2020 Asia Bucket List Moments People & Encounters

Memories of Bhutan

I started writing this blog about ten years ago, although I was bitten by the travel bug long before that. In fact, I made my first solo overseas trip at the age of fifteen – traveling alone to represent Australia at a student quiz in Poland – and ever since, for more than thirty years, I have been a hard-core travel addict. As a result, I’ve made getting to see as much of the world as possible my priority, and I’ve traded away many of the trappings of “normal” life to do that. Which explains why being grounded these past seven months, thanks to Covid-19, has been so challenging for me.

That said, I do have a huge bank of travel experiences to fall back on for inspiration; countless memories I can relive in my mind’s eye, both to keep my wanderlust at bay and also to remind me of what awaits, once I can get back on a plane. Some of these journeys I have written about before, but many either never made the cut, or happened long before I started writing this blog. And which now, many moons later, I have finally got the time to commit to paper.

Amongst this latter category was a trip I made to Bhutan, about thirteen years ago, with my ex-wife. A trip that was so mind-blowingly amazing I can remember almost every minute of it, as if it was yesterday. So here are five sparkling memories of Bhutan, one of the most magical, special places I have ever been. I hope you enjoy them.

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But first, a brief intro to what is often referred to as “the Last Shangri-La”.

Bhutan is a country of about 1 million people, located in the shadow of the Himalayas. It is little more than a tiny sliver on the map, wedged in between the two neighboring giants of China and India. Bhutan has been an independent nation for the past thousand years, never once colonized; back in the day, it was an important stop on the Silk Road connecting Europe and Asia. In 2008, modern Bhutan had a moment in the international sun, making a few headlines when the King voluntarily abdicated, giving away the absolute power held by his family for centuries, in favor of national elections and majority rule. But apart from that Bhutan is so small, and so infrequently heard of, that many folks don’t even know it exists.

And it would seem that the Bhutanese are happy for it to stay that way.

For starters, the country is pretty cut off from the world at large. It is almost impossible to enter Bhutan by road, and Bhutan’s national airline, Druk Air, is the only carrier flying there, offering only a few flights per week to Nepal, Thailand, and India. Plus, Paro Airport – Bhutan’s only airport – is widely regarded as being one of the world’s most difficult to land in. It is high up, surrounded by mountains, and often beset by ferocious winds, such that it is only open at day, and only visual landings are allowed. Supposedly fewer than 10 pilots are certified to fly into Paro.

More than that, Bhutan long ago decided it didn’t want to become yet another overrun, mass-market Asian tourist destination, and instead implemented a policy of “High Value, Low Impact” tourism. The number of foreigners allowed entry into the country at any one time is strictly limited; trips must be arranged through licenced operators; only certain parts of the country are able to be visited; and the kicker: all tourists are required to purchase a visa that costs US$250 – per day. This means that even before stepping foot in Bhutan you will have had to shell out about US$3,000 a person, just to enter. Which pretty much ensures that backpackers, student travelers, and tourist hordes are kept away.

The result is a Himalayan kingdom that is isolated, remote, pristine, largely Buddhist but steeped in its own culture, and more or less tourist-free. A place that is utterly fascinating to those lucky enough to make it there, and unique to the point of being unlike anywhere else on the planet.

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Mushrooms

Bhutan’s airport is in Paro, a town in the far west of the country. Just to the east of Paro is Thimphu, the capital, and from there Bhutan stretches east through the mountains for about 300 kilometers. Only one winding road connects the country west to east, and the only way to travel it is via an assortment of rickety old vehicles (fun fact: Bhutan is the only country in the world without a single traffic light – all traffic is still directed manually by uniformed police stationed at major intersections).

As you move across Bhutan from west to east, the road rises and falls through a series of high Himalayan mountain passes and deep, verdant valleys. Everything that might be considered vaguely “Western” is located in the Thimphu Valley, perhaps because this is where the capital is and where all tourists enter and leave from. A few intrepid visitors might also venture into the neighboring valleys; very few make it all the way to Bhutan’s far east. But in general, the further east you go in Bhutan, the more remote, isolated, and totally untouched by anything resembling modernity the landscape and countryside becomes.

