Nepali Times

Describing his arrival in Bhutan in Lands of the Thunderbolt (1923), the Earl of Ronaldshay wrote: With our passage through the bridge, behold a curious transformation. For just as Alice, when she walked through the looking-glass, found herself in a new and whimsical world, so we, when we crossed the Pachhu, found ourselves, as though caught up on some magic time machine fitted fantastically with a reverse, flung back across the centuries into the feudalism of a medieval age.

Bhutan is not an ordinary place. It has one foot in the past and one in the future. Its far-sighted leaders recognise the necessity of being part of the modern world, but they realise that once their forests and culture are destroyed, they can never be recovered. They have maintained their traditional culture, yet they have adapted what they need from modern technology. You'll find monks transcribing ancient Buddhist texts into computers and traditionally dressed archers using the most modern high-tech bows and arrows.

Bhutan is a country of rolling hills and towering crags, with only small patches of cultivation and very little deforestation. It is often compared to Switzerland, not only because they are similar in size, but also because many parts of Bhutan look like the Swiss Alps, with green hills, houses that look like chalets and snow peaks sticking out of nowhere.

Bhutan holds many surprises and a visit to the country is a splendid adventure. English is widely spoken, and you can easily converse with school children and many other people. The Bhutanese are very curious about life outside their mountain kingdom and are eager to hear stories about your country and how you live.

There are Western-style hotels and food throughout the country, but the best facilities are in Thimphu, the capital, and the town of Paro where the airport is located. If you travel to eastern Bhutan, be prepared for simple hotels and less familiar meals. To see the best of Bhutan, you should spend a week or more on foot, trekking through the great forested wilderness that covers most of the country.

Bhutan is a land replete with myths and legends, and many tales contribute to its undeserved reputation of being an impossible place to visit. While certainly isolated and remote, it is not in fact a difficult place to visit. There is no limit to the number of tourists who can visit and you do not need any special influence or 'pull'. Subject to some well-defined restrictions, it is actually easy to arrange a trip to Bhutan. You can even organise a journey as an independent traveller; you do not have to travel in a group.

Bhutan is a little-known country, and not much information is available. Sometimes it is inaccurately described as a 'living museum'. It does visibly maintain its traditions, but its temples and monasteries are active and viable institutions that are very much a part of the modern world. It is not a nation of saintly, ascetic, other-worldly monks; you will find Bhutan to be full of well-educated, fun-loving and vibrant people.

There are numerous contradictions in the various sources that describe Bhutan's history. Facts and figures are often missing or confusing. There is no authoritative list of place names, no list of mountain peaks, and population figures are based on estimates.

The statistics and description of historical events presented here are based on credible sources, but many of these 'facts' are open to interpretation. Much of the information about temples, monuments and local history was provided by monks, caretakers and school teachers, who do not always agree with each other-or with the history books about events, dates and other information.

Travel within Bhutan can be frustrating, but it is always an adventure because the unexpected continually happens. Sometimes this utter fortuitousness causes problems; at other times the surprises are the joy of friendship, understanding or unsurpassed beauty that will bring you back again and again. If you visit Bhutan, you will become one of the few who have experienced the charm and magic of the country, and you may become a proponent of the kingdom's tourism policy and its efforts to maintain its distinct identity.

Free mountain flight!

Two of the little-known secrets of Himalayan aviation are the flights from Kathmandu to Lhasa and Paro. Both flights essentially have free mountain-viewing thrown in for the price of a ticket and the scenery out of the plane window is one of the most spectacular anywhere on earth.

The Lhasa flight on the China Southwest Airlines\' 757 is dramatic because it flies through the Arun Valley gap between Makalu and Kangchendzonga and offers great views from both sides. The Kathmandu-Paro flight, meanwhile, is on a high-wing BAe 146 aircraft and flies along the eastern Himalaya past five of the world's highest mountains. The views are from the left hand window seats on the flights to Paro and on the right on the flight back. Avoid the centre of the aircraft where the engines block the view.

Soon after takeoff from Kathmandu, as Flight 205 circles over Kathmandu Valley, one gets great views of the city and the mountains beyond. The jet flies slower and lower than larger airliners, so you get more time amidst the mountains while you aren\'t flying too high for the mountains to be dwarfed.

Soon, you are flying shoulder-to-shoulder with Gauri Shankar which may not be an eight thousander but makes up for it by being a strikingly pretty mountain with its fluted ridges and its double summit, which seem to rotate as we fly past.

