Feature: Magic Kingdom
A cacophony of cymbals and ceremonial dung horns accompanies a masked monk, dressed in a kaleidoscope of silks, as he dips a thick, red, wooden phallus into a container of holy water. Turning to his audience, the monk raises his hand and flicks his wrist repeatedly, distributing the water from his explicitly carved wand onto the nearest row of spectators. I am among a crowd of thousands witnessing this Tantric Buddhist fertility ritual in Bumthang, Bhutan. On one side of me sits a yak herder who has never seen a digital camera; on the other, a 24-year-old tour guide who carries a mobile phone and recently learned the lyrics to an entire Queen album. Their homeland, tucked between India and China in the eastern reaches of the Himalaya mountains, is cautiously opening its doors to the 21st century, and for a brief period of time, it might be the most fascinating destination on earth.
Shielded geographically by the Himalayas and culturally by a traditionalist monarchy, Bhutan has remained mostly unaffected by Western influences. Daily life in the country, which is slightly larger than Switzerland, has changed little over the centuries: Farmers work fields with scythes and oxen; festival participants and attendees wear multicolored, curled-toe shoes nearly identical to the 13th-century pair on display at the National Museum in Paro.
Outsiders first discovered Bhutan with the advent of modern tourism in the 1950s. However, then-King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, aware of how $5-a-day backpackers were trampling over Nepal, decided he did not want “soulless Westerners” traversing Bhutan’s sacred mountains. The ruler closed his country’s borders in 1961, but 11 years later his son, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, inherited the position of Druk Gyalpo, or Dragon King. Although he maintained his father’s distrust of the outside world, Singye Wangchuck believed that tourism could bolster the country’s limited economy. In 1974, he reopened Bhutan’s borders, allowing limited access to foreigners and embarking on a 30-year plan to develop the country’s tourism industry.
Today, three decades later, Singye Wangchuck remains in power, and his plan seems finally to be taking shape. The Bhutanese government has selected two of the world’s most esteemed hotel chains, Singapore-based Amanresorts and Como Hotels and Resorts, to help develop a tourism infrastructure and to build the country’s first foreign-run hotels (both of which opened last summer). The choice of these two companies reflects Wangchuck’s strategy of generating maximum tourism revenue from a minimal number of tourists. To control the number—and type—of visitors, Bhutan charges each tourist a minimum daily fee of $200 and requires that he utilize the services of a local guide. A visitor also must book his passage either directly with one of the 80 registered tour operators in Bhutan or through an affiliated operator abroad.
The Bhutan government’s selective approach to tourism is motivated by more than fiscal concerns. By limiting access, Singye Wangchuck hopes to preserve what he calls the country’s “Gross National Happiness,” a term he coined to describe his vision for Bhutan in which the contentment of the people is paramount. His model measures the success of the country not on per capita income or productivity, but on how well the government provides health care, education, and a clean environment for its citizens. To contribute to the GNH, Wangchuck based Bhutan’s tourism industry on the principle of sustainability—environmental, social, and economic—and only companies that adhere to this approach (such as Como and Amanresorts) are allowed to participate.
Wangchuck’s quest seems a noble one: Physically and culturally, his kingdom is a land worth preserving. Stretching from the sweltering subtropical Duars Plain on its southern border with India to the 24,000-foot-high mountaintops in the north, Bhutan is perhaps the most geographically and climatically diverse country of its size. Approximately 800,000 people reside in Bhutan (which began allowing cable television and Internet service only five years ago), and even the capital of Thimphu (population 48,300) appears more like an overgrown country village than a modern city.
The majority of Bhutan’s populace practices Tantric Buddhism, a mystical and somewhat sexual form of Buddhism that was introduced by Tibetans in the 11th century, and the religion’s symbols pervade the landscape. Prayer wheels—large, spinning structures that are said to release messages to the gods when turned—sit below waterfalls to ensure a continual flow of positive thoughts. Prayer flags flap from poles on high-mountain passes, Tantric mantras are carved into walls and hillsides, and phalluses, in addition to playing central roles in Bhutan’s many teschus (religious festivals), hang from the sides of houses to keep demons at bay.
Lured by the country’s Tantric culture and Himalayan terrain, increasing numbers of Westerners are traveling to Bhutan hoping to find a mountain Shangri-la. Their experiences, however, are often far from perfect. Toilet facilities in Bhutan are rudimentary except in hotels, food is for the most part abysmal, the foul smell of betel nut (a sour, carcass-scented nut that locals chew and spit incessantly) taints the air, and navigating the country is a frustrating and, at times, harrowing experience.
The main east-west road through Bhutan traverses a series of valleys and precipitous mountain passes. Frequently, when traveling the route, you can see your destination in the valley below (no guardrails block the view), but because the roads are so circuitous, a full day may pass before you arrive. Massive Indian transport and construction trucks honk to prevent collisions around every other bend, and drivers swerve constantly to avoid road workers, Bhutan’s poorest citizens, who smash rocks into gravel and live on the sides of the road
Trekking in Bhutan, a primary purpose behind many foreigners’ visits, also can be unduly difficult. In the river-valley town of Wangdue Phodrang, I encountered a frostbitten, sunburned group of travelers who had just finished the 21-day Snowman Trek in 28 days. Rainstorms dumped mercilessly on them, and they remained wet for the duration of their journey. Another couple I met relayed horror stories of a three-day trek that had no paths and required waist-deep river crossings in 40-degree weather.
