Bhutan - The king and I

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November 1st 2018
Published: December 17th 2018
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I want to live in Bhutan. I want to live in Bhutan and marry the king. I want to live in Bhutan, marry the king and have his chil ... well, maybe not that much but oh my goodness what a lovely country.

We flew on Royal Bhutan Airlines, also known as Drukair. I thought that was a bit too close to Drugair or Drunkair for comfort but I later learned that a druk is a dragon, a wingless dragon I grant you and I would quite like my plane to have wings, but it flew us safely past Mt Everest again (is it that one?!), swerved around the mountains at the airport quite expertly, and got us safely on the ground despite that. The clocks only changed by -15 minutes and we three couples were met by three different guides and drivers, which was to be expected as we were doing different things (we were doing the pared down version, being budget-conscious, unlike The Two Widows who did everything business class!). So, we said our fond farewells, wished everyone a good trip ... and met up with them all again 15 minutes later when we went to the Soechey restaurant for lunch! Afterwards, our guide Ransinga said, we would be heading off to Thimphu, about 90 minutes away. No, no, not us, we said, we're doing the cheapskate version. Yes, yes, said Ransinga, to Thimphu you shall go. It turned out that today was a celebration day in honour of the king, Paro was virtually shut as a result and they couldn't think what else to do with us. We didn't dare mention to the others that we were getting for free something they had paid for!

The main reason we were watching the pennies on this occasion was because Bhutan has a minimum tourist spend of around US$250 per person, per day, plus or minus depending how many were in your group! So, not cheap then ... However, this amount should include all our accommodation, guide and driver, meals, entrance fees, etc. The hotels better be good! Bhutan is a 'closed' country and our guide told us they were trying to preserve its culture and traditions but tourism is a growing industry with lots of visitors from India, unsurprisingly. However, Bhutan only wants cash-rich tourists (no backpackers here!), as it needs the foreign currency which, we were told, is being ploughed back into the country's infrastructure.

Ransinga and our driver wore a tunic-type ensemble, with a skirt. I thought this may be because they worked in tourism and this was a traditional costume for the men but, no, it's normal, everyday wear. Ransinga wore leggings with his because, he said, his knees got cold! Even the king wears it, but he's brave enough to bare his knees.

The people of Bhutan love their king(s). The last several have been called King Jigme, with the last two being the fourth and fifth respectively. I could only hear King 'Jimmy' so that's what I called them - King Jimmy 4 and King Jimmy 5.

Bhutan has apparently never been invaded, occupied or colonised. We were told that they were so good at defending themselves that they managed to repel and avoid those first two when Mongolia tried in the dim and distant past, and it has so few resources that even the British Empire didn't think it was worth having. However, the Empire did want some of the wood a neighbouring country had for India and the then King of Bhutan negotiated some sort of deal that earned him the award of Knight Commander of the British Empire (I've just made that up but it was something like that!) in recognition of his outstanding contribution. King Jimmy 4 really dragged the country up by its bootlaces. They got their first road in 1962, because that was when they got their first car. A railway has been considered but they want to do it underground to preserve the beauty of the country and that would be too expensive for them at the moment - this is not a rich country by any means. King Jimmy 4 brokered a 'friendship' deal with India, trading electricity (Bhutan has lots of water and therefore lots of hydroelectricity) and fruit. We saw old photos of Indira Gandhi arriving in Bhutan on the back of a yak, and being greeted by King Jimmy. King Jimmy was the one wearing a skirt.

This relationship has really moved the country forward and the close friendship between the two countries means that Indian rupees are just as common and acceptable as the Bhutanese currency, which was good because we had been given some when we got some local currency and thought we had been duped. King Jimmy 4 realised that fresh blood and young ideas were important to the country's growth so he decreed that all kings must retire at 65. Despite this, he obviously felt he deserved an early retirement because he'd had enough at 53 when he stepped down in his son's favour. He can apparently often be seen enjoying his retirement, cycling around Bhutan in his skirt. King Jimmy 5 seems to be continuing in his father's footsteps and is leading the country onwards. They have a democratic constitutional monarchy and follow Instrumental Buddhism. I've no idea what that is but it involves ridding yourself of all the bad things (Ransinga called these 'poisons' and he meant things such as jealousy, hatred and the like) apparently. Gross National Happiness really is a measurement indicator used to monitor progress! In a country of only 800,000 there is full employment, free education and healthcare, no crime and they are 46% self-sufficient. Wow - I love the King Jimmys, especially King Jimmy 5 (who is rather handsome, in a Bhutanese kind of way, and has kind eyes).

Buildings were all similar in style and architecture, all very pretty and low rise in the main - nothing higher than seven storeys is allowed. The country is very into environmental issues and has a hugely varied geography, ranging from mountainous to sub-tropical. They are protecting this natural diversity as well as they can, and the roadsides were dotted with inspirational signs. Sadly, the signs are all in English and many of the older generation can't read them. No matter, it's the thought that counts. In different parts of the country there are elephants, wolves, red pandas, bears, rhinos and tigers and so many different birds, and reptiles and water creatures and, and, and ... Oh, and there was a reserve for the Yeti (!!). Just wonderful.

During our time in Thimphu (no 'th' sound here either so Timphu it was - it means City of Joy apparently) we were shown many different aspects which reflected Bhutanese history and culture, past and present. We visited the Trushichoedzong Fortress (I think, these names don't exactly trip off the tongue or stick in the memory too well!). This was a wonderful fort, now part administrative block and part monastery and we had to wear long sleeves 'as a sign of respect' for the monks who were chanting all day long on this 'celebration day'; the younger ones looked totally fed up with it already. It was going to be a long day for them! We also saw the changing of the guard there and it looked almost as impressive as the Buckingham Palace version. We went to visit the Simtokha Dzong (??), a stupa which included an old persons' 'creche'. Ransinga told us that the old people were dropped off there every morning by their children and it was a bit of a social club for them where they could pray, chat all day and meet new people before they were collected again by their children in the afternoon. I spent a very jolly five minutes with an old lady there who was chuffed to bits to have her photo taken with me to be shown around at home - 'me, you, England' were about the only three words I was sure she understood. We climbed to the top of the stupa, on a rickety, narrow wooden stairway with soooooo many steps, always in the clockwise motion, and Ransinga told us all the vital bits of information. Once again, people made 'donations' and these were occasionally banknotes but, much more commonly, they were donations of food. I was gratified to see this was distributed at the end of the afternoon to anyone who needed/wanted it, rather than disappear up the sleeves of the monks.

The evenings could best be described as 'decidedly chilly' but the days were sunny and warm. We went to visit the Big Buddha (Kuensel Phodrang?) early one morning and the rising sun glistened on this most impressive, relatively new structure. It gleamed magnificently against a clear, cloudless blue sky and I spent ages there, just wandering around looking at it and the surrounding landscape from every angle. I thought it was magical.

Our hotel in Thimphu was the Hotel Phuntsho Pelri and it was just lovely. We were allocated a corner suite so I could watch Thimphu from two sides. I took a short walk around the nearby shops and local streets and the living standards, while no match for our 5* hotel, seemed reasonably high. Most people smiled, were friendly and welcoming.

We met our four other travelling companions at mealtime, by accident rather than design, but only Steve and I made it as far as the bar afterwards. We were on our own for quite some time until a man arrived, woke up a sleeping member of staff who scurried away quickly and we finally got our bottle of beer - Druk beer, of course. We didn't get another until a group of French people arrived with their guide who quickly went in search of someone to serve them (and us!). We decided staying to try for a third was probably pushing our luck and went up to bed instead!

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