Bhutan

JAN Treks & Travels

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Imagine a small country the size of the Netherlands, a country labeled the hidden kingdom, a true Shangrila, and the mystic land of Buddhist saints. Bhutan is definitely not your average holiday destination. It is the only one of the former Himalaya Kingdoms that has managed to retain its independence, as well as its unique culture and nature.It is the only country in the world where the vast majority adheres to  Mahayana (‘Tibetan’) Buddhism, as well as this being the state religion. Dress, etiquette and arts have their own Bhutanese style which goes back to the sixteenth century. But don't expect a museum: Bhutan is welcoming and enchanting, yet alive and vibrant. The Bhutanese are kind-hearted, sincere and surprisingly professional.

Bhutan's far-sighted rulers choose to let the 21st century in only as much as deemed necessary to enhance Gross National Happiness. The erstwhile king has coined this term in 1972, and declared it more important than Gross National Product. Buddhist faith, as well as a widely shared common sense that places well-being above wealth, is at the base of this remarkable attitude. Since then it has become the lead motif for government policies, and even an export article as more and more countries are considering incorporating GNP in their development strategy. Traveling around Bhutan one can't deny that happiness seems to be much more in supply here than elsewhere.


Rich in other ways

The Bhutanese form of restrained development doesn't imply that the Bhutanese are poor. The average income stands comparison with many developed country. Compared to its neighboring countries, the Bhutanese definitely stand out in terms of sustainable assets. Thanks to its low population density and its well-preserved natural resources most families own a sizable farm with sufficient farmland, forest and animals to ensure them and their children a good living. Money coming in
from the sale of hydro-electricity to India and from tourism is spent on education, health care, nature conservation and the general 'cultural maintenance' of the country. Natural beauty is Bhutan's second asset. Apart form glaciated Himalaya peaks and crystal clear streams Bhutan is covered with dense primary forests. Woodlands cover 66% of the national area and it is official government policy not to let it drop below this amazing figure, the highest in Asia.


Tourism is managed in such a way that the negative side-effects which are all too obvious in other Asian countries, such as pollution, deforestation, over-use of local resources and loss of cultural identity, are prevented. The trick is simple but effective: foreigners pay a fixed amount per day for visiting the country, regardless of the itinerary and program of their journey. It ensures a steady flow of dollars and prevents mass tourism. At present the tariff is 200 USD per day during the winter months of December, January and February, as well as the monsoon months of June and July, and 250 USD per day for all other months of the year.


Royal Craze

Bhutan can be traveled by road or on foot. Both will reward you with encounters with utterly friendly people, their unique Buddhist culture and some of the last untouched mountains of the Himalayas. But only trekkers get to see the magnificent peaks and glaciers of the Himalayan Range up-close, as well as some isolated hamlets where time literally seems arrested. The young and enterprising king of Bhutan, Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk, understands this too, and in order to know what’s going on in his kingdom, he vowed to visit each and every household in the next years. For that he needs to set out on treks over winding mountain trails, eating the simple local food (which he often prepares himself, it is said) and staying in local farm houses. It is just one of the reasons that the Bhutanese love and revere their king. When he recently married the strikingly beautiful Jetsun Pema Wangchuk, the whole nation was either present or glued to the nearest television set. Being 31 and 21 years old, they’re the youngest royal couple in the world. Gesar’s father, Jigme Singye Wangchuk was, and still is, possibly even more popular. He more or less single-handedly led Bhutan from a ‘medieval’ kingdom to a modern democracy. He is also one of the major driving forces behind Bhutan’s unique development model, coining the term Gross National Happiness as early as in 1972.


Getting to Bhutan

For most visitors - mind you the word tourist is not used in Bhutan - Paro Int. Airport is the place to fly in and out of Bhutan. As Paro is situated in the west of Bhutan this implies for most that they don't get to see the lower lying southern parts of Bhutan, nor the eastern parts, as traveling there and backtracking to Paro would cost valuable days. But Bhutan can also be entered by road, at Phuentsoling in SW-Bhutan, at Gelephu in S-Central Bhutan or at Samdrup Jongkar in SE-Bhutan. Both entry points are on the border with Assam. As Samdrup Jongkar is just a couple of hours drive from Guwahati it is very well possible to start your Bhutan trip there.

Of course you can go straight for the jungle-covered hills of Bhutan. Or you can first spend some time in Assam and savor some of the best wild life parks in the world - see our tours in NE-India - and maybe also cruise the Brahmaputra for a few days to fully unwind from your hectic working existence.