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Enchanting Bhutan A Traveller’s Guide Believe in Happiness
By Andrew J Wood
BANGKOK: In the heart of the Himalayas lies a Kingdom shrouded in clouds, both mystical and enchanting, with brightly painted temples and snow on the ground. In a courtyard the only sounds are birdsongs and the chanting echos of monk’s prayers and occasional chimes that shatter the silence, the air heavy with incense, monks go about their daily rituals, dedicated, serious yet resplendent in their dark red robes. This is Bhutan.
With clean air, glacial streams of stunning purity, the worlds tallest mountains as a backdrop, wonderful treks and forest walks and a population of less than 1 million people, this small landlocked country is nestled deep in the mountains between India and China.
Bhutan I hope has lost none of its magical charm. We plan to visit for ten days mid December 2023 after a gap of 9 years. Being a mountainous region in the Himalayas you would expect the air to be thinner. The altitude is between 2,000 and 3,000 metres for our tours, walks and sightseeing so not a major issue but you have to pace yourself and drink plenty of fluids.
The guide books remind us that since Bhutan shifted to a democratic constitutional monarchy in 2008, the country has embarked on a development strategy founded on the principle of Gross National Happiness. Their love of their revered Monarch is strong and they are immensely proud of HM King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and Queen Jetsun Pema. They have 2 children with a third on the way.
Bhutan is not a rich country. Other than the capital Thimphu, there are few roads and traffic lights are rare. Economic growth in Bhutan however, has seen extreme poverty to be a thing of the past for its citizens helped by a rising GNP with the sale of excess hydropower to India and strong performance in services, including tourism.
Along mountain passes, bridges, monasteries, stupas, temples, mountain peaks and homes, we are greeted everywhere with the sacred prayer flags and their blessings. These vivid flags not only add colour and energy with their flutterings they are infused with important religious and cultural significance and should be treated with respect.
The prayer flags are made of block-printed fabric using traditional printing techniques from centuries ago. They are inscribed with auspicious and sacred emblems and mantras. You will receive good karma and will benefit from the blessings as they are carried from the flag via the wind to you and the heavens.
Colourful prayer flags are one of the most prominent features of Bhutan. The Buddhist prayer flags can be seen fluttering across the Kingdom. The more the cloth flaps due to the wind – the more the people will receive blessings.
Bhutan is sometimes referred to as the Land of the Thunder Dragon. A mixture of folklore and Bhutan’s frequent mountain storms. Folklore tells us that one of the strongmen who came down from Tibet in the 17th century, encountered a severe thunderbolt on the way to his new land – the sparking lights of the thunderbolts were said to be made by the red fire coming the dragon’s mouth.
Zeniths and Valleys: The Seven-Year Tapestry of Bhutan Tourism
A. The Ascendance (2014-2017)
Bhutan’s tourism tapestry began weaving tales of fascination as international travelers flocked to explore its cultural gems and untouched landscapes. The kingdom’s unique approach of measuring Gross National Happiness captivated hearts worldwide.
B. Peaks and Challenges (2018-2019)
As Bhutan reached its zenith in 2018, the kingdom grappled with challenges such as over-tourism. Thoughtful recalibrations followed to ensure the preservation of Bhutan’s natural beauty and distinctive identity.
C. The Pandemic Plunge (2020-2022)
The resounding impact of Covid-19 echoed through Bhutan’s valleys as international arrivals plummeted. Rigorous measures were implemented to safeguard the kingdom, leading to a remarkable tale of resilience amidst adversity.
Magical Bhutan Unveiled by country
As the world ventured into Bhutan, some nations stood out leading the pack, painting an international canvas of cultural exchange and shared wonder. India, the United States, China, Thailand and Singapore led the caravan, each contributing to the kaleidoscope of Bhutanese hospitality.
Navigating the Peaks and Valleys: How Covid-19 Reshaped Bhutan’s Tourism Landscape
A. The Abrupt Descent
The onset of the pandemic in 2020 saw a dramatic decline in arrivals, plunging from 274,097 in 2019 to a mere 38,716. An 86% drop. Bhutan’s idyllic streets fell silent as the world grappled with the unknown.
B. Resilience Amidst Shadows
Despite the challenges, Bhutan’s strategic response showcased resilience. Stringent testing and quarantine measures were implemented, offering a glimmer of hope in the face of uncertainty.
Enchanting Bhutan: A
Traveller’s Guide to the Top 10 Wonders
1. Tiger’s Nest Monastery
Embark on a pilgrimage to this cliffside marvel, offering spiritual solace and breathtaking views.
2. Punakha Dzong
Discover the architectural elegance of this fortress at the confluence of rivers, standing as a testament to Bhutan’s rich history.
3. Dochula Pass
Ascend to this mountain pass for panoramic views and a collection of 108 stupas, a visual symphony against the sky.
4. Hike to Jomolhari Base Camp
For the adventurous souls, a trek to the base camp of Bhutan’s second-highest peak promises an unforgettable journey.
5. Phobjikha Valley
Embrace nature’s wonders in this valley, renowned for its conservation efforts and the graceful black-necked cranes.
6. Bhutanese Cuisine
Savour the flavors of Bhutan with dishes like Ema Datshi and Phaksha Paa, a culinary exploration of the kingdom’s unique tastes.
7. Traditional Festivals
Immerse yourself in Bhutan’s vibrant culture by attending festivals like Paro Tsechu and Thimphu Tshechu, a celebration of tradition and joy.
8. Gangtey Monastery
Find tranquility in this serene monastery surrounded by the natural beauty of the Phobjikha Valley.
9. Bumthang Valley
Explore the cultural heartland of Bhutan, where historic temples and monasteries narrate tales of the kingdom’s heritage.
10. Traditional Archery
Participate in or witness Bhutan’s national sport, archery, blending skill with cultural significance, a true embodiment of Bhutanese identity.
Our travel partner of choice is Yangphel Adventure Travel. This is my third visit to the Land of the Thunder Dragon, each time Yangphel have expertly made all the arrangements.
Mr Karma Lotey is the CEO of Yangphel Adventure Travel & Zhiwa Ling Heritage Hotel and is widely connected to Bhutan’s movers and shakers.
Karma serves as an active founding Board Member of the Bhutan Sustainable Tourism Society; a past President of the Association of Bhutanese Tour operators (ABTO), and has been active as a Board Director of Drukair (Royal Bhutan Airlines), the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB), the Bhutan Chamber of Commerce (BCCI) & Board Director of the Druk Holding & Investments.
“We have been in business since 1988,” Mr Karma Lotey CEO explains, “Through our close association with travel industry leaders, Yangphel Adventure Travel has rapidly become one of Bhutan’s leading tour operators. This success has been built upon a growing reputation for consistently delivering our clients the best, whilst keeping sustainability as our core mandate. It is our responsibility to ensure that our guests receive optimal enjoyment from their stay in Bhutan, which is achieved in a way that is sympathetic to our Bhutanese customs, traditions and environment,” he said. Yangphel Adventure Travel firstname.lastname@example.org
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Andrew J Wood