Dining in Bhutan can be equally unsettling. A water-butter-boil cooking method seems the standard for everything in the ubiquitous buffets, which offer little more than cubed pork fat with rice or dried chilies and yak cheese. Because killing a live creature is counter to Bhutanese beliefs, residents enlist a non-Buddhist to do the dirty work or have the meat delivered by truck along the slow, hot road from India. Beans, potatoes, and ferns constitute the vegetables in the Bhutanese diet, and butter wine—grain alcohol and butterfat mixed and heated—is the drink of choice.
Most hotels and guesthouses in Bhutan fall similarly short of modern standards, but the new properties from Amanresorts and Como have improved this situation considerably. (Both hotels offer accommodations and amenities comparable to those of the chains’ other locations throughout Asia and elsewhere.) Each company, however, faced several obstacles in building its Bhutan resort. The developers had to truck in everything—from light fixtures to windows, terrazzo tiles to tubs, plumbing to linens—over the treacherous roads from India. Limited food resources required that their chefs plant gardens to test which vegetables and herbs would survive in the high-altitude soil. But perhaps the most challenging task was assembling the hotels’ staffs. The companies had to recruit from an untrained pool of workers: Bartenders knew nothing of mixing drinks, and most of the housekeepers had never used a vacuum cleaner or made a bed.
The challenges faced by Amanresorts and Como make the results of their efforts all the more impressive. Amankora, where a suite’s nightly rate ($1,000) is twice the annual per capita income in Bhutan, is a sleek, modern resort that blends in beautifully with its rural surroundings in the Paro River Valley. On the opposite end of the valley, the splendid Uma Paro features villas, staffed with butlers, that begin at $900 a night during the high season. Both chains are developing additional properties in the country: Uma is building close to Paro in the Haa Valley, which just recently opened to tourism, and Amanresorts is close to completing five additional hotels that will compose a cross-country network for travelers who want a full Bhutan experience without the hardship.
Paro, where most visitors begin their journeys after arriving from Bangkok, presents an awesome Himalayan panorama. The city of 60,000 sprawls throughout a wide valley framed by snowcapped peaks and bisected by a bottle-green river traversed by swinging rope bridges. It also is home to the country’s most recognizable religious landmark, Tiger’s Nest Monastery, which clings to the edge of a cliff high above town.
Tiger’s Nest is sacred to the Bhutanese because it is where the second incarnation of Buddha, Guru Rimpoche, is believed to have arrived on a flying tigress to subdue a terrorizing demon. Such magical tales are a hallmark of the country’s Tantric religion, a form of Buddhism that originated in India as early as the fourth century. Tantric Buddhism differs from other sects in that it stresses the unity of body, mind, and speech, and embraces human sensuality as a path toward enlightenment. Bhutan is the only country in the world in which Tantric Buddhism is the official religion, and the Bhutanese variety of the belief system integrates legends, demons, masks, and other elements from Bon, the primary religion in the Himalayas before Buddhism’s arrival.
Bhutan’s many teschus—held throughout the year in Paro, Bumthang, and elsewhere—provide the clearest window onto this Tantric Buddhist culture. Held at one of the great dzongs, mammoth old fortresses that became monasteries when Buddhism swept the land, the teschus consist of two or more days of dances performed by masked monks. The festivals are celebrations of life, death, and the casting out of evil, and spectators who witness all of these dances in their lifetime are said to die with the navigational skills needed in their quest for reincarnation. My tour guide, however, saw these dances as tedious, yet necessary, rituals meant for “old people” (who are presumably closer to embarking on their reincarnation journeys), so he took me behind the temple to an alley where a carnival atmosphere prevailed. There, the people drank beer, gambled, and shopped for artifacts that included women’s skulls.
The attitudes of my tour guide and his fellow back-alley revelers indicate that Bhutan’s long-dominant religion may be losing some of its grip on the society. But the Bhutanese are still bound by traditional Tantric beliefs, and the religion’s spirituality and superstitions remain a part of everyday life. A statue of Guru Rimpoche at Tiger’s Nest once was located in Thimphu; one day it asked to be moved to the cliff-top monastery. After the birth of my tour guide’s brother, who is a high lama in Bhutan’s religious hierarchy, a nearby river turned to milk and a rainbow rose over his family’s house. (The family later learned that he was the reincarnation of Terton Pema Lingpa, one of Tantric Buddhism’s most important lamas, who first lived in the late 15th and early 16th centuries.) The yeti exists in Bhutan, green cats play in wild marijuana fields, and dragons roam the mountains and valleys.
Singye Wangchuck, the Dragon King, hopes to introduce visitors to this magical land and, consequently, his people to the outside world. His challenge will be to do so without driving away Bhutan’s yetis and dragons, and without diminishing the demon-slaying symbols of Tantric Buddhism.
Click here to read Trekking To Bhutan.