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Photo by Suzanne Wright

Bhutan: Hopscotching an unsullied land among the Himalayas

Wedged between the world's most populous countries, China and India, the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan is famous for measuring its Gross National Happiness instead of Gross National Product. This, in light of the global economic meltdown, seems particularly auspicious.
Settled by Tibetans, the Land of the Thunder Dragon is the size of Switzerland and has a population of about 600,000. Called the best preserved Asian society, Bhutan has safeguarded its identity and traditions against Western influence. It’s never been colonized. The first road wasn’t built until 1960; today, there is just one stoplight in the country. TV didn’t arrive until 1999. There are no chain stores. Males and females both sport the handsome national costume, the kira for women and the gho for men. The houses are gingerbread-like, made of wood and stone.

Yet there is a palpable tension between the old and new, brilliantly captured in the film Travelers & Magicians. Both English and Dzongkha, the native language, are taught in school. There are no billboards and cigarettes are illegal, yet promiscuity is widespread and practiced without judgment. Coronated in November 2008, the handsome new king is the continuation in a beloved 100-year dynasty. He has slicked-back black hair and sideburns — he looks like cross between Bruce Lee and Elvis.

Perhaps the most effective hedge against the kind of cultural corrosion that has occurred in Nepal and Tibet is the provision that tourists must spend a minimum of $200 a day and hire a local guide. The government has a virtual velvet rope around the country, issuing only a limited number of visas annually.

Only the well-heeled visit Bhutan; you won’t find any backpackers here. As a result, it can be difficult to penetrate the protective veil. Visiting Bhutan is equal parts captivating and maddening. Still, it is a singular experiences in a rapidly homogenized world.

Paro in Western Bhutan

It’s Sunday Market Day in Paro, Western Bhutan. Flies buzz around a severed cow’s head and vendors squat in the open air, selling apples and turnips and spices from burlap bags. Juniper incense wafts through the air. An old man presses dried chilies under my nose, the sharp smell filling my nostrils, prompting a sneeze. Several Bhutanese laugh in response. Strips of sinewy yak meat and cubes of dried yak cheese — salty and hard as quartz — are strung on twine and purchased by the length. Farmers chew on it in the field.

The valley is verdant: forests of juniper and pine perfume the pristine air, and willows and orchards stud the landscape. Whitewashed farmhouses are decorated with something that looks profane but is sacred: realistic, giant pink, fully erect phalluses spurting semen. Rather than a fertility symbol, the phallus is considered protective. Staffers at the Zhiwa Ling Hotel drape a white silk khaddar around every guest’s neck upon arrival. The hotel is a 20-minute drive from downtown and features deluxe suites with heated slate floors, a balcony and two plump queen beds. There’s a spa, a restaurant with a knockout breakfast buffet and a serene teahouse where I sip cinnamon and saffron herbal tea, nibble almond cookies and chat with the staff.

I can't confirm whether it was really Christie Brinkley I met on the arduous Tiger's Nest trail the following day. It's not far-fetched: Bhutan is a celebrity magnet, attracting affluent, adventurous types seeking an exotic cultural getaway. Back on the bus, there was a spirited discussion of the likelihood of meeting a supermodel in one of the world’s most remote destinations. I talked to her and she was friendly, beautiful, fit and youthful, with a dazzling smile and lustrous head of thick blonde hair. She said that she was from New York. Those two pre-teens—a boy and girl—sure looked like the ones splashed across the news during Brinkley’s nasty custody battle. But whether it was Christie Brinkley or a look-alike will remain a mystery. Bhutan is just too rarified a place to ask for an autograph.

Even more thrilling than an encounter with Brinkley is the hike itself. Under a cobalt blue sky, I shed layers as the temperature climbs from freezing to 72 degrees by mid-morning. The hike is straight uphill and I pant with exertion in the thin air; it’s nearly 9,000 feet at the top. Along the trail are donkeys carrying tourists, pilgrims on foot and hawkers. An elderly man sells walking sticks, women peddle jewelry and silver trinkets, crying out "shopping, shopping!" as we pass by, keen to make a deal. Prayer wheels, housed in protective mini-structures, are turned clockwise by mountain streams. Bhutan is renowned for its splendid dzongs, huge white citadel-like monasteries.

Photo by Suzanne Wright Hours later, I reach the prize, Taktshang Goemba, is perched on the side of a sheer cliff, seemingly suspended in the clouds. I sit, elated, on an outcropping, taking photograph after photograph. Prayer flags—some faded and tattered, some brilliant in the mid-morning sun—flap in the wind.

Our driver, Phurba, is shy, lean as a twig and devilishly handsome, his curly jet hair gelled into place. Tashi, our local guide, is rounder and more outgoing. They hoist and lash our luggage to the roof of our bus, then cover it with a tarp. It looks a bit precarious—there are 15 of us traveling with overstuffed suitcases—but, miraculously stays aloft during the 12 days we traverse the serpentine roads of Bhutan. Every time we move to a new hotel, they repeat this same process, uncomplainingly.

