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Travel to Shangri La

Bhutan Sets Its Own Terms

Tiger's nest in Bhutan
Tiger's Nest in Bhutan. Photo by Lies Ouwerkerk.

I think I’m too scared for these offbeat Shangri La adventures,” said my white-knuckled friend as the Druk Air plane dove through a hole in the clouds, brushed by the mountain crags, and swooped down toward the only airport in the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. Maile and I were en route to Paro for the Buddhist spring festival.

“Relax,” I replied. “Bhutan is the jewel of the Himalayas. Fresh air, no pollution, gentle people, and perhaps we’ll have an experience of boundless consciousness, who knows?”

Maile closed her eyes in nervous prayer as we slipped sideways over green quilted land, terraces, cliffs, and rock-studded roofs. Someone gasped, “It’s like we’re threading a needle through the mountains!”

When I opened my eyes, we rolled up to a white castle-like building with hand-painted eaves and white prayer flags rippling in the chill March wind.

Hardly anybody had heard of Bhutan, and that’s how the Bhutanese preferred it, at least until 1974. This independent Buddhist kingdom the size of Switzerland—bordered by Tibet, Nepal, and India—ranges from 21,000-feet snow-covered peaks to jungle lowlands 600 feet above sea level. Alpine yaks, blue sheep, and rare snow leopards live in the north, and elephants, rhinos, and tigers in the south. Bhutan’s 600,000 human inhabitants are Drukpa people of Mongoloid descent and Nepalese farmers.

In Bhutan, there aren’t many cars, hotels, or restaurants. The few roads are wildly scenic but terrifyingly narrow, so tourists must hire a car with a driver and translator. Druk Airlines owns only two airplanes; when the biannual festival rush is on the royal family lends its own private plane for the overflow of tourists.

Twice a year, in autumn and spring, crowds of extravagantly dressed Bhutanese flock to colorful religious festivals in Paro and Thimpu. With our translator-guide, Dorji, and driver, Jevan, we joined people gathered in an ancient monastery (“dzong”) courtyard. Masked, barefoot dancers were leaping and whirling, brandishing knives, and beating tambourines to subdue evil spirits and celebrate the teachings of Buddha. Clowns cavorted and cracked ribald jokes, brass cymbals clanged, bells rang, bald monks in burgundy robes chanted, horns trumpeted, bronze-skinned children with pink cheeks frolicked, and everyone showed off their best national costumes and jewelry.

We admired the beautiful women in their brilliant, tubular “kiras” of heavy silk brocade. Dorje whispered, “Some of these dresses cost over $20 thousand.”

Among the crafts scattered on the ground for sale were wooden phalluses. Dorje explained, “We hang these inside our houses for fertility and good luck.”

A foreign tourist picked up a large carved penis shape and quipped, “I already have one of these.”

The salesgirl smiled, “Yes, but do you have two?”

Right from the beginning, we saw no discrimination against women. In fact, women are more equal than men! Traditionally, daughters inherit their parents’ property. Where there are several husbands the offspring equally inherit because they don’t know who is the father.

“Several sisters may take one husband,” said Dorje. “I know one woman who had four husbands. They all worked in her restaurant.” He added, “But this isn’t so common anymore. Here in town there are only about 10 women having more than one husband.”

“And the King?”

“King Jigme Singye Wangchuck was crowned in 1972 when he was 16. He is married to four beautiful sisters. Each has her own house. He lives very simply in a log cabin. He’s a good king. When he visits schools, he eats lunch with the children. He encourages them to study, telling them that they’re Bhutan’s future.”

Dorje leaned forward earnestly, “You see, we started our development process so late we’ve had a chance to observe other countries and see the mistakes they’ve made. We emulate those who we think have gone in the right direction. Instead of a Gross National Product, we measure Gross National Happiness—the King’s idea.”

The 65-mile drive from Paro to the capital, Thimpu, takes more than two hours on steep winding roads through eerie forests of grey-bearded trees interspersed with rhododendron, magnolia, pines, and larch.

Dorje said, “Our king is very devoted to saving our environment. For every tree cut down, the government plants three. Two-thirds of Bhutan is forest.”

In Thimpu, Bhutan’s only traffic policeman directed us to the Druk Hotel where it was arranged for us to meet Ashi Khendum Dorje, first cousin to the King. “Just call her ‘Ashi,’ we were advised. Ashi means Princess.”

The dark-haired, fair-skinned young woman could have been an Irish movie star. She spoke with a slight English accent.

“Oh yes, my mother is English. But my father’s family were Dorjis, hereditary prime ministers for four generations and longassociated with kings. My father is brother to the King’s mother. When his older brother, my uncle, was assassinated, my father was made prime minister, but then he was exiled to Nepal. When the old king died we returned to Bhutan and my father decided that political life was not for him. Now the government is very progressive and most of the ministers are elected.”

“What’s it like to be a Bhutanese Princess?” I asked.

“When my father was exiled I attended school in Nepal. Then I went to a local high school inThimpu where my daughter goes now. I worked for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and traveled around the world for five years, working for the Conference Division as a political adviser. When I got married I resigned from the government. They had a rule then—but no longer—that if you married someone engaged in the private sector you couldn’t work for the government. That was to avoid corruption. Now I am divorced and work for my father who has several businesses in mining and tourism.”

So much for my previously romantic ideas about medieval style Oriental princesses trailing their long fingernails in lotus pools.

Visiting Bhutan

Although a limited number of independent travelers are allowed, it is advisable to hire a private tour company to make all the hotel and touring arrangements, particularly during festival season.

Best times to go: In March for the Paro festival, in May for spring flowers, in October for the Thimpu festival.

Rates (controlled by the Bhutan Tourist Authority): $250 per person per day for groups of more than four. For a group fewer than four, there is an additional daily surcharge. Credit cards and checks are not accepted. Bring traveler’s checks and U.S. dollars in small denominations.

Travel Arrangements: We arranged our trip through Asian Pacific Adventures.

THEODOSIA T. GREENE is a widely published freelance writer who lives in Sedona, AZ.

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