The tiny kingdom is gearing up for more tourists by building a major highway. But will it upset the tranquillity of this Buddhist nation?
About 20km out of Punakha the only road east to the Bumthang valley begins to deteriorate into a track. This is not what tourists want to see — narrow, pot-holed stretches of sand, clay and scrabbled rock that passes for a road.
It makes the journey not only uncomfortable but slightly dangerous, because there is nowhere to pass, and what do you do when a big truck suddenly appears in front of you around many of the twisting bends or you get stuck in thick sand?
On the upside it makes travel in Bhutan quite an exciting experience, enlivened not only by the dangers but by the splendid Himalayan foothills scenery of steep, winding valleys that pass by our bus window. To be fair to the Bhutanese Government, the rocky road is the result of construction work along most of the 170km stretch between our starting point in the west and the Bumthang Valley, which is slap bang in the centre of this small kingdom of 800,000 people and 39,000 square kilometres, 70 per cent of which is forest.
When the road is finished in about 2020 (progress is painfully slow in this part of the world) there will be a two-lane highway from Paro international airport in the west near the Indian border to the eastern side.
At the moment Bhutan is a blessed land — blessed in the sense that there are relatively so few tourists that the unspoilt regions remain unspoilt. Better roads will bring all the problems that have blighted other countries that have had an increase in tourists. At the moment travel on the tight roads is by vans and buses no bigger than 20-seaters, and it seems likely that big 60-seat buses will not be allowed on the new major highway.
So the growth in tourism may be slower and more gradual than in other parts of the world, allowing visitors to experience Bhutan’s scenery and ancient Buddhist history and philosophy in a calm and measured way.
At least this was the experience on our small-group tour of Bhutan in early March when four couples flew out of Perth for Paro, touching down in the the Indian town of Bodh Gaya (famous as the place where Siddartha gained enlightenment and became the Buddha) for half an hour before the final 20-minute hop across the Himalayas to Paro.
The flight into Paro requires planes to fly low between the valleys, and only pilots trained specially in this manoeuvre are allowed to guide tourists to their destination. The wings seemed to brush the mountain sides in the descent, yet the landings are routine.
We’d come to Bhutan at festival-time and headed to Punakha where one of these, Punakha Tshechu, which celebrates Buddhist philosophy and its legendary tales of demons, monsters, garudas, flying tigers and other mysterious creatures, was taking place.
The three-day festival takes place in the town’s monastery or dzong — a walled city that combines a series of Buddhist temples with the ancient administrative and defensive functions of each town. We got to visit many dzongs on our 14-day tour across the country, each of them large, impressive and ancient.
We arrived in Punakha on the eve of the town’s festival, and joined thousands of Bhutanese on the first day to watch Buddhist stories unfold in the dzong’s main courtyard.
It took most of the day to dramatise these myths, and the Bhutanese audiences absorbed their Buddhist messages with a rapt sense of engagement. Everyone gets a national holiday to attend, and each day is a full house, everyone dressed in their finest national costumes.
That means the tunic-like jacket and skirt for the men, known as the gho, and the kira, or blouse and long skirt for the women.
After a day of festival- watching in Punakha we set off for the Bumthang valley on the atrocious road, arriving safely at a guest house high above the town of Jakar. The guest house is operated by a Swiss cheesemaker named Fritz Maurer, who arrived in Bhutan in 1969 to establish the country’s first cheesemaking factory. Then he pioneered beer brewing before opening up his old farmhouse into a guest house. We spent an entertaining hour with Fritz in the bar of his guest house, drinking his Red Panda beer on tap .
Next morning the weather gods had decided to bring early spring snowfalls, turning the pine forests into a Christmassy landscape. So for the rest of the day we trudged through unexpected snow on visits to dzongs and Buddhist temples around the Bumthang valley.
It did mean that the 200km journey back to Paro for our departure would be along the same narrow road under reconstruction — this time made even more perilous by melting snow and mud.
We met one van full of tourists who had had to put rocks in the rear to ensure traction in the mud. And another couple had been forced to abandon their car and walk for several hours to get to their destination.
We made it safely through, at one point volunteering to walk down the road for the experience of walking in a snow-covered landscape with the backdrop of the Himalayas. Our cameras went into overdrive.
A highlight of any trip to Bhutan is the uphill trek to the Taktshang monastery — or Tiger’s Nest outside Paro — set on a rockface which from the bottom looks impossible to climb.
It’s not for the unfit, involving climbing upwards for 7km along clay tracks and finally a staircase of 744 rough steps cut into the cliff face. With the rarefied atmosphere there is a need for even the fittest to catch their breath, although none of our party suffered any form of altitude sickness despite being about 3400m above sea level.
Climbing up to Taktshang was quite an achievement, and as a destination the monastery certainly repays the exertion.