They hate it if you call their country Shangri-La. Deeply spiritual they might be, however the self-effacing Bhutanese are worldly enough to know the Utopian Himalayan valley of James Hilton’s 1933 book, Lost Horizon, was a romanticised fiction.
That said, the parallels are inescapable — not least Bhutan’s idealistic and deadly serious commitment to putting Gross National Happiness as its primary national goal, making materialism and economic growth secondary.
Then there’s the country’s deep seclusion. Unless you brave a boneshaking 16-hour road trip from India, the one way into this magical kingdom of 750,000 souls, lower than twice the scale of Wales, is by plane.
Holy ascent: On a tour of Bhutan, Ivo Dawnay climbs the steep track to the country’s famous Tiger’s Nest monastery, which sits at 10,240ft (pictured)
Bhutan, a ‘magical kingdom of 750,000 souls’, is ‘lower than twice the scale of Wales’, Ivo reveals
It’s an exciting ride. As our Airbus 319 rises from India’s humid Assam plains, it climbs steeply. Then, because the snowcapped peaks of the High Himalaya emerge above the cloud line, it plunges all the way down to duck and weave, waggling its wings through the wooded hills and valleys to land at tiny Paro airport at 7,500ft above sea level.
As soon as you arrive, it is apparent every thing is different. The airport terminal constructing is a low-rise marriage of stone, lime plaster and elaborately carved wood — swirling with iconic Buddhist imagery. (No constructing taller than six storeys is allowed anywhere within the country).
Inside, there isn’t a promoting; as an alternative, tasteful oil paintings of the young Royal Family — handsome King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and attractive Queen Jetsun Pema and heir Jigme Namgyel Wangchuck — modestly attired within the national men’s gho (knee-length robe) and kira (women’s shirt and sarong) that’s seen in all places on the streets.
The wood immigration booths have the homely feel of an English country pub. You’re greeted with smiles.
And out of doors within the town, there aren’t any hassling beggars, no litter and no other foreign tourists — a stark contrast to close neighbour, Nepal, whose inundation by hordes of backpackers is something Bhutan is decided to avoid.
A minor hubbub reveals the arrival of a bald and bespectacled senior abbot in his flowing, deep red robes — a Bodhisattva no less, one who has chosen to carry back from full enlightenment to assist others on to the Buddha’s True Path.
Ivo arrives in Bhutan via Airbus 319, his plane landing at tiny Paro airport (pictured) at 7,500ft above sea level
He good-naturedly dispenses blessings to excited ground staff.
It is a big day. After two-and-a-half years of rigid lockdown, our arrival marks the official re-opening of the tiny Himalayan Kingdom to the world,
The motive for our party’s visit is the inauguration of a 250-mile walking route that traces paths East-West across the country.
The Trans-Bhutan Trail is the brainchild of Sam Blyth, a Canadian entrepreneur and philanthropist.
It was enthusiastically taken up by the 42-year-old King, who used the Covid pause to mobilise the nation to rebuild the Sixteenth-century walking route taken by travellers, traders, pilgrims, official messengers and civil servants for generations.
Ivo’s visit coincides with the inauguration of the Trans-Bhutan Trail, a 250-mile route that traces paths East-West in Bhutan. Before he sets off on the route, he enjoys an evening ‘of deep luxury’ within the capital, Thimphu (above)
Golden days: Pictured above is The Great Buddha Dordenma near Thimphu
LIKE NOWHERE ELSE ON EARTH
- Bhutan became a parliamentary monarchy in 2008 on the King’s initiative.
- It’s 70 per cent forested with six-sevenths of the woodland ‘protected’. Bhutan claims to be the primary net carbon-positive country on the planet.
- The national speed limit is 30mph as dogs and cattle are likely to wander over and sleep on the roads.
- A matrilineal society, women (the eldest daughter) inherits property and land.
- Men can have a couple of wife and ladies can have a couple of husband.
- Landless Bhutanese can appeal to the King for land, and he can grant holdings.
- Smoking tobacco had been illegal for several years until the Covid pandemic — when the federal government imported cigarettes to stop potentially virus-spreading smuggling.
- While the King has a palace, he lives in a cottage and has no ‘salary’.
- The prime minister earns $1,400 a month after tax.
- Life expectancy has risen from 33 to 66 in 50 years.
- Bhutan is a member of the UN, but has no formal diplomatic relations with the UN Security Council’s five everlasting members because it doesn’t want to take sides in disputes.
- Bhutan’s rigid lockdown meant that just 21 Bhutanese died with Covid.
- It has a free health and education system for all.
- Using plastic bags is prohibited.
The restoration project engaged a whole bunch of young volunteers — referred to as the Guardians of the Peace. They researched the unique route’s stories and oral history; rebuilt 18 bridges and hacked 10,000 steps out of the dense forest.
