I travel professionally, I spend at least two thirds of my year a guest in someone else’s country. I very much enjoy the experience but from time to time I will completely fall in love with a place. Normally I’ll get excited about specific elements of a destination such as the architecture, the landscape or the food. The best places are those that combine their multiple facets to create an experience. I have never had an experience that compares with Bhutan.
Before arrival I knew only a little about the country apart from the small amount of research I had managed to do online. This did not prepare me in any way. Thankfully I found a great local travel agent called Breath Bhutan who ensured I got the most out of my trip. These guys made my time in Bhutan one of the best experiences of my life.
Landing in Paro airport, the remote inaccessibility of the country is immediately evident, the views of the Himalayas are breath taking and imposing. The road to Thimphu gives you an immediate impression of what to expect from the country, some traditional architecture lines the main high street and you can see the first Dzong (temple/fortress) to be built by Ngawang Namgyal (the great unifier) nearby. The importance of the Buddhist culture is reflected in everything you see, its influence is pervasive. The streets are decorated with colourful prayer flags, monks dressed in their red robes humbly walk from place to place and Chortens (Buddhist monuments) litter the countryside and the sides of the road. The Buddhist colours are everywhere and the core values of the religion are delightfully reflected in everyone you meet. Arriving in this country is both literally and metaphorically breathing in fresh air.
I am jealous of the purity of this culture, the breath taking beauty of the landscape, it’s history and the architecture it has inspired. Inevitably the decadence of the West is creeping in but the Bhutanese people are aware and they are doing a lot to preserve their culture. The apparently exorbitantly priced Visa fee is an example of this, what one must realise is that the fee includes a good level of accommodation, three hot meals a day, a guide (a very welcome source of information) and a car to drive you around. Through the visa fee the wealth generated by tourism is spread throughout the community and the guide system allows some control over the movement of tourists helping to limit environmental and cultural impact. One should respect this approach and endeavour to perpetuate the values it represents.
The recent history of Bhutan is fascinating, ‘the great unifier’ pulled the country together 450 years ago to defend it from marauding warlords from surrounding regions, particularly Tibet. This great figure was able to build fortresses and a conquering army. His legacy is evident in everything you see in the country today, from the traditional dress and the architecture to the good natured national pride.
The people of Bhutan will willingly tell you about their history. They have a particular, entirely genuine love for their monarch and it’s easy to understand why. Dip into this culture and you will find it deep and interesting. Get involved, the locals are lovely. You must try the food but it comes with a warning: it consists almost entirely of chilli!
– Harry Bishop, Sound Engineer for Years and Years. United Kingdom.
Harry Bishop with Kinley Wangchuk, the founder of Breathe Bhutan at Taktsang, the Tiger’s Nest