Ron Perrier, a Canadian retiree committed to seeing the world, visited Bhutan in late 2013. Bhutan, the last remaining Buddhist Kingdom, is perched high in the Himalayas in South Asia. Travel within the country must be paid for in advance and booked through a local licensed tour operator.
As we entered Bhutan, the views of the Himalayas were impressive. The plane turns down a high mountain valley before landing in Paro, the only international airport in Bhutan. My guide and driver were there to meet me.
Bhutan is easily the most expensive country in the world to travel for the backpacker. The normal daily all-inclusive rate is $250 and I am paying an additional $40/day single supplement. The government gets $85, driver and car $55, and guide $13. The balance is for hotel and food for the three of us and profit for the tour company. With the $50 visa fee, seven days in Bhutan costs $2,080. Drinks excluding water and tea are extra and a tip is expected for the guide. It is suggested that $100 cash is all that is needed.
The first thing noticed is that all locals are wearing traditional dress. The men have a knee-length tunic tied at the waist and knee socks. The odd part is the 12″ white cuff on the arms. The baggy top of the tunic functions as a man-purse. Women wear a floor length skirt with a short jacket.
We drove 54 km east to Thimphu, the capital. The city extends up and down the valley. Buddha Point, the tallest sitting Buddha in the world, sits high above the city. There are no traffic lights in Bhutan, and the only traffic control in the country is a traffic cop in the busiest intersection in Thimphu.
Every building and house is built basically the same way, three stories for houses and 6 for apartments and other buildings. All are built of reinforced concrete and bricks that are plastered. The exteriors are then lavishly decorated – pictures on the outside walls, wood windows surrounded by painted designs and lintels, and just below the attic, an elaborate structure of painted end-beams that flare out from the wall.
For the first five days, Ron visited sites such as
- The Tango University of Buddhism, built in 1620 as an institute for monks; monks commit 3 years, 3 months and 3 days to study. The 45-minute walk up to the monastery is through an oak forest.
- The Divine Mad Man’s Temple in the Punakha Valley, which was built in 1499. The temple has several wooden phalluses and pilgrims receive a blessing to ward off evil by being struck on the head with a ten-inch wooden phallus. It is believed that childless couples that pray here will be blessed with children; women visit from all over the world.
- The Punakha Dzhong, easily the most impressive building and dzhong in Bhutan. Elaborate worked gold metal surrounds the many columns. Intricate paintings of the story of Buddha cover every wall and embroidered cloth hangings adorn everything.
- The Khamsum Yulley Namhyal Chorten or “Queens Chorten”. The temple is considered one of the finest examples of the use of traditional Bhutanese architectural style in modern times.
- A nunnery, one of three in the country. Small groups of tonsured women were sitting on the grass practicing their prayers and chants. An imposing statue of Chenrizig, the 11-headed, thousand-arm god of compassion, was the main deity. Anybody who says Buddhism is a philosophy, not a religion, has not seen this religion in action.
- The Ta Dzhong or National Museum, originally a watchtower. It holds a priceless collection of textiles, Thangka paintings, weapons, armour, jewellry, masks used in the traditional dances, and an excellent nature section.
On Day 6 it was Tigers Nest
Today, we climbed up to the Tigers Nest, the iconic and most famous Bhutan tourist site. It has been listed as one of the ten holiest places in the world. It is called the Tigers Nest as Guru Rimpoche is said to have flown to the site on the back of a tigress.
After a 30-minute drive north of Paro, we joined the throngs starting the hike. Horses are available for rent. Supposedly a 900 m elevation gain, it is probably more like 600 m. It took me 1½ hours at my slow steady pace, and I lost count after passing the 100th person. This was a physical test for most.
Prayer flags are everywhere in Bhutan, but the number here were over-the-top. Some spanned impossible distances. The high point of the trail is reached at a viewpoint – both of the valley below and the monastery perched on a ledge on a vertical granite wall. At least 10 other monasteries are dotted across the cliff above the one at Tigers Nest. The location is spectacular.
One descends many steps built on the cliff to the base of a stunning waterfall, and then a tiring ascent to the monastery. I was frisked for the first time in Bhutan. The monastery is a series of seven or so small temples, each with its own gods and statues. I had beaten all the people and was alone in most of them. I wandered through them over 50 minutes and then the crowds arrived.
Finally on Day 7
It was Chele La Pass (at 3980m, the highest road pass in Bhutan) to the Haa Valley (2700m). At the pass we had good views of the Himalayas including the highest mountain in Bhutan. Few tourists come here and it is a very quiet place.
Ron’s overall impressions
I thoroughly enjoyed Bhutan. I think much of that was due to my good guide. The people are very sweet and courteous. Bhutan strives like few other countries in the world to maintain their culture intact. Their dress, architecture, and craft heritage are unlike anywhere else. Everything revolves around Buddhism. It is still a third world country. Wages are low and 70% of the economy is based on agriculture, basically growing rice. They seem too dependent on India for food, gas, and everything manufactured. Gross National Happiness seems to be more a figment of the king’s imagination than anything. It ranks 141 on the 2012 United Nations Happiness Index. Unless trekking, one week is more than enough, especially with the high cost.
This article has been adapted, with permission, from Ron Perrier’s blog (www.ronperrier.net) by “Riding the buses”.
Photo credits Wiki Commons