It’s hoped that this recent resource will rival Spain’s Camino de Santiago, Peru’s Inca Trail and the Appalachian trail within the U.S. After an evening of deep luxury within the capital, Thimphu, on the exquisitely appointed Amankora hotel, we’re off with our guide, Sanjay, and driver, Umba, to explore the trail.
All over the place on the roadside are reminders of Bhutan’s Vajrayana Buddhist traditions — a variant of Tibetan practice that also embraces local animistic deities and demons, spirits of the hills and streams within the landscape.
We set off past white chortens (shrines) down a steep, wooded track, dotted with large, black butterflies which have an electrical yellow spot on their wings.
And, as we descend to a mountain stream, the primary bells of an enormous prayer wheel, turned by water, may be heard ringing through the cover.
With its chir and blue pines, magnolias and rhododendrons and its villages of steeply pitched roofs and intricately painted houses, the landscape at first recalls Alpine woodland. Nevertheless, the natural world swiftly puts one right.
The birdlife alone — scarlet minivets, laughingthrushes and scaly-breasted munias — abound together with garishly colored Himalayan pheasants and ever comical hoopoes, uncurling their Mohican hairstyles like King’s Road punks within the Nineteen Seventies.
Sanjay points out golden and gray langur monkeys, while deeper throughout the woods are sambar and muntjac deer, yellow-throated martens, red pandas, serow goats and wild pigs. There are rumours — but only rumours — of bears and tigers.
Just 24 hours in, it begins to dawn on one which that is an experience unlike another in a lifetime of travelling: a glimpse into a singular society all but untouched by Western individualism, wealth and ambition. On our second day, we enter the exquisite Punakha Valley — the previous Royal capital is similar to a movie set image of lime-green rice paddies — bisected by the mighty Mo Chhu river and guarded by its high quality Seventeenth-century Dzong, a formidable fortress/temple where monks guard holy relics.
Nearby, in riverside parks, locals hone their archery skills — the national sport — hitting targets the scale of dartboards from 140 yards.
The majority of Bhutan is temperate and sometimes even sub-tropical, hosting more undisturbed bird and animal species than the entire of North America and Mexico.
On his hike, Ivo enters the ‘exquisite’ Punakha Valley (pictured) and finds that it’s ‘similar to a movie set image of lime-green rice paddies — bisected by the mighty Mo Chhu river’
After a steep climb in our minibus, we spend time in Lingmukha, a small farming village high above the valley. It’s here that the social purpose of the trail is revealed.
‘I used to have 27 horses to take people across the valley, but all of them went when the road got here in,’ an elderly man says. ‘We hope that the trail will bring some work back.’
A young couple have chosen to stay, enthusiastic about establishing a homestay hostel for travellers.
Tradition: The Punakha Valley is guarded by its high quality Seventeenth-century Dzong (pictured), a formidable fortress/temple where monks guard holy relics
But for many villagers, back-breaking work will proceed as before — tending the shrinking rice paddies. For Bhutan not grows enough of its famous red rice to feed itself.
The wealth of the country derives mostly from the sale of hydroelectric power to its neighbours.
Our final day is spent off the trail, climbing the steep track to the Tiger’s Nest — Bhutan’s most famous monastery that adheres to the rockface of a mountain.
I’m the slowest of our party, but our faithful driver Umba keeps me company.
Ivo encounters ‘reminders’ of Bhutan’s Vajrayana Buddhist traditions ‘in all places’ on his hike. Above are young monks on the country’s Karchu Dratshang monastery
Ivo was a guest at Amankora Lodges which offers a package of activities for a four-day visit at £1,330 per room per night. Other travel firms offer Bhutan tours which should be accompanied by a guide and driver. Find more information at Transbhutantrail.bt. There aren’t any direct flights from Britain to Bhutan. Druk Air flies into the country from Asian and Indian destinations and Bhutan Airlines flies from Bangkok, Kathmandu, and Kolkata.
On the monastery eventually, we discover dozens of burgundy-robed, shaven-headed lamas and their boy apprentices, absorbed by the annual recitation of sacred texts.
A drone of chanted mantras seeps from the temples just like the whirr of a machine — calling compassion down on the sinful world.
That evening in a final farewell, Lotay Tshering, Bhutan’s charismatic prime minister, takes questions. Sanjay has primed me to challenge the size of the $200-dollars-a-night (£176) tourist tax as he fears it’s going to limit the advantages to rural communities.
Tshering admits the figure could be reviewed later, but for now the priority is to defend each local culture and the natural environment. ‘We’re culturally very, very sensitive,’ he says, insisting that tourism just isn’t seen as a revenue generator but as a resource to defend the country’s values.
One fears, Bhutan’s 4 guiding National Happiness principles of excellent governance, sustainable development, and cultural and environmental conservation shall be eroded by the fashionable world.
Then again, the country’s legal code way back to 1729 stated: ‘If it cannot create happiness for its people, there isn’t a purpose in a government to exist.’
For an old Western materialist like me, to witness not only Bhutan’s physical beauty but additionally its David versus Goliath struggle to be itself is a privilege I’ll always remember.