The Final Shangri-La

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Tiger’s Nest Monastery, Paro

Things in Bhutan took a turn for the unusual pretty much the second I stepped on the plane in Delhi. Sitting a few rows in front of me was a young monk who is apparently moderately famous. A stocky guy no older than mid-30’s with a very of-the-moment man bun, the monk, I later came to find out, was Dudjom Yangsi Rinpoche, a teacher of a particular school of Buddhism and believed to be the reincarnation of another important teacher (obviously I’m getting this information from someone far more enlightened than me).

Thank you to TKTK for the photo and the clarification
Source: https://instagram.com/p/1mWsMXTiPc/?taken-by=lamakhyen

A few passengers and flight attendants bowed as they went by and he blessed several people who came up to him. A few minutes later, four Americans in business suits with official Nepalese government pins on their lapels boarded with a brood of kids and a woman who is clearly some BFD in Nepal. When we landed in Kathmandu en route to Bhutan (this was news to me when we got there), they all got off and another monk, among other people, boarded and Dudjom quickly got out of his seat and bowed to him.

During our flight to Kathmandu, the cockpit door was wide open about half the flight and we all just hung out on the plane in Nepal while we waited for new people to get on. This whole procedure, and the fact that we were stopping in another country, was not entirely made clear and the German couple next to me, bound for Paro (Bhutan), nearly deplaned in Kathmandu, which would almost be worth the mix-up just to be able to say you’d taken a wrong turn and ended up in Kathmandu once in your life.

Possibly Mount Everest in the middle there? The pilot pointed it out as we flew by, but hard to know exactly which peak he was referring to.
Possibly Mount Everest in the middle there? The pilot pointed it out as we flew by, but hard to know exactly which peak he was referring to.

When we landed in Paro, the circus continued. As we were taxing to the gate, a group of monks ran onto the tarmac to greet the plane. When the older guy (who was I think the chief abbot of Bhutan but was never able to verify) got off the plane, everyone in the airport—security, customs officials, baggage people, everyone—ran outside and was falling all over themselves waiting to greet this guy, who smiled and blessed everyone in the crowd. Meanwhile, Dudjom, no big deal by comparison, went inside unnoticed. All the airport workers, clearly very star-struck, only went back to their posts when they saw the very confused other passengers heading for the now completely empty border control stations.

Thus, I was welcomed to Bhutan, with air transportation rules from the 1950’s and monks who are greeted like rock stars. And this delightful throwback of a country only got better.

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Bhutan loves to bill itself as “the last Shangri-La,” the final untouched corner of the earth immune to external pressure and the push for globalization and industrialization. This image of an Edenic paradise sounds like some crap from the promotional material for Sandals Jamaica, but Bhutan is the real deal. The capital of the country, Thimphu, doesn’t have a single stoplight, the only world capital to hold that distinction. The only non-local companies I saw in the whole country were a Honda dealership, a Hyundai dealership, and a Giant bike store. The previous king, known as K4, lives in retirement and is an avid mountain biker, which I think explains the last one.

What a hideous place
What a hideous place

Weirdly, the history of Bhutan is kind of mysterious, largely thanks to its self-imposed seclusion from the rest of the world until the late 20th century. Television was only introduced in the 1990’s. The country was formally unified in 1616 and has never been occupied or conquered by a foreign power. The current king of Bhutan, known as the Druk Gyalpo, is the fifth king (known as K5) in this line of hereditary monarchs and ascended the throne when he was 28 in 2008 at the same time a parliamentary form of government was introduced in the country by the monarchy itself.

Lungchutse Monastery on the mountain pass between Thimphu and Punakha
Lungchutse Monastery on the mountain pass between Thimphu and Punakha

With a population of 750,000, Bhutan is a rare case among Asian countries, one that doesn’t suffer from an overpopulation problem, which surely facilitates its almost maniacal attention to preservation of nature. For a country that probably does nothing to contribute to climate change, their public emphasis on conservation is admirable. The Bhutanse people are lucky to call an absolutely beautiful country home and unlike almost everyone else on the planet, they have the integrity to preserve it. The western third of the country is where the majority of the population lives, and I traveled exclusively in this small, but diverse area.

