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Land of the Thunder Dragon/Bhutan

Updated: Mar 22, 2022

‘Utopia is no place, it doesn’t exist; it never did and it never will.’

Douglas Murray

contemporary journalist and commentator on international politics

Between India and China in the Himalayas is the tiny country of Bhutan, The Land of the Thunder Dragon. It is, undoubtedly, the most beautiful place I have ever visited with far reaching vistas, valleys inset with snaking blue rivers, all framed by inclines of dense forest and farm steppes. The rocks glitter. The air is pure. The land is lush. It’s not surprising that there are whisperings of a Shangri-La

With a population of only 700,000, the whole country is countryside and massively unspoilt. Towns are very small; Gangtey, for example, has only one street, and Thimpu, the capital, is the size of a village. Life is very simple; males wear Ghos, females wear Keras, and holy-men wear the blood red robes of a Buddhist monk. Seeing a native in Western dress is like sighting a tiger, black bear or red eyed panda; they do exist there but they are rare.

The buildings are charming. All of them, whether they are a house, monastery or dzong, are traditionally built. There’s something Elizabethan about their style: white exterior walls , wood framed doors and windows and wood panelling under the roofs; all surfaces are adorned with artistry.

The culture is steeped in myth and legend. Fascinating stories abound: one of a guru who flew on the back of a tigress to meditate in a cave, a place that is now enshrined with a monastery built high into the mountain, called Tiger’s Nest.

Then there is the tale of The Crazy Monk, a disciple of Buddha, who drank beer and screwed around, and in whose honour phalluses are now replicated everywhere, painted on the exterior walls of houses, in the ceremonial Dance of the Naked Men[1] and as models in assorted shapes, sizes and colours for sale in gift shops, I kid you not.

[1] A performance where naked young men prance around a bonfire with their faces covered whilst playing with themselves and feigning sex with each other. A ceremony that is considered to be entertainment for all the family.

Bhutan has never been invaded[1], and for centuries it seized upon the luxury of existing, almost, in complete isolation. That is until the 1960’s when Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, the third dynastic king, initiated a cautious relationship with the outside world. During his reign, Wangchuck also abolished serfdom and confiscated land from existing warlords to give to the poor.

Wangchuck’s heir, the fourth king, followed in his father’s footsteps by bestowing democracy upon the country, accompanied by the mantra, ‘Gross National Happiness’, with the intention that spiritual wellness should be as important, if not more important, than economic growth.

[1] Even in 1865 when the British tried to capture Bhutan on the back of their successful takeover of neighbouring Tibet, the Bhutanese, against all odds, armed only with stones and bows with arrows, defeated a large, sophisticated army, attacking with guns.

Interestingly, Marijuana grows wild and abundant all over Bhutan, and although no one seems to pick or smoke the weed, its pungent, heady, scent is in the air. I do wonder if those psychedelic sexy legends, together with the peace, love and understanding of the benevolent monarchy could be induced by a local intoxicating herb? Although, on the other hand, such karma is much more likely to emanate from the spiritual religion of Buddhism … or is it?

Whatever, being in that enchanted country felt like going back in time to a land in a fable that never really was and yet, and yet, scratching just beneath the surface, there are definite cracks in the fantastical persona of Bhutan that made me feel just a little unsure.

For example, the monks and lamas in their scarlet robes, who on first glance appear so devout, eat meat imported from slaughterhouses in India, even though the Buddha forbade them this practice. They also eat potato chips made with artificial additives out of tacky plastic bags, and sickly sweet confectionary with refined sugars and food colourings. So much for their bodies being their temple and only imbibing purity for their soul!

The truth is that most of them are not holy-men because it is their calling, but because their parents are too poor to bring them up and therefore deposit them as young children in religious schools where, thanks to generous donations from pilgrims and tourists, they are well cared for whilst training to become adult monks.

Also, whilst I was there, I couldn’t help but notice the construction of roads and buildings that was going on all around me. Of course, everyone I spoke to was happy about this; building an infrastructure and selling hydropower to India is ultimately going to result in lifting the majority of the Bhutanese population out of poverty. And being a British citizen, who returned to a home in London, where great, great creature comforts awaited her, it is all too easy for me to say, ‘yes, but do they realise the price that they are going to have to pay for this?’

So, my suggestion to all you travellers and adventurers, is go. Go and experience Bhutan for yourself . Go, but get there quickly before the magical, mystical mirage completely disintegrates into just another legend of a Shangri-La.

I travelled with Wild Frontiers on their Bumthang Festival Tour.

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