Visiting Bhutan And Finding My Shangri-La

Bhutan Tiger's Nest
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When I was on the cusp of adolescence, I became aware of a book called, “Lost Horizon”, a 1933 novel by James Hilton.  It’s the story of a group of airplane passengers who crash in the Himalayas and are brought to the lamasery of Shangri-La where inhabitants seem to live forever. The protagonist, Hugh Conway discovers a peaceful, pristine environment and inner peace, and must decide if he wants to stay. 

Like the main character, Hugh Conway, I too, have been searching for my Shangri-La, which is why I was so keen to visit the country which many say is the LAST Shangri-La: Bhutan.

This week’s post is about Bhutan and what it was like to visit. Sorry it’s not about France, but I hope you’ll find this post interesting, nonetheless. Let me begin with some facts about Bhutan and then I’ll share with you my recent experience.

A Bit About Bhutan

Where is Bhutan?

Prayer Flags in Bhutan
Prayer Flags in Bhutan

It is a sovereign state bordered by the Himalaya mountains, India, Tibet, and China. Only 155,000 people visited this country in 2015.

Gross National Happiness

  • “Gross National Happiness” was coined by the King of Bhutan in the 1970s
  • Looks at preserving and promoting Bhutanese cultural values, conserving the natural environment and having sustainable development–more important than just economic growth or Gross Domestic Product (GDP)

Travelling To Bhutan

  • Bhutan is rarely visited partly because it is not easy to get to (Forget direct flights from North America. One usually travels there via Kathmandu or Bangkok so the journey can be long. It took me 39 hours to get home)
  • Some say it is expensive to travel to Bhutan where a daily fee of US$250 is imposed on tourists (but that covers travel, lodging and meals). You must sign up with a Bhutanese tour operator and get a visa to enter  (excluding Indian, Bangladeshi and Maldivian passport holders).
  • To support their social services (ie. free education and healthcare) and their goal of Gross National Happiness for its citizens, the government brings in some of its money through this tourism levy. This is Bhutan’s tourism goal of “High Value. Low Impact”. They want to preserve their culture and lands and don’t want it to turn into a backpacker’s cheap destination. They don’t want the country overrun with mass tourism.

Government

  • It is a constitutional monarchy with a king, prime minister and parliamentary form of government.
  • The king is Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and he is 36 years old. He studied at Wheaton College in the United States and Oxford University in Britain. He and his wife, Queen Jetsun Pema recently had a baby boy.
  • The current Prime Minister of Bhutan is Ushering Tobgay, the leader of the People’s Democratic Party. He gave a fascinating Ted Talk in early 2016.

Why go to Bhutan?

The culture, the landscape, the people, the sites (Tiger’s Nest, Dzongs and temples) and the peacefulness. Undeveloped but in development.

People of Bhutan

  • There are just over 700,000 citizens and the majority practice Vajrayana Buddhism. 
  • Bhutanese men wear the Gho, a knee-length robe tied at the waist by a cloth belt. It has a pouch that can hold one’s cellphone, wallet, food…you name it!
  • Bhutanese women wear an ankle-length dress called a Kira and it is worn with a jacket.
  • Many Bhutanese speak a little English, particularly in the stores and hotels, so it wasn’t too difficult to communicate

Popular Foods

  • Rice, rice, rice (especially red rice). I often had rice for breakfast, rice for lunch, and rice for dinner. This was often served with eggs, mixed vegetables (much of it organic), dumplings, roasted potatoes, pasta, and of course, chili cheese (Ema Datshi). One of the best things I ate almost daily: home made soup!
  • Primarily vegetarian as the Bhutanese do not kill animals; therefore, much of the meat is imported from India. It would be transported by truck and one isn’t always sure how safe it was to eat, so we, on the tour, pretty much avoided eating meat.

Gadventures Bhutan Adventure

Gadventures tour group at Punakha Dzong, Bhutan
Gadventures tour group at Punakha Dzong, Bhutan

I signed up with Gadventures Bhutan Adventure and there were 14 of us from a variety of countries: Canada, US, England, New Zealand, Switzerland, and Ireland. We travelled by bus and it was surprisingly comfortable considering the roads….if you want to call them roads. We ran into a few road blocks due to mud/rock slides: a huge boulder had to be moved by a backhoe.

Bhutan road block
Bhutan road block

Highlights Of My Trip

It was an amazing, very busy journey. Each day were up at about 6:30 or 7:00 and the days were filled with hiking, visiting Dzongs (religious, military and administrative centres of a district), temples, or monasteries, special projects to support women, learning about Buddhism and the traditions of the Bhutanese. Did I find my Shangri-La? Yes, I believe I did.

Here’s what stands out for me most:

The Flight Into Bhutan

This video clip says it all: beautiful green mountains and scenery—-spectacular.

Gratitude

Monks in Bhutan
Monks in Bhutan

Almost everyday, without prompting, I said out loud that I was grateful for what was presented to me, whether it was a beautiful day, nice people, or a spectacular landscape. I don’t do enough of that at home.

  • I was grateful for the weather. One day it was raining, but the next day, when we climbed to Tiger’s Nest (and needed good weather), it was cool and sunny; perfect weather for a trek to a 3200 metre elevation.
Bhutan Foreign Minister
Bhutan Foreign Minister
  • I was grateful to see the Kind and Queen of Bhutan when we least expected it. They were at the Memorial Chorten in Thimphu to pay their respects to the Kind of Thailand who had recently died. As they walked past us, we bowed our heads and the King said, “Thank you for coming”. Yes, they are as good looking as in the photos. (Sorry, no photos were allowed).
  • And I was particularly grateful for being able to meet the Bhutanese Foreign Minister and he was gracious enough to let me take a picture of him in front of a prayer wheel. It is one of my favourite photos.
  • I was grateful to see the monks and nuns praying in their temples. It was a moving experience and sorry, no photos were allowed inside as well.

Peace and Calmness

  • It is hard to describe how being in Bhutan affects you. I immediately felt calmer and more at peace. I’m sure a lot has to do with the composure and attitudes of the locals. When a tour mate and I were in a Paro store, there were some Indian tourists who were giving the sales lady a hard time. She was 100% calm, unruffled, and had such class. I felt so sorry for her, but she handled herself with great aplomb.
  • Every Bhutanese person I met seemed to have great patience and a gentle spirit that rubbed off on me a little. Even the police were kind and gentle when requesting that we not take pictures of the King and Queen. They did it with such respect and in such a nice way, it would have been like hurting their feelings had we done so.
  • If Bhutan taught me anything, it was about being in the moment, enjoying the here and now.

Pristine Environment: Beautiful Surroundings

Dochula Pass 108 Chortens in Bhutan
Dochula Pass 108 Chortens in Bhutan
  • Great scenery. Definitely. While one could have been overwhelmed with so many temples and Dzongs, to be honest, each one was different and beautiful.
  • The air was incredibly fresh and I actually asked the group if they thought the sky was bluer than at home. They said no and I realized that I hadn’t really noticed my own blue sky at home. Travelling does that to you: makes you appreciate what is in front of you and not take anything for granted.

Tiger’s Nest (Taktsang Monastery)

  • When you google “Bhutan”, you likely see a picture of the Taktsang Monastery (first picture in this post) because it is so imposing. Built in the 16th century on a cliff just outside of Paro, Tiger’s Nest is a sacred Buddhist site and temple and it takes some energy and fitness to climb up to the 10,232 foot elevation. The views along the way are spectacular and while it is steep at times, I never felt like I would fall off a cliff. The bamboo pole I rented for 15 nu (30 cents) was worth it.
  • We visited the Monastery and the cave where Guru Padmasambhava (also known as Guru Rimpoche) stayed in the 8th century. He is said to have mediated there for 3 years, 3 months, 3 days, and 3 hours and is credited with bringing Buddhism to Bhutan. Unfortunately, no photos were allowed once in the Monastery.

Thimphu Tshechu (Thimphu Festival)

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  • I skipped a hike in the rain to Bumdrak camp and instead, a group of us attended the annual 4-day festival (Tshechu) in Thimphu which was held at the Tashichho Dzong (monastery and fortress).  It is held in honour of Guru Rimpoche and is one of the country’s largest festivals.
  • There were many religious and folk dances including ones where the performers wore masks. Talk about a colourful event!

Memorial Chorten

Meditating at Memorial Chorten in Bhutan
Meditating at Memorial Chorten in Bhutan

While seeing the King and Queen of Bhutan and getting a picture of the Foreign Minister were highlights at the Memorial Chorten, seeing so many people walk around the Chorten spinning their prayer wheels and meditating was also moving.

Punakha Dzong

Punakha Dzong, Bhutan
Punakha Dzong, Bhutan

This fortress is the second oldest and the second largest dzong in Bhutan. It is situated on a small piece of land at the confluence of 2 rivers. 

Buddha Point

51 meters (169 feet) tall, the glistening gold and bronze Buddha Dordenma sits high on a hill above Thimphu. Construction was completed in 2015.  Eventually it will hold one hundred thousand smaller Buddhas. 

Chime Lhakhang: Temple of the “Divine Madman”

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Chime Lhakhang is a monastery devoted to Drukpa Kunley, a 15th century saint who is best known as being the “Divine Madman”. He was a drinker and womanizer and many visit the monastery to be blessed in hopes that they will become pregnant. There is even a photo album showing pictures those who have been so blessed. He is honoured by the paintings of penises on houses. These are to ward off evil and are symbols of fertility at the same time.

Walking In The Phobjikha Glacial Valley

Walking in the Phobjikha Glacial Valley, Bhutan
Walking in the Phobjikha Glacial Valley, Bhutan

We were trekking to our farm stay in Gangtey Gompa and as dusk approached, the views of the Phobjikha Glacial Valley and sky were breathtaking.

Bhutan Is Still Evolving And Has Work To Do

Bhutan is not perfect. There is no perfect country. Yes, we encountered hundreds of dogs during our tour, but they were friendly and rarely barked during the day.(Nightime was a different story). Yes, there were cows on the road, but the drivers didn’t honk. They just went around the cows. Yet Bhutan is certainly making strides for such a young country that only opened its doors to tourists in 1974 and banned television up until 1999.

The country has banned smoking and plastic bags, yet the litter (particularly of discarded water bottles) needs some work. The majority of roads are pot-holed and unpaved. Having a bumpy journey is an understatement, but the Indian government has funded two years worth of investment to upgrade (build?) their roads so hopefully a great many more roads can be updated. During our trip we encountered a few rock/mud slides.

Poverty and youth unemployment is high, however, education and healthcare are free. It has a stable and democratic government and the requirement that the citizens wear their traditional dress is inspiring and it is one of the ways they are ensuring that their culture and traditions are preserved.

This trip was so different from my usual trips and it was a delight. It made me appreciate what I have, what I have seen in my life, and the things my parents have provided for me. It made me more aware of what we are doing to our environment and how important it is to protect and preserve our environment. (Bhutan has pledged to keep 60 percent of its land under forest cover.)

With much gratitude, I thank Bhutan for providing a calmness and peace that I hope to carry back home and to my next trip to France.

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