Few places on Earth are truly quiet. In Bhutan, the last Himalayan Kingdom, there is a disconcerting lack of noise…there are very few roads with very few motor vehicles, very few factories, very few towns of any size and, of course, very few people. The steep mountain slopes, covered in dense pine forest seem to absorb any sound so that only the wind in the leaves and the flutter of prayer flags are audible. It is quite a culture shock after the maelstrom of Kathmandu.
As globalisation takes hold and starts to squeeze all the diversity out of even the farthest-flung cultures, it is quite a surprise to find a tiny country holding the modern world at bay. Bhutan’s unique topography and location in a forgotten corner of the Himalaya have left it free to pick and choose which parts of 21st century life to let past the border gate. Any development is done under strict regulations which famously prioritise “Gross National Happiness” and protection of the environment over Gross National Profit. Rather than rushing headlong into economic progress, the country has taken a long hard look at the mistakes of its neighbours and decided to do things a little differently.
Until the 1960’s, the country remained closed-off from the outside world, operating without currency, health services or roads. Only the Chinese invasion of neighbouring Tibet pushed the government into opening up its border with India and the start of a cautious modernisation. TV and the internet were “allowed” in 1999.
Each important town is dominated by an enormous white Dzong – imposing fortress-monasteries which were constructed in the 16th century to protect the country from Tibetan invasion. Each dzong is a strange fusion of church and state, containing both the local government administration and a monastery. Monks flit silently across the courtyards like scarlet wraiths while well-fed minor bureaucrats huff and puff up rickety staircases.
Bhutan is the only country in the world with a national park (Sakteng) for the protection of Yetis…of which there are two types. In this deeply religious country, myth, legend, history and folklore combine to keep alive the ancient beliefs. A highlight of any visit to Bhutan is a “tsechu” or festival – the Jambay Lhakhang Drup takes place in the remote Bumthang Valley, in the courtyard of Jambay Lhakhang, one of the oldest and most beautiful monasteries anywhere in the Himalaya. Under layers of costume, their faces hidden beneath strips of cloth and masks, the monks perform a series of complicated dances over a slow-slow-quick-quick-slow rhythm of cymbal and drum. The Black Hat Dance slowly builds into a series of hypnotic, whirling motions, where the human forms are transformed into spinning, wrathful demons, battling evil spirits to purify the dance ground. Later dances involve huge griffins and sword-wielding deities leaping through the air.
Bhutan’s final flourish is the spectacular Taktsang Lhakhang, the Tiger’s Nest Monastery, perched high above the Paro valley. Like many other sacred places, the Taktsang Lhakhang is at the end of a long, steep path, with the view only fully revealed as pilgrims emerge from the forest after a two-hour ascent from the valley. The monastery was built in honour of the 8th-century hero of Bhutanese Buddhism, Guru Rinpoche, who flew across Bhutan on the back of a tigress, subdued a local demon, then meditated at the site for three months.
So is Bhutan really the fabled Shangri-La? an exotic, unspoiled Himalayan refuge, far from the chaos of the modern world? After two weeks travelling through the country, I think it’s probably as close as it gets. The pristine environment, the unique culture and the deeply-ingrained Buddhist sense of calm and kindness to others make this a very special place to visit.
The full Bhutan gallery can be found here.