By Dough Anthony, Former Deputy Prime Minster of Australia, (visited Bhutan with H.E Peter Nixon 01 April to 12th April 05).
James Hilton in his book ‘Lost Horizon’ writes about an earthly paradise hidden up in the Himalayas. Whether he had heard of or been to Bhutan is not known, but his mythology has a similarity as far as the country of Bhutan is concerned. It is a relatively small nation, about the size of Tasmania but if you flattened out all the mountains it would probably be much bigger.
The Kingdom of Bhutan has only been opened up to the world in recent years. Until the 1960s the country had no national currency, no telephones, schools, hospitals, postal service or tourists. In the short period of 40 years the country has been slowly opened up to the modern world.
Under wise and careful leadership the King has been cautious to protect Bhutan’s traditional culture and its environment. National forests are protected and only restricted areas are used for harvesting timber. Many of the Himalayan peaks, of which Bhutan has 21, are restricted for climbers so as not to interfere with the mountain tribes’ herds and lifestyles. Bhutan is all part of the Himalayas. It has huge mountains and deep valleys. The only straight road in the country is the one running along the airstrip. Paro has the only airstrip in the country and today it is being serviced by two very modern Airbus aircraft belonging to Druk National Airlines. The flight in and out of Paro requires skilful pilots winding their way through snow-capped mountain peaks.
Modern Bhutan has introduced universal education, free medical treatment, telephones, television and internet. English is widely spoken. It is their second language. I found it quite a thrill to be able to have conversation with young school children.
Forty years ago it was a six day journey with horse and mules to enter the Kingdom from India. Today precipitous roads traverse the four hundred thousand square mile of rugged country.
The capital is Thimphu with a population 60,000 people. It is here that the King lives with his four wives. And is worth mentioning that they are all sisters. Along side the Royal Palace there is a nine hole golf course. The highest golf course in the world. Theory has it that with the thin air you can hit a golf ball twice as far. That theory did not work for me although I did hit a few nice shots.
This magical country does have a mystique. When one comes upon their impressive dzongs with their unique architecture it is hard to conceive that they were built in this remote part of the world four or five hundred years ago. These dzongs had several purposes. They were fortresses, administrative buildings and monasteries. They were built with a combination of stone and timber, decorated with beautiful wood carvings and painted in bright colours of gold, green and blue.
The fact that Bhutan was not on any trade route and had a small population makes one marvel that these grand buildings were ever constructed in this lost world.
Buddhism is the national religion that came from Tibet and Nepal. Buddhism is a religion and philosophy that cultivates discipline, courtesy and care. Its concern for life makes the Bhutanese a nationof kind, considerate and happy people.
National income today comes mainly from the generation and sale of hydro electricity to India. The other potential source of national income is that of tourism which they recognise must be introduced
gradually so as not to interfere with the Bhutanese culture. Last year a record number of nine thousand people visited Bhutan. And with the construction of more tourist accommodation it is hoped to build the number of tourists up to 20,000. To ensure that the country financially benefits from tourism $US200 must be spent each day and all charges including accommodation, food and transport must be paid before the issue of a visa. Tourists need only have currency to pay
for drinks and souvenirs. Peter Nixon and I thought it was good value especially as we had a guide and car driver who saw to our wellbeing every minute of our twelve days’ visit.
There is no restriction on alcoholic drinks and Bhutan produces some very good quality spirits and beer. Smoking is another matter and has recently been banned. Some of the young are not taking kindly to it. While marijuana grows freely like weeds, it is illegal to smoke. Bhutan’s enlightened attitude to modern problems is to be admired. Not so long ago they declared that there should be little or no use of plastic bags. People’s shopping at markets was to be in handbags or baskets. This has helped greatly in reducing litter. Of all the developing countries that I have visited Bhutan is the cleanest by along shot.
It is wholesome and pleasant to see Bhutanese men, women and schoolchildren all wear national dress . And their architecture strictly retains all the characteristics of Bhutanese housing, as one might image in a fairyland The houses are generally three storey buildings with a sort of Swiss - Nepal influence. The bottom floor being for animals, second floor for the family and the third floor for storing grain and hay.
Hotel accommodation is being upgraded bit by bit to meet the satisfaction of international tourists. Hot water, electricity and television is generally available, though telephones are more sparse.
The terrain adds difficulty to communications. In the main centre television has crashed in and is bombarding the viewers. The government has since had to restrict the number of licences. There are an overwhelming number of satellite channels - international ones such as BBC, CNN, Chinese and a crowd of Indian stations. The hardness of hotel beds was quite a talking item. I found them it difficult to adjust. A mat over hard boards takes a little getting used to.
A memorable phenomenon when staying at hotels in Bhutan is the cacophony of dogs barking through the night but predominantly from about 4 o’clock in the morning. Packs of dogs run freely around the towns and no restraints seem to be placed on their numbers. They bark to their hearts’ content.
The national sport of Bhutan is archery. Most communities have an archery field. This is a strip of land long enough for the official length of 130 yards. At each end there is a small target about 1/2 a metre high by 25 cms. wide. When the target is hit the successful team dances and sings for a couple of minutes. It is quite a colourful event and appealed more to me than the hugging that goes on these days with our sportsmen.
I would suggest to those who love trekking that there are few countries where they would find greater enjoyment. Treks of all grades are available which travel through forests where azaleas,
rhododendrons and magnolias bloom freely. The woodlands range up to 12or 14 thousand feet and above that grasslands gravel and snow. Treks can vary from 7 or 8 thousand feet to 16 or 18 thousand feet. Bhutan provides excellent support facilities for those undertaking treks.
These can vary from 2 to 20 days. As with all countries of high altitude it is wise to have a few days to acclimatize. The different seasons make trekking more or less attractive. Certainly the winter
months from November to March are limited.
Bhutan has a range of wild animals, but its bird life attracts considerable interest. There are some 600 to 700 different species attract ornithologists from all over the world. Of special interest is
the endangered black-necked crane. They spend the winter months in particular valley and then returns to the Himalayas in the summer. So rare are they that their resting grounds are now classified as a World Heritage Area. As spring was underway the birds had taken off, so we missed them.
I found Bhutan a most refreshing country. Everything about it was wholesome. The people seem to be of another era. They value life and treat their fellow human-beings with great respect and kindness. Those who have the opportunity of visiting this lovely country will be well rewarded.