"What are you looking for?" my tour guide asked me, during my first trip to the kingdom of Bhutan. "Tigers!" I said, leaning out the window, the wind blowing my hair in a swirl, my eyes darting back and forth. I was sure I would spot the magnificent striped creature in the forest we were passing on the high mountain road. My pure childlike enthusiasm brought great peals of laughter from him and from the driver of our four-wheel-drive truck. Though there are indeed tigers in parts of Bhutan, the closest I got to seeing one was hiking to Tiger's Nest (Taktsang) Monastery. It's Bhutan's most famous monastery because of its religious significance and striking location. In Bhutanese mythology, Guru Rinpoche (the second Buddha) flew on the back of a tigress to meditate in a cave overlooking Paro Valley. This is where the monastery was built, and it's impossibly perched on the edge of a sheer, rocky cliff, about 900 meters above the valley.
The sense of wonder I felt while looking for tigers was with me throughout my whole journey, beginning with the flight into the country. If you visit Bhutan, you will find yourself seated on Druk Air, the national carrier, since there's no other air service into the kingdom. Unless you are a veteran of mountain flights, you will no doubt feel a sense of exhilaration as you soar close above the Himalaya Mountains, the vast range visible out the window. The pilot will point out the famous peaks, and everyone will exclaim "There it is!" in amazement. During my flight from Kathmandu I saw the towering, snow-covered Mt. Everest--how humbling to be so near the highest point on earth. And don't be surprised if your stomach drops during the sharp landing and take-off, as the mountains rise on either side of the short runway.
The kingdom of Bhutan, which has been described as the last Shangri-la, truly is a little pocket of peace on earth. It's located in the eastern Himalayas, to the south of Tibet and to the north of India, and though it's a small country (47,000 square kilometers), its mountains and valleys seem to go on forever. Partly because of its hard-to-reach, isolated location, and partly because of the government's policies, Bhutan has been able to maintain a strong cultural and national identity. The country's motto is "gross national happiness," and the king is devoted to bettering the lives of the people while making sure that the culture and environment are carefully preserved.
The Bhutanese are generally garbed in their colorful national dress--kiras (an ankle-length dress with a short jacket, worn by women) and ghos (a long knee-length robe tied around the waist by a belt, worn by the men)--and I marveled at how they could hike the trails to the villages in such finery, while I struggled on the uneven terrain in my hiking boots and specially fashioned outdoor clothing. The official language is Dzongkha, but because English is, unexpectedly, the medium of instruction in Bhutan, it is widely spoken--even the street signs are written in both Dzongkha and English. The main staples of the Bhutanese diet are rice (red or white) and fiery-hot chilies. One dish favored by most Bhutanese is called "ema datse," which consists simply of chilies and cheese and causes most foreigners to break out in a sweat. Common beverages in Bhutan include butter tea (suja) and ara, which is a spirit distilled from rice, wheat, or corn. Bhutan's official religion is Buddhism, and it plays an important role in society. You will find temples in most villages and religious structures along the roads and trails, and you will see prayer flags fluttering in the wind on the hills and high passes.
Bhutan is a fairly unknown tourist destination, and not many people have heard about this jewel in the Himalayas. The Bhutanese government closely regulates tourism, so you can't journey to the kingdom on your own. You must go through a licensed Bhutanese tour company if you want to visit Bhutan. Rather than being an inconvenience, this policy ensures that when you come to Bhutan, you will be surrounded by untainted wilderness and a culture steeped in tradition, where people still believe that kindness is a virtue and where nature is held in respect. The mountain roads are steep, curvy, and difficult to navigate--plus the Bhutanese drive on the left side of the road, which is barely wide enough for two vehicles--so it's not likely you'd be comfortable driving yourself around anyway. I for one wouldn't want to run the risk of pitching the truck headfirst over the edge of a 3,500-meter pass. I'd rather leave the driving to an expert and have the freedom to cover my eyes at the oncoming traffic.
In spite of the occasional adrenaline rush from a near-brush with the edge of a cliff, Bhutan breeds a sense of calm and relaxation. It is a place of politeness, patience, and unhurriedness--no pushing and shoving, no hustle and bustle, no rushing. When you visit the kingdom, you can engage in any level of activity or inactivity that suits you. You can sit quietly, take in your surroundings, and read, write, or meditate; you can tour the museums, temples, dzongs (fortresses), and handicraft shops and learn about the culture and traditions; you can hike up the forested hills to visit monasteries and stand in awe at the breathtaking views of the valleys below; you can set out on a trek (from easy to challenging) and explore the unspoiled wilderness; or you can do a little bit of everything.
Midway through my Bhutan adventure, I went on a three-hour mostly uphill hike to Tharpaling monastery in the Bumthang region of central Bhutan. After a delicious picnic lunch of cold ginger chicken and boiled potatoes, I settled myself on a sheltered bench overlooking the valley to contemplate my life. I was soon joined by three monks and my guide, who sat in a comfortable silence with me as we gazed at the boundless green mountains before us. Without warning it began to rain, and a mist rolled in to partially blanket the mountaintops. It was such a beautiful sight and the moment was so utterly peaceful that it brought tears to my eyes. I will never forget it. That is what Bhutan does to you.
I can't promise that you will find tigers in Bhutan, but I can guarantee that you will be touched by Bhutan, and you will find a special place in your heart for this beautiful, gentle country.
Posted July 2003