed at.

My journey confirmed my theory that the more religious a country, the more dangerous are its drivers. Judging by some of the overtaking, it was the Bhutanese who put the “car” into reincarnation. Faith is a spiritual airbag.

The Phobjikha Valley is a broad glacial basin, 2,900m high, dotted with small farms and ringed by peaks patched with shadow, hemlock and pine. In November, hundreds of rare black-necked cranes migrate from Tibet. To the Bhutanese, they are “celestial” birds; they are said to circle Gangtey monastery three times when they depart in March. Electricity, which has only recently reached the valley, is carried by underground cables in lieu of crane-threatening pylons.

The Gangte Goemba Lodge shares a ridge with the monastery, though, unlike the monks, the guests will be able to enjoy the view down the length of the valley from their baths. Each of the 12 rooms will have a bathtub in a large bay window. For Brett Melzer, the Australian behind the lodge, Bhutan is a new venture; his business up to now has been based in Burma. He runs sightseeing balloons over Bagan, and had a hotel, Malikha Lodge, in the north of the country until a combination of political factors led to its sale.

Bhutan, he says, seemed an obvious next step. It fitted the niche of “exotic wilderness”, offering culture, nature and adventure. The Bhutanese government’s policies on careful tourism management and environmental protection were also attractions. “We chose Gangtey Valley for its remoteness and beauty,” he adds. “And also because nothing could be more difficult than building a lodge in the wilds of Burma.”

In Gangtey, he will have as a neighbour one of the five Amankora lodges that Amanresorts had the prescience to begin opening some seven years ago. The buildings are all different – Amankora Gangtey has only eight rooms – but the experience in each of them is so relaxing and so stylish it’s the intellectual equivalent of a spa treatment.

It is easy to over-romanticise Bhutan as a sort of Himalayan Brigadoon. It has its problems. At the time of my visit, there had just been a spate of thefts from chortens (memorial shrines) and a newspaper published an exposé of an alleged landownership scandal implicating senior politicians. New towns in Bhutan, despite their nods to architectural tradition, look as characterless as new towns anywhere else, and the amount of litter chucked along the hillside trails is at odds with a society that claims to lay such store by its environmental consciousness.

But in an increasingly homogenised world, Bhutan’s distinctiveness is a rarity. The signs are it will remain so. Five years ago, the king abdicated in favour of his son and the introduction of parliamentary democracy. In 2008, the first democratic election in Bhutan’s history was held. The result? The country voted by a landslide for everything to stay the same.

See also

Bhutan, Asia