Introduction to Bhutan

I spent 15 days in a very remarkable country, the kingdom of Bhutan, which is located in the eastern Himalayas and is one of the last bastions of the Tibetan Buddhist culture and religion. It is often referred to as the Land of the Peaceful Dragon and is regarded as one of the last “Shangri-las” in the world.

It took me 30 hours to fly to Bangkok, Thailand, with plane changes in Los Angeles and Hong Kong. I spent the night in Bangkok and then flew by Druk Air via Calcutta to Paro, Bhutan. Druk Air consists of two jets, and you can only enter the country using that airline, which flies from only three cities. There is only one airport in Bhutan.

In Bhutan, everyone wears traditional clothing, which for the women is a kira, consisting of a long, patterned dress and a jacket, and for the men, a gho, which is a robe pulled up to the knees and tied tightly plus knee socks.

The people are descendants of the Drukpa and have features of the Mongolian people. I found everyone happy and smiling and friendly. I never heard a cry or an angry or loud voice. And, reportedly, there is no crime.

There is one road that crosses the country and it took us 12 hours to drive 180 miles on it. It is mainly one lane with a turn every 100 feet. We went over five mountain passes in that 12 hours, and there were flowers and trees growing at 12,000 feet.

One day a group of us decided to walk to a village below. We started at 12,000 feet and the village was at 10,500. After walking about 10 minutes my legs began to shake, and after another 10 minutes I started losing my balance, so the altitude did affect me at times. The next day we took a 2-hour hike at 7,500 feet and I had no trouble.

Thimphu is the capital and has a population of 40,000. It is the only city in the country — and it has no stoplights. Ninety percent of Bhutanese are farmers and live in small villages in the valleys. Many work for the government or own businesses.

The country has been open to the outside world only since 1974, and even now if you want to visit you must be on a tour. They allow only so many tourists to enter Bhutan. English is the language used in the schools, but Dzongkha is the national language. Education and health services are free.

Bhutan’s spectacular wilderness has become a central pillar of its national identity, and in 1995 it was ruled that no less than 60% of the land be retained under forest cover at all times. There are over 5,000 species of plants and 675 species of birds, and though it has 165 species of mammals, the only wild animals we saw were monkeys and yaks. In the southern areas are Asian elephants, and in the northern Himalayas the snow leopard is found.

The tour group I was with was Elderhostel (Boston, MA; phone 877/426-8056 or visit My tour, Sept. 15-Oct. 1, ’04, cost $5,200 and included air from Chicago. We stayed in nice, clean lodgings all with private baths and I had my own private room. Breakfast was always juice, cereal, eggs, toast and coffee or tea. Lunch was always buffet style with rice, two vegetable dishes (which were outstanding as they were very fresh) and two meat dishes.

Most of the meat was cut up and in a sauce or with large white radishes. We had chicken, beef or pork. The Bhutanese like hot food and grow lots of red peppers, but they cooked our dishes much milder. I drank Red Panda beer, which cost anywhere from a dollar to $3 for a liter. We could get liquor, but we could not use their ice cubes; likewise, it was bottled water that we had to drink at all times.

The highlight of our trip was attending two elaborate Buddhist festivals called tshechus. Normally held in spring or autumn once a year in honor of Guru Rinpoche, tshechus take place at dzongs (forts) and monasteries. They consist of up to five days of spectacular pageantry, masked dances and religious allegorical plays that have remained unchanged for centuries.

As well as being an important medium of Buddhist teaching, the tshechus are huge social gatherings. Dressed in their finest clothes and jewelry, the Bhutanese revel and rejoice in an infectiously convivial atmosphere where humor and devotion go hand in hand.

We attended one tshechu at the Tamshing Lhakhang monastery in Bhumthang Valley and another with over 1,000 people in Wangdue. On the last day of the Wangdue tshechu we got up at 4 a.m. to arrive at dawn to see the unfolding of the huge thangkha (religious scroll) dedicated to Guru Rinpoche and his manisfestations. I took over 400 pictures on this trip, with at least 150 of them of the dancers and other people at the festival.

We toured many palaces, ancient temples, monasteries and dzongs. Bhutanese houses have the most beautiful woodworking that you can imagine. There is carved wood around all the windows, doors, eaves, etc., all painted with geometric designs.

All the buildings have this remarkable architecture. The temples with their many statues of different Buddhas and other decorations in gold are much more elaborately decorated than any Catholic church I have seen.

There were not a lot of handicraft stores, but I did get some interesting jewelry, Buddhist prayer flags, thunderbolts, prayer wheels, a mandala and bells, horns and masks used in their ceremonies. They also had T-shirts for sale, which surprised me as many of the remote countries I have visited do not have them yet.

If any of you want more information on this country of friendly, devout Buddhists, mountain monasteries and snowcapped, 22,000-foot peaks, you can e-mail me c/o ITN. It sure was a remarkable trip.

Naples, FL