Mountain Kingdom

Trip Start Aug 06, 2011
Trip End Oct 06, 2013

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Flag of Bhutan  ,
Wednesday, December 19, 2012

We've left the smallest Asian country and arrived in, arguably, the most hidden Asian country- because of a limited number of colours, I suspect that Deb P's crayon atlas doesn't even include Bhutan. Until recently, the tiny Kingdom of Bhutan remained tucked away in total isolation from the rest of the world. That segregation has helped to preserve its deep Buddhist traditions, and pristine landscapes. Some fun facts about Bhutan:

* It's one of 43 landlocked countries in the world.

* The word “Bhutan” translates to “Land of the Thunder Dragon.” It earned the nickname because of the fierce storms that often roll in from the Himalayas.

* Bhutan is the first country in the world with specific constitutional obligations on its people to protect the environment. Among its requirements: At least 60 percent of the nation must remain under forest cover at all times.

* One-third of Bhutan’s population is under the age of 14; its median age is 22.3 years.

* Bhutan is the only nation in the world where the sale of tobacco is banned.

* At 24,840 feet, Gangkhar Puensum is the highest point in Bhutan – and the highest unclimbed mountain in the world (the Bhutanese view their mountains as sacred and don't allow climbing)

* Bhutan is one of the last countries in the world to introduce television to its people. The government lifted a ban on TV – and on the Internet – only 11 years ago.

Getting into Bhutan was our first challenge- the number of visitors is severely restricted and you are obliged to pay a minimum of a steep $250 per person per day ahead of time (this does include assigned accommodation, all meals, transportation, guides, entrance fees and the visa costs). Rigid state controlled tourism was a first for us but it actually seemed to work relatively well. There is talk of changing this, increasing the number of visitors, and allowing airlines other than the national carrier, Druk Air, to land in Bhutan, so we thought it would be best to get in now and have a look around. You just have to visit a country with the national objective of achieving a "Gross National Happiness" (GNH) target along with the more standard growth of Gross National Product (GNP). It was our first cold weather in quite some time so we had to load up on some winter gear before jumping on the plane.

We started our adventure in what has to be the least known capital city in the world- Thimphu. As a bit of an odd claim-to-fame, Thimpu is one of just two capital cities in Asia that does not have a single traffic light (the other is Pyongyang, North Korea.) There was such public outcry when local officials installed a single signal that it was quickly removed, and a traffic officer was re-assigned to the intersection. In terms of the look and feel of the place, we had expected Nepal/Tibet similarities but this place has a very unique made-in-Bhutan-only characteristics. The architecture seems to be the bizarre result of fusing Asian themes with a Swiss Ski Chalet design?? Even the dress code is uniquely Bhutan- running counter to most countries we've visited, the men are just as active in preserving the traditional dress. They wear a gho, tied in place at the waist with a small hand-woven kera (belt). Above the kera a large pouch is formed in which the men can carry traditional items like betel nut and a bowl. The costume is completed with long socks and shoes or traditional handmade and very colourful boots. The kira is the national dress for women and it's an ankle-length dress consisting of a rectangular piece of woven fabric- stylish but not conducive to high stepping or running. Western influence is starting to influence clothing choices but for now tradition greatly outnumbers any gang banger jeans. 

We did get around to see the typical Bhutanese architecture of monasteries, dzongs (most striking fortress type structures), chortens, gateways, prayer flags and wheels, and royal palaces, but the highlight might have been a visit to see the national animal of Bhutan, the Takin. I'd never even heard of this critter and yet standing before us was one of the strangest looking animals we had ever seen. The reason for declaring the Takin the National Animal is attributed to a legend of the animal's creation in Bhutan by Lama Drukpa Kunley- apparently after devouring a cow and a goat, he put the goats head on the cow bones and a brand new critter jumped up and started grazing (not sure that explains the hyena back end, the moose nose, and the buffalo shoulders?). Originally contained in a mini-zoo, the King of Bhutan believed that it was improper for a Buddhist country to confine animals for religious and environmental reasons, so he ordered the closure, but the Takin remained rooted to the town and were wandering the streets of Thimphu with the odd headbutting tantrum and lion-like growls. Thus was born the Motithang Takin Preserve.

Unique architecture, unique dress, unique customs, unique food, and now, unique animals- outside of the food, this is going to be a fun place to explore. 

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Jen N. on

I have a feeling we're going to be reading about some phallic stuff in one of the next couple journal entries. ;)

Tina on

AAGH! You got there before me. Only makes me want to go more now after seeing these awesome pics.

Amanda on

Except for the poligamy, it seems like Shangri-La

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