Archery is the national sport. Bhutanese men maintain a steely countenance as they aim their arrows at the target, then rib each other unmercifully. The town is very attractive—save for the rust-colored splotches on the sidewalk, juice from the acrid-smelling betel nut that the locals chew and spit out. It’s said to give the user a mild high. The best restaurant in town is Sonam Trophel, where the owner/cook is introduced as mom. She serves home-style dishes: pumpkin, greens, spinach, pork momos (dumplings), chili cheese, noodles with chicken. Bhutanese food is hygienic, but rather bland and with little variety. "Different day, same buffet," as I learn.

Paro falls under a cloak of darkness by 6 p.m. I take a taxi to Amankora for a spa treatment and dinner. The minimalist hotel is nestled in a thick stand of pines on a bluff overlooking Jaglaya Mountain. I’m shown to a private suite for the traditional dotsho or hot stone bath. I settle into an outdoor wooden tub, artemisian flowers floating on the surface. The water is warmed by fire-heated rocks that periodically tumble into the water (a grill protects the bather). After my serene soak, Dema, the massage therapist uses a fragrant blend of bergamot, lavender and basil massage oil to soothe my knotted muscles.

Later, in the cozy dining room, I tuck into meltingly tender yak carpaccio with parmesan, capers and roasted potatoes, rocket salad and coffee pot au crème with coconut curry ice cream. A musician plays a mandolin called a drumnyeh.

In preparation for the coronation, the whole of the country has been spiffed-up, draped and decorated. Many citizens are proudly wearing one of several specially-designed lapel buttons of their new king. They make supremely popular souvenirs with our group. Another favorite souvenir is the thangka, an embroidered wall hanging, often depicting the fable of the four friends, an elephant, a monkey, a peacock and a rabbit perched on each other's back, the better to pluck fruit from high branches of trees.

As we drive, we become accustomed to seeing chiles, kissed by the sun, drying on metal roofs. Penises are everywhere, warding off evil spirits: carved and affixed over doorways in restaurants, hanging from porch ceilings, painted on exterior walls.

We visit the modest local attractions. The first of many dzongs, with their massive, buttressed walls, The National Museum, its round-shape echoing that of a conch shell, one of the seven sacred Buddhist symbols. Far more interesting to me are the people. Bhutanese are failingly warm and polite. Though reserved, they willingly pose for pictures at no charge. Unformed school children wave in greeting, unprompted.

All of us are fascinated by Bhutanese men. They gather in small groups, their arms clasped behind their backs, the white cuffs of their ghos forming a V. Ghos reveal men's legs; in that way, they evoke Scottish kilts. Many are plaid, furthering the similarity. Underneath are shorts. Men reveal their personality by their choice of knee-high socks: plain, argyle, striped. We tease Phurba about his stylish ghos and shiny black lace-ups. Tashi's gho is more conservative. When we enter dzongs, he drapes a white scarf called a kabney, crosswise over his shoulders as a sign of respect. It's a dashing look.

The scenery is ravishing. The rivers are glacier blue, centuries-old lakhangs (temples), shrines and dzongs, dot the landscape. Pear-shaped stupas called chortens, receptacles for religious relics, mark cross roads, bridges and mountain passes. The roads are narrow slivers of asphalt pitched over sheer drop-offs. Vehicles routinely pass each other with just inches to spare—a condition made less harrowing because everyone drives about 15 miles per hour. Numerous checkpoints require paperwork, so we stretch our legs and pee while Tashi handles the formalities with detail-oriented officials.

Long, white-knuckle drives—sometimes topping 10 hours—occasion intermittent snacking on biscuits and crackers that our group leader, Bryan, passes around in a tin.

Once sprung from our wheeled confines, some of us crave happy hour. Few and far between, bars are closed on Tuesdays, so we take to procuring terrible (but cheap) local gin from local grocery stores. Amusingly, Crystal and Pacham brands are "distilled by the Army," as the labels extol. Cocktails are made worse because we can rarely find tonic water. Often our mixer is 7UP. The livestock may have it better when it comes to catching a buzz. Scrubby marijuana bushes grow wild; they are fed to pigs. The further east we travel, the more spartan our accommodations. Some border on grim: with moldering carpet, frayed sheets, sketchy buffets, no central heat, iffy electricity, a sputtering wood stove that smokes out a room. I long for the Zhiwa Ling. A sense of humor and the occasional belt of lousy booze are required.

Read more of Suzanne's adventures in Bhutan: Thimphu, Punakha, and Bumthang Valley

A former Navy brat who traveled and lived abroad extensively, Suzanne Wright is a fulltime, freelance writer based in Atlanta. She is a member of NATJA, and has written numerous travel, food and decor features for numerous international, national and regional publications. Her articles have appeared in Elite Traveler, Wine & Spirits, Veranda, Atlanta Magazine, The Tennessean, Atlanta Homes & Lifestyles, Piedmont Review, Charlotte Place, Where, On Magazine and others. A suitcase is always packed and her passport always up to date.

© 2009