Saturday, May 10, 2008

Bhutan: Disneyland of the East

Bhutan, the mystical and virtually unknown Himalayan kingdom, sandwiched between India, China, Nepal, and Bangladesh, is a fiercely independent and proud nation with much to offer tourists. For better or worse, this often comes in the form of 100% pre-packaged tours to pre-defined areas that are “approved” for tourists to visit, complete with gho-wearing, smiling & waving Bhutanese, “tourist” hotels serving “international” food (only one Bhutanese restaurant in the country), all completely prepaid for using the government’s mandated $200/tourist/day minimum. The upside of this is that the government and the people have a huge incentive to look after their environment and local culture, so all-in-all, it’s probably better than the free-for-all in Nepal (although many similarities exist, including the locals’ incessant use of car horns as a crude form of sonar as they navigate the streets).

Sharbani & I arrived fresh from Nepal (although a little tired of hiking) for a 5-day taste of this fascinating nation. This is one visit where I’ll spare you the historical and geographic background of Bhutan, since Bhutan’s history is intertwined with the history of Buddhism, and as such is peppered with flying tigers, subjugated demons, all manners of miracles, and flying 10-inch penises. This tends to be very entertaining as recounted in absolute seriousness by our guides, but a little confusing to be retold in a serious travel account such as this... Anyhow, back to the flying penises.

They apparently belong to the “Divine Madman”, a Lama who wandered the countryside conquering demons (and women), and caricatures of whose member adorns many a Bhutanese house. His meditation rituals were said to include wine and lots of women. My attempts to explain that this is a popular form of meditation in many countries were met with incomprehension. Apparently the Divine madman was protected from demons at night by his erect burning penis, but my suggestion that there was probably medication available for that these days was also not well received by our guides.

It’s vital for an understanding of Bhutan that the reader appreciates that EVERYTHING is designed to look like the traditional Bhutanese way of life. All buildings are effectively identical, artwork, people’s dress code, castles, and signage follow strict guidelines. This can give an overwhelming impression that you’ve suddenly arrived in that part of Disneyworld which celebrates and stereotypes different cultures. Seriously, you want to imagine what an airport control tower would look like if constructed according to Bhutanese tradition? Look no further than Bhutan’s only airport at Paro! To add to the slightly surreal feeling, cannabis grows wild in Bhutan, sprouting up along the roadside as you drive by.

Tourism is strictly controlled. All tourists must pre-confirm their itinerary and pre-pay the aforementioned daily fee (rumoured to be increasing to $300/day in the near future). There are several areas of the country that tourists are unable to visit for cultural preservation reasons, and they must all stay in designated hotels. Fresh from our Nepalese experience, and the parallels with the Korean prison, there were times when Sharbani & I felt we might have been taken North of the Korean border, with some of the restrictions on food, residence, and visiting areas. As such we took to talking to the pepper and salt shakers (afraid they were bugged), and took to randomly ducking into side alleys for some illicit exploration sans-guides.

Prior to arrival in Bhutan, we had been fascinated to hear about Bhutanese cooking, and the prevalence of chillies as a vegetable. Despite early pleas, we were restricted to our “international” dining options (French fries, strange Indian substitutes and rice) in our hotel until Sharbani invaded the kitchen in one location, and subsequently we were fed more chillies than we could stomach, along with jellied yak skin and fried fern. While they were quite a gastronomic excursion, I sometimes wish she’d stayed out of the kitchen!

Bhutan itself is a country of stunning natural and cultural beauty. The Dzong’s (fortresses which administer each region), are impressive structures, often with commanding locations. The famous “Tiger’s Nest (Taksheng) monastery, perched high on a cliff face, is a feat of ancient engineering, and the ubiquitous monasteries, prayer wheels, archery ranges, and red-robed monks roaming the streets make it a visual feast. The Lonely Planet describes Bhutan as “Nepal for the jet set”, and while I think this is a little bit of a stretch, the less strenuous nature of Bhutan travel, it’s all-inclusive package flavor, passionate guides, and emphasis on driving rather than walking certainly made it less challenging than Nepal.

As for me, I had a great time there, and am very much looking forward to the next stop- Australia!

The photos can be seen here.


cmotes said...

I hear Australia can be pretty rough. Watch yourself down there... you'll stand out like a sore index finger.

Biggie-Z said...

I have wanted to learn more about Bhutan after hearing that one of its leader's goals is to make his people happy. While this sounds a little like junior high student council campaign promises, wild cannabis by the roadside (and flying flaming phalluses) might actually make it happen!