This is the second part of Getaway's visit to the kingdom of Bhutan, known as The Dragon Kingdom. The landlocked Asian nation, cradled in the folds of the Himalayas, sitting between India, Tibet and the People's Republic of China has been a monarchy since 1907. Except for a 13km 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.
Bhutan has one of the world's strictest environmental policies. More than 70 percent of the country is protected forest.
On our first visit, we went to Paro, the second largest town, with the country's only international airport. We then headed two hours east to Thimpu, the country's capital, on the Raidak River in the Himalayas. Its richly forested mountains are sprinkled with ancient monasteries and temples. Up the valley lie the impressive Tashichoe Dzong and the kingdom's only official golf course. The rolling nine holes are set against a backdrop of chortens, Buddhist receptacles for offerings.
Thimpu is the summer home of the central monk body (one in four Bhutanese men is a monk). It's the base of government and where the king and his four queens (all of whom are sisters) spend most of their time. It is the world's only capital city without traffic lights, and has kept a medieval feel. It lies in a wooded valley which climbs up a hillside on the banks of the Thimpu Chhu River. Buildings are brightly painted and elaborately decorated, and it oozes Bhutanese culture.
The horizon is dominated by Trashi Chhoe Dzong, a fort-monastery. It was built in the 17th century and rebuilt in the early 1960s by the third king. It houses the main secretariat building and the central monk body, and is open to visitors during Thimpu festival and when the monk body moves to their winter home in Punakha.
Thimpu Festival is one of the most popular in the country and people from all walks of life gather to witness its celebration of faith, myths, legends and history. Attending the festival makes the cultural legacy, history and religion easily understandable. They have been practiced and preserved for centuries and make Bhutan unique.
The large Tibetan-style chorten, a stone Buddhist monument, was built in 1974 to honour the memory of the third king, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck. It is Thimpu's most visible religious structure, and contains many religious paintings and tantric statues, reflecting peaceful and wrathful aspects of Buddhist deities. For many it is the focus of their daily worship.
Every weekend most of Thimpu's population and many valley dwellers congregate on the banks of the river for the market. It is the only time fresh vegetables are available and it is a hive of activity. People purchase fruit, vegetables, cheese, butter, cereals and handicrafts. Dried yak cheese is very popular and is rock hard. It is held in the mouth for hours until it is soft enough to chew and swallow!
The Bhutan Broadcasting Service is the national radio and television service in Bhutan. It is run by the state , is the only service to offer radio and television to the Kingdom, and is the only television service to broadcast from inside the Bhutanese border.
The first night of television broadcasts finally occurred on June 2, 1999, on the night of the Jigme Singye Wangchuk's silver jubilee.
Philatelists love Bhutan its stamps are works of art. They are exotic and beautiful. Collectors and traders world-wide can't get enough of them.
Bhutan's first feature film, Travellers and Magicians, stars Tshewang Dendup, a local journalist. Actors are thin on the ground in Bhutan, so everyday people were used.
Bhutan has leapt into the 21st century in many ways. Amankora Thimphu Hotel opened last year. It is in a pine forest in the upper reaches of the Motithang area, offering a quiet retreat from the capital. Tall stone white-washed buildings epitomise the Dzong-like structure, which is accessed through an enclosed arrival court. Stairs lead to a dramatic living and dining room with soaring ceilings and wood-panelled walls.
A flagstone outdoor dining deck has views over a stream and blue pine forest. Stairs lead to a spa with three treatment rooms, steam and sauna rooms.
Two accommodation blocks have eighteen suites featuring a combined living and bedroom with king bed and window banquette giving beautiful views. Even the spacious bathrooms have wonderful outlooks. Suites are heated during cold months.
Seventy-six kilometres away is Punakha which was holding its annual festival while we were there. As all festivals, the Punakha Dromchoe is held inside the dzong, built without the use of a single nail! A warrior procession is held around the fortress, and monks dance to ward off evil spirits.
The dzong was built between two rivers in the 17th century, and despite four fires and an earthquake which destroyed many historic documents, it houses sacred artefacts and the embalmed body of Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel.
Chimi Lhakhang, or monastery of Lama Drukpa Kunley, the Divine Mad Monk, is located in the centre of the Punakha Valley amongst rice fields. It was built in 1499 and women who want to become pregnant go there to be blessed by the Lama's wooden phallus.
Getaway recommends a book and dvd to those interested in Bhutan.
Baby in a Backpack in Bhutan
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Travellers and Magicians
Prayer Flag Pictures
Directed by Khyentse Norbu
A landlocked kingdom in south Asia.
MTA Travel has a six-night package departing Paro in Bhutan. It includes all meals, accommodation, transfers, sightseeing, transport, visa fees and guide. Prices start at $4370 a couple.
Emirates have return flights to Bangkok. Connecting flights to Bhutan are available.
Fares to Bangkok from;
- Sydney, $1305
- Brisbane, $1576
- Melbourne, $1610
Valid for sale and travel until March 31, 2008.
Thimpu Festival will be September 21-23, 2007.
Prices quoted are correct on November 2, 2006.
Mobile Travel Agents MTA Travel
Suite 34, 207 Currumburra Road
C/- James Irving
Ph: 1300 365 688, ext 176
Fax: 1300 556 786
Ph: 1300 303 777