To enter Bhutan is to enter a world unto itself. Many have compared it to the elusive Shangri-La of fable, and the country safeguards its treasured traditional culture. With its doors closed to outsiders until 1974, and the flow of visitors still carefully observed, this kingdom of the dragon tucked between Tibet and India has preserved its glorious textiles, beloved national pastimes like archery, and its Buddhist serenity. From lush low-lying plains to Himalayan peaks rising a stunning 23,000 feet, its diverse ecosystems boast an epic beauty that is maintained with deep pride and the force of law.
All of this leaves the traveler with the indelible impression that they have, indeed, stepped into Shangri-La. But Bhutan is far better than Shangri-La: It’s real.
Buddhism-The Heart of a People
For most of the nation’s history, Bhutan was closed off not only to travelers from beyond its borders, but to outside cultural influences as well. It wasn’t until 1999 that the government lifted its ban on television, though it still made clear that programming must be consistent with the most abiding Bhutanese values, the roots of which are largely Buddhist. Having been secluded from so much of the outer world, the people of Bhutan are nourished by their inner spiritual lives, most of them practicing Buddhism.
Across Bhutan, you can see ample evidence of nearly 1,500 years of that faith on display. One of the oldest temples in the country is the Temple of Kyichhu, which has beckoned worshippers since the 7th century. With its gleaming gold roof and elegantly carved wooden pillars, it’s a jewel-box of a temple, a suitable home for the heavily-ornamented Jowo Sakyamuni statue, one of the most valuable artifacts in all the land.
Material objects are secondary to matters of the soul at Chari Monastery, established by Bhutan’s founding father in 1620. Perched on an emerald hillside, the monastery is an epicenter of prayer for Buddhist monks, some of whom spend up to three years here in meditation. At Tachogang Lhakhang, the rewards of such mindful practice are made concrete: The 15th-century monastery and its iron bridge are the realization of a vision that came to a Tibetan yogi who had paused at the riverside site for meditation.
At Chimi Lhakhang, the focus is less on the Zen of its monks and more on the love life of the local worshippers who come to this temple for its fertility-enhancing properties. Chimi Lhakhang was founded by a monk known as the “the divine madman.” He filled the temple with phallic symbols and used sexual innuendo to deliver some of the tenets of Buddhism. Though his approach was highly unorthodox, he is considered a national hero.
Dzongs-Protecting a Kingdom
Bhutan’s fortress-like dzongs are every bit as impressive as its temples. These massive complexes were positioned for defense against invaders, but much more was hidden behind the high fortified walls. Guard stations shared space with dwellings, civic offices, courtyards, and temples. Like the fortified medieval villages of Europe, Bhutan’s dzongs were miniature cities within citadels.
One of the largest is Tashichho Dzong, its sprawling splendor visible from Big Buddha Hill. In one form or another, a dzong has been present in this spot since 1216 and despite being damaged by four fires and an earthquake, the central tower has endured. Since 1968, Tashichho Dzong has been the seat of government.
Punakha Dzong used to hold that title, but what it lost in terms of political power, it makes up for in beauty, with its gold, red,and black colors, and gleaming statues filling a Coronation Hall, where the Kings of Bhutan are still crowned to this day.
Ringpung Dzong, with its 14 shrines and chapels, is considered an architectural masterpiece in Bhutan, and visitors may recognize some of its features from the Bernardo Bertolucci film Little Buddha. Though Drukgyal Dzong has no cinematic pedigree, the pale stone fort built to commemorate a victory over Mongol invaders is nonetheless evocative, with an eerie silence surrounding the ruins of this once triumphant structure.
Nature-The Greatest Treasure
Fortresses may fall in time, but Bhutan does more than just about other nation on earth to make sure its natural treasures are never lost. Nearly a third of the land is preserved for national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, conservation areas, and nature reserves. About 60% of the land is forest that may never be touched, and where building is allowed, sustainable development is a state requirement.
The result is a nation that remains a paradise for nature lovers: crystalline lakes…verdant valleys…flower-studded plains…and, of course, the watchful gaze of the snowcapped Himalayas. With so many different ecosystems flourishing here, it’s no surprise that the flora and fauna is equally diverse. The 6,000 species of plants, from the iconic blue poppy to hundreds of orchid varieties, are joined by a veritable safari’s worth of wildlife, including elephants, tigers, monkeys, and Himalayan “blue” sheep. Overhead, nearly 700 avian species wing from treetop to treetop, soaring like the chanting of monks on mountain air.
Tiger’s Nest-The Symbol of a Nation
Nature, culture, and faith all come together at the monastic retreat of Taktsang, the Tiger’s Nest. Ancient legend says that the 8th-century Guru Rinpoche, considered the second Buddha, flew through the skies of the Paro Valley on the back of a magical tigress looking for a place to meditate. He landed on the small outcropping of a cliff 2,700 feet above the valley floor. Despite its seemingly impossible location, the site became the home to a temple in his honor in 1692.
For more than 250 years, Tiger’s Nest has endured the cycle of seasons and powerful winds with little change, but two fires in the second half of the 20th century destroyed its main building. At the dawn of this century, the government invested millions of dollars in restoring it, spending five years to painstakingly recreate its beauty.
When it was reopened in 2005 in the presence of the King, it was a great source of national pride. The care given to the cultural treasure was a perfect embodiment of the Bhutanese belief that the dragon kingdom will endure as long as it preserves and protects its heritage.