May 6, 2021
EVERYONE EVERYWHERE ELSE ALREADY all wanted to go to Bhutan. And the kingdom is looking even more appealing now after a recent nationwide campaign resulted in a whopping 93 percent of their adults getting their first Covid-19 vaccine shot. That’s more than 480,000 Bhutanese folks – pretty much everyone in the country aged 18 and above – all inoculated in just over two weeks.
This stunning achievement is the centerpiece of an efficient pandemic response that has kept Covid cases to around 1,000. Credit for success goes not only to the Bhutanese government, but also to the citizens, who take good care of each other. During last year’s lockdowns, hotel owners offered up their properties as free quarantine centers, while farmers and neighbors donated crops to feed those within. The country’s two telecom service providers also gave free internet access so that people could stay in touch. And check this out: there was even a program to feed stray dogs on the streets.
Such social cohesiveness – not to mention compassion – is perhaps only normal in Bhutan, where the culture remains deeply rooted in Buddhist tradition. This is a nation that measures progress against non-materialistic ideals such as cultural resilience, psychological well-being and ecological harmony (collectively these comprise the world-renown GNP, or Gross National Happiness Index). The fact that Bhutan is set amid lush valleys and fog-shrouded Himalayan peaks only reinforces the notion that, well, yeah, it’s the kind of place we’d love to be stuck in during a global pandemic.
Don’t ask now, but there’s speculation that (if all goes well) Bhutan’s borders might reopen later this year. We can’t wait to return and explore its ancient temples, roam its picturesque trails and have our fill of spicy chili cheese emma dashi. Gorgeous hotels – the new trio of Six Senses, two COMOs, Amankora’s trail of five lodges, to name a few – that specialize in cultural immersion, holistic wellness that aligns with the Himalayan nation’s traditions, and the freshest air and best mountain views of any luxury rooms on Earth await.
Til then these photographs of the Land of the Thunder Dragon will remind us of what we’ve been missing… and what we have to look forward to, hopefully in the near future.
01 – Afternoon light illuminates a farming village outside the town of Trashigang in Bhutan’s remote eastern region. Idyllic highland scenes like these are a common sight on the long, meandering highway that connects one side of this country to the other.
02 – Snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas look down over the Paro and its picturesque dzong temple-fortress. Home to the country’s only international airport, this town is often the first stop for foreign tourists entering the kingdom.
03 – Hiking to school is an everyday routine for many students in the town of Punakha. “I don’t mind walking”, says one of the kids. “By the time I reach my classroom I am wide awake and energetic!”
04 – An ancient iron bridge lets locals cross the raging Paro river en route to the Tamchog Monastery outside Paro. Colorful prayer flags are typically hoisted on windblown spots like these to better spread goodwill and compassion to all.
05 – A young vendor offers pony rides to help pilgrims manage the steep, four-kilometer trek up the cliffside monastery of Taktsang Palphug (shown in the background). Standing more than 3,000 meters above sea level, this place of worship is a Bhutanese national symbol.
06 – Spinning prayer wheel in hand, an old lady drops by for morning prayers at the Memorial Chorten in the capital Thimphu.
07 – Prayer flags crowd an auspicious location at the entrance to the Taktsang Monastery, located high above the town of Paro. This Buddhist pilgrimage site attracts both religious tourists and sightseers from all over the world.
08 – A huge prayer wheel gets an extra push from a local kid in the town of Mongar. These mantra-filled, perpetually spinning drums are a feature of every Bhutanese community.
09 – A novice monk studies ancient Buddhist scripture at a monastery in Punakha. Religious institutions like these offer free education, and help perpetuate Buddhist teachings throughout the country.
10 – A trio of elderly Bhutanese ladies pass the time at the local temple where they hang out and pray with lifelong friends. The prayer beads in their hands help them track the number of times they recite Buddhist mantras.
11 – Masked cham dancers await the call to begin their performance at a tsechu, or temple festival, in the Central Bhutanese town of Bumthang. Seen as a form of meditation, cham dances are a shared heritage of Bhutan and neighboring Tibet.
12 – Dressed in period costumes, local “militia” escort Buddhist clergy around the dzong temple-fortress of Punakha during the annual Dromche, a festival that commemorates an ancient battle against Tibetan invaders.
13 – Evening in the capital Thimphu finds the cityfolk hanging out after a day at work. Without malls or theaters, the diversions are simple but enjoyable in these parts.
14 – The picturesque Ura Valley in central Bhutan is home to yak herders, fabric artists and rice farmers.
15 – Midday fog covers a massive stupa at a sleepy highway junction in east Bhutan. Traditional Dzongkha architecture is the preferred design for buildings – both religious and secular – throughout the kingdom.
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