FEW people have heard of the country of Bhutan and fewer still could point to it on a world map. In some respects it would be best for Bhutan and in turn for the small number of visitors to the Himalayan kingdom if it stayed that way.
Bhutan is indeed a very special country, deeply traditional, devoutly Buddhist but also at first seemingly paradoxically progressive. When I asked our delightful guide what it would be like to live in Bhutan if you were not Buddhist his look was one of incomprehension. “But everyone is”, he replied with a slightly puzzled look. Religion is important to the Bhutanese. They observe customs, they respect rituals, they believe in traditions. Yet, like many Buddhist countries, the people are charming and funny and relaxed and have no trouble reconciling traditional values and modern life. But you get a slightly uneasy feeling that there is a sense that the nation is also potentially quite fragile and could be swept away in a torrent of Western brash commercialism – or imperialism from its giant neighbour China – at any moment.
Take an evening stroll down the main street of Thimphu, the capital, barely bigger that a large village. The people are largely wearing traditional dress, the men wearing the gho, a bright oversized dressing gown with huge rolled up sleeves and a high collar, and the women wearing the kira, a floor-length dress worn with a short jacket in beautiful traditional fabrics. All the buildings are nearly identical and traditional, white painted with highly decorated windows and bright painted detail under the eaves.
Stopping for coffee, the other customers are smiling and happy and the waitress is far from shy, almost sassy and is quickly making a charming little joke at our expense. At first it is impressive, if not puzzling, that every shop keeper, for example, has perfect English. But then it turns out English is so widely spoken because everyone is taught through the medium of English at school. There own native language – and there are many – is also spoken but at school it is all English.
The food hints of India (their friendliest neighbour) so you will have all manner of interesting flat breads and rice but the heat that creates curry is served separate from main dishes. The Bhutanese eat a lot of vegetables but one of their national dishes is potatoes in a creamy, in cheese sauce which is more European than Asian. Those fiery whole chillies do appear in the cuisine but in a cheese sauce that is virtually the national dish, it is served with everything. A type of fern must have been in season while we were there as we had boiled or braised fern fronds (the tightly curled sprout of a fern before it fully opens) at most meals.
Bhutan is in the foothills on the Himalayas, between China and India, a very precarious position to be in as what has happened to Tibet has demonstrated and yet owes little to either culturally. Driving through the foothills through forests dotted with bright rhododendrons and an occasional orchid nestling in a tree is a joy surpassed only by a trek to experience the mountains up close. We trekked up to the renowned Tiger’s Nest monastery clinging to the side of a cliff and apparently secured there by angel’s hair.
We came to see the dzongs, huge white citadels, part government offices and part monastery, illustrating how intertwined politics and religion are in Bhutan. There are 20 dotted all over Bhutan mostly built in the 17th century, some high on mountain ridges, others at the meeting of two rivers, both large and small, but all so beautiful, like white-painted castles with the same elaborate windows and wall painting. Some have a covered bridge and most a watch tower and are inhabited by civil servants and monks, so there often groups of student monks to liven up the architecture. The temples feature wall paints depicting the Buddhist saints, complex mandalas and maps of Buddhist cosmology.
The Bhutanese love religious festivals and you are never far away from some special experience whether it is a temple where a large wooden phallus is waved over girls’ heads to help them with their fertility (and there are plenty of graphic paintings of the male member on buildings all over one town in Bhutan) to temples always busy with old ladies circling the building, spinning prayer wheels, mumbling chants and prayers and making offerings.
We had planned to visit Paro during their great festival but another day we bumped into a huge group of pilgrims on a hilltop above the highest pass who had some to hear a great monk speak. The whole mountain was covered in prayer flags strung between the trees and huge bonfires burnt the offering the pilgrims had brought.
The festival at Paro takes place in the dzong grounds and huge crowds gather to watch the monks chanting and the long traditional dance cycles. The festival culminates in the unfurling of a huge banner depicting Guru Rinpoche, the patron saint of Bhutan who introduced Buddhism into Bhutan, which covers the side of a temple building.
The banner in unfurled, amid much ceremony, chanting and dancing in the middle of the night and taken down shortly after dawn. It is a very holy occasion and very moving despite rain and a dangerous crush to cross the bridge. We later ran into the King of Bhutan, the world’s youngest reigning monarch, at a photo-opportunity casually chatting with the festival children on the steps of the temple.
It is not just the uniqueness of this nation that makes it captivating. It is the charm, grace and humour of the people, the stunning countryside and mountain ranges, the respect and love of their culture in all aspects of their life that is deeply felt but with the intimidating zeal, superiority and condemnation of other religions.
Tourism is controlled and you will not find any backpackers, for example. But Bhutan is surprisingly accessible in organised tours. It is a great privilege to visit such a beautiful, interesting and happy but somehow very fragile country. Long may they stave off the brash commercial forces that blight so much of the world leaving an inconclusive mish-mash of world culture with the local culture consigned to the theme parks and craft shops.