Bhutan really is unique in the world – its culture is one of the most well preserved in the world. As a tourist, I felt I was almost stepping back in time. Some of this may be due to the fact that television wasn’t allowed into the Buddhist kingdom until 1999, so, unlike most places; western culture has yet to take over. Another factor is that traditional Bhutanese dress is required in both school and the workplace, so one always sees the women wearing their Kira’s and the men in Goa’s. Western style clothes are often worn by the youth on weekends, but the older folk tend to wear the Kira or Goa year-round.
Bhutan has a young king (only 29 years old) who was corronated last year. He is very popular and has many progressive environmental and educational policies – such as a program to end illiteracy by 2020 where teachers are sent to villages in the evenings so that farmers can learn to read and write after they finish their work. His focus on environmental protection includes preserving Bhutan’s pristine undeveloped land covering 75 % of the country. One way he’s accomplishing this is urging people to replace traditional roof tops (which require deforestation) with more modern, metal materials.
The Bhutanese culture is most pronounced during their extravagant festivals. To gain an authentic feel for these traditions I went to Bhutan in September during their main festival season. As well as being times of celebrating Buddhism and gaining blessings, these festivities are the most important social events of the year. Everyone is dressed in their best attire and the attendees are almost as much of a spectacle as the participants. The monks are the dancers, dressed in lavish costumes and large masks. Some of the dances last hours and all tell important stories of Buddhism. It seems that almost everyone attends the festivals, so this must be one way all the stories are passed down to the younger generation.
For travelers Bhutan is very peaceful. I could watch the clouds shift over the mountains for hours and never get tired of it. The people are very friendly and smile as you walk by. As a visitor you get the best of Bhutan without having to deal with the hassles of having to wear the national dress or having to explain what you’re doing at checkpoints; the guides and drivers deal with all the formalities. The tourist industry in Bhutan is well developed and tightly regulated, and you’ll find you need to have a guide in order to travel and the tourist fee is high (approx. $250/day) by the area’s norms, but includes pretty much everything (guide, driver, hotels, meals, entry fees, etc). The hotels are all of fairly high standard and drivers for tourists are well trained and much more careful than bus or taxi drivers.
My driver, Tashi, was a true gem and made the trip much more special. With a kind smile, he was always there to open the door for me and he drove with care over the slightest bump. I immediately felt I was in good hands and would be safe – which is a lot to expect on Bhutan’s rural mountain roads with their common landslides. Tashi was also a lama – in order to become a lama you have to meditate for 3 years, 3 months, and 3 days. He did this twice back to back – meditating for 6 years, 6 months, and 6 days plus a number of shorter stints, so you can imagine how peaceful his energy was. He’d retired from being a lama for the Thimpu police after 9 years and 9 months (and 9 days?) and started driving tourists for his brother’s company, Sacred Himalaya Travel. He’s the most kind and careful driver I’ve had anywhere.
My journey began with an incredible flight into Paro with mountains closing in on either side as the plane maneuvered its way through them. You can’t see any runway, but as the plane turns and the Paro valley opens a bit, the short landing strip appears. It was a fun flight and would have been better if we’d seen the snow covered peaks that were unfortunately hidden by clouds.