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Final Bhutan highlights

Paro, Bhutan

Flying into Bhutan from our stopover in Kathmandu, Nepal, our airplane passed right next to Mt. Everest, which was just about as high off the ground as we were at 30,000 feet! It is absolutely marvelous to see the world's highest point rising out of the clouds from above. The cumulous display was inspiring in and of itself, and the snow-covered peak blended quite seamlessly into the world of the sky.

Soaring over India, you can scarcely spot any land that hasn't been developed. Passing from there into Nepal, there is noticably more forest cover. Continuing from Nepal into Bhutan, you can just about trace the international border by virtue of the almost complete lack of developed land in the remote "Land of the Thunder Dragon".

They say that Paro, Bhutan is home to the lonliest international airport in the world. Most days pass with only a single flight into and out of the country, but some days the air traffic controller works overtime with up to three flights taking off or landing. Fin told me that the official number he saw from the Tourism Authority was that a total of 55 foreign tourists were registered to travel into Bhutan in the month of July! I think there must be a few more than that, but they definitely keep the volume very limited with the exhorbitant expense of the visa to travel here.

Arriving into Paro, the air is rarefied and the scenery is bountiful and idyllic. There is an amazing diversity of flora here, much of it hanging from steep sloping mountainsides. Huge cumulous clouds hang precariously below the mountain tops, unlike any other place I've ever seen. There is a definite fairy tale feeling to Bhutan.

The first day we visited a World Wildlife Fund protected area that is home to the very rare and unusual Takin. Grab a Google image of this strange beast for a good laugh. Apparently the experts have had a difficult time placing this animal in in the same genus or family as any other species on earth. I guess its fitting that this most unique Takin is to be found only in this most unique Bhutan.

The built environment consists almost exclusively of rammed-earth craftsman sytle traditional structures with super intricate wood carving and colorful painting on the trim and window panes.

With their efforts to preserve a unique and traditional way of life comes a myriad of rules and regulations for the residents and visitors of Bhutan. There is a loosely enforced dress code when entering government buildings or spiritual places. Tobacco products are banned, but a black market has (inevitably) emerged. Travel above a certain altitude on certain mountain peaks is strictly prohibited. Etc, etc.

The first night over dinner, Fin gave me the full, long story of the controversy over Nepali immigrants that has somewhat tainted the Bhutanese reputation around the globe. Essentially, it is a very complicated and drawn out affair where the government has tried to verify the citizenship of large numbers of people in the southern part of the country, and several unfortunate mistakes have been made. Many of the people who have been forced out of the country had been living there for several generations, and some of them have actually been discovered to be Bhutanese citizens after living in refugee camps in Nepal and India for awhile. A significant factor in Bhutan's approach to the situation is their fear that Bhutan could easily be absorbed by one of its larger and more powerful neighbors, which happened with the nation of Sikkim in 1974 when it unwillingly became part of India. This is part of the reasoning behind Bhutan's strongly nationalist stance in its regional affairs. Additional factors include the fear that their small government would be unable to provide support services to a rising immigrant population, and the Bhutanese insistance upon preserving their traditional culture. I have found myself growing increasingly frustrated with the ideology of nationalism, as it seems to often times place artificial and harsh separation between man and his neighbor. Can't we all just get along? What ever happened to peace, love, and understanding?!

The second night of my stay, we traveled along a breathtaking road to the infrequently visited Haa valley. Our journey was to Fin's village to participate in the annual "puja" festival, which asks for blessings upon the household for the coming year. The entire village was assembled for the celebration, which included a lot of food, moonshine (rice whisky), dance, and laughter. The monks from the local monastery were there to perform several rituals, including lots of chanting and playing of some way cool musical instruments. Every home in Bhutan has a special shrine room, decorated with Buddhist statues and artwork, where the family meditates, makes offerings, and performs the annual "puja". It was really special to witness and participate in this intimate affair which most tourists remain oblivious to. It was also fascinating to draw certain comparisons with the hill tribe communities in Thailand, where I lived in 2005-2006. They are also of Tibetan/Mongolian descent, and there are definitely some cultural features in common.

The following day we did some hiking around the isolated and most pleasant Himalayan valley surrounding the small village. A dirt road stretching to the village was completed just last year. Fin said that his family has lived here for at least four generations, and beyond that is unknown as there is no written history. Up until the last decade or so, over 90% of all Bhutanese people were subsistent farmers in remote villages similar to this one. There has recently been a flight to urban areas among the younger generation in search of a better education and economic advancement. The government is trying to encourage people to stay in their villages by building more roads in the rural parts of the country to give better access to modern comforts. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that globalization isn't out of bounds, even in this "last Shangri La".

A few words on the monarchy: There have been five kings of Bhutan. K4, as the fourth king is known, is the most colorful and fascinating. He was the first king to take multiple wives when he decided to marry four sisters. Because he's the king, nobody took issue with this break from tradition. He has several children with each, so the royal family has grown significantly in the last generation. The first-born son, K5, was given power by his father in 2007, when he was about my age. This abdication of power was unusual, as K4 was seemingly in his prime with several decades of rule ahead of him. He did so as a precursor to dissolving the absolute monarchy in favor of the constitutional monarchy that was established last year with the first parliamentary vote. K4 also insisted, above the objection of many government ministers, to include a provision in the constitution which easily allows the parliament to dissolve the monarchy if they see fit in the future. Knowing, first hand, the potential dangers of absolute authority, K4 demanded this provision in the case that any future king turns out to be a bad egg and abuses his position of power. So, he is quite the historical anomaly to have willingly given up his power in favor of democratic process. In fact, much of the country was very resistant to this idea, as they were quite happy with his benevolent rule. I can't think of another historical circumstance in which a democracy was created against the will of the people!

A couple of other places we visited were Dochula Pass, with it's 108 chortens, and Chimi Lhakhang (Temple of Fertility) established by the "Divine Madman", an eccentric monk in the 8th century. The alarmingly large and graphic penis images scattered around Bhutan are attributable to this guy. Another spectacular place that you might want to pull up a Google image of is the Punakha Dzong. It is huge and impressive and built right on the confluence of two mighty rivers.

One final tidbit: Bhutan is one of five countries in the world that does not have a U.S. embassy. I'm not sure what the other four are, but I'm guessing that these are not nations you would generally like to be listed with. Apparently, Sen. John McCain and three or four other Senators recently visited Bhutan to discuss the possibility of establishing closer relations. Bhutan is a fiercely prideful and autonomous place, and they don't want to risk being subject to any negative consequences of allying with the U.S. From what I could gather, they certainly don't intend to allow anyone else to tell them the best economic or political or social course into the future. In some ways, I found this attitude to be somewhat abrasive. On the other hand, I admire their determination to control their own destiny, and the staunch efforts to protect and preserve their cultural, spiritual, and natural resources. For many reasons, Bhutan is unlike any other country. It challenged and stimulated me. For those interested, I'd recommend traveling there, and would be very curious to hear of the conclusions you struggle to draw from this bizarre "Land of the Thunder Dragon".

permalink written by  Katy and Mark Lewis on July 13, 2009 from Paro, Bhutan
from the travel blog: India and Nepal
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Katy and Mark Lewis Katy and Mark Lewis
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We are two siblings from Colorado (aged 24 and 26) who find ourselves simultaneously between a job and a graduate school program. We both came down with a case of itchy feet, so we're going searching for the cure while we've got the chance!

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