Thimphu

Prayer wheel powered by water in the small hut there

If you didn’t look closely at the buildings when driving into Thimphu, you would think you’d arrived in Vail. The capital has the kind of mountain, lodge-y architecture any ski bum would feel at home in and the slow-paced main street was a welcome change from the constant din on the streets of India.

The dzong is the quintessential cultural sight in Bhutan and you’ll see a lot of them (you’ll probably be dzong’d out by the end, as my guide would say). This style of architecture is common in Tibetan Buddhist countries and dzongs in Bhutan are a kind of a one-stop shop for all things religious, militaristic, and governmental.

Simtokha Dzong
Simtokha Dzong
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Tashichho Dzong
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Tashichho Dzong

The main dzong in Thimphu, the Tashichho Dzong, is the largest in the country and houses the king’s offices as well as Buddhist monastery adjacent to the parliamentary building. Bhutan is essentially a constitutional monarchy, with an elected legislative body, but also a very powerful king who frankly seems like a cool guy and is adored throughout the country. He lives in a very modest house next to the dzong so he can walk to work, and is not infrequently spotted leaving the dzong heading home when the building opens to the public at 5:30 after the government has closed for the day. Democracy was only established in Bhutan less than a decade ago, so exactly how this system will work is still being sorted out.

There’s something kind of campy about certain aspects of Bhutan. Because it’s such a small country that has been left alone for most of its history, they do things their own way. As many of the roads are two-lane, winding roads up mountainsides, speed limit enforcement is a big priority, so their solution is a hilarious, hokey sign campaign on the side of the road. Some of my favorites:

  • Be gentle on my curves
  • If you’re married, divorce speed
  • Mountains are a pleasure only if you drive with leisure
  • Don’t litter, it will make your life bitter
  • Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished

There’s a lot to love about a country that doesn’t play by anyone else’s rules. Observe.

Your eyes are not deceiving you

Your eyes are not deceiving you
Your eyes are not deceiving you

As rather overt symbols of fertility and signs of good luck, penises are a not uncommon appearance, painted in great detail on the sides of buildings as a sign of welcoming and hospitality (really). What seems paradoxical is that Bhutan has a pretty modest culture. The traditional dress for men and women is fairly conservative and for being a heavily Buddhist country (about 80 percent), certain customs in Bhutan strangely echo the staid, Christian-inspired norms that are present in the U.S.

Obviously what seems kind of vulgar by our standards is perfectly ordinary in Bhutan, and I love the strangeness of the whole thing. For living in such a remote and isolated place, people in Bhutan are very connected to, and aware of, the outside world, so it’s hardly a shock to them that the proliferation of phalluses comes as a real shock to tourists. They have a sense of humor about it too, and sex and reproduction for them is neither something to blush at, nor something to be fascinated by or fetishized. Instead, Bhutanese Buddhists embrace it as a natural part of life and celebrate it as a part of their religion, a kind of refreshingly honest and straightforward approach compared to the obsessive political correctness and prudishness in the U.S. and Christian tradition.

Of course, the national animal in Bhutan is basically a mythical creature. The takin is a cross between a sheep and a goat. When it walks, it moves like a bear. I went to a takin sanctuary in Thimphu, but didn’t get any good pictures. Thus behold a professional image of the very bizarre takin.

I stole this image from Waytobhutan.com, so full credit to them and please don’t come after me for copyright violations
I stole this image from Waytobhutan.com, so full credit to them and please don’t come after me for copyright violations

As Bhutan is such a Buddhist country, there are monasteries everywhere, and because the practice of religion is very much an active part of the culture, construction of elaborate temples is part of modern-day Bhutan. Here is the brand-new Buddha Dordenma.

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View of the city from the Buddha's hilltop perch
View of the city from the Buddha’s hilltop perch
Monk talking on his iPhone
Monk talking on his iPhone

The temple at the base of the Buddha was only consecrated two weeks ago and the project, funded by investors from Hong Kong and Singapore, is set to be completed sometime next year. I saw this kind of thing in other Asian countries, but it’s such an interesting break from religion in the U.S. Whatever you think about any kind of religion in the U.S., most people aren’t hankering to be putting up enormous new churches or synagogues or mosques.

