Bhutan: The Last Shangri-La

Bhutan, or Druk Yul (meaning Land of the Thunder Dragon), is the last great Himalayan Kingdom that touts the greatest conservation story never heard. A Buddhist Nation, the country carefully marries traditional culture with a postmodern belief system.

Art & Culture: Being the last Buddhist Nation of the world, Bhutan is culturally extraordinary and unparalleled. The lifestyle is entirely different from anywhere else in the world. The country has no traffic lights, no smoking or tobacco products (there are designated places for tourists who carry their own cigarettes, so ask your tour guide before you light up) & no hunting. Fishing is also prohibited, except as a sport, wherein a catch & release rule is applied. At Utopiic, we tie up with the locals for the best spots in Bhutan to practice this sport.

It is a country that doesn’t allow it’s highest peaks to be scaled, because they believe them to be the homes of old & wise spirits. The highest peaks of the Himalayas were scaled decades ago, making Gangkhar Puensum the highest unclimbed peak in the world.

Bhutan remains a Monarchy & has been for over a 100 years now & the people love their King & Queen. Though the King himself has completed his education in Oxford University, London, he is always seen in traditional garb, & is a strict follower of Buddhism. In fact, Buddhism is neatly woven into the lives of all Bhutanese people. Mahayana Buddhism can be seen in even greater evidence in the dzongs, monasteries, prayer flags & wheels & also the monks & nuns everywhere.

Everyone dresses traditionally all over Bhutan, even to work. The men wear the Gho, which is a knee length robe, tied at the waist with a belt, called Kera. The women wear a long ankle length dress called Kira along with a jacket called Tego & an inner layer called Wonju. They wear long raw silk scarves on their visits to dzongs & monasteries. There are great local textile & handicraft markets where one can shop for this traditional clothing as well as a large variety of paintings & phallus sculptures. With Utopiic, one can visit some of the local markets often reserved for the natives, & step out of the “defined” tourist routes.

Most entrances, roofs and walls to any kind of abode or buildings are decorated with Phallus paintings & sculptures. In recent times this is becoming less common in Paro & Thimphu, it is still largely inherent in Punakha. From bright orange colours to soft pastel pinks, sometimes hairy, sometimes seating a dragon, some even ejacuating, the phallus fascination has a historic as well as spiritual significance. In the 15th century, a Lama called Drukpa Kunley spread his teachings from his seat in Chimi Lhakhang, Punakha. Many stories are attached to his eccentric ways of stopping great demons & using fertility to spread happiness. Now, Chimi Lhakhang is home to a 10-inch phallus made of ivory & wood & many newly weds & childless couples from across the world visit it to seek blessings.

The architecture in bhutan is still built without blueprints or planned designs. The main architecture forms consist of Gompas, Chortens (Stupa) & Dzongs (fortress architecture). Wood work, Mudwork & pillar style fortresses with thatched roofs built with pounded iron & wooden beams below, form most of the architecture. The windows are small & lined with geometrical or floral motifs. Most Dzongs & Monasteries have watchtowers, citadels & cantilever wooden bridges. Butter Lamps line the walls, giving the interiors a warm glow transporting one to historic times.

Historic paintings called Thangka is the native artistic expression of the Tibetans. They are known for their aesthetic beauty as well as their use as aids in meditational practices. They are made with mineral pigments and depict deities & iconographic grids. They are usually stitched onto wooden frames & given fabric borders. As time passes, the genuine thangkas are rarely seen, but Utopiic brings to the table various classes for learning the art form from the learned natives of the country.

Another part of the culture that is a favourite amongst tourists & locals alike are the various colourful festivals of Bhutan. The Tsechu or Dance Festivals are amongst the most famous. Paro & Thimphu Tsechu take place in peak season. Visited by many, these very social festivals that bring various dance forms from the region together, including the masked dance (Cham) & the Black Hat dance. Other great festivals include Punakha Tsechu, Black Necked Crane festival - to celebrate the arrival of the majestic birds, Royal Highlander festival - a two day celebration of the nomadic highlander traditions, Ura Matsusake Mushroom Festival - for picking of wild Matsusake mushrooms & sharing local dishes & the Haa Summer festival - a cultural celebration. If a plan of Bhutan is in the making, talk to your Utopiic advisor for the best native experiences & definitely do attend at least one of these uplifting festivals.

Food & Drinks: The rice is red, the chillies are a vegetable and green chilli peppers & cheesy sauce is the national dish, called Ema Datshi. As weird as that sounds, it is simple, spicy & comforting. Meat is a huge part of the diet. The chilli undertones, or should we say overtones, help to keep warm against the cold winds. The cuisine overall is meant to be sustainable rather than palatable. Soups are often the starters & meals end with sweets or paan.

