Bhutan – known to the local people as Druk Yal – the land of the thunder dragon, The Last Shangri-La or the kingdom in the sky. And only by going there can you really understand how real all of these names are. It is one of the last places on earth I know to still be so untouched by modern culture. The kingdom in the sky is equally no exaggeration as you undulate between heights of 1,400m to 3,400m above sea level simply by following the roads and passes. We even made it to 4,000m by trekking for just one day and one night into the mountain tops.
It’s a stunning country and not only for its landscapes. The Bhutanese language is incredibly beautiful. It is called Dzongkha, “fortress language” and is used to express beautiful sentiments. They do not have a word for goodbye, but say, “when we meet again”. Likewise they have an equally wonderful phrase for foreigners, known only as Chilips or “The Grey Hairs”.
A country historically not famous for encouraging foreign visits, is now a place of meticulous hospitality and warm welcomes. They only opened their boarders to tourism in 1971 but this is not surprising as modernity was so late in finding its way there. The kingdom is home to one of the last monarchies in the world, and the royal family have, quite rightly, safe guarded their country for many years. It was not until 1999 that the first television was introduced, 2001 saw the introduction of wifi and democracy was properly implemented in 2008.
Western influence is not unheard of in Bhutan, however, Phobkijha valley, where it is too high to grow rice, has become very prosperous through the growth of potatoes; the seeds of which were brought over by the first English government. And in the 1960s, Canadian teachers where brought over to teach English to the more remote areas of the country and in the eastern valley of Bhumtang you can even find a Swiss cheese and beer factory.
What I found so special about Bhutan is this sense of self. The people protect their past and their culture is protected by the monarchy. Whilst the country is opening its doors to western culture, many of the Bhutanese seem totally unmoved by western ways. The further east you go into the country the more rural it becomes. The elderly all wear their traditional dress – all age groups can only visit temples, monasteries or palaces if they are dressed formally. Houses are carefully regulated so they are all built in the same Bhutanese style and the food, other than in the capital Thimphu, is relatively unchanged. Rice for breakfast, rice for lunch and rice for dinner! The people of Bhutan are not adverse to outsiders, in fact they hugely encourage the growth of the tourism industry, but they certainly do not revere them as in other countries. Foreigners are witnesses to be politely tolerated, they are not the priority but are a necessity and because of this you can see the real Bhutan.
We were lucky enough to be in Bhutan for the 108th National Day, 108 is an auspicious number in Bhutan. Paro, where we were at the time, was to host not only the King but also the King’s father; known to the people as the 4th and 5th King. This was a huge event and the buzz in the city was palpable. We skipped our way over to the stadium where the King was to address his people only to be told that Chilips were not allowed in and there was certainly no way we would be allowed any cameras if we did get in. The guards were not rude only firm, and told us without ceremony that this was an event for the people of Bhtuan – some of which had come for hundreds of miles away to be there. I was hugely impressed by the attitude, but we were not ready to give up quite yet. Our guide deposited us near the gate with the other Chilips that have been turned away and went off to find out what could be done. Eventually we were allowed in, once they were certain we had no electrical equipment and there was enough space for everyone else.
Bhutan is an incredible country, one of the only countries I have been to that seems to be unmoved by western ways. I could not recommend visiting it more highly. Go now whilst the country remains so unchanged.