Another monastery in Thimphu, the Chacgri Monastery. Below is its resident sheep
Another monastery in Thimphu, the Chacgri Monastery. Below is its resident sheep

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Monks’ robes drying in the sun. About 20 student monks live here

In retrospect, Thimphu was probably my least favorite of the three cities I visited in Bhutan, which is not to say I didn’t like it, but I don’t know that anything can top Punakha.

Punakha

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Punakha is what I think people in the 15th century imagined Paradise to be like, the kind of place Spanish explorers went looking for in Florida. The icy blue river formed by glacial runoff bifurcates the terraced, verdant rice fields, and permanently snow-capped mountains in the Himalayas peek through the foothills on a clear day. There’s no garbage, no neon signs, no traffic lights, and almost nothing to indicate human presence beyond the smattering of traditional Bhutanese farmhouses and looping power lines.

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If it weren’t so absolutely beautiful, Punakha would be almost eerie in its perfection. Kids heading to school misbehave in an orderly fashion while cars slowly and patiently make their way around them. Cows and horses graze in green patches along the side of the road, a more tame, idyllic version of the bovine traffic situation in India, and drivers are ridiculously civil to one another.

Though a town of only 25,000, Punakha is home to the most beautiful dzong in the country, as it was once the Bhutanese capital. Like most dzongs in the country, the Pungtang Dechen Photrang Dzong is an active government administration center dating back to 1637. As all dzongs are, it is also a monastery and houses a bunch of important Buddhist relics.

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The more gradual slopes in Punakha make it ideal for rice farming, and swaths of the valley are carved into neatly divided rice paddies gradually stepping down to the river. The Bhutanese grow red rice, which is really more an off-white color, and now is coming up on harvest time, when the rice is plucked by hand in the fields. This convergence of manual agricultural labor with aspects of Bhutan’s modernity is part of what makes Bhutan so confusing and intriguing.

In part because the architecture looks so exotic by American standards, the relatively humble farmhouses in Bhutan look unbelievably lux compared to most of their American equivalents (i.e. small family farms that are entirely reliant on the farming business to make a living). Though several generations will usually be living under one roof, the multi-story, elaborately decorated homes on the edge of expansive rice fields look more like they belong in a hip, upper-class American neighborhood, and compared to similar homes in India, where multiple generations would also be living, these homes are downright palatial.

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I spent my time in Punakha mainly hiking through the rice fields and visiting the obligatory monasteries and its particularly beautiful dzong. Like most of Bhutan, it’s a place best enjoyed outdoors. Western Bhutan is one of those places that is so naturally stunning, you can’t go wrong on your visit if you just step outside.

Paro

Paro, Bhutan

Geographically, Paro is a hybrid of Thimphu and Punakha, with a semi-mountainous vibe and a coursing river cutting through town. The lone international airport in Bhutan (there are only two active in the country) is in Paro, and the startling sound of a jet overhead makes you appreciate the immense silence of the rest of the country, so much so that after four days, the sound of an approaching plane is cacophonous.

It’s hard for me to describe Paro without sounding like a broken record. It’s absolutely beautiful. I did a lot of hiking. I visited a dzong. Paro is hardly worthy of such a reductive description, but I only know so many adjectives and superlatives to describe Bhutan.

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Rinpung Dzong

Archery is the national sport in Bhutan, a continuation of its quest to be the quirkiest country ever. From casual, booze-laced trips to the practice range, to intense competitions complete with cheerleaders brought along to jeer the other team, archery permeates the culture, and you’ll find people in shooting ranges all over the city. We stumbled upon these three guys using modern, carbon fiber bows on a range on a Saturday afternoon. Shooting at the standard distance of 145 meters (!), they hit the board about half the time.

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Eager to embarrass myself, I took up a more traditional, bamboo bow outside my hotel and it only took me, like, 100 shots to hit the bull’s eye once. From about 40 meters.

The very nice people working at the hotel humored me by pretending like this was an impressive feat
The very nice people working at the hotel humored me by pretending like this was an impressive feat

The party line on Bhutan is that a hike to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery is the highlight of the trip. I wouldn’t totally dispute this, but I was so blown away by every other aspect of Bhutan that I didn’t think the Tiger’s Nest was so infinitely superior to everything else. But it is pretty amazing.

