The Kingdom of Bhutan, known as The Dragon Kingdom, is a landlocked Asian nation, cradled in the folds of the Himalayas, sitting between India, Tibet and the People's Republic of China. It has been a monarchy since 1907. Except for a 13-kilometre strip of subtropical plains in the extreme south, the entire country is mountainous. That strip is intersected by valleys known as The Duars. Elevation from the sub-tropical plains to the glacier-covered Himalayas exceeds 7000 metres.
The sparsely populated country has kept itself from outside cultural influences with the goal of preserving its cultural heritage and independence. Only in the last decades of the 20th century were foreigners allowed to enter the country, and then in strictly limited numbers. It has successfully preserved much of its culture which dates to the mid-17th century and derives from ancient Tibet.
The King of Bhutan, King Jigmi Singye Wangchuck, is highly revered. He is trying to give up his power and introduce democracy while also declaring that gross domestic happiness is more important than gross domestic product.
The principal Bhutanese languages, Dzongkha and Sharchopkh, are closely related to Tibetan, and Bhutanese monks write and read an ancient variant known as chhokey. Bhutanese are physically similar to Tibetans but there is no historic record of when they crossed over the Himalayas and settled in the valleys of Bhutan. Both races revere the tantric guru Padmasambhava, the founder of Himalayan Buddhism in the eighth century AD.
Citizens must observe the national dress code, known as Driglam Namzha, during daylight hours when in public. Men wear a heavy knee-length robe tied with a belt and folded to form a pocket in front. Women wear colourful blouses over which they fold and clasp a large cloth, creating an ankle-length dress. A short silk jacket may be worn as well. They are cotton or wool, simply patterned in earth tones. For festivals and special occasions they may wear colourfully patterned silk clothing. The dress code has met with some resistance from ethnic Nepalese citizens living along the Indian border who resent having to wear a cultural dress not their own. Tourists are expected to observe a modest dress code, especially when visiting religious and government buildings.
Rice and corn are Bhutan's staple foods. The diet in the hills is rich in protein, thanks to poultry, yak and beef. Soups of meat, rice and chilli are consumed in cold seasons. Dairy foods such as cheese and butter from yaks and cows are also popular. Tea, butter tea, locally brewed rice wine and beer and the drinks of preference. Bhutan is the only country in the world to have banned the sale of and smoking of tobacco. Betel-nut chewing is permitted.
While Thimphu is Bhutan's capital, Paro, the second-largest town, has the only international airport in the country. Druk Air, the national airline, is the only one permitted entry. It is bordered by forested mountain peaks and gives a beautiful first impression.
It is above a winding valley of bright green rice paddies and crops. It has historic buildings and monuments and one quaint main street. There are farmhouses and houses with corrugated iron roofs, used for drying bright red or yellow chillies, an important staple in the Bhutanese diet.
Even the simplest homes are elaborately decorated with paintings of animals or huge phalluses for good luck. Farmhouses have three storeys; the ground floor is for animals, the first floor is for living and worship and the top for drying and storage.
Chortens elaborate receptacles for religious offerings are everywhere and every town, no matter how tiny, has a host of decorated prayer wheels.
Long strings of prayer flags fly even in the most remote parts of the country. Red, yellows, blue, orange, green and white fabric flags flutter and it is said they recite the prayers written on them.
Paro Valley has many monasteries and monuments, but the most outstanding is Taktsang Monastery, also known as Tigers' Nest. The legend goes that in the eighth century, Padmasambhava flew there on the back of a tigress to meditate. After three months of meditation in a cave, the monastery was built. It clings to a granite cliff 900 metres above the floor of the valley and it takes a strenuous two-hour walk to reach. You may prefer to go by pony or donkey. Photography is permitted, but some areas are prohibited for all but monks, whose chanting can be heard on the gentle winds.
The monastery has seven temples, but has suffered many fires. The worst was in 1998 when the world lost one of the world's finest collections of early Himalayan Buddhist art. The building has recently been restored.
A wonderful thing to do is to visit a tea house across the valley from the monastery. The views are superb and it is all marvellously spiritual.
Accommodation must adhere to traditional style. The Amankora in Paro is one of several resorts that have sprung up across the kingdom six buildings, each containing four suites. Its architecture is traditional Bhutanese and features natural rammed-earth walls and gently sloping roofs. Steps lead to a stone terrace and into the living room. There is a library, small boutique and dining room, opening to an outdoor terrace which overlooks a stream. A large central fireplace is welcome in cold months. Spa, sauna, steam rooms and a yoga suite have been included and there are double and single treatment rooms.
Suites are combined lounge and bedroom with king-sized bed, a banquette window seat and reading chair. In one corner is the traditional "bukhari", a wood-burning stove that not only heats the suites but provides a rustic rural charm.
Bathrooms are spacious and dominated by a terrazzo-clad bath which is flanked by twin vanities and hanging space and the enclosures for the shower and toilet. The suites are individually heated during the cold winter months.
Getaway recommends the following book and DVD for those interested in Bhutan.
Baby in a Backpack in Bhutan
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Travellers and Magicians
Prayer Flag Pictures
Directed by Khyentse Norbu