The mountains slither past like beauty queens on a cat walk. Melungtse is next, a dazzling peak wholly within China with abundant snow, peeping over lesser peaks of the Rolwaling in Nepal. Then, the biggies arrive: Cho Oyu, Sagarmatha, Lhotse and Makalu. By now, the plane is at cruising altitude, and if it isn't too bumpy the captain may invite you to the cockpit for a view ahead: with the looming hulk of Kangchendzonga in the distance.

We are now above the tiny airfield of Phaplu, and then over Tumlingtar, the pilot makes a slight course correction heading southeast to cross the Nepal-India border in Ilam. Back in the cabin, passengers are craning their necks on the left side to watch the Kangchendzonga massif only 30 km away. Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Gangtok can be seen in the green hills below as if a map were given. Soon, the plane begins its descent towards Paro, crossing the Bhutan border and turning due north to head up heavily-forested valleys.

The captain comes on to alert passengers flying in for the first time not to be alarmed to see the trees and mountains so close. Just as well, because the wingtips seem to literally graze the slopes as the plane banks sharply for final approach from the north. Outside, the bracing mountain air, the smell of flowers and pine are a big change from the stale air of the plains.

Watering holes

Thimphu is not noted for its restaurants, but there is decent food to be found in most hotels, especially when there is a tour group in residence and they lay on an extensive buffet of Western and Bhutanese dishes.

For early entertainment visit Mila restaurant, which showcases young Bhutanese performers starting about 6PM. The food is basic, which is fine with the almost-exclusively local crowd. The music is often excellent. It's mostly Dzongkha folk music and modern love songs with occasional interludes from a Dzongkha comedian.

Thimphu's shops close about 8PM and by 9PM the town seems deserted, yet there's plenty of life in the downtown area. Check with owner-host Anuj at Benez for the latest update on Thimphu's nightlife. While you're there, try his collection of spiced rums and his specialty of spicy spare ribs. Walk up the hill to the new Lava Lounge in the basement of Galingkha hotel, just below the Swiss Bakery. Friday is karaoke night in the mod bar at the Druk Hotel, but the singing is often less than professional.

The disco scene thrives, but starts late. Many people hang out at the small SNS restaurant waiting for the crowd to gather at All Stars disco, which does not "happen" until after 11PM on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday nights. Sooner or later everyone comes by Jojo's entertainment complex, which now boasts two pool parlours. The younger crowd patronises HQ, while the professionals prefer the new, well-furnished Rumours. Upstairs is Om Bar (see pic, top), Thimphu's largest, where a diverse collection of expats, locals and government officials can be found from 10PM until the early hours of the next morning.

Druk trek
Robert Peirce

Trekking in Bhutan differs from the Nepali experience mostly dictated by geography. The hillsides in Bhutan tend toward the near vertical, which means fewer farms, villages and camp sites. Because geographical considerations make the distance between these greater, trekking days tend to be longer.

Side-hill climbing on steep slopes also tends to mean that you do more up-and-down climbing to get around vertical cliffs, avalanche tracks and side canyons. In many places they have been worn down to paths of scattered, rounded rocks or mud. Campsites are designated, so you may have to share your spot with one or more other parties on the popular Jhomolhari (see pic, below) and Laya Gasa treks. Some campsites have huts that serve as kitchens for your crew or used as dining rooms. There are no Nepal-style teahouses or trekkers lodges in Bhutan. The trekkers you see may be older than your counterparts in Nepal, perhaps because they can better afford the high cost of travel in Bhutan than young adventurers.

In most places in Nepal, the local people have become accustomed to trekkers but in Bhutan you are still a curiosity. People stare at you with open, friendly faces or greet you warmly as you pass-even come up to you and shake your hand. In my experience, trekkers meals in Bhutan compare well with restaurant meals. If you are used to Nepal's two hour-plus lunch breaks, you'll learn to adjust to a much shorter midday stop here. Horses and, at higher elevations, yaks carry tents and duffel bags. The animals of one district are not allowed to cross the border into the next and are replaced at district borders. Anxious trekkers may worry about the possibility of being left at some windswept mountain pass abandoned by animals. It happens, but rarely.

Excerpt from the Lonely Planet's Bhutan guidebook by Stan Armington which won the best Travel Guidebook in the 2003 Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) Gold Awards. Armington lives in Kathmandu and has also written the Lonely Planet guides, Nepal and Trekking in the Nepal Himalaya, which won the PATA Gold Award in 2002 and is in its 8th edition.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)