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Flying over Myanmar, the dense cloud cover opens briefly revealing a stunning vista of the fabled Himalayas.

It is the world's youngest and highest range with more than 100 mountains surpassing 24,000 ft. My Druk Airlines plane dips its wings rolling back and forth, finally dropping precipitously onto Paro Airport's single landing strip, squeezed between the surrounding mountains and the Pa Chhu river. The plane, one of only three servicing the country, has been modified and only Bhutanese pilots have been proven to successfully negotiate this runway.


Paro Airport /Credit Wikipedia=Doug McLaughlin Druk Airlines/Credit Wikipedia= Dr.Aminu Hassan

The lightly traveled Bhutanese Himalayas and the stunning treks offered there are what beckon adventurous tourists to this land-locked mountain kingdom. Bhutan's 25 government sponsored treks are physically demanding. But these treks are hugely rewarding with forests of rhododendrons, thundering herds of yaks, sun-scraped vistas and pack pony mischief. The treks reach high altitudes and traverse remote regions. One negotiates rickety suspension bridges, and unforgiving terrain strewn with boulders, mud, snow, and leeches! It was those challenges and the rewards they offer that drew me and my friend Jambay to Bhutan.

Underway on the Druk Path Trek:

On the second day of our arrival in Thimphu, Bhutan's capital, we meet our Wind Horse Tours cultural guide Sonam. He is college-educated and has two brothers who are Bhuddist monks, so we are lucky. Sonam is very good. He explains that Bhuddism at the populist level is a blend of religious doctrine, animism, folklore and mythology.Your guide's tales may seem complex and nuanced but the good storytellers are mesmerizing. Throughout the day, the visitor finds himself in a living, breathing faith observed through daily spinning of prayer wheels, chanting at chortens, worshipping at elaborate home shrines and regular pilgrimages to dzongs (a distinctive type of fortress architecture) and temples.



Once your government sponsored trek is under way, you will be aware immediately of how vertically challenged this small Himalayan kingdom is, ranging from 300 to 24,000 feet in altitude. Many farmhouses are perched precariously on high cliffs. I ask my friend Jambay, "How do people get up there?". Well, of course they walk, or more aptly, climb. Farmers often terrace where it is seemingly impossible, and forage for edibles and medicinal plants. Even a natural Viagra is harvested! Seventy percent of Bhutanese are subsistence farmers and all seem to be healthy, fit and amazingly serene. "Bhutanese go with the flow," says Jambay. This temperament stems from the pervasive role of Bhuddism in everyday life.

Sonam explains how his faith plays out in modern life. A key tenet is that a Bhuddist must do no harm to any sentient being, which can be a cow, a tree, or even a bug. A tourist complained about a trail of ants crawling up her hotel room wall. The innkeeper rushed off and eventually returned announcing proudly that she had put two tracks of repellent upon the wall so that the ants were forced to crawl between them, out of the room and eventually outside, with no harm done to anyone.



In the habitable narrow valleys along the rivers between forbidding peaks, one visits delightful villages of wood and stucco housing, often with strings of multi-colored prayer flags fluttering in the wind. Banners and wall paintings beseech the Bhuddist deities for protection of the household. These colorful villages are connected by only a single highway traversing the country. The altitude variance and the sparse human footprint coupled with 70% forestland mandated by the constitution, makes Bhutan a top 10 biodiversity hotspot.

At the end of my fifth day on the Druk Path Trek I happen upon a family of yak herders coming up the trail to pasture their animals for the summer. The elder woman learned that I am 62 years old like her, and this was reason enough to come over and talk. We motioned to all our body parts suffering aches and pains and nodded in sympathetic agreement. She confided that she would like to give up herding, but her children were still in school. Then she came closer and asked, "Am I beautiful?" I snapped her picture, snaggle toothed and all and showed her the viewfinder. "Yes, you are beautiful", and she smiled.

Dzong Fortresses and Monasteries:



One of the most unforgettable features of the countryside is the series of 13 dzongs, which were originally built as fortresses between 1300 and 1600 A.D. to defend against marauding Mongols and Tibetans. Restored to their original architectural splendor, these ancient structures house monasteries and now district government agencies. Intricately carved and painted wooden ornamentations lend to their other worldly character, and all are built without nails!

Even for non-Buddhist visitors attending a monastic prayer session of meditational chanting, drumming and wafting incense, the experience is a deeply spitural one. Watch your guide prostrate himself fully, and remind yourself that his spiritual side predominates.

Tiger's Nest Monastery:

Bhutan's most famous monastery, Tiger's Nest or Taktshang Goemba is one of its most venerated religious sites, the Bhutanese equivalent to the Great Wall in China. Legend has it that Guru Rinpoche, the second reincarnated Buddha flew to this site on the back of a tigress to subdue a local demon. Afterwards, he meditated in the monastery for three months. This striking building clings to the sheer cliffs at the end of a steep 1,000 meter walk.
On the trail up one sees groups of pilgrims, contingents of monks, a few stray Westerners, and a plethora of school children on field trips pestering you to practice their English skills.

