While even experienced travellers may struggle to find Bhutan on a map — look on the southern side of the Himalayas to the east of India — many are likely to have heard of this tiny Kingdom that measures Gross National Happiness.
Bhutan has long restricted visits to avoid the problems of over-tourism in destinations like Nepal. The main barrier has been cost: it usually costs a minimum daily package rate of $US200 per person per night. It has certainly been effective — only 2200 Australians visited Bhutan in 2017.
However, to celebrate 15 years of diplomatic relations between our two countries, and in an endeavour to boost Australian visitations, Australians can elect not to pay this; rather they can take advantage of discounted airfares and hotels, plus a government Sustainable Development Fee of just $US65 per person per night (and a visa fee of $US40).
The Bhutan – Australia Friendship Offer is available exclusively to Australian nationals for travel between I June and 31 August 2018.
Land of the Thunder Dragon
Bhutan is a very special place. It’s a tiny, independent kingdom about the size of Switzerland, high in the Himalayas neighbouring Tibet, Sikkim, and India. The northern part of the country lies within the foothills, snowfields, and jagged ramparts of Chomolhari (or Jomolhari) range of the Himalayas. From here, it slopes down to the plains of West Bengal.
Culturally, it has the uncorrupted richness that Tibet must have had. Miraculously, Bhutan still has the atmosphere of an idealised medieval kingdom. It is a perfect Tantric Buddhist society frozen in time. Towns and valleys are dominated by dzongs, imposing fortress monasteries where monks and civil administrators intermingle.
There are cars and tarred city streets but, for much of the nation, life has changed little in the past few centuries. Traffic still gives way to yaks and many villagers have to walk several days to a shop. This year sees the opening of the East West Highway that will make travel within the kingdom significantly easier.
James Hilton wrote Lost Horizon more than 80 years ago. Since 1933, when the book introduced the concept of Shangri-la, all the likely candidate countries have lost their magic. Only one country has been largely overlooked — Bhutan.
Tshechus (Bhutanese religious festivals)
With a calendar crowded with Tshechu (religious festivals), many visitors plan their trips to coincide with a festival. Two of the most popular are the Paro Tshechu in spring (March), and Thimpu Tshechu in autumn (September).
The Paro Tsechu festival draws large crowds from the surrounding mountains
When I attended the Paro Tshechu, I found the serene faces of monks lit by the glow from thousands of candles burning on an altar. Soft chants of “Om Mani Padme Om” hung in the night air and the clatter of handheld prayer wheels mingled with the shuffle of felt shoes on ancient cobble stones.
A giant figure of Buddha, woven centuries ago, looked down from the thangka that covered the whole front wall of the monastery. The revered tapestry had been carried here as a roll and carefully revealed. Pilgrims touched the hem of the cloth with awe as their lips moved in prayer.
It was 3am and the last day of the festival. In the Himalayan air, the temperature was near freezing so Bhutanese and foreigners alike huddled together, and shivers ran through the groups like waves but none of us felt tempted to move. The scene in front of us came out of the mists of time.
My mind struggled in the numbing cold to absorb every element of the scene. In several ways, what I was witnessing was so ephemeral that each moment was precious. In the short term, the thangka ceremony was to conclude with the dawn. Sunlight has never touched the tapestry because at first light it is rolled up and stored for another year. First light was only a few hours away.
Within generations, travel's furthest frontiers have largely disappeared. In 1953, Edmund Hillary had to walk from India to Kathmandu in Nepal before he even started to climb Mount Everest. No country in the world remains as remote today. In the 1960s, Kathmandu and Nepal became the hippy Nirvana. Nepal remains a wonderful place to visit but among its “Toyotas and trekking” tourist culture, it’s hard to capture any remaining mysticism.
Then there is Bhutan. This is a country so remote that until China took over Tibet, Bhutan regarded the pass to Tibet as its main access to the outside world. On any scale of remoteness, there must be a special prize for a country that regards Tibet as mainstream. Until 1968, Bhutan didn’t even have currency — it relied on barter of butter, rice, cheese, meat, and wool. The Beatles had long split up before Bhutan’s first currency note appeared in 1974.
Paro is just an hour or so by air from Kathmandu and Calcutta, and four hours from Bangkok with DrukAir, Flying in, you see farms that cling to impossible slopes and icy Himalayan ramparts shine in the distance.
Thimpu is a sprawling city to explore, with amazing surroundings
What do you find if you come to Bhutan? Trekking is a highlight. Taktsang monastery is the most photographed feature of Bhutan. It appears to grow out of a vertical cliff face and it’s worth the very steep 1000-metre climb to see it. This is not a crowded country and Buddhism permeates every aspect of life. Bhutanese believe that even tiny plants have souls and monastery walls display elaborate paintings of the special hell reserved for those who squash insects.
Thimpu, the national capital, is a more bustling town than Paro. Here is Tashichhoedzong, the seat of government that also houses a rich collection of murals and sculptures. Every surface appears to be elaborately carved with crests, dragons, and religious symbols.
If you have ever fantasised about visiting a place where every house is a work of art, where peace and quiet predominate, where there’s no crime, and where monks in saffron robes are part of every street scene — visit Bhutan. You’ll join a select group of world travellers who have discovered Shangri-la. And this year, Australians can see it at a discount.
Have you ever been to Bhutan? Share your experiences below!