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Four days in the ‘Land of the Thunder Dragon’

You may not have heard of the Doklam, but as two twenty-first century superpowers face off across the high-altitude plateau, the tiny mountainous kingdom of Bhutan has been catapulted into the headlines. Butting up against China, but closely-allied to India, tiny and little-known Bhutan has become a crucial player in one of the many potential flashpoints in our precarious world.

Bhutan landscape

China is constructing a road in the region of the disputed border, and Bhutan has asked its Indian ally to help it assert its rights. Bhutan forms a key part of Indian strategic thinking, as it grapples with an innate geographical weakness caused by its “chicken’s neck.” This is the thin corridor of Indian territory that ducks under Nepal and reaches around Bangladesh, stretching out toward India’s restive north-western states. In the event of a conflict, this fragile line of communication could be easily cut by an enemy, much like India exploited geographical weaknesses when it helped sever East and West Pakistan in the seventies. Close alliance with Bhutan serves to thicken the exposed neck and reduce that vulnerability. As a result, Bhutan is kept firmly within India’s geopolitical orbit, and does not even maintain formal diplomatic relations with China.

But for most, the minute Himalayan kingdom, known as the Land of the Thunder Dragon, is an undiscovered corner of the world. If it is on a traveller’s radar at all, it likely only registers to the extent that it is astronomically expensive to visit: the guidebook describes it as, “Nepal for the jet set.” So, as an avowed independent budget traveller, an all-you-can-eat buffet at a three-star hotel in Thimphu was a reasonably odd place to find myself. But when the visa authorities slammed the Tibetan border shut and I washed up in the Himalaya with a Tibet-sized hole in my trip and a chunk of spare budget that would no longer be going to the Chinese, the opportunity for a visit to Bhutan was simply too good to turn down.

Bhutan building

Beautiful and remote, Bhutan is famous for being one of the happiest places on earth. Its king prefers to gauge development via the measure of Gross National Happiness rather than that of GDP used elsewhere. This assigns a value to resources such as an unpolluted environment, clean water, and preserved forests. Consequently, one of the economy’s former key earners, the timber industry, has largely been shut down, as trees make people happy.

The king and the Wangchuk royal family form a key part of Bhutanese identity, and the royals are overwhelmingly popular. The country was an absolute monarchy until 2008 when, so the official narrative goes, the king forced his reluctant subjects to accept a parliamentary brake on his power. In such a small community, many people have a personal connection to the royals – our guide played basketball with a crown prince. Britain’s Duke and Duchess of Cambridge paid a royal visit to Bhutan last year and the namesakes bowed to Bhutan’s king and queen, dubbed the “William and Kate of the Himalayas,” in recognition of their junior status.

It was the fourth King that took the decision to finally open up the previously-hermetic kingdom in the seventies. He saw the potential to earn additional foreign exchange, but was wary of the impact that mass-tourism might have, and consequently chose to restrict tourists to a small, finite number of visitors in order to preserve the inherent character of the mountainous kingdom.

Under this policy, four days in Bhutan is realistically about as much time as anyone can afford, but a visit is not as expensive as it may first seem. The system of a daily $200 visa fee was designed to ensure that Bhutanese tourism remained high-end and low-impact. However, this fee includes almost every expense you will likely incur during your stay, and between two of us we spent the Ngultrum-equivalent of less than €40 in four days on top of the visa fee, mostly on optional extras like Druk beer and a couple of small souvenirs. All accommodation, food and site entry fees are included for the duration of your stay, as are the services of a full-time personal guide and transport in his 4×4.

Bhutan landscape

The thought of a guided tour usually fills me with dread, but your guide is there to facilitate, rather than control, your visit. He is a constant and knowledgeable companion, helping you navigate temple etiquette, and flexing your itinerary to accommodate your interests. The hotels were excellent and, frankly, a bit of a treat to someone more used to hostels. Bhutan’s sites, all included, are certainly unique, with many world-class and capable of commanding a significant entry fee in their own right. Although your visa fee also includes free entry to the paper factory, which is shown off with just as much enthusiasm as the incredible monasteries. While undoubtedly an expensive few days, I feel we did see value.

The food is similarly unique. Rather than a garnish, chilli peppers are a staple ingredient, and used as the basis of entire main meals: the national dish is chillies cooked in cheese. And then there is Bhutanese yak-butter tea. Red in colour, and viscous in texture, it tastes like the warm fat freshly lipo-suctioned out of an obese backside. This kind of tea is not unique to Bhutan, but available in various guises across the Himalaya, particularly in Tibet.

It is no coincidence that Bhutan shares many cultural traits with Tibet, as it was carved out of that country in the seventeenth century by a local spiritual warlord, styling himself the Zhabdrung. Although synonymous in modern times with the Dalai Lama’s anti-violence message, Bhutanese history is punctuated by regular Tibetan aggression, and it’s brave victories against invasion from its larger neighbour are widely commemorated. As a result, the area is littered with beautiful and imposing Dzongs, fortified monasteries, built to contain the threat. These thick-walled buildings of wood and whitewashed mud dominate the valleys of approach from Tibet. Among the most spectacular is Punakha Dzong, which sits in the curve of a river, next to a picturesque, fortified, ancient wooden bridge. Taktshang Goemba, the Tiger’s Nest, is a monastery spectacularly built into the top of a cliff, said to be held to its sheer walls by the hairs of angels.

Tiger's Nest, Bhutan

In rural areas, tall, traditional block houses scatter the landscape, constructed of timber and mud. As archaic is the clothing, with many locals wearing traditional national dress to all formal occasions, including work. The women’s kira consists a tightly-wrapped, brightly-coloured skirt tied round the waist, and a beautifully-patterned silk jacket; while men sport the knee-length tartan dressing-gown-like gho with turned-up cuffs, woven socks, and long woollen scarves thrown across the shoulders and wrapped around the waist. It all combines to give the impression of a quaint vista largely unchanged since the Medieval.

Although one thing which jars you out of the fifteenth-century is all the penises. These are the symbol of Lama Drukpa Kunley, an ancient saint, and used to ward off evil and bring luck. Phallus worship is not necessarily unusual, but it is a bit odd that they all look exactly like those drawn on school desks by fourteen-year-old boys: stylised hairs sprout from each perfectly-smooth testicle and drops of liquid spew from the top. And they are everywhere. Painted on houses, hanging from rear-view mirrors, and even forming signposts, pointing lost souls left or right.

Bhutan penis

The Bhutanese national sport is archery, and in the centre of the capital, Thimphu, is a large archery butt. Although armed with modern composite bows, the Bhutanese game uses tiny targets and, unfortunately for Bhutan, their brand of the sport is not recognised by the Olympic Committee, and they are unlikely to win either a medal or international recognition that way. Conversely, Bhutanese football has hit the headlines, having been the subject of two feature films. One of these, ‘The Other Final’, covered a one-off play off between Bhutan and Montserrat to determine the worst team in the world, a fixture in which The Thunder Dragons recorded their first ever victory.

A trip to Bhutan is guaranteed to give you an insight into a unique corner of the world. It will still cost a lot to visit, but it is not as out-of-reach as it might at first appear.

Bhutan landscape

Much more by this author on his very excellent blog.

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