Teschue Festivals:



Another unforgettable attraction, a 'must attend,' is a religious Teschue festival involving sacred dances and rituals held at various dzongs. They are scheduled in fall or spring depending on location and are held to appease the protective deities of Bhutan. Locals flock to festival sites early to showcase their most colorfully rich kiras and to get a good viewing seat, with lots of flirting and laughter in the crowd.

The dances are performed by monks generally dressed in colorful costumes, and the dancers take on aspects of wrathful and compassionate deities, heroes, demons and animals. During the dances, atsara (clowns) mimic the dancers and perform comic routines and even harass the audience for money in exchange for a blessing with the wooden phallus they carry! The festivities go on sometimes for 2-3 days with the Black Hat dance finishing the choreography by subduing the malevolent deities.




Bhutan Becomes A Constitutional Monarchy, Acquires A Queen:

Incoming passengers to Paro airport are immediately focussed on the very recent political changes in Bhutan. Once outside, arrivals face an enormous billboard featuring the last three Wangchuk kings in princely regalia. "100 years of peace and prosperity" it proclaims impressively. While the king relinquished power to a parliamentary democracy in 2007 the Bhutanese people's hearts and minds still belong to their young king.

On
July 2011, King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk, the 5th Dragon King addressed the recently elected Gups (leaders from the Gewog adminisrative units). The country went to the polls on the 27th of June 2011 for the first ever local government elections. This is some of what he told them on this auspicious event:

"I say, with happiness and great satisfaction, that in the few years since 2008, we have conducted the general elections, adopted the Constitution, and formed the houses of Parliament, constitutional bodies, and the Supreme Court. And today we have accomplished yet another milestone, in establishing the first local governments under democracy. We have, therefore, laid all the founding pillars of democracy in Bhutan so early in my reign, as I fulfill the vision of my father, HM the fourth Druk Gyalpo, of a vibrant democracy."



To cap an historic year for his country, Bhutan's Oxford educated King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk took a 21-year-old commoner, Jetsun Pema, as his bride on October 13, 2011. The country was officially shut down to celebrate the royal nuptials.




Bhutanense Mores and Attitudes:

Bhutan is still largely unblemished by western ways which is a primary reason to visit. Modernization has been slow and is more a matter of utilizing the practical and dispensing with that which is perceived as harmful to the country's well being. Gross National Happiness (GNH) coined by the fourth King as a concept is now the standard progress measure vs. GDP.

Smoking is banned throughout the country, in private homes as well as public places. Crime is non-existant, and a small group of young druggies are quickly rounded up and sent to rehab. Truly a safe place!

Bhutan was the last country to receive television, internet, and cell phones (1999), and is the world's newest parliamentary democracy (2008).

In 2010, Thimphu, the capital, held its first City Council public elections, and the swearing in ceremony decreed traditional dress and tents.



The dress code for all males at work and for children in school is the ghos, a traditional dark checked Bhutanese tunic with large white cuffs, knee socks and dress shoes that give an impression more medieval than modern. Women are required to wear kiras, which are bright silk pencil skirts with matching jacket. This is "for law, for love,"my friend Jambay proudly informs me. The ghos and the kira are worn by everyone except for laborers or anyone enjoying afterhours relaxation. For visitors, it is a shock to see a Bhutanese in Western dress, unlike the people one sees in most Asian countries.

Even the Yak herders have embraced cell phones as a superior way to triangulate rounding up their animals. Television has been less accepted with the exception of professional wrestling, which is seen as a "strong man" contest.

The Bhutanese have mixed feelings about tourism. Wary of the havoc it has wreaked in neighboring Nepal and Tibet, they have intentionally kept it at a manageable level. You are required to travel with a Bhutanese tour operator to ensure environmental protection, provide language translation, and keep dollars in local pockets. You must also pay a daily all-inclusive fee of $200 ($250 in 2012).

Within these few restrictions, Bhutan offers a unique experience unlike any other left on Earth! It is the reluctance of modern adaptation, the adherence to peaceful Buddhist precepts, the continued embrace of cultural norms, and the preservation of the pristine Himalayan environment which make this destination a high priority on anyone’s exotic travel list.




Bhutan Tips: What to Know, How to Get There, How Much Does It Cost?

You access Bhutan via Druk Airlines to Paro (your operator will get your visa and tickets), from New Delhi, Guwahati (India), Kathmandu or Bangkok, although you can go overland through India and come in through Phuentsholing.

You must travel with an authorized Bhutanese travel guide, even if you have another agency involved. All tourists must pay US$200 per person per day (US$250 a day from 2012), with a US$ 40/30 surcharge per person for those in a group of one/two. This covers accommodation, transport in Bhutan, guide, food and entry fees. Possible extra charges include hotstone baths, cultural shows, horse riding, rafting, souveniers and tips. They appreciate tips in U.S. dollars. Note there are no ATM's in-country. You must use Bhutanese cash or $50 or lower traveler's checks.

This all-inclusive fee will equate to a 3-star hotel, although a few high end resorts are available up to the $1,000/day range. You can obtain a list of authorized local tour operators at http://www.tourism.gov.bt/category/tour-operators.




PHOTO CREDITS: Cindy Johnson Suplick; Wikipedia, as indicated.





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