The monastery was originally built in the 17th century and how they managed to construct this thing hanging off the side of a sheer cliff is a mystery to this day. The combination of tons of votive candles and a wooden structure didn’t mix well and in 1998, the place basically burned to the ground.

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The Tiger’s Nest you see today was only finished in the last decade or so, which is kind of disappointing, but even with the aid of modern technology, the construction of such a precarious building is impressive.

As the place to see in Bhutan, this was the only place in the country that was overrun with tourists, despite being at the end of a moderately strenuous hike (there is no other way to get there). It’s not terrible, but after a few days of people-free sightseeing in Bhutan, a modest crowd suddenly felt like a mob.

Preview of coming attractions if you are unfortunate enough to be on our Christmas card list
Preview of coming attractions if you are unfortunate enough to be on our Christmas card list and have had to look at my mug for the last 21 years.

The monastery is fine inside, but is best viewed from a distance, where its gravity-defying feat of not sliding off into the cloud-covered abyss below can be admired. Don’t let rainy weather be a deterrent, as the misty conditions, I think, added to the spectacle on the morning I made the climb. It is, of course, worth it.

The final ascent to the temple is a bitch of a climb, something like 400 steps
The final ascent is a bitch of a climb, something like 400 steps

You can’t compare Bhutan to anywhere else on earth because it’s like it exists in a parallel universe, in its own world of prelapsarian modernity (how’s that for a paradox). There are things about Bhutan that definitely aren’t modern. The literacy rate is a glaringly low 60 percent in urban areas (this has to be generational, as every kid in the country appeared to be constantly walking to or from school); the country’s lone “highway” is a two-lane, pot-hole-filled mess that’s mostly a dirt road; and the stray dog problem would be unworkable in a fully developed city. But in many ways it’s far more developed than its larger, more prosperous Asian neighbors. People obey speed limits and other traffic rules religiously. The cities are ridiculously clean. One day I went to visit a group of traditional weavers and whereas in India this meant a trip to a poorly lit, sweaty room with dirt floors, the weavers I visited in Bhutan were sitting in a clean, air-conditioned room with huge windows, tons of natural light, and a fantastic view of the city, while their iPhones buzzed in their laps as they worked.

You see this convergence of the modern and the traditional everywhere. Bhutanese traditional dress, the gho for men and the kira for women, is mandatory when entering a dzong or when working in many professions. While you’ll see plenty of people in Western dress, much of the population, even in the “big” cities, voluntarily opts for the national costume on an everyday basis.

My fantastic guide Nima wearing a gho. Though the tartan-like pattern and skirt is oddly reminiscent of a kilt, there is no evidence to suggest how one could have influenced the other.
My fantastic guide Nima half-wearing a gho, with the upper part tied around his waist. Though the tartan-like pattern and skirt is oddly reminiscent of a kilt, there is no evidence to suggest how one could have influenced the other.

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The gho worn with a shawl that many guides put on when entering a dzong as a sign of respect
The gho worn with a shawl that many guides put on when entering a dzong as a sign of respect

Anticipating what this country will be like in 25 years is basically impossible. Its current state of arrested modernity doesn’t seem very sustainable and if tourism in the country really picks up, it’s hard to imagine you won’t start seeing Starbucks and McDonald’s popping up. The Bhutanese government is definitely interested in promoting tourism, but only on their terms. People in Bhutan love to talk about gross national happiness, which is one part tourism marketing and two parts a genuine commitment by the government to development within the country that serves the population in the long-term, establishes a sustainable model for growth, and preserves the cultural heritage of Bhutan. What this obviously indicates is both the population and the government are aware of what they have and are very protective of it. I worry that like every other place of untainted natural beauty in the world, greedy businesses and government officials, apathetic international companies, and careless tourists will ruin Bhutan, but I’m cautiously optimistic that it can continue to exist in its own little universe, one with a modern, enlightened view of the world that no other country on Earth seems to have managed.

I’ve now arrived in Bangkok to kick off a two-week tour of Thailand, so onward.

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