I had booked a 10-day tour via Aman, a very swanky (and truly magnificent) hotel chain that maintains five intimate, culturally-sensitive lodges in Bhutan, each located in a different valley. This means that Aman is able to offer a ready-made excursion into the depths of Bhutan. On their all-inclusive (albeit seriously expensive) tour, we were chaperoned in a private vehicle, with a private guide, from one uber-deluxe eco-lodge to the next. Along the way checking out monasteries, temples, small towns, and some the most spectacular natural scenery you could ever possibly imagine.

In any case, our third night in Bhutan was spent at Aman’s Punakha Lodge, in the Punakha Valley. This is the first valley due east from the Bhutanese capital, but even though only about 70 kilometers away it took us over 3 hours to get there, owing to the winding road, its poor condition, and the steep climb out of the Thimphu Valley via the spectacular Dochu La Mountain Pass.

Punakha is the “rice-bowl” of Bhutan – most of the country’s vegetables and rice are grown here – so on arrival we had immediately headed out for a long ramble through some lush, incredibly scenic rice paddies. By the time we returned to the lodge – a traditional Bhutanese farmhouse that Aman has converted into an ultra-chic, minimalist 14-room inn – it was time for dinner. And amongst other things on the menu that night was a yak steak, served with a sauce of wild forest mushrooms, which the chef told us he had picked himself earlier that day in a nearby wood. How could I possibly say no?

We ate – the yak steak was delicious – and then exhausted from the day, we turned in. Only at around midnight, I woke with a jolt. I was feeling a bit woozy. I got up to get a drink of water, and the room began spinning around me. Everything seemed absurdly colorful and vivid. I looked around, somewhat confused. To my great surprise, the furniture in the room came to life and began dancing. To my even greater surprise, the walls started talking.

Honestly, I don’t remember much more of that night, although in the morning my ex-wife informed me that I’d clearly been on a pretty major psychedelic trip. And even though the chef swore the mushrooms he’d fed me were entirely safe, I’m not so sure. How else do you explain the fact that, for six hours through a Bhutanese night, I’d apparently switched between manic conversation with inanimate objects, wild bouts of laughter, and cowering in the corner of the room, convinced that the coffee table was a fire-breathing monster.

At least, I suppose, it made for a pretty unique experience of Bhutan. I mean, one of the country’s official nicknames is the Thunder Dragon Kingdom. But how many other visitors can say they actually met that dragon in person ….

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Authenticity

Without question the highlight of my time in Bhutan was the four days we spent in the Phobjikha and Bumthang valleys – the locations of the two easternmost of Aman’s five lodges, and thus the most remote spots we got to in the country.

In the Phobjikha Valley, we toured the imposing, quite glorious Gangtey Gompa – a 17th century Buddhist monastery complex that is central to the religious life of Bhutan. And we also toured the surrounding countryside, a landscape carved out over the ages by glaciers and today covered in a patchwork of untouched woods, running streams, farms and orchards. We also visited the Black-necked Cranes Centre to view the black-necked cranes, or “Heavenly Birds” as they known in Bhutan. The Phobjikha Valley is the winter home for these rare birds who arrive in late October, staying until spring before heading back to their summer breeding grounds in Tibet and Siberia.

And in the Bumthang Valley we found ourselves in the spiritual heartland of Bhutan – a broad valley that was home to dozens of old temples and monasteries, big and small. We wandered from one to the other, marveling at the structures, and the collections of wonderful Bhutanese art within. Smiling locals in traditional, brightly-colored garb greeted us at every corner. The air was crystal clear, and snow-capped Himalayan peaks graced every horizon. Buildings were made of earth and wood; there were no mobile phones towers and very few cars; the predominant sounds were of the wind and the birds. Only a handful of places had electricity, instead deriving heat from burning log fires.

In a word, it was extraordinary. A picture-perfect landscape where it truly felt like we had been transported back through the ages to medieval times. A magical place where I got to glimpse an ancient way of life that seemed completely out of sync with the modern age. And where I got to see people still living exactly as our pre-industrial ancestors might have done.

All in all, those few days in the Phobjikha and Bumthang valleys was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I will never forget. An encounter with raw, untouched authenticity of the sort I always dream of having whenever I travel somewhere new, and yet which has become almost impossible to find in an increasingly globalized, hyper-connected world.

