The edge of exotic
‘Bhutan’s attraction lies in its well-preserved culture, this being most evident in its many Dzongs—ancient fortresses that serve as administrative and religious centers. Here, commoners, monks, and government officials mingle amid exquisite traditional architecture.’
If I didn’t know any better, I’d say I was in a movie set. I am standing inside a dimly-lit hallway, watching a scene that seems incongruous in this day and age. On a nearby wall, Buddhist prayer wheels spin incessantly to an endless stream of worshippers. Head-shaven monks stand at a doorway, their crimson robes contrasting against the dark wooden panels of this centuries-old temple. The scent of incense hangs heavily in the air, and I watch as devotees bow to a gilded statue of the Buddha. Prayers are offered; mantras are recited. Outside, life unfolds amid a stunning backdrop of terraced ricefields and distant mountains. This setting is exotic in every sense of the word.
I’ve barely spent two hours in Bhutan, and already I am taken in by its unspoiled character. Located on a tiny strip of land between India and China, this kingdom is one of those few, special places that have taken a curious approach to development. We’ve heard about its deeply-rooted Buddhist faith, and the cautious way this long-isolated nation is opening to the outside world. Bhutan’s unique outlook is best summed up in its much-talked about Gross National Happiness Index—a term the country uses to measure its advancement in quality of life.
A place this unusual simply begs to be explored—I just had to come down here to take a look. Bhutan’s tourism policy dictates a US$250-per-night tariff—a cost that includes visa, food, lodging, land transport, and guide service. A typical seven-day itinerary adds up to around P125,000. This comes with a minimum accommodation standard of three stars, at spacious traditional-style lodges. Backpacking is simply not an option in Bhutan. But with annual tourist numbers barely reaching 65,000, even package tourists don’t see much of their kind in these parts.
With such little time to spare, I get on with the tour. My guide, a big Bhutanese guy named Tshering, brought me to the six-centuries-old Changangkha Temple where I got my first taste of the local culture. Afterwards we head off to the main street of the capital Thimphu to get a feel of the city life.
“We call this area ‘Hongkong Street’ because it’s always busy here,” comments Tshering as he points to rows of shops traversing several blocks. Here the similarities end: Instead of skyscrapers and neon signs, Thimphu’s central business district features earthen-walled buildings adorned with traditional wooden frontages. With very few streetlamps and no traffic lights, the neighborhood feels more like a bustling frontier town than a national capital.
The following days find us all over the countryside. Bhutan’s attraction lies in its well-preserved culture, this being most evident in its many Dzongs—ancient fortresses that serve as administrative and religious centers. Here, commoners, monks, and government officials mingle amid exquisite traditional architecture. There are also the humble little temples that dot the countryside. In the district of Punakha (a three-hour drive from Thimphu), I saunter down ricefields and sleepy villages toward the Chimi Lhakhang, a building dedicated to a beloved saint, the “Divine Madman” Drukpa Kunley, whose sexual exploits defy the notion of abstaining Buddhist holy men.
It is in situations like these where having a guide really proves its worth. Tshering is like a reliable local friend, explaining aspects of his culture that I would otherwise have misunderstood. He is also an excellent translator during conversations with the locals; his input offers valuable insights into a culture I barely know. Indeed, compared to DIY travel with a phrasebook in hand, the presence of a guide opens doors to a richer travel experience.
Interesting as this trip may have been, none of what I’ve seen so far compares to my last destination. A few kilometers north of Paro town stands the Taktsang Palphug. Built on a cliffside some 3,000 feet above the landscape, this ancient monastery is accessible only via a robust, two-hour trek. With Tshering leading the way, I trudge up the steep slope, stopping regularly to catch my breath in this thin mountain air. The knee-busting hike takes us from pine forest to rock face, the trail dotted with numerous shrines and lookout points.
By the time we reach the monastery, I am thoroughly winded, yet elated at reaching Bhutan’s most venerated landmark. Prayer flags flutter with the breeze as I look down at the picturesque valley below. To my side I see a flash of crimson as a pair of monks appears. Behind me I hear the sound of spinning prayer wheels. Once again I smell incense in the air. A place like this doesn’t need a tourist come-on. Bhutan works its magic simply by being itself.
Multi-awarded photojournalist Lester V. Ledesma has covered Asia for over 15 years. He will lead a photography workshop-tour of Western and Central Bhutan from June 29 to July 5. The seven-day trip boasts evening photography discussions and a full itinerary of genuine cultural experiences. www.facebook.com/phototreks, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.