Bhutan and a tale of walking a Himalayan tightrope

It is so easily overlooked.

Wedged high in the Himalayas between the two giants of India and China, many people are oblivious to its very existence. 

“You’re going where?

Bhutan might be tiny. It might be remote, but it is grappling with some of the biggest issues a country can face and while so many other nations in the world are runaway trains on a collision course to environmental catastrophe, golden arches and cultural vacuum, Bhutan, from it peaceful eerie is observing it all and hastening slowly. 

It is in a unique position and it knows it.


mountains bhutan

We have just left Bagdogra airport in western Bengal and have a 20 minute hop to Paro in Bhutan. Stated like that it sounds so easy but far to our left through the aeroplane window, sharp, hard etched peaks are thrusting their way above the soft clouds below. Is that Everest? It must be Everest. It’s not Everest but we are in the company of some serious mountains. And we are drawing close. Dropping below the clouds, steep valleys rise up to greet us. Hillsides reach out to touch us. Literally. We are looking out along the wingtip. Trees. Big and disconcertingly close. Some hundred metres or so from the valley floor we turn to the right. Then bank to the left. Only 16 people in the world fly this route. Touchdown. Breathe.

Our trip to Bhutan has been over thirty years in the planning.

In 1980, in a classroom at Mitchell College of Advanced Education in regional Australia I found myself sitting next to a young Bhutanese boy. We were studying print journalism. Over the next three years we developed a friendship and learnt to write under the critical gaze of future, award-winning crime writer, Peter Temple.

Kinley Dorji was among the first wave of young Bhutanese to travel overseas to study.

We would both agree that we were blessed to find ourselves in Temple’s class because while he withered us with his dry wit and beat us over the head with copies of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, ultimately he gave us the gift of language and the ability to write.

Bhutan has been sending its young people overseas for decades to study. While about 70% of the kingdom’s population are farmers, its power brokers and decision makers are highly educated with strong connections in the wider world.

They have to be. Overseas money is critical to Bhutan’s future. So too, those cutting edge relationships that allow them to cherry pick the best of the industrialised world and negotiate a sustainable forward future.

As I was to meet my future husband during those college years – the son of a farmer from nearby Oberon – Kinley was to meet his future wife – Pek Siok Sien, a Singaporean student – also studying journalism at Mitchell.

We might not have realised it at the time but our destinies were sealed.

In the early 90s the phone rang at our home in Bathurst and as a rich, deep voice growled out a familiar “Marrrrrrrgg” I instantly knew it was him. “Where are you?” I asked. “In Morrisset Street.” Five blocks away. “Well get yourself up here. Pronto!”

He was on his way to Canberra where Tim Fischer, then Leader of the National Party, was holding a dinner and talk by Kinley to help build ties with Bhutan. Fischer has since served as Australia’s Special Envoy to Bhutan and for many years was Co-Chair of the Australia Bhutan Friendship Association.

In all, he has made 10 visits to the country. He is obviously hooked and it is the people, “with their thoughtful ways”, that continue to draw him back. That, and the tranquility of the country itself.

“Surviving as a cohesive, tiny nation in a troubled part of the world, whilst remaining in peace and sustainably progressive on the economic front are Bhutan’s greatest challenges,” says Fischer. “Against the odds, they are doing well, as a country and as a new democracy, helped by the Gross National Happiness concept. Long may this continue to be the case.”

The children are walking home from school. In groups of twos and threes dawdling and laughing their way along the roadsides, all in traditional dress, colours reflecting their schools – deep blues, pinks, soft mauves and greens. We have spent five days traveling through the mountainous countryside of western Bhutan, accompanied by our guide and driver from morning till late afternoon, and throughout the villages and cities, nearly everyone wore traditional dress. But as we approach Thimpu, our guide warns us that in the capital we will notice a difference. Television and the internet were introduced to the country in 1999. With them came music videos and western dress, Ray-Bans and a spike in crime. Many teenagers in Thimpu look like they’ve stepped off the streets of Bangkok. I understand the attraction but I am sad that they are falling for those global trappings, wanting to be modern, to be different, yet unknowingly becoming the same.

I had been in email contact with Pek during the lead up to the trip and a couple of weeks out, she’d written to say that Kinley was going to be out of the country and we might miss him. I was quietly devastated. Visiting Bhutan is an expensive exercise, not one to be easily repeated.

