25 September, 2011

Destination Wishlist - Bhutan

Bhutan, officially the Kingdom of Bhutan, is a landlocked state in South Asia, located at the eastern end of the Himalayas and bordered to the south, east and west by the Republic of India and to the north by the People's Republic of China. Bhutan is separated from the nearby country of Nepal to the west by the Indian state of Sikkim, and from Bangladesh to the south by West Bengal.

Cradled by the majestic Himalayas in a remote corner of Southern Asia, the “Land of the Thunder Dragon” has long held steadfast to its rich culture and Buddhist heritage.

Though an isolated locale and high tourist entry tariffs (of up to $200 per person per night) keep crowds at bay, these factors have also permitted this last Shangri-La to keep its traditions intact. And, while the Kingdom of Bhutan is charging ahead into the 21st century (thanks largely to the advent of hydroelectric power), they consider happiness a better gauge of accomplishment, with a nationwide poll in 2002 reporting only 3 percent of the population feeling down.

If the lush valleys and snowcapped mountains, ancient temples and monasteries, and expansive markets full of cheerful locals haven’t lured you to Bhutan yet, reconsider that in 2008, the 101st anniversary of the country’s monarchy was commemorated by a year-long celebration.

The state religion is Vajrayana Buddhism, and the population of 691,141 is predominantly Buddhist, with Hinduism the second-largest religion. The capital and largest city is Thimphu.

This is a country where buying cigarettes is illegal, where the rice is red and where chillies aren’t just a seasoning but the entire dish.

It is also a country of surprises. This is not just a nation of saintly, other-worldly hermits. Bhutan is straddling the ancient and modern world and these days you’ll find monks transcribing ancient Buddhist texts into computers as traditionally dressed noblemen chat on their mobile phones.

The capital and largest city is Thimphu. It is situated in the western central part of Bhutan and the name of the surrounding valley is dzongkhag, the Thimphu District. The city became the capital of Bhutan in 1961.

The culture of Bhutan is fully reflected in Thimphu in respect of literature, religion, customs, and national dress code, the monastic practices of the monasteries, music, dance, literature and in the media. Tsechu festival is an important festival when mask dances, popularly known as Cham dances, are performed in the courtyards of the Tashichhoe Dzong in Thimphu.

There are early Buddhist sites in the cultural heartland of Bumthang Dzongkhag and the undisturbed traditional Tibetan-style culture that sets Bhutan aside as the last remaining great Himalayan kingdom.

Then there are the textiles, outrageous trekking as well as the stunning flora and fauna of Phobjika Valley.

Trashigang is an interesting town and also useful for launching into a trip in Eastern Bhutan.

Nearly 75 percent of Bhutan's lands are registered as protected National Forests, part of the Bhutanese government's plan to promote environmentalism as a pillar of "Gross National Happiness". Unlike most modern nations, who measure success through economic terms, Bhutan relies on its philosophy of Gross National Happiness to develop its policies.

In this hidden kingdom of Bhutan, where there are fewer than a million people, with temples of florid, erotic and sometimes terrifying statuary, with lamas in maroon robes chanting to ancient instruments, with every Bhutanese citizens in traditional costumes, by law...  there is still the essence of the last Himalayan Buddhist kingdom all around that I cannot wait to visit and experience.

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