There are two kinds of people in this world. Those who would trade a kidney in return for a trip to Bhutan, and those who don’t know it exists.
The latter will go through life blissfully unaware of the culture and customs of this tiny mountain nation sandwiched between India and China. Never knowing that Bhutan prioritises not Growth Domestic Product (GDP) but Gross National Happiness (GNH) – a metric that champions collective happiness over economic output. They won’t discover that Bhutan didn’t introduce TVs or the internet until the late 90s. And will never learn that Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, doesn’t have a single traffic light.
The, former, however, know all of this. Perhaps from hours spent Googling, falling down a rabbit hole on YouTube or watching movies, like ‘A Yak in a Classroom’ or ‘The Other Final’. Still, they’re desperate to visit, if only to peek behind the curtain or to find out if GNH is a PR slogan or something much deeper. An essence, perhaps, that runs to Bhutan’s core. They’ll want to learn why buildings are adorned with giant, colourful penises and wonder what it’s like to sip butter tea with shaven-headed monks in scarlet robes. Ultimately dreaming of leaving the country with a spiritual awakening, the kind they’ve read about in articles like this.
Tourism in Bhutan
The truth is, most people don’t get the chance to go to Bhutan. The first foreigners only arrived here in 1974, and up until 2007, the country never averaged more than 20,000 visitors per year. That said, before the pandemic, tourism was still the country’s second-highest revenue source. In 2019, Bhutan welcomed 315,000 visitors – too many for some.
“Tourism, as an industry, was becoming less professional and was becoming low-hanging fruit,” Dorji Dhradhul, Director General of the Tourism Council of Bhutan, told TIME magazine last year.“We were basically, as a sector, racing towards the bottom instead of aspiring to go higher up.”
One way Bhutan plans to prevent over-tourism – the kind that’s blighted neighbouring countries like Nepal – is by increasing its tourist tax or ‘Sustainable Development Fee’ (SDF). Previously, visitors paid around £54, part of a more significant fee known as the Minimum Daily Package Rate (MDPR) of £208, which factored in accommodation and the cost of a guide. Now, the MDPR has been removed and replaced by a staggering SDF of £165 per person per day (not including accommodation etc.).
Funds generated from the SDF are used to protect and preserve Bhutan’s culture, as well as invest in the environment, improve infrastructure, support the community and upskill youngsters. In true Bhutanese style, everything is laid out in the country’s five-year plan for transparency.
The Trans Bhutan Tail
Some went towards developing Bhutan’s newest attraction: the Trans Bhutan Trail, the reason for my visit. The ancient path spans 403 km, from Haa in the west to Trashigang in the East and dates back to the 16th century. Back then, garps, or trail runners, delivered messages to dzongs (fortified monasteries) strategically placed across the country. Kings visited villages spreading messages of devotion, hope and wisdom. Traders smuggled wares across borders, and Buddhist monks migrated to temples in warmer climates.
Sadly, the ancient path fell into disrepair when a new road was built in the ’60s. Bridges rotted away, weeds grew and paths eroded, as did the local appetite to walk instead of drive. The new road was simply quicker and more convenient than two legs or a donkey. Thankfully, over the past two years, a team of over 900 volunteers (De- Suung), scouts, tour operators, and locals have carefully restored the old path. They rebuilt 18 bridges, mapped hundreds of kilometres of pathways, and helped install over 170 signposts with QR codes, so that the Bhutanese and foreigners could see the country on foot, the way it used to be.
Canadian philanthropist Sam Blyth, founder of the Bhutan Canada Foundation, played a key role in its resurrection. Blyth walked part of the old footpath, from Paro to Thimpu, back in 1988 with ex-Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, igniting his love affair with Bhutan.
On the night before the Trans Bhutan Trail launches, Blyth explains that “almost 40 years ago, when I first came to trek in Bhutan, I heard stories of an ancient trail,” continuing, “I dreamt of walking that trail.”
On the 28th of September 2022, his dream was realised when the trail opened to the public. Although the plan to restore it was first hatched in 2018 when Blyth met with Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, the King of Bhutan, who shared his passion for hiking and was immediately keen on the idea.
The landscape and scenery
The hope is that the trail will become a pilgrimage as renowned as the Camino de Santiago or Machu Picchu trail. It passes 27 Geowogs, four Dzongs, 21 temples and five suspension bridges. The Himalayan landscape provides something different from other famous treks. There are pine-covered mountains spattered with grand white and gold temples so high up that you’d think they’d been dropped in by parachute. Bright Rhododendrons blossom, leeches crawl underfoot and rare birds with sweet-sounding names – fire-tailed sunbirds, white-bellied herons, and the Bhutan laughing thrush – glide overhead. Chillis bake in the sun on tin roofs and young monks stroll along dusty roads barefoot.
Walking a section of the Trans Bhutan Trail from Thimpu to the Dorchula pass, Tim, a larger-than-life British photographer, catches up with Vinnie, a wide-smiling, jovial Seattleite, and me as we trudge through a sun-dappled forest. “Watch this”, he says, gesturing to a huddle of smiley, ruby-robed monks in flip-flops trailing a few paces behind. He waves his hands around, like an orchestral conductor, prompting the monks to cheer, “Commmeee onnn youuuu, reddddss” (he’s a Brentford fan) in less than perfect harmony, chuckling as they do.
Soon, villagers appear from nowhere, handing out apples from their orchards while mothers cradle babies flashing toothless grins and veterans celebrate our arrival. Gnawing on an apple, Karma Tshiteem strikes up a conversation with me. It turns out, he was the former secretary of Gross National Happiness from 2013 to 2018. During his time on the board, ironically, the focus was on building roads because “they had the single biggest impact on livelihood and quality of life”.