Bhutan has been working its way to democracy for centuries but it wasn’t until a dramatic turn of events in 2005 – when the much loved King Jigme Singye Wangchuck abruptly announced his abdication in favour of a democratic system – that democracy was suddenly thrust upon the Bhutanese whether they wanted it or not. Democratic elections were held for the first time three years later. While Kinley had worked as a journalist for most of his life – establishing and editing Kuensel, the first English speaking newspaper in the country – in 2009 my friend found himself working within the newly formed government and has spent the last six years as Secretary for Information and Communications. In 2006, he was awarded the red scarf and the title of Dasho, a Bhutanese honour equivalent to a knighthood in England.

Few people are as well positioned as he to discuss the pressures that Bhutan faces as it tries to embrace the best of the developed world while doggedly striving to maintain its traditions, values and environment amidst increasing globalisation. He has had to develop a thick skin. On the one hand he wants Bhutan to be a progressive country. On the other, he doesn’t want it to lose its soul.

“The key difficulty that the government faces, moving forward, is the onslaught of materialism and consumerism, values that come with globalisation, with the media being a strong force in this process.

Bhutan believes that human development must have a higher goal – happiness of the people – therefore Gross National Happiness, an intended pun on Gross National Product (now GDP), which is the widely accepted measure of development.”

“While many people agree that it is time to reduce consumption and save the planet, societies and countries refuse to go beyond GDP. Even as we stress GNH at home, the powerful force of globalisation is taking a toll on our traditional culture, the pristine environment, and on the people, particularly the youth.”

Six years of democracy has had an impact too.

“It has left many people a little unsettled. A small population that existed as an extended family is feeling the impact of party politics. Campaign mudslinging has threatened to turn differences into divides, sometimes splitting families and communities. Bhutanese were not used to criticising each other in public. But I think that this process may be necessary to gain political maturity. We need to learn to agree to disagree.”

Safeguards are in place to help navigate a way forward and that’s where Bhutan’s controlled tourism policy, instigated in 1974, comes into play.

To travel in Bhutan you must book your visit through a registered tour company and you must be accompanied by a guide throughout your visit unless you are invited as a personal or official guest. Cameras are forbidden within the inner sanctums of the dzongs and temples to avoid advertising their treasures to potential thieves but perhaps more importantly to provide a form of cultural insurance that protects its precious artworks from being replicated, appropriated and abused in a borderless online world.

Every visitor pays a tourist fee to visit Bhutan. That fee, depending on group numbers, translates to between $200 and $250US per day and while that might sound expensive, especially for a family (which it is), it does cover everything – your guide, transport, accommodation, food and entry fees to all facilities. When you take into account that it also includes a $70 contribution to community projects it is not unreasonable. The only thing you have to put your hand into your pocket for is alcohol and gifts. Students are entitled to significant discounts and it is worth talking to different tour companies to try and negotiate the best rate because as we discovered, talking to other travelers, the discount varies dramatically from company to company.

rice terraces bhutan

Bhutan is curing my fear of heights. I have no choice in this. There is no escaping them. Sheer cliffs line every road to every where. Today we did a white knuckle drive to Punakha from Thimpu, a two and half hour journey over the mystical Dochula Pass. The road is a work in progress due to be completed in 2015 but today it was all mud and earthworks, financed by Austrian money, built by Indian workers. 

Traveling in Bhutan is no stroll through Tuscany. You can’t meander your way through soft countryside from village to village. Your travel rewards have to be fought for. In Bhutan, life is largely lived in the valleys but between each valley are mountains covered in dense, aromatic forests. As the road worsened we were questioning our decision to make the trip to Punakha but as the forest gave way to lime green rice terraces washed by afternoon light and the massive edifice of the Punakha Dzong sitting proud and strong at the confluence of two wide, fast flowing rivers we looked at each other and said, yes it was worth the trip.

