BHUTAN IS ONE OF THOSE PLACES YOU CAN’T GET TO FROM HERE. And if you’re a budget traveler, you can’t get there from anywhere. Bhutan enforces a fixed daily rate of US$250 on tourists during high seasons and $200 during off seasons. You are not permitted to travel without a guide and driver, and there are some restricted areas you still can’t visit. If you travel as a single traveler as I did, you pay a surcharge of $40 per day. When I asked Kinga, my guide, why the government restricted travelers like this, he said: “To keep the backpackers out. We want to protect our culture. We don’t want Bhutan to become another Katmandu.” I guess you have to respect that kind of thinking.
To facilitate maintaining their culture, only two airlines fly passengers in and out of Bhutan, and both are Bhutan national airlines. They fly only to a few nearby cities in India, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Nepal. Your driver and your guide meet you at the airport on arrival, and you are whisked away immediately to begin your tour in the foothills of the Himalayas.
One way Bhutan’s past is molding its future is that it has a strict architectural code in which each building’s architectural plan must be approved by the government and must exhibit on some level the ancient style. All houses do not look alike, but there is some element in them that displays an aspect of style of the traditional house, such as ornamental wood carving or the walls sloping slightly inward as they rise from the ground.
Another way the Bhutanese are protecting their heritage is by wearing traditional clothing. Although the government does not mandate that nationals wear the traditional dress, it suggests they do, and most locals proudly wear it to protect their culture. The men wear the gho, a one-piece gown with long sleeves folded back at the wrist, a kilt-length skirt. The women wear a kira, a long sarong topped with a long-sleeve jacket with lapels. All fairly colorful, and mixing and matching colors, designs, and stripes is de rigueur.
A third method Bhutan protects its heritage is that the government also offers free training for young men and women to become artists and craftsmen in order to perpetuate the ancient arts of sculpture, metal work, painting, and woodcarving.
“Ordinary” is not a word you might use to describe Bhutan. Approximately 72% of Bhutan is covered in forest, making Bhutan the only “carbon-negative” country in the world. You can almost imagine that breathing air in Bhutan, especially at a 7,000 to 10,000-foot elevation, is like no other: a luxury, a treat, a high, medicinal. What air should be.
Buddhism beats at the very heart of Bhutan. Most everyone in the country is Buddhist. One in 100 people is a monk, including women. It is hard to turn around and not see a temple or a prayer flag or a stupa or a monastery or a monk or nun.
Bhutan is a very spiritual country. To facilitate the continuation of the ancient spirituality, you will find old Buddhist stupas, prayer wheels, and monasteries everywhere you look.
Until about 1960, there were no roads in Bhutan. Even now in some places, you must walk a narrow footpath to go where you want to go. Less than ten years ago, if you wanted to visit the now-famous Tiger’s Nest Monastery, you had to climb the mountain on a narrow, and very steep, footpath. Today, most roads are narrow, many only slightly wider than one lane, so cars passing in opposite directions are forced to slip one wheel off the hard surface and onto the dirt shoulder. Even so, Bhutan may be the only country in SE Asia without a traffic problem. There are no stoplights in the country. Where needed in the small cities, traffic is controlled by a policemen standing inside a gazebo-like structure at main intersections.
Archery is still the national sport. Some men continue to make their own arrows, and most use bamboo bows. The archers are remarkably skilled at hitting a target that sits so far away—about 145 meters (476 ft), a football field and a half.
Even though most people work hard at agriculture, and the average income is little over US$ 1000 a year, Bhutan’s inhabitants may just be the happiest in the world. The Bhutanese are proud to say that theirs is the only country in the world where the people’s GNH (Gross National Happiness) is more important than the country’s GNP (Gross National Product).
It is easy to see how the ancient past can remain the future for Bhutan. And even easier to see why they might desire to cultivate that kind of future: with clean air, green land, and green energy. With unique animals. With high-quality vibes, happiness, and tangible spirituality. And with no plastic (which is now illegal, though still in use). With no nails. No traffic lights. No Starbucks. No Gucci. And perhaps, none of us pesky backpackers.
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