Many countries proclaim the uniqueness of their traditions, which often are artificially preserved for tourists only. But in Bhutan, tradition is real: The visitor can see it, feel it. In a world where a thick cloak of globalization has all but smothered distinctive heritages, this self-reliant kingdom proudly stands alone. Bhutan is different – and you will be too after you become one of the few outsiders to discover firsthand that such a nation still exists.
Ironically, one of the main points that set Bhutan apart is its fundamental sense of interconnectedness. Because the country is small- only 7’77’824 people – the warmth of an extended family is evident wherever you go.
Even before you land at the country’s only airport, you’ll notice the difference: At the check-in counter, you’ll find that many of your fellow passengers know each other. Camaraderie is instant with the dignified, ever-polite Bhutanese; you can tell already that you are being admitted to a very special place indeed.
That specialness is particularly embedded in Bhutanese culture, whose heart is the Vajrayana Buddhism that pulses beneath daily life here. Bhutan is the only country left to retain such an intact richness. You’ll visit ancient dzongs – sturdy fortresses that combine monastic and governmental functions – and see Lhakhangs, or Buddhist temples, built in centuries-old style.
Annual festivals, or Tshechus, at which men and women alike wear their most spectacular, intricately hand-woven clothing, highlight both Bhutanese religious devotion and the love of a good time. Elaborate, spellbinding masked and folk dances are performed for days by specially trained monks, while local families chat with neighbors, feast and enjoy the antics of jesters who lighten the reverential atmosphere.
When festivals are not being held, a typical visitor’s day might involve exploring the living art of weaving or other traditional crafts, including religious painting, bamboo and cane work, and slate carving; treks, from easy to rigorous, bring you to rustic villages at altitudes of 8,000 to 10,000 feet where life has changed little in the last 100 years and the rhythms of Nature still rule. Whether touring or trekking, travelers will find the kingdom soothingly peaceful spared the frenetic pace of life that threatens to engulf us all.
Serenity is particularly found in Bhutan’s natural splendor, which is never far away. Although the country is only about 100 miles wide by 200 miles long, it is one of the most biologically diverse sites on Earth, from peaks of perpetual snow to dense tropical jungles. Above all, it is impossibly green: Some 72% of the land is enveloped by thick forests, lending even more grandeur to the deep valleys and rugged hillsides. Butterflies, the size of teacups, flutter among more than 5,000 species of plants. Icy waterfalls at seemingly every bend in the road cascade into pools of pure delight. For bird watchers, Bhutan is a dream, with a stunning 770 species found, including many that are globally threatened. Among the country’s 165 species of mammals, the highly endangered snow leopard, tiger and golden langur, a small primate found nowhere else are notable.
Perhaps most important, Bhutan is different – and progressive – politically as well: Its belief in “Gross National Happiness”, as opposed to Gross National Product, has become an envied global model. His Majesty the 4th King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, is a visionary leader who epitomizes the vibrancy, compassion and restraint that characterizes his people. In a particularly unusual move, His Majesty voluntarily turned over his power to His Majesty the 5th King, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk and initiated other significant changes in government to help Bhutanese face the 21st Century. It’s also important to note that the country, which did not adopt television and the Internet until mid-1999, differs significantly from other parts of the Himalayas, many of which have embraced the worst of Western lifestyles. As always, Bhutan clearly does things its own way.