punakha dzong

punakha valley

The Punakha Valley is thought by some to be the most beautiful in Bhutan. It was the ancient capital, its 17th century dzong the site of the current king’s wedding. Many of the royal family hail from Punakha and have estates along the river. We happened upon the weekly Saturday food market, a riot of fresh chillies and local produce picked that morning. This was one of my favourite moments of the week’s visit. Our guide was great company and extremely helpful and accommodating but as independent travelers, this was our first ever experience of having one. The Punakha market was a chance to just wander and connect with the locals, the relaxed informal way we would normally choose to travel. I could have spent the whole morning there lapping up the colour of the food and the community. I had to be dragged away.

bhutanese girl

punakha market

I’ve read that Bhutanese cooking can be summed up by three words “Water, butter, boil.” Each lunch and evening we’d be presented with five or six small dishes to share as a family. There would always be a dish of the local red rice, there might be a small meat dish, usually chicken, and the rest would be a variety of vegetables (buttered and boiled) and a salad or two. And always a dish of ema datchi – the ferociously hot chilli and cheese – the one dish we’d struggle to finish despite being regular chilli eaters at home. Simple food, fresh and tasty. Not over the top. No waste. I wasn’t sure what to expect food-wise on the trip but with growing tourism numbers, restaurants are doing their best to provide food that satisfies western tastes. The same goes for accommodation. Again we were unsure what to expect but were pleasantly surprised to find a very comfortable level of accommodation. If you’re prepared to pay more than the standard rates, the sky is the limit.

bhutan food

Back in the capital I learnt that Kinley had cut short a trip to The Philippines to join us for Sunday night dinner at his home in Thimpu. With one smiling “Marrrrrrrgg” the decades washed away. Despite the weight of his role he was full of the same mischief, enjoying I think, being able to step aside from his official role and relive, if only briefly, a memory of carefree university days. For me, this was all I’d really hoped for in this long wished for trip – a quiet, relaxed chance to catch up with old friends.

Many red wines later we agreed to meet the following morning at the annual Drubchen Festival in the courtyard of the Thimpu Dzong. We arrived early and immediately felt underdressed as thousands of locals arrived in their exquisitely embroidered finery to watch the ceremonial dances performed by masked monks. The fabrics of Bhutan have to be seen to believed – especially en masse. Swept up in a flowing river of colour we entered the dzong and found ourselves caught in a tight crush as people tried to enter the inner precinct while others tried to exit. A hot human impasse. Then all of a sudden Kinley, fully dressed in red scarf, ceremonial boots and robes, appeared in front of us. It was like Moses parting the Red Sea. For the first time, I fully appreciated his standing within his country.


drubchen thimpu

Desel, Maddy, Kinley, Steve, Darcy and me at the Drubchen Festival in Thimpu.

Desel, Maddy, Kinley, Steve, Darcy and me at the Drubchen Festival in Thimpu.

tigers nest bhutan

It is our last day in Bhutan. We left the hotel at dawn and are the first on the trail to the iconic Tiger’s Nest Monastery. The monastery itself is hidden high above us in the early morning fog. For a moment at least, the mountain is ours. We have been building up to this walk all week, bit by bit acclimatising ourselves to the altitude, walking through 4000m forests filled with towering blue firs and rhododendrons and fields carpeted in delicate wildflowers including a rare edelweiss. We have made our way past ghostly groups of white prayer flags, been welcomed and revived with sweet tea and roasted rice in a remote nunnery and allowed to watch an annual ritual which in eleven years of visits, our guide had never seen. Dogs have followed our travels at every point and here they are again walking with us to the Tiger’s Nest. I have been nervously anticipating this climb for months, particularly worried about the sheer 700 metre drops to the valley floor below. We stop half way for a simple breakfast that Penjo (our guide) has organised for us and as we sit quietly, the fog lifts and the Tiger’s Nest reveals itself. In Bhutan they talk a lot about Gross National Happiness. The concept, developed in the 1970s, implies that sustainable development should take a holistic approach towards progress and give equal importance to non-economic aspects of wellbeing. At this moment, sitting on a quiet mountainside in the Land of the Thunder Dragon, sharing this as a family, my own happiness levels are off the scale.

marg climbs the tigers nest

All those training sessions pay off!

In 1998 The Tiger’s Nest was consumed by fire and the impact of the inferno ricocheted its way around the globe attracting international sympathy and support. Try to imagine the impact of losing an Eiffel Tower or a Colosseum. The Tiger’s Nest, known as Taktshang to the Bhutanese, holds a similar power in the national psyche. It was devastating. Four days later, King Jigme Signye Wangchuck visited the charred remains of Taktshang and announced that no effort should be spared to restore the monastery to it former glory. Seven years later there it was, clinging to the precipice, a beacon of traditional architecture and modern engineering.