The choice of drink is often Whiskey & there are a variety of local Whiskies available everywhere. The most common & loved amongst the natives is K5, named after the fifth King of Bhutan. It is a smooth Himalayan blend, that is definitely ga ga inducing.

Health & Wellness: Rather than Gross National Product, Bhutan measures success with Gross National Happiness. With Buddhism being on the forefront of their governance policies as well, the laws and rules are formed to increase satisfaction, peace and ultimately happiness levels. This philosophy is not only for the locals to indulge in, but is offered to the various tourists visiting the country, & with this philosophy, they must know a secret or two to wellness, right?

Bhutan is the perfect destination for luxury travellers in search of “wellness”. It is home to various Mineral hot spring bath houses. These are generally very modest, with hot stones being dropped into the wooden tub of water. The experience however is enriching. Another form of wellness found here is through Yoga retreats, that exist all over the country, generally on the outskirts of the cities. Yoga is traditionally taught by the monks here and teachers are available for all, even if you are one of those who gave up on flexibility a long time ago. They will extract out a move or two from you, while immersing you into peaceful meditation. Meditation has been a long part in the history of Buddhism & the natives offer various types of meditation & prayer. The pristine location, surrounded by the tallest mountains, apple orchards & the open sky with rolling clouds make this a truly spiritual experience. Selecting the right guide is often a difficult task, & one can leave it on Utopiic to understand & select the best experts for their needs.

Then of course is the practice of traditional medicine which is incorporated through varying forms of massages. Marma massage is the most famously practiced by the masseuse here. Marma includes the soft knocking of the skin to improve posture & better blood circulation. Utopiic has tie ups with the best of the best & promises an unforgettable experience.

Another experience that may be suggested is visiting a monk & spending a day in his lifestyle, as he finishes divination & may talk to you about the achievement of true happiness. Isn’t that a secret recipe everyone wants to get ahold of? So, plan a trip to experience health & wellness that has been practiced over decades.

Wildlife & Nature: Bhutan has a conservation law of 60% forest cover for future generations. Currently, 70% is covered with forest & 7% lies below glaciers. There are many wildlife sanctuaries for those interested in the flora and fauna. The Valley of Cranes is one such sanctuary, famous for Black Necked Cranes. It is a wetland that is visited once a year by these majestic birds & is a site to behold.

If a sighting of the Yeti is what you have hopes for, this abominable snowman is rumoured to be sighted at the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary. The luck is yours, but a black-rumped Magpie is a confirmed sighting. These are the smartest birds alive & who’d want to miss that! Many endangered species like the Red Panda are seen in the Bumdeling Sanctuary, while for a Pygmy Hog, Jomotsangkha is the place to visit. Other sanctuaries include Phibsoo, Royal Manas National Park, Jigme Dorji National Park & the Phurmsengla National Park. Select your animal, are you a tiger person, or is a snow leopard more to your speed, just let your Utopiic handler know!

Adventure & Sports: With great mountains, comes great adventures, & Bhutan is no different. Rafting & Kayaking, Mountain Biking & Hiking are famous tourist adventure activities available here. The one that has to be done while here is the famous ascent to Tiger’s Nest Monastery, it’s like going to Taj Mahal if one is visiting India, only much quieter & way more peace inducing.

Another famous trek, often known as the Snowman Trek, is not one of the but THE MOST beautiful snow treks in the Himalayas. It is also one of the most difficult treks ever. More people climb Mt. Everest than people who take this trek on, so if you’re a serious hiker, this is the ultimate challenge. Utopiic offers training with experts before this trek can be taken on. It is 17 km long, 27 days long & the difficulty is mainly due to the high altitude.

Other, much easier treks include Laya Gasa Trek, Dagala Thousand Lakes Trek, Jomolhari, Druk Path & Owl Trek.

Bhutan’s National sport is Archery. There are many competitions for all levels across the country, throughout the year. Whether you want to learn a little archery, or just watch it from afar, let your Utopiic guide know. Maybe taking part in a beginner’s competition is just what you need to fuel that fire, and get your arrows straight.

Truly the last Shangri-la, this article doesn’t cover the half of it. Whether it’s adventure sports, wellness & spiritual guidance or swimming the depths of the art, history & culture of an old dynasty, Bhutan has it all. With tourism open only since the 1970’s, the number of visitors is small. This may be the next place to explore, so get your warm clothes out & hit the ground running. Dip them toes in the pristine waters & soak in the ultimate epitome of conserved nature. Be a part of something great, & have unique stories to tell all. Log Jay Gay!

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