The Last Himalayan Buddhist Kingdom: Bhutan

Bhutan

Bhutan–Docula Pass. ©Goran Hoglund/flickr

Our trip this October took us back to South Asia to visit old friends in both India and Nepal and to make new friends in Bhutan, a country we had never visited before. We found Delhi and Kathmandu as chaotic, bustling, polluted and wonderful as ever, and this made our stay in bucolic and unique Bhutan especially fun as a contrast.
Monks in Bhutan.  © Sharon Lundahl.

Monks in Bhutan. © Sharon Lundahl.

We had read a lot about this last of the Himalayan Buddhist kingdoms, where every policy decision is judged for its contribution to the “Gross National Happiness” of the Bhutanese people. Still, we were unprepared to find such a quiet and tranquil…and easygoing…place in the middle of Asia. In many ways, it reminded us of the difference between rural, wooded and tranquil Whidbey Island where we live, in contrast to the bustling Seattle metro area on the mainland.

Bhutan

Contemporary Religious Art. © Sharon Lundahl

Bhutan is an ancient land with a very short modern history. The Switzerland-sized country, with a small population of 700,000, has participated in the spread of Buddhism and engaged in centuries of Tibetan influences, as well as Hindu Nepali pressures.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, Bhutan’s location, sandwiched between giant India and China, has defined its world view. After centuries of strife between regional feudal warlords, the Bhutanese established a dynastic monarchy in the early 1900’s. Since then they have been lucky to have had a progression of five enlightened monarchs. The 21st century constitution, which enshrines the “Gross National Happiness” concept and requires the country to remain more than 60% forest, even allows for the impeachment of the king…and requires him to retire at age 65.

Bhutan

Fred on Trek to monastery.

Coming into the modern age only in the late 20th century, the country’s monarchs have managed change very carefully. They have been intent on preserving their culture AND bringing their citizens in the modern age at the same time. This has led to charming contrasts where the traditional dress for men and women is still required in almost all public venues, but even the smallest child…and almost all monks..now seem to have smart phones.

Father Carrying Child in National Dress. © Sharon Lundahl

Father Carrying Child in National Dress. © Sharon Lundahl

This is a country that bans smoking in public and bans the sale of any tobacco products, bans plastic bags, bans all billboards and tightly controls tourism (7,000 tourists last year) to preserve its traditional culture. This all is in stark contrast to Nepal next door which has done the opposite (700,000 tourists last year). Bhutan had no motor roads until the 1960’s and still has no stoplights. It did not allow any tourism until the 1990’s, did not allow television until 1999, and did not allow the internet until the early 2000’s. It became a constitutional monarch with a parliament only in 2008.

Making a trip to Bhutan is not just a matter of jumping on a plane and backpacking around. To obtain a visa you must pay a tour company in advance a minimum of $ 250 per day per person ($ 200 in the winter off season).

Bhutan

Bhutanese Chorten. © Sharon Lundahl

With that receipt, the government will give you a visa that is limited to the amount of days you have paid for, and even gives the dates of arrival and departure. You also receive a route permit that lists the towns you will visit and the hotels you will stay in on each day. You must be accompanied by a guide and driver who have to register you through each district’s checkpoints with your route permit. In some ways it reminded us of traveling with Intourist in the old USSR, though with more smiles and good humor.

Bhutan

Happy Bhutanese Girl. © Sharon Lundahl

The $250 per day actually includes a $ 50 tax for tourism infrastructure, and includes the costs of your guide, your car and driver, your hotel, any trekking gear, and all of your meals. Taking this into consideration, the daily amount is not as outlandish as it first seems. We also paid a daily “small group” surcharge, as we were a group of two.

We did see lots of tour groups, ranging from Seattle-based REI trekking groups to familiar names like Overseas Adventure Travel and Roads Scholar. Interestingly for a country who has had to fend off Chinese expansionism for centuries, Bhutan now hosts numerous Chinese tourists. Our own guide had been studying the Chinese language so he could lead the increasing numbers of Chinese tour groups.

Bhutan

Jejekangphu Kang. © Andrew Purdam/flickr

11 Responses to “The Last Himalayan Buddhist Kingdom: Bhutan”

  1. Sandra

    Hi Sharon and Fred,
    Just forwarded this to Stan, a friend who was in Bhutan, prior to me meeting him in Cambodia and Vietnam recently – just returned – one of my best trips.
    I always enjoy these vignettes of your travels – so informative and interesting.
    Hope all is well on Whidbey Island.
    Sandra

    Reply
  2. Judyth

    Would love to talk to you about your trip in the spring. It’s on our eventual list, but $500/day for the two of us. Yikes! Did the trip contribute to your and Sharon’s personal happiness index (not kidding)?
    Judyth

    Reply
  3. Ewa Poraj

    I am so happy for you traveling to all fascinating places and thankful for sharing experience with us. Will stop by the Thanksgiving weekend to ask about more.

    Reply
  4. chechay nidup

    Hi Fred and Sharon,

    I am so glad you guys enjoyed your short trip to Bhutan. Here is hoping to see you again:)

    Reply

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