Punakha, Bhutan – In the inner sanctum of the ancient white-walled fortress, dozen of red-robed monks prayed by the light of butter lamps, as the incense swirled. With a deep throaty mumble, the old monks recited the ancient Buddhist scriptures laid out before them on the wooden floorboards, interrupted only by a blast on long trumpets and rhythmic beat of ornate decorated drums.
The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan sells itself as a “high value, low volume” tourist destination, consciously excluding the backpackers who roam neighboring India by insisting visitors spend at least US$200 per person per day in the peak season. And yet, word is spreading like fire, and what was once an exclusive retreat for the well-heeled is steadily joining the tourist circuit. Hollywood stars are reported to frequent Bhutan’s boutique hotels but it is groups of elderly Americans whom most visitors are likely to encounter.
Bhutan is sandwiched between India and Tibet, Bhutan is billed in tourist brochures as the “Last Shangri-La”, the mystical paradise. At times Bhutan lives up to the description, conjuring up a medieval world of Buddhism mixed with ancient animism, a culture deeply linked to that of Tibet, yet one which avoided the heavy hand of China or the tempting touch of the West.
Men still dress for work in knee-length gowns with huge white cuffs, and four-fifths of the current population are farmers.
However, Bhutan is modernizing and opening up to the outside world slowly. Cars, television and discos are being introduced in the city. There will be more changes as the country is preparing for its first democratic elections next year.
The first thing you can do when you visit the country is to head for the monasteries and its awesome fortresses or dzongs, which dominate every district and host the exotic religious festivals. You can also choose to trek into Himalayas, with some walking for days for views of 7,314m Mount Chomolhari. Bhutan is off-limits to mountaineers – its people believe the peaks are abodes of the gods, and thus scared. It has the world’s highest unclimbed mountain, the 7,570m Gangkar Puensum. It is said to be the world’s arduous trek, the 23-day Snowman Trek, with most of its journey above 4,000m.
So if you are thinking of making a trip to Bhutan, enjoy yourself. Bhutan is indeed the last “Shangri-La”