A divine time
in the kingdom
among the peaks of the Himalayas, Bhutan is careful to keep
centuries-old Buddhist traditions thriving as it lets the modern
Mary Altier, Special to The Times
in my trip to this tiny eastern Himalayan kingdom, I asked a
crimson-robed monk at the ancient Kyichu Lhakhang Monastery in Paro
whether I could roll his dice. I drew a lucky number, 12.
The monk assured me that my wish — to have a meaningful trip —
would be granted.
He was right.
My husband, John, and I had come to Bhutan to attend the annual Paro
Tsechu, a five-day festival honoring Guru Rinpoche, who brought
Buddhism to Bhutan, and to get an in-depth look at this culture. We
were among the lucky 9,000 or so tourists annually allowed into the
landlocked country between India and Tibet. The way most tourists
visit Bhutan is with a tour group, as we did in April. Once in,
visitors are required to spend $200 to $240 per person, per day.
Controlled tourism is just one way Bhutan protects its ancient
culture and natural beauty.
Only five decades ago, the "Land of the Thunder Dragon"
was isolated from the rest of the world, and its population depended
on subsistence farming. The kingdom — at 18,150 square miles,
about half the size of Indiana — had few schools and no
telephones, national currency, hospital or postal service. Then, in
the 1960s, Bhutan's third hereditary ruler, King Jigme Dorji
Wangchuck, took the first steps toward modernization, among them
abolishing the caste system and slavery, and beginning a secular
In 1972, his son, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, became king at age 16 and
continued his father's work, opening Bhutan's borders to tourism —
but with strict limits — to bring in much-needed revenue. His move
paid off, improving the standard of living for the kingdom's 2
million people while preserving its traditions.
Today, the Bhutanese enjoy a national healthcare system. Local TV
programming began in the late 1990s, but it wasn't until a few years
later, when satellite TV arrived, that the world of the Bhutanese
began to change rapidly.
"The Bhutanese have the best of both worlds, the traditional
and the modern, although things are changing since the arrival of
MTV," said Chencho Dorji, a psychiatrist I met at one of the
pre-festival celebrations in Paro.
Today, Bhutan may have many of the amenities of the 21st century,
but its centuries-old customs and traditions still thrive.
Farmhouses like Alpine chalets
Our trip started in Paro, as our plane safely made the sharp, fast
drop onto the runway. The pilots of Druk Air, the only airline with
service to Bhutan, are experienced in clearing the high Himalayan
peaks that surround the town and the country's only international
Inside the terminal, decorated with intricate woodcarvings and bold
primitive paintings, we met our guide, Tshering, then dropped our
gear at the Hotel Olathang, a rustic place with an expansive view.
After a lunch of locally grown red rice with emadatsi (cheese and
hot chiles), Tshering took us on a tour of Paro.
The Paro Valley is chockablock with farms and farmhouses. They
resemble Alpine chalets and are made of whitewashed stone and
timber, topped with broad, sloping roofs. But Bhutan's standout
structures are the dzongs, ancient fortresses that serve as
monasteries and administrative centers. Paro's Rinpung Dzong, where
we were headed, was the center of festival activities.
The dzong loomed above us as we crossed a small wooden bridge over
the Paro River and walked uphill, feeling the 6,500-foot altitude.
Construction on Paro's dominant landmark began in 1644, and not only
is it one of the finest examples of Bhutanese architecture, it also
is strong, having withstood many Tibetan invasions in its centuries
Locals streamed by us on their way to the first day of the tsechu,
and I could feel their excitement as they passed. Tshering paused to
wrap his 10-foot-long unbleached raw-silk scarf around his gho, the
men's traditional dress. Gho are long robes that men hitch up to
knee length and belt tightly. The kira, which women wear, is a
floor-length, rectangular piece of cotton or silk that is wrapped
around the body, then affixed at the shoulders, tunic-like, over a
silk blouse. All Bhutanese citizens are required to wear the
national dress in public during daylight hours.
