FX Excursions

FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.

Thimphu: Pursuit Of Happiness

Oct 1, 2008
2008 / October 2008

“Do not be alarmed,” announced the pilot as the Druk Air Airbus began its descent. If there is one phrase guaranteed to generate alarm among airline passengers, he had just uttered it. The foreigners in the cabin exchanged urgent glances. The Bhutanese passengers remained relaxed. The pilot continued: “The mountains will be closer than you are used to. This is quite normal.”

Sure enough, the windows on both sides were soon filled with the steep, forested slopes of the Himalayan foothills. The plane twisted deftly from one valley into another, descending all the while.

Tibetan-style houses clung to the mountainsides above us. People ambled among them, unperturbed as the airliner screamed past. We crossed a ridge, dipped sharply and thumped down onto the runway at Paro Airport in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon.

Bhutan sits in relative isolation. In part, the country’s detachment is enforced by the severe geography that makes arrival here such a whiteknuckle ride.

But this remarkable little kingdom also sits apart from the rest of the world by deliberate policy.

In the 1980s, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, Bhutan’s absolute ruler until he abdicated in favor of his son in 2008, decreed that all houses must be built in the traditional style and that all citizens must wear traditional dress. Tourism is limited to 20,000 visitors a year.

The visual impact is immediate. The airport terminal resembles a Buddhist monastery. When I exited the aircraft, I felt as though I had temporarily abandoned the 21st century. Visiting Bhutan is as close as you can get to time travel.

Transport connections here are fragile. The airport only operates in daylight, and flights are cancelled — sometimes for days on end — whenever the valleys become choked with cloud. The road links are almost as tenuous.

It is a 34-mile drive from the airport to the capital, Thimphu. On a good day, the journey along the precarious mountain road takes an hour and a half. More often, there are delays due to landslides, which periodically sweep away sections of the highway — together with any vehicles that happen to be passing.

On my initial journey we reached an ominous line of stationary vehicles. I walked with my driver to the head of the jam, where laborers armed with pick-axes and rusty shovels tackled a formidable pile of freshly fallen rock. It took them two hours to clear a narrow route through.

We arrived at Thimphu in twilight. It lay beneath us, strung along a broad valley. At first sight, wreathed in folds of diaphanous mist, it appeared timeless. Yet most of the seemingly ancient buildings have been constructed within the last two decades, during which time the population has increased from 15,000 to the current 90,000, and is projected to reach 160,000 by 2027.

Other than the vehicles plying Norzin Lam, the main thoroughfare, the trappings of the modern world are discreet. A few international brands are advertised in the shop windows, and satellite dishes are in evidence now that the kingdom has finally embraced television. But trek out of the valley, and those signs soon disappear entirely. You become immersed in a world that appears unchanged since medieval times.

Thimphu’s most significant building is the imposing Tashichoedzong, which sits amid green fields in the valley floor outside of the city. A dzong is a combination of fortress and Buddhist monastery, and this one has served those dual roles on this site for more than 200 years, having originally been constructed on higher ground in the 13th century.

Each September, the dzong hosts a tsechu, a spectacular religious festival attended by villagers from all over Bhutan. For four raucous days, they congregate in the dzong’s stone courtyard to eat and drink, watch dancers in full flight, reaffirm their Buddhist beliefs and catch up on the latest gossip.

Recently, the gossip has been political. When the former king stepped down this year, he introduced pa rliamentary democracy to his bemused nation. The first elections were held in March 2008, though many Bhutanese went to the polls worrying that the end of absolute monarchy might herald the end of the Bhutanese Dream.

Under the monarchy, government had been run on the principle that Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product. Bhutan’s economy is largely based on agriculture and forestry, with foreign earnings generated by tourism and stamps. More recently, the sale of hydroelectric power to India has bolstered the coffers.

Yet, despite its modest means, Bhutan has largely avoided the poverty, crime and political corruption that afflict neighboring India and Nepal. The country appears to exist in an idyllic time warp.

One Saturday morning in Thimphu, I attended a fair held at Changlimithang Stadium, which occupies one of the capital’s few areas of flat ground. The main attraction was an archery tournament — it is the national sport. Safely beyond arrow range, a variety of stalls had been set up, including a bingo tent crowded with Buddhist monks diligently marking down their numbers.

“Bingo!” shouted one monk triumphantly. The tent filled with laughter. People around him slapped his back in congratulations.

Colorful prayer flags fluttered around the periphery of the temporary fairground, casting their sacred words to the wind. Buddhism is omnipresent here. Houses, shops, hotels, bridges and even police boxes are decorated with cartoon-like paintings loaded with religious significance.

Close to the dzong, I visited Thanka Painting School, where young students were learning the traditional arts. Religion and daily life, past and future, entwine here. When I peered into a room where a teenage boy was finishing off a thanka — a mystical Buddhist painting — I was glimpsing a scene unchanged for centuries.

Later, in the dzong itself, I rounded a corner and was confronted by a child monk wearing a monstrous plastic mask. He growled at me; the mask maintained its hideous grin.

“What is the significance of the mask?” I asked my guide.

“I think to frighten people for fun.”

The monk tipped the mask back and revealed a happy smile — the true face of Bhutan.

Entry Requirements

A passport and visa are required for entry into and exit from Bhutan. Independent travel to Bhutan is not permitted. Make arrangements through an approved travel agency — for instance, the Bhutan Tourism Corp. (http://www.kingdomofbhutan.com) — which will assist with the paperwork required for the mandatory entry visa. All visitors must pay a tariff of approximately $200 per night, which includes all accommodation, meals and transfers. There is no U.S. diplomatic presence in Bhutan; the country comes under the auspices of the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, India.

More Information

Bhutan Mission to the United Nations
763 First Ave.
New York, NY 10017
tel 212 682 2268


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