Along the way, we pass groups of youngsters in bright orange jumpsuits picking up litter. The De-Suung, or Guardians of Peace, are the volunteer force who helped build the path and continue to maintain it. Karma explains that during the pandemic, many youngsters in Bhutan struggled to find work, so they were retrained to help in the fields, look after the elderly, and provide support in local communities, which he says kept them off the streets. “They put on that orange uniform and are proud because they find meaning and purpose in what they do.”
Trundling along beside a babbling beck, our conversation turns to a discussion about the royal family. The monarchy has been revered here since the Wangchuk dynasty came into power in 1907, ending a period of instability in Bhutan. One of the most-loved kings is Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the current king’s father. He took the throne in 1972 at 16 and is credited with ushering in democracy before abdicating in 2007. Karma tells me the Bhutanese weren’t keen on the idea initially – they didn’t want to upset the applecart. But how’s it going now?
“This literally came from the top; it was a gift from the throne. We’ve had three different parties leading us, so I guess you’d say we’re learning fast,” he chuckles.
But why would the monarchy relinquish so much power? “His majesty the fourth king said we have to move to a system of development where people take more of a part for their own future. We can’t completely depend on a monarchy,” he says, before explaining that the king had the foresight to see the bad things happening around the world at the hands of power-hungry people and wanted to safeguard Bhutanese people. A monarchic country could still have one bad apple.
Suddenly, my attention is diverted to something unusual blocking up the stream next to us. On closer inspection, it is exactly what it appears: a giant wooden penis. The phallus is a symbol of good luck in Bhutan. An eccentric Tibetan lama, Drukpa Kunley or the ‘Divine Madman’, is credited with bringing it to the fore.
On our way to Chimi Lhakhang Temple, also known as the ‘fertility temple’, we see phallic symbols everywhere. They range from giant, graphic, multicoloured penis murals on the side of houses to penis-shaped wooden aeroplanes and tiny willy keyrings. The temple, located amongst agricultural fields in the Punakha Valley, dates back to the late 15th century. It’s said to have been blessed by Kunley himself, whose other nickname was the Saint of 5,000 Women: it’s said that women would seek blessings from him in the form of sex. He also advocated that enlightenment could still be possible alongside a healthy sex life.
The famous temple is where parents go to receive blessings for their new-born children. In Bhutan, parents don’t typically name their children but instead rely on naming ceremonies led by lamas or religious leaders. One story goes that a famous lama and film director once began naming babies after American presidents – explaining the number of Bushes in Bhutan. Alas, after kicking off our shoes, we enter the temple, a natural acid trip of colours, scents and ornate statues. Yak candles burn as a mother cradles her chubby child while a monk blesses it with a yellow wooden penis bigger than the baby itself.
Next, we call in at the Punakha Dzong, a majestic 17th Century fortified monastery. Its opulent red, gold and white facade is set against verdant mountains of endless trees and skirted by purple jacaranda and the emerald Mo Chhu river. It’s the second oldest dzong in Bhutan, where the current king married the queen in 2011 and all of Bhutan’s kings were crowned.
Later, we see Bhutanese hospitality up close at a homestay just outside Punakha. The bulky rustic, wooden farmhouse, set back a few hundred yards from the Mo Chhu river, is simple but magnificent. There’s an open fire kitchen, a number of bedrooms with only a mattress on the floor, and a dining room where guests are invited to sit on the floor cross-legged sampling sugar tea and a hearty meal. We’re fed by our host Dawa Zam – a pintsized, slightly nervous lady with a kind face and a welcoming nature.
“She only had one visitor before the pandemic. She’d just opened the homestay, but had to close immediately. You’re the first people here since then, so she’s very happy to see you,” our guide, Karma Dhorji explains.
Dawa Zam reveals how her family used to hang her cot outside the window for hours while they worked in the fields, as we tentatively push chilli-covered vegetables and roasted turnip roots into our mouths. All the time, she is topping our glasses with ladles of egg-filled Ara – a traditional distilled or fermented grain-based alcoholic drink that tastes like warm sake. It’s these encounters with the Bhutanese that makes the Trans Bhutan Trail so unique.
Of course, you can learn about Bhutan’s quirks from afar, like how kids born in the ’90s were the only generation to know life before TVs. But you won’t meet the people who remember watching it for first time. You may even stumble upon a list of facts, like the one about Thimpu not having a single traffic light, but you won’t get to see the precision in which police officers in white gloves prevent drivers colliding into one another at busy intersections. You may even gaze at pictures of the epic Tiger’s Nest monastery on Google, but you won’t be able to identify the unique salty pungency of the yak candles that burn inside or feel the warmth in your heart as you’re met by tiny monks offering sugary milk tea.
And, most importantly, unless you have the privilege to visit Bhutan, you will never hear the wisdom bestowed by almost everyone here, from monks and politicians to hotel workers and guides, like my good friend Karma – whose name fits his persona perfectly. With a face that could calm a crying baby and the manners of a royal butler, on the final day he leaves us with the kind of simple but profound wisdom everyone who visits hopes to leave with.
When one of our group asks why she can’t take pictures inside Bhutan’s temples, he responds, wobbling his head from side to side as he does, “Ma’am, there are just some things in life we have to keep hidden away.”
The Trans Bhutan Trail is a not-for-profit social and tourism enterprise. 100% of the profits go back into maintaining the Trail and supporting communities and individuals along the route.
An eight day trek across Western Bhutan costs around £2,980 based on double occupancy, including 7 nights’ full board accommodation, transfers, visas, excursions, private guiding daily, Bhutan Sustainable Development fee. Flights not included.
There are various packages available to book directly through the Trans Bhutan website, which you can find at transbhutantrail.com