There are many festivals in Bhutan, and Paro's is one of the biggest
social gatherings of the year. Colorful stalls sell food, religious
objects and hand-woven fabrics; others tout carnival games.
Each year, Paro's monks and residents perform a 12-episode dance
drama that commemorates the life of the country's spiritual father.
Guru Rinpoche, regarded as the second Buddha, spread Tibetan-style
Tantric Buddhism throughout the Himalayas 1,200 years ago. Watching
the tsechu's ritual dances is believed to protect onlookers, to
instruct them in the teachings of the Buddha and to exorcise evil
Through it all, clowns, wearing long-nosed red masks, weaved in and
out of the scene, acting as masters of ceremonies, performing
between the dances, chasing dogs and children off the staging area,
and teasing tourists and locals.
On the festival's final day, we arrived in the predawn hours at the
dzong for the annual unfurling of the giant thondrol, an embroidered
tapestry of depicting Guru Rinpoche, which cannot see the light of
day. The Bhutanese believe that looking at the icon washes away
One of the festival attractions was an archery concession —
archery is close to an obsession here — and John paid a few coins
to try hitting a Bhutanese bulls'-eye. He hit the target a couple of
times, to the amazement of watching locals.
Later, John asked our driver to stop for a while at an archery field
on the outskirts of Thimphu, Bhutan's capital. Competitors in the
friendly Sunday match had set their wooden targets 500 feet away.
When an archer hit the mark, his teammates lined up and danced with
Thimphu, a winding two-hour drive from Paro, is the country's only
real urban settlement. A few years ago, a stoplight was installed at
the city's downtown traffic circle. When residents complained that
they preferred a traffic cop, the local administration complied.
As we headed east from Thimphu, Tshering warned us that the
snow-capped Himalayas are seldom visible from the 10,000-foot
mountain pass at Dochu La on our way to Bumthang. Thunderstorms and
torrential rains are common here, and the average rainfall is more
than 200 inches in the south. But that day our luck held, and we
were greeted with the sight of mountains gleaming in the sunlight.
Bumthang is the base for visiting the pastoral Tang, Choekhar,
Chumey and Ura valleys. Guru Rinpoche converted the region to
Buddhism in the 8th century and it remains the country's most
religious. At Choekhar Valley's 500-year-old Tamshing Goemba
Monastery, we saw 6- to 8-year-old monks enthusiastically reciting
prayers in unison.
As we left the Ura Valley, Tshering spotted a convoy of official
vehicles carrying the country's head abbot, Je Khenpo. In a wild
ride, our driver sped past them as the abbot stopped to bestow
blessings on some residents standing beside the road.
When the convoy caught up to us, the lead policeman turned on his
car's siren and lights, signaling us to pull over so that he could
pass. Our driver instead stopped in front of a simple farmhouse,
where a mother was holding a child. We jumped out, lined up next to
her, and bowed our heads so that the abbot could pray over each of
"You are now blessed," the policeman said emphatically.
After having visited Bhutan, I know he was right.
A spiritual journey
From LAX, Thai Airways flies direct (one stop, no change of planes)
to Bangkok. JAL, China Airlines, ANA, Northwest, Korean, China
Eastern and United have connecting flights (stop, change of planes).
Restricted round-trip fares begin at $730.
From Bangkok, the only option to Paro, Bhutan, is Druk Airlines.
Restricted round-trip fares begin at $740.
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international
dialing code), 975 (the country code for Bhutan) and the local
Visitors must book a prepaid, guided package tour or a custom tour
through a registered tour operator in Bhutan or affiliated companies
WHERE TO EAT:
Meals, usually buffets served in guesthouses, include Western and
WHERE TO STAY:
Amankora, Paro; 011-65-6887-3337 (central reservations line in
. A luxury resort, part of the Aman Resorts chain. Doubles $900,
plus $289 in taxes and service charges.
Uma Paro, 8-271597, http://www.uma.como.bz
. One of the Hong Kong-based Como Hotels and Resorts. Doubles