An essential part of Bhutan’s cultural heritage are the thirteen traditional arts and crafts that have been practiced for centuries. While it might be difficult to find a trained plumber or carpenter in Bhutan, it is not difficult to find woodcarvers and master painters. Not only was the building restored to its former glory but modern artisans were able to recreate the intricate artistic beauty of the monastery’s former interior. In typical Bhutanese style, the ancient arts had been respected, preserved and encouraged.

Leaving early to climb to Taktshang was a wise choice. It was cool and quiet and we were able to clamber its paths unhindered by other tourists. We were the first over the threshold and had the monastery pretty much to ourselves. Descending was a different story. It was hot. The tourist groups had arrived, so too the packs of horses that trample and destroy the path, carrying overweight tourists up its steep slopes. We had had the best of it.

Enjoying a traditional hot stone bath scented with sprigs of valerian.

Enjoying a traditional Bhutanese hot stone bath scented with sprigs of valerian.

The trek to Taktshang has become, for me, a metaphor for the dilemma Bhutan faces as it inches its way into the 21st century. Wedged between two mighty cliff faces it looks so fragile, precariously clinging to its rock shelf and as the world saw in 1998, nothing is forever, it can all be lost in the blink of an eye. It is unique and wonderful in the true sense of the word. Underlying its staggering beauty, centuries old cultural roots and modern engineering techniques now give it its best chance of survival. It should be shared with the world. But as we negotiate the descent, dodging skittish horses, puffing tourists and a trail torn up by tourist traffic, I start to get a sense of what is at stake. How many visitors can this sacred site handle? It’s a Catch 22. The tourist dollars are hugely important for Bhutan’s economy but at what price?

Bhutan is no Shangri-la. There are problems with alcohol and over 70% of the population are regular beetle nut users. When the government clamped down on immigration in the 1990s, afraid of a demographic threat in a populous neighbourhood, about 60,000 ethnic Nepali people were displaced to refugee camps in Nepal. For the two decades that followed, over 100,000 people lived in camps in eastern Nepal. While many have been relocated to western countries, approximately 25,000 still languish in the camps.

There is no getting around it. Bhutan has been and continues to be on a mission to protect its people, its culture and its land. In 1985 the government invoked codes that mandated the use of dress, language and architectural style that reflected the majority Drukpas. In 2004 it began to enforce a total ban on tobacco sales and smoking in public. You can’t visit the country without a 24/7 guide. If you were married to Bhutan, you could be forgiven for thinking you’d taken up with a control freak.

But the fact remains that Bhutan is one of the world’s last remaining diversity hot spots. In 1995 Bhutan’s national assembly declared that 60 percent of the country must remain forested, including 26 percent that is set aside as protected. Currently it stands at 72%. For now at least, their environment is in safe hands. Their grandchildren’s grandchildren will be able to enjoy it. What price are you prepared to pay for that?

It is a week since we left Bhutan and I am sitting on the rooftop of the Hotel Splendid View, what turns out to be the tallest hotel in Pokhara, Nepal. This is my first visit but my husband was here in 1980. He tells me that back then, there were only two hotels and grassy fields all along the lake, that it was just like Bhutan today. But Pokhara in 2014 – the trekking gateway to the spectacular Annapurnas – is a city of over a quarter of a million people and we are surrounded by over 70 hotels, many of them high-rise, jammed around the foreshore. I have woken early and have just read the final chapter of Kinley’s gentle collection of short stories Within the Realm of Happiness. I am left thinking that many industrialised countries would do well to look a little closer at Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness model. As Kinley says in the final pages of his book (after a visit to the Netherlands to take part in a mutual sustainability project called the Sustainable Development Agreement (SDA))…

“The pursuit of development, widely misinterpreted as purely economic development, needed better goals…. Despite the staggering economic successes of the industrialised society, and all the wealth of democratic values, I was learning that highly developed countries, including the Netherlands, were beginning to find something missing. Material wealth had not brought the happiness which, perhaps, is our ultimate search.

