When I was seventeen my parents took me to Italy to visit Rome, Florence, and Pisa. Besides the great sights and wonderful food, I was struck by the sensory experience of walking down the block from our hotel to a coffee shop to purchase an espresso and the Herald Tribune. The sights, sounds, and smells were intoxicating. I was hooked on travel; the more exotic the better. Since that time, I have been privileged to visit almost 70 countries worldwide.
I discovered Bhutan about five years ago while watching the Today show. Matt was visiting the Tiger’s Nest Monastery in Bhutan, filmed during a segment of the Where in the World is Matt Lauer. Tiger’s Nest is the most famous of Bhutan’s monasteries, miraculously perched on the side of a sheer cliff 900 meters above the floor of the Paro Valley. A historic sight set in perfect harmony with nature had garnered my full attention. I marveled at Bhutan, a kingdom with warm and open people clothed in traditional and colorful garb. The country’s quietly confidant ancient Buddhist culture, nestled in an exquisite backdrop of breathtakingly beautiful topography and landscapes added to its allure. With Bhutan now squarely on my radar it was only a matter of time until plans were finalized for our October visit last year.
Bhutan, located between India and China and just east of Nepal, is about the size of Switzerland but has a population of just 700,000.
Bhutan had remained closed to the outside world for decades, admitting visitors for the first time in 1974. At that time only 287 tourist visas were issued. The number of visitors has slowly increased and now hovers in the 20,000s for the past several years.
Three years ago, following the introduction of democracy, the government began seriously assessing how tourism could be increased while maintaining a high level of “GNH.” Unlike most countries that measure their progress by looking at GDP (gross domestic product), people in Bhutan first consider any proposal in light of its impact on Gross National Happiness.
Despite its image as an exclusive, remote destination, this Himalayan kingdom is not a difficult country to visit. Requirements include a visa, payment of a fixed daily tariff to the government and a guide and driver to accompany you throughout your stay. This was accomplished via an agency without difficulty.
It took almost 24 hours by plane from New York to arrive in Paro, Bhutan. The Paro airport is considered one of the world’s most difficult for takeoffs and landings. Despite the perilous conditions, the views over the clear blue waters of the Paro River and the lush green foliage of the steep mountains of the Himalayas were breathtaking.
We traveled in October because of the warm temperatures and clear mountain views that grace Bhutan in the fall. In addition we were fortunate to attend two religious festivals occurring at that time in Thimphu and Bumthang. Bhutan is one of the most religious countries in the Tibetan Buddhist world. These festivals have a special place in the hearts of its residents. The Dzongs (fortress-monasteries) come to life with color, music and dancing as the town’s folk dress in their finest clothes and join together to exorcise evil spirits and celebrate a new harvest. The festivals are primarily for the locals and permit the tourists an inside look into the fabric and culture of the Bhutanese society.
By chance our trip was scheduled during the royal wedding of the popular fifth King of Bhutan (age 31) to his beautiful new bride (age 21). The country was abuzz in excitement and pageantry. We were lucky enough to participate in a motorcade following the ceremony and got a glimpse of the happy newlyweds.
Bhutan is one of the most consistently beautiful countries in the world with jaw-dropping scenery. Because of its previous self-imposed isolation, its culture is distinct, relatively pure. Bhutan has been considered the last Shangri-La. As it begins to grapple with rapid westernization, now is an excellent time to consider a visit there. I believe any traveler would feel deeply rewarded after traveling to this “magic kingdom”.
Article and photography by Dr. Alan Sloyer
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