A question I am commonly asked is “what is your favourite country to visit”? Having been to nearly 50 countries makes this a difficult question to answer but there is one country that will always be in my top three.
A peaceful and spiritual oasis lying in the heart of the Eastern Himalayas, Bhutan is simply magical. Hidden between its neighbouring giants China and India, Bhutan is a similar size to Switzerland with a population of 700,000.
Exploring Bhutan is an opportunity to discover a nation who are proud of and have retained their cultural identify. It is a place like no other and visiting it feels like stepping into a magical vortex frozen in time.
You know you are in Bhutan when…
1.You are thankful for a window seat on a plane with the only airline that flies to Bhutan (Druk Air) after getting up close and personal with the Himalayan Mountains on the descent into Paro Airport.
2.You are not only allowed to stay on the airport tarmac to photograph the stunning Himalayan backdrop, you are actively encouraged to by local airport staff
3.You’ve organised your pre-booked tour, the only way to gain entry into the country
4.You’ve paid over $200 a day to enter the country but hardly spend a penny once you are there
5.You are greeted at the airport by a sign stating “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product”
6.You stand with monks watching a local football game outside Thimpu Stadium, the site of “The Other Game” played at the same time that Brazil and Germany competed in the 2002 World Cup. In this game, the two lowest ranked teams in the world competed with Bhutan defeating Monserrat 4-0.
7.You find yourself eating boiled rice three times a day because you don’t like spicy food
8.You spend an afternoon in an unplanned meditative state, listening to the mesmerising chants from the monks at Punakha Dzong
9.The only interruption to your picnic by the river is the ‘whooshing’ sound of an arrow shot from a local archer practising nearby
10.You spend entire days not seeing any other Westerners
11.You feel you have stepped back in time as you join locals at the Sunday afternoon regional Archery event, Bhutan’s national sport. A magical scene evolves as teenage girls hold hands and sing on the sidelines, opposing teams chant football-like banter at each other, monks and older men stand deep in conversation and a “woosh” past you signifies an archer’s attempt at hitting the wooden target from 140 metres away.
12.You take a leisurely stroll around the world’s only capital city without traffic lights
13.You purchase some local sweets and water through a window below a wooden “General Store” sign
14.You realise the locals don’t all have the same fashion sense, but are wearing the National Dress (gho for men, kira for women)
15.Are in a country whose altitude ranges from 100 to 7,500 metres
16.You face 3-5 years in jail for smoking a cigarette, and can only legally smoke by purchasing a monthly permit for those with a ‘smoking addiction’.
17.You discover local hair salon’s don’t need four walls and modern equipment as ladies queue for a trim in the grounds of the Memorial Chorten
18.You immerse yourself in people watching at the Memorial Chorten as local’s cling to prayer beads as take the clockwise walk around the Chorten
19.You have that feeling of insignificance that a powerful natural scene like the snow-capped Himalayan Mountains creates
20.You learn to greet locals with the Bhutanese word for hello, “kuzuzanpo-la”
21.You encounter the strange looking Takin, Bhutan’s National Animal
22.You realise the inadequacy of your fitness levels as you are overtaken by a small child on a hiking trail
23.You spend your evening sitting around a fire, following a traditional story narrated via music and dance.
24.You meet locals who had to be convinced by the much loved Royal Family that the introduction of a democratically-elected government in 2008 after a century of monarchy rule, was the way forward for the nation
25.You travel through a countryside decorated with prayer flags, chortens, dzongs, stupa, monasteries…and colourful penis’s painted on doors
26.You share the road to Gangte with the little black-faced Langur Monkeys
27.You find ear plugs an essential ingredient to a night’s sleep in Paro, the town where dogs only bark at night
28.You stand with locals on the side of the road in the Punakha Valley as a car with the license plate “BHUTAN 6” transports members of the much-loved royal family through the village
29.A pile of rocks in the middle of the road represents a round-about, one of two traffic control mechanisms in the country
30.You observe the other traffic control mechanism in Thimpu with amused interest – a white gloved and suited traffic controller
31.You see a field containing nothing but wooden goal posts, a reminder that whilst archery may be the nation’s favourite sport, football is not far behind
32.You feel you are on top of the world, both physically and spiritually after surviving the trek up to Tiger Nest Monastery
33.You learn more about a Buddhist belief that is imbedded in all aspects of daily life
34.You are entertained by naughty little novice monks who cannot hold their concentration during prayer time at a monastery
35.You feel uplifted as you listen to the chatter and laughter of happy school children skipping along the road, girls holding hands and boys playfully wrestling with each other
36.You are admiring the picturesque Punakha Valley as a local girl tells you she would love to see the grey, concrete underground network in London
37.You learn that Gross National Happiness is more than just an inspiring quote, it is a way of life
There are so many things wrong with the world. There are so many countries in turmoil. There is a sense of a growing power struggle between the superpowers of the east and west. There are countries enduring violence and bloodshed to achieve a democratic, corruption-free and fair existence.
And then there is this little country called Bhutan, which many people haven’t even heard of, that seems to have got so much right. It’s not a perfect country it has the advantage of having a small population and a strong Buddhist faith, but it has a much loved Royal Family and a newly elected and respected government and experiences a relatively peaceful existence.
A monarchy that spent the first half of the last century maintaining its culture and national identify has recently begun to open its doors to the outside world, which inevitably raises some questions. Does Bhutan have something the rest of us can learn and benefit from? Will it benefit from the positive aspects of modern technology and development? Or has it created a gateway through which the negative aspects of the outside world will creep through to challenge the peace, culture and national identity that this country is so proud of. Only time will tell.