"Bhutan is a climbing place, always climbing" grumbled an elderly Singaporean as we passed him on steep narrow stairs of the Namgyal stupa.
Our legs echo his sentiment. We've just hiked upwards for an hour and now we are climbing 3 storeys of polished wooden steps (in our socks - there is always, always the shoe taking off place) to see each level of this amazing stupa built in 2004 for the Queen Mother.
Oh, and this is only one itinerary item for one day of our six days. Climbing every day, is like a warm up for the ultimate climb, the best saved for last, Tigers Nest Monastery.
Yes, Bