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Moving countries, the next report from our roving duo (Rodney Appleyard and Dan Thory) is from the magical Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. Bhutan is not the easiest or cheapest of countries to visit, but it was well worth the effort and expense.

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Bhutan – Land of the Thunder Dragon, a fairy-tale brought to life

The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan is know to its people as 'Druk Yul' which translates to 'the Land of the Thunder Dragon' and is a remarkable country, with a culture rich in a tradition based on its fundamental Buddhist faith. Rodney Appleyard writes with obvious enthusiasm about his visit to Bhutan with Dan Thory, who has recorded the visit with some beautiful photography.

'The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe' is still to this day one of my favourite children's books. I will never forget the moment when the children first step into the wardrobe and magically appear inside the land of Narnia. I often imagined what it would be like to do this, and I can remember trying to walk through wardrobes myself as a small child. Well, after visiting Bhutan, I think that's the closest I will ever finding a land with such a fairytale presence.

Bhutan is full of magical legends, breathtaking scenery, unspoilt land, uniquely crafted architecture and probably the most gentle people on earth. There is hardly any crime because the people believe so strongly in Buddhism. The nation has a population of about 650,000, and most of these people live in the rural areas. This is a very small population, considering Bhutan is about the same size of Wales. More than 70 per cent of the land is covered by beautiful forests, which the Bhutanese have actively protected.

The Bhutanese people have kept themselves in isolation for centuries, but recently they have taken major steps towards modernisation, initiated by their King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck. Tourists have only been allowed into the country since 1974, when the King had his coronation. Since then, they have embarked on an experiment which involves preserving the best aspects of their traditional culture, whilst incorporating the most attractive elements of the Western world, such as television and the internet (which they started in 1999), albeit at a level which enriches the country instead of damaging it.

The King has told his people that he cares more about 'Gross National Happiness' than 'Gross National Product'. This means that they will not rush towards modernisation, as tends to be the obsession in the rest of the developing world. Instead, he aims to improve the living standards of his people at a pace which serves their well-being first and improves the national economy second.

Bhutan – a magical country
So what are the traditional values which makes this country seem so magical, unreal, unique, spellbinding and unforgettable? Well, there are the legends of some of the ancient Buddhas and Saints, whose achievements would have made even Aslan proud. People still believe and talk about The Buddha Padmasambhava who, in the 8th century, fled Tibet on the back of a tigress and flew to a place in Bhutan called Paro where he slayed an evil monster. At this very spot, 3,000 feet up a cliff, the Takstang Goemba Monastery was built at the foot of the rock face. It is now called 'TigerŐs Nest' and many monks spend 3 years, 3 months and 3 weeks meditating at this Monastery to show their dedication to their religion.

Then there are the humorous stories from the 15th century, of the' Divine Madman' – Saint Lama Drukpa Kunley – who is still greatly respected. He was responsible for slaying demons with his his sexual organ, which he used as a sword. His phallus is still painted on buildings throughout the country as people hope this will bring increased fertility to their family. The Lama had a problem convincing people of his supernatural powers so, legend has it, one day he ate flesh from the head of a goat and the body of a cow and then stuck the head of the goat onto the body of the cow to create a creature called a takin. The takin, an extremely rare bovid, is now the national animal of Bhutan and can be found in herds at very high altitude.

Tradition and nature in Bhutan
ItŐs amazing how well ordered, passive and religious the people of Bhutan are. They clearly enjoy preserving their national culture and heritage, and seem proud to wear their stunning National Dress. Religion is such a strong part of this country that it is closely interwoven with politics, ensuring that policies follow the Buddhist way of life.

Most visitors to Bhutan are taken on guided tours to wonderful places such as Phuntsholing, Paro, Punakha, Tongsa and Bumthang. These places boast untouched rivers, lush forests, glorious hill views which stretch out for miles and join up with snow-capped mountains in the distance. It is common to notice natural springs jetting out of the valleys sides and come crashing down on rocks scattered below. There seems to be a powerful feeling of the closeness nature everywhere you go – the Bhutanese people used to worship the mountains and the valleys, so this explains why they are so well cared for.

Apart from the natural environment, many of the buildings are awe-inspiring too. The monasteries and government buildings are called Dzongs. Bhutan has a policy of not erecting any buildings more than four stories high and new buildings have to be decorated with the traditional Bhutanese designs.

The whole of Bhutan feels like a real-life fairy tale where you can find paradise in the culture and environment. It might be an expensive destination, but it's worth every penny!

Text © Rodney Appleyard, photographs © Dan Thory, 2003

FACT FILE – Visiting Bhutan
By restricting entry by the use of tourist visas, Bhutan strictly limits the number of people who can visit the country in a single year and all visitors are charged for tourism services (guides, transport, hotels, meals, etc.) at a fixed daily rate. This is deliberate policy by the Bhutanese government, designed to keep visitor numbers to a level which does not significantly affect the natural environment or lifestyle of the Bhutanese people. The Bhutanese tourism industry is founded on the principle of sustainability; tourism must be environmentally and ecologically friendly, culturally and socially acceptable, and economically viable.

Entry to Bhutan is by visa and is usually, but not exclusively, for organised groups. For the average tourist this is generally the best way to see the country and we have started a list of contacts for such companies below (we will be adding to this on a regular basis as new tour operators join our listings).

The following companies are already listed in the travel-quest directory:
Lingkor Tours & Treks
Snow White Tours
Tenzing Norgay Adventures
Trans Himalaya