This is a post of two halves, with the second instalment next week looking at the other side of the coin. Much has been said about the high cost of tourism in Bhutan, where the government charges a minimum fee of USD $200 per person per day to all tourists which includes meals, accommodation, sightseeing, guide and driver. On the 1st January, 2012, this fee is set to rise to $250. The reason for this is to reduce tourist numbers and minimise the impact of tourism on the culture and environment in this remote and picturesque Himalayan kingdom.
Most of us have been to places where we’ve felt something of the culture and landscape has been lost by the impact of intensive tourism, and can sympathise with aims of the Bhutanese government in trying to minimise it, but $200 is also a lot of money by most people’s standards. If you’re eating well, staying in posh hotels and happy to be guided, it might be worth it, but what if you’re not? Does Bhutan have enough going for it to make you stump up the extra cash for a holiday? Moreover, is the government’s policy working and helping to achieve its aims?
There are no black and white answers to these questions, and the answer will be different depending on your perspective. I’m going to look at it from opposite sides. If you can afford the tourist fee, here are five reasons why I think Bhutan is worth visiting. Next week I’ll be addressing the other point of view: why the $200 a day is *not* worth it.
1. The culture is unique
It’s probably easiest to illustrate this with a few quick facts. Bhutan is a Buddhist country where plastic bags and smoking are illegal, but alcohol isn’t. On certain occasions and in certain places, Bhutanese people must wear traditional dress (the knee length gho for men and ankle length kira for women). Housing regulations mean that new buildings have to be created in traditional style, including elaborately painted woodwork which means that even the poorest hovel looks like a temple. Commercial premises can only display a small plaque over the door advertising their services. They famously only introduced television sets in 1999. Their last two kings both abdicated in their forties in favour of their sons, and have gradually introduced democracy voluntarily. Development is measured not in terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) like the rest of the world, but by an official government statistic known as Gross National Happiness (GNH) which measures such things as psychological wellbeing, time use and community vitality as well as more tangible western concepts like living standards, health and education. One of Bhutan’s best-known historical figures is Drukpa Kunley, also known as the Divine Madman, a 15th century Buddhist mystic famous for his legendary sexual prowess, whose influence means that many buildings in Bhutan have phallic symbols painted all over them.
I could go on, but I’m sure you get the idea. Bhutan is like nowhere else in the world.
2. It’s quiet
There’s no doubt the government’s policy is achieving one of its aims: to reduce tourist numbers. Just over 40,000 people visited in 2010, and although this was a record number for Bhutan and far exceeded the government’s aim of bringing in 35,000, it’s worth putting this number in perspective. In the same period, Nepal (arguably the country closest to Bhutan in terms of size, culture and geography) received over 600,000 visitors.
If you assume that on average each visitor stays for 2 weeks and visits are spread evenly over the year (simplistic I know, but bear with me), this means that only 1500 tourists are in Bhutan at any given time.
And it’s not just tourist numbers: at the last count (2009) Bhutan had an estimated population of just 700,000. By contrast Nepal’s population is around 29 million. If you’re looking for peace and tranquillity, then Bhutan has it.
3. The Tiger’s Nest
Having travelled extensively in the Himalayas, I’ve often experienced the feeling of being gompered out, ie. having visited so many Buddhist monasteries that they all blend into one. Perched precariously on a cliff face just a short drive from Bhutan’s international airport at Paro, however, is a monastery that quite simply took my breath away.
Taktshang Gompa is believed to be built on the site where Padmasambhava, the founder of Tibetan Buddhism who is know as Guru Rinpoche in Bhutan, meditated in a cave having arrived there on a flying tiger. It’s also known more colloquially as the Tiger’s Nest.
The monastery is reached by a 500 metre ascent on a good path through peaceful pine forests, and sighting it through the trees after a strenuous climb makes it feel all the more richly deserved.
It’s a day out that will be one of the highlights of any trip to Bhutan. So accessible from the country’s main airport, it’s a crime not to visit it, and it’s certainly one of the most awe-inspiring man-made tourist attractions I’ve ever seen.
On the day we drove to Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital city, I remember one of my companions describing Bhutan as Asia’s version of Switzerland because everything seemed so ordered.
Later that evening we returned to our hotel, one of the capital’s poshest perched on a hillside above the city, after a few beers in one of Thimphu’s limited choice of bars, hoping that the hotel bar might still be open for a nightcap. Not only wasn’t the bar open, but the receptionist had gone home, leaving the front door of the hotel wide open, and two room keys sitting on the counter belonging to the hotel’s only two guests still out celebrating. While we were enjoying a Druk Beer or two, any fool could have walked into the hotel, taken the keys and emptied our rooms, but they didn’t. Moreover, the hotel receptionist knew they wouldn’t. Can you name another capital city anywhere in the world where this could have happened?
As well as an honest population, Thimphu’s tourist attractions include an archery stadium, where a tournament always seems to be going on at some point in the day. More entertaining than your average archery tournament (I imagine) these involve teams of archers clad in traditional ghos jeering at each other between shots. The takin sanctuary on a hill above the city is a place you can see Bhutan’s national symbol, a strange animal with the body of a cow and head of a goat, and you can watch hundreds of pilgrims doing their kora (circle) of the National Memorial Chorten every afternoon. Trashi Chhoe Dzong is one of the world’s most interesting collection of government buildings, with traditional architecture and monks passing through every courtyard.
But perhaps Thimphu’s best known tourist attraction is the traffic police. In the middle of Thimphu’s busiest road junction (these things being relative) is a little booth inside which a man in uniform stands directing traffic. Apparently they once introduced traffic lights, but everybody complained they were too impersonal, so they had to bring the coppers back again.
5. The Snowman Trek
In view of Bhutan’s high tourist charges, someone recently asked me whether I could recommend a trek anywhere else in the world that compared with the Snowman Trek in terms of length, remoteness and difficulty, and the closest I could think of was the Huayhuash Circuit in Peru. Certainly there is currently no equivalent in Bhutan’s neighbour Nepal, although the opening up of the Great Himalaya Trail and other trekking routes makes it more likely that a creative tour operator will one day come up with one.
Crossing ten high passes over 4500m in altitude over a period of 3 to 4 weeks, the Snowman Trek takes you through pine and rhododendron forest, past rolling green landscapes and remote valleys with snow-capped mountains on every horizon, and ends with a six day crossing of a high desert plateau shimmering with many-coloured lakes and sparse wild flowers. Laya and Chozo, near the Tibetan border, are two of my favourite Himalayan villages, many days’ walk from civilisation yet incredibly lively and welcoming, which provided some of my favourite memories of the trek.
One of the benefits of the Snowman Trek is that although it’s strenuous and requires good acclimatisation and a high level of physical fitness, all of the passes are trekkable without any technical skills. It would be hard to cross so many high passes over a three week period in Nepal without having to get a rope, ice axe and crampons out and do some mountaineering. And then there are the tourist numbers: apart from at Jhomolhari near the beginning of the trek, I don’t remember seeing any other trekkers.
For remoteness, altitude, length and toughness, while remaining perfectly possible for any reasonably fit person, it’s hard to find anything comparable.
I’ll book my trip now then shall I?
If you have plenty of cash in the bank and you’ve always wanted to go to Bhutan then yes, absolutely, you must go for all of the reasons above and many more. If on the other hand you’ve always wanted to visit the Himalayas and are strapped for cash, then hold on. $200 a day is a lot of money and there are alternatives. Next week I’ll tackle the other side of the debate.