Without a doubt, Bhutan was the highlight of my seven-week trip to Asia. Bhutan does not have much in the way of traditional tourist attractions. While there are religious sites and palaces – most particularly the "dzongs" that dominate most of the larger cities and towns – for the most part, visitors are not allowed to enter. And if Bhutan has any fine hotels or restaurants, I did not find them.
Instead, the attraction of Bhutan is chance to see a way of life that exists no where else in the world; a way of life that belongs to a distant past yet manages to thrive in modern times. The Bhutanese still wear traditional robes: knee-length "ghos" for the men and elegant ankle-length "kiras" for the women. Even the children on their way to and from school wear miniature versions of this national dress. And the national sport of Bhutan is also a holdover from another time: archery! As we traveled throughout Bhutan, time and again we came upon archery contests where men would unleash arrows at a small wooden target some 120 meters away. If an arrow struck the target, there would be a resounding thud, then a cheer would go up among the participants.
The culture is deeply Buddhist. Unlike Tibet, the temples and monasteries have not become tourist attractions. During two weeks in Bhutan, we were able to enter only one small temple and that was with special permission after our guide found the caretaker and convinced him to open the doors for us. One of the most memorable occasions, however, was a hike high into the mountains above Paro to see the small Buddhist hermitage of Taktsang (which has since burned down and been restored). Although we could only view the hermitage from the outside, it was an amazing sight to see this distinctively Buddhist structure clinging to the sheer rock walls of a precipitous cliff. Legend declares that the hermitage was built on the spot where the great 8th century Buddhist teacher, Padmasambhava, landed on the back of a flying tiger. Given the miraculous location, it is not too much of a stretch to believe that the legend is accurate.
Bhutan is also one of the most physically beautiful countries in the world. The distant Himalayas make an imposing backdrop. In the spring, rhododendron trees that reach 30 or 40 feet in height are covered with blossoms. Terraced fields are still plowed by animals (yaks or dzos). And the houses are built in a sturdy timber-frame style that is somewhat reminiscent of Swiss chalets.
Finally, perhaps the most remarkable feature of Bhutan is its view of life. Rather than striving to join the modern world, Bhutan is allowing it to enter only in measured doses, careful to preserve its underlying doctrine of promoting the country's "gross national happiness." It revels in its isolation. There is only one airport and the national airline – the only airline authorized to land in Bhutan – has only two small planes. When the planes were purchased, they were first blessed by the Je Khenpo (the nation's Buddhist religious leader) in a solemn ceremony before being put into service. For most people, television came to Bhutan only in the year 2000.
The photos above offer a quick overview of my time in Bhutan. For more details about specific areas, there are several slide shows listed below that will run in a separate pop-up window and several other pages devoted to Bhutan.
People of Bhutan: Buddhist monks, men in ghos, women in kiras, archers in the countryside, colorfully costumed dancers and schoolchildren curious about the foreigners. The people of Bhutan are a large part of what makes this Himalayan kingdom such an exotic destination. (20 Photos) [Preview This Slide Show]