…Gross National Happiness, with its emphasis on preserving the environment, encompasses sustainable development. The Bhutanese people’s intuitive belief in the interdependence of all life forms is perhaps a basis for thinking on climate change and ecological balance.

I did not have a clear grasp of the concept of Gross National Happiness. But, like several other Bhutanese and the Dutch proponents of SDA, I was struggling to find it. In that sense we symbolised Bhutan’s attempt to define human development and progress.”

Sitting at my desk, back home in Australia, thinking about all these complexities, I am reminded of John Donne’s words from ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

As much as Bhutan would like to hold on to its uniqueness, in the 21st century, no country is an island. We are all a part of the main. The internet, for one, knows no borders.

Bhutan does not have all the answers.

But it has some.

Are they the right ones?

Time will tell.

dochula pass

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    1. Margaret Andersson
      Posted 25 January 2015 at 9:02 pm | Permalink

      That was a truly wondrous read Marg. What an absolute privilege to have been to such a unique country. Your writing and photo’s had me right there – LOVED it 🙂

      • Marg
        Posted 25 January 2015 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

        Thanks Margaret. I’ll post more photos in coming days. And you’re right. We feel very lucky to have been able to make the trip after all these years. x

    2. Anne McIntosh
      Posted 25 January 2015 at 10:51 pm | Permalink

      Oh Marg, your best ever!! Thank you for taking us all on your journey of a lifetime. Chick xx

      • Marg
        Posted 25 January 2015 at 10:59 pm | Permalink

        Thanks Chick!

    3. Stuart Cohen
      Posted 26 January 2015 at 8:44 am | Permalink

      Margie, i think this was wonderfully written and very engaging. I think i need to go to Bhutan now. Thanks

      • Marg
        Posted 26 January 2015 at 8:48 am | Permalink

        Life changing Stu. Truly. I don’t think I fully realised at the time the effect it had on me. x

    4. Helen Bergen
      Posted 26 January 2015 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

      Thank you Marg. Here’s hoping Bhutan’s famed Gross Domestic Happiness survives its entering into the global village.

      • Marg
        Posted 26 January 2015 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

        Cheers Helen. I hope so too.

    5. Posted 27 January 2015 at 4:59 am | Permalink

      I’m going to say it again, you are a Big travel writer in a small blog. This is Newsweek (fill in really reputable magazine name of choice) worthy darlin’. Because not only are you giving us every tidbit of knowledge you’ve gleaned, and every wonderful photo you took, but you feel the impact of the efforts of the nation on a personal level. and that is the good stuff dear Marg. So very glad for you, your family, and your dear friend that you got to do this.

      • Marg
        Posted 27 January 2015 at 9:25 am | Permalink

        Appreciate that Shalagh. I’m setting out to try and get some pieces formally published this year. That’s the aim anyway 🙂

        • Posted 27 January 2015 at 11:39 am | Permalink

          Awesome. Just what i wanted to hear. Me too. I adore you dear faraway friend!

          • Marg
            Posted 27 January 2015 at 11:43 am | Permalink

            You’re a honey. Thanks Shalagh.

    6. Posted 27 January 2015 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

      YES YES deserves to be Published!!
      Love the images and the smiles on your faces, brilliant and such a life changing journey xx

      • Marg
        Posted 27 January 2015 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

        Cheers Lisa 🙂

    7. Posted 28 January 2015 at 11:35 am | Permalink

      I’ve celebrated my first day alone at home for a couple of months by reading this beautiful piece… what a huge treat for me to travel there with you, and to be able to read slowly and spend time looking at your photos too.

      Thank you so much, armchair travelling is not as good as the real thing but a massive pleasure and I’ve learned so much too.

      • Marg
        Posted 28 January 2015 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

        Yes, probably not one to read with the kids around Seana. A little lengthier than normal 🙂 Thankyou for choosing to spend your first day off here with me x

    8. Lisa-Maree Tooby
      Posted 9 February 2015 at 8:56 pm | Permalink

      Good on you for making Bhutan happen, Marg. Thankfully there are still a few places like Bhutan and Nepal that still have that magical je ne sais quoi. Loved your photos and writing~ Lisa-M (red & pink geraniums)

      • Marg
        Posted 9 February 2015 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

        Welcome to Bathurst red and pink geraniums x

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