FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF BHUTAN by RJ Furth
I’ll be honest, I was a bit worried about visiting Bhutan because expectations were so high. Last year, when we visited Iceland, we heard dozens of raves prior to arriving and ended up disappointed. We had a nice time and we liked Iceland and its people, it just didn’t live up to expectations. I am thrilled to report that the same thing did not happen for Bhutan. The country that measures Gross National Happiness has, so far, been a real pleasure. We’ve been here less than thirty hours, and Sandy and I eagerly look forward to the remaining six days.
Bhutan is a mix of the familiar and exotic. It is familiar because the land strongly resembles the Colorado Rockies where we live: snow capped mountains, pine forests, rushing rivers, clean air. The exotic (which Iceland lacked for us) comes from the Tibetan Buddhism that permeates the country. The capital, Thimpu, features an awe inspiring dzong (Buddhist fortress temple) and chorten (Tibetan-style stupa). There is an enormous Buddha designed by Thais, funded by Japanese and built by Indians. Buddhist monks in red or saffron robes are to be seen everywhere. Most Bhutanese were native dress of padded cotton jackets. You’re driving up a mountain road, thinking this looks like the drive to South Park, Colorado, when you turn a corner to see thousands of prayer flags fluttering in the breeze.
And yes, the Bhutanese seem very happy. In our short time here we have learned that the people love and respect their benevolent king. School and medical care are free. Food is abundant if mostly bland. They respect Buddhism and are proud of their national dress and customs. They respect nature and abhor violence and meanness. They smile and laugh a lot. Crime of any kind is rare. This all leads to a pleasant experience for visitors, who are treated well rather than as nuisances as happens in some countries. If we have one complaint (call it an observation, as complaint is too strong) it is that the food is pretty dull. We’ve had the same ingredients for both lunches and last night’s dinner: potatoes, carrots, cabbage, peas, cheese, chilis. When we visited the Thimpu market each stall sold the same vegetables. Fruit is not popular in Bhutan and we saw little fruit at the market. Fruit stalls had few customers. Besides chilis the Bhutanese use no spices or herbs in their cooking. None. The food is all natural, all healthy, and the local beer, which I had with dinner last night, was tasty and potent at 8%.
We’ve only been here just over 24 hours. Tomorrow we drive to Punakha, a valley known for it’s farming and beautiful scenery. We will cross a mountain pass that offers views of the Himalayas. We are eager to explore the country and get to know the people.