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Pigs

Pigs are the main source of animal protein consumed in Bhutan. And wherever we drove in rural Bhutan I saw photogenic bundles of pig food – bales of green leaves piled up along the side of roads, laid out to dry in the sun before being turned into feed for the piggies.

I wouldn’t have thought anything about it, except that toward the end of our time in Bhutan we went for a walk one morning and happened to pass one of these bundles – a particularly large one – so I was able to inspect the leaves up close as I paused to snap a few photos. They looked oddly familiar. And oddly illegal.

Our tour guide confirmed what I was thinking. It turns out that in Bhutan, marijuana grows wild throughout the country. It is far from a controlled substance, and is in fact widely harvested for use as pig food. “It makes the pigs very relaxed,” the tour guide explained, “and that makes their meat tender. It also makes the pigs hungry so they eat more, to become big and fat.” Or, in other words, it seems our guide was explaining to me what every college student in the world already knows: weed gives you the munchies.

The weirdest thing though: despite the abundance of wild, entirely legal cannabis throughout the country (and apparently Bhutanese dope is very high THC content, thus seriously strong), humans don’t touch the stuff. It is considered to be strictly for the pigs. I suppose therefore that Bhutan is where the phrase “pigs might fly” was born……

(PS: I read online that in the time since I visited, Bhutan’s youth have had increasing access to the internet. Where they have learned, from American movies and the like, that the traditional Bhutanese pig food can have other uses. Marijuana abuse is a now apparently a growing problem in Bhutan, but back when I was there, only the oinkers were getting high).

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Penises

Apart from the baked piggies, the other noticeable oddity I recall most from Bhutan was the ever-present penis.

You see, phallic images are everywhere in Bhutan. Wherever we went we saw big old penises, often with hairy bollocks, painted in bright colors onto the walls of homes, restaurants, stores, even schools. Dicks adorn doorways and shlongs hang in windows. Some are drawn with eyes; some are encircled by dragons; some are depicted ejaculating. We even visited a temple that is singularly devoted to the worship of the penis.

Why? Well, in Bhutan, the penis is considered to be a sign of fertility and good fortune. Tapping a woman on the head with a fake willy is said to increase her chances of bearing a child. And painting a penis on the side of your home is said to drive away evil spirits, and bless your family with good luck.

So basically, the penis is to Bhutan what the evil eye is to people around the Mediterranean, or what the hamsa is to folks across the Middle-East. Only just a few feet lower down the body….

***

Archery

Archery is Bhutan’s national sport, and national obsession. Until recently, it was the only sport in which Bhutan competed at the Olympics (at the 2012 London Olympics, Bhutan fielded a sole competitor in the air rifle contest – the first time the country represented in anything other than archery).

In Bhutan every village – no matter how small – has an archery field. Formal archery contests are held at every holiday and festival; impromptu archery contests happen all day every day. Thus, wherever we went in Bhutan we saw groups (of mainly men) gathered in animated clusters, drinking, shouting loudly and shooting arrows at targets, using both traditional wooden bows and more modern carbon-fiber crossbow contraptions.

In any case, on our last day in Bhutan, as we were driving along, we passed a large group that was engaged in a makeshift archery tournament by the roadside. We had already driven past this scene countless times before, but now I asked the tour guide to stop – I wanted a few snaps before leaving the country.

The group – all male, ranging in age from young boys to wizened, white-haired old geezers – was very boisterous, and my tour guide explained that in Bhutan, archery is not just a physical sport, but a kind of mental sport as well. Part of the ritual is to engage in verbal battle where you are free to praise your own abilities, and insult your opponents, as much as you wish. Bonus points are awarded the more intellectual and sophisticated your barbs are.

I hung about, and everyone was super friendly and welcoming. The archers happily posed for a few photos, while the guide translated my endless questions, and the men’s answers. I mentioned that I had never shot a bow before. Quickly one of the men handed me his – a flexed piece of wood almost as tall as me – and invited me to have a go. Another man showed me how to hold the arrow, pull back the string, and take aim.

So, I focussed in on the target – a brightly painted wooden board with a bullseye on it, about forty meters away from where I stood. I took a deep breath, tried to relax, pulled back on the string with all of my strength, and let go. The arrow flew through the air, and landed right next to the target. I squealed with excitement. “Wow, not bad for a first ever shot. I must be a natural!”

The Bhutanese men surrounding me broke out into smiles and loud shouting, some of them laughing so hard they were doubled over and had tears rolling down their face. I turned to my guide, beaming with pride. The noisy chatter and laughter must have meant the men were throwing a few insults my way, as was the custom. Evidently, they were impressed with my innate archery skill!

But then I noticed that the tour guide too was almost crying with laughter.

“What are you laughing at?” I asked.

“Oh, it is just that you didn’t even hit the target reserved for small children! The target for men is over there!” he guffawed, barely able to contain himself. At the same time, he pointed his finger out across a deep ravine that was about one hundred and twenty meters across, on the other side of which was a teeny-tiny target I could barely make out. And which the man whose bow I had borrowed now shot at – his arrow sailing effortlessly across the valley before thudding directly into the target.

Talk about making a guy feel inadequate. Even if it was pretty funny.

***

To finish on a slightly more “serious” note, apart from its remoteness, natural gorgeousness, penises, stoned pigs and archery, Bhutan is best known for a pretty unique approach to national economic management.

You see, every other country in the world spends a huge amount of time figuring out what it’s Gross National Product is. GNP is an economic measure that seeks to estimate the total value of all products and services turned out in a given period by the means of production owned by a country’s residents. So basically, the primary way most of us assess how we are doing as a national collective is to ask: “how much stuff did we make?” The more stuff we make, the better off we assume that we are.

Except, that is, in Bhutan, where instead of focussing on measuring GNP, the guiding principal is something called Gross National Happiness, or GNH. An index that seeks to measure the collective happiness and well-being of the Bhutanese population.

Big deal – GNP, GNH, what’s in a word? But a focus on GNH produces a radically different outcome to a focus on GNP. In simple terms, assume an entire nation is represented by just one person. If that person does nothing but work all day, is highly stressed, spends no time at all with friends and family, and shreds the environment in the process, they will generate a much higher GDP than a person who works less, has less, but gets time to see his or her family and go for walks in the park. But, is he or she really better off? GDP driven economics says “yes”, whereas the Bhutanese GNH approach would respond with a resounding “no”, and assert that it is in fact the second person who wins out.

This is not just semantics, or feel-good aspirational stuff. GNH is actually the official goal of the Government of Bhutan, and is enshrined in the country’s Constitution. There is a science and a process behind it, with GNH said to be composed of four pillars: sustainable and fair socio-economic development, environmental conservation, preservation of culture, and good governance.

The country’s GNH Commission regularly assesses these pillars against measures such as psychological well-being, health, time use, education, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standards, to derive an official GNH estimate. The objective being to figure out not how much stuff the people of Bhutan have (by our metrics, they are very “poor”), but rather how happy they are with the stuff they have. And Bhutanese Government decisions are made not with the objective of increasing national economic wealth, but with the objective of increasing overall national happiness.

Of course, this doesn’t mean Bhutan is a magical wonderland of endless joy. Many have criticized Bhutan’s GNH concept as being a gimmicky sham, pointing out that most Bhutanese live in abject poverty. And there are a whole range of social and economic problems in the country that suggest GNH might be one of those “nice idea, crap in practice” things.

Still, given the state of the world at the moment, I have to say that the notion of Gross National Happiness does sound a little bit appealing, to me at least. I mean, 2020 has dealt us all a pretty massive shock. We’ve all had everything we understand about normal life turned upside down. We’ve all had to learn to live with a lot less “stuff” – less travel, less social activity, less ability to do whatever we want, whenever we want.

So maybe, we need to try to look at it a little bit more like the Bhutanese would. Because if I’ve learned anything these past seven months, it is that whilst I love my time on the road, time spent at home with friends and family is priceless. Eating weird stuff from a street stall in a faraway country is fabulous. But so is a good, home-cooked meal followed by a Netflix binge.

If all we have for now are the little things, we can still be happy. And that, I have to say, is a pretty reassuring message.


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