Beautiful Bhutan; Mike Smith Travels to the Far East and Finds an Unspoilt Kingdom in the Himalayas

Article excerpt

FEW people have heard of the country of Bhutan and still less could point to it on a world map. In some respects it would be best for Bhutan and, in turn, for the small number of visitors to the Himalayan kingdom if it stayed that way.

The Bhutanese call their country Druk Yul, the Land of the Thunder Dragon, and themselves as Drukpa people.

Bhutan is indeed a very special country, deeply traditional, devoutly Buddhist but also, at first, seemingly paradoxically progressive. When I asked our delightful guide what it would be like to live in Bhutan if you were not Buddhist his look was one of incomprehension.

"But everyone is," he replied with a slightly puzzled look.

Religion is important to the Bhutanese. They observe customs, they respect rituals, they believe in traditions. Yet, like many Buddhist countries, the people are charming and funny and relaxed and have no trouble reconciling traditional values and modern life. But you get a slightly uneasy feeling that there is a sense that the nation is also potentially quite fragile and could be swept away in a torrent of Western brash commercialism - or imperialism from its giant neighbour China - at any moment.

Take an evening stroll down the main street of Thimphu, the capital, barely bigger that a large village. The people are largely wearing traditional dress, the men wearing the gho, a bright oversized dressing gown with huge rolled up sleeves and a high collar, and the women wearing the kira, a floor-length dress worn with a short jacket in beautiful traditional fabrics.

All the buildings are nearly identical and traditional, white painted with highly decorated windows and bright painted detail under the eaves.

Stopping for coffee, the other customers are smiling and happy and the waitress is far from shy, almost sassy and is quickly making a charming little joke at our expense. At first it is impressive, if not puzzling, that every shopkeeper, for example, has perfect English. But then it turns out English is so widely spoken because everyone is taught through the medium of English at school. Their own native language - and there are many - is also spoken but at school it is all English.

The food hints of India (their friendliest neighbour) so you will have all manner of interesting flat breads and rice but the heat that creates curry is served separate from main dishes. The Bhutanese eat a lot of vegetables and one of their favourite dishes is potatoes in a creamy, cheese sauce which seems more European than Asian.

Bhutan is in the foothills on the Himalayas, between China and India, a very precarious position to be in as what has happened to Tibet has demonstrated and yet owes little to either culturally.

Driving through the foothills through forests dotted with bright rhododendrons and an occasional orchid nestling in a tree is a joy surpassed only by a trek to experience the mountains up close. We trekked up to the renowned Tiger's Nest monastery clinging to the side of a cliff and apparently secured there by angel's hair.

We came to see the dzongs, huge white citadels, part government offices and part monastery, illustrating how intertwined politics and religion are in Bhutan. There are 20 dotted all over Bhutan mostly built in the 17th century, some high on mountain ridges, others at the meeting of two rivers, both large and small, but all so beautiful, like white-painted castles with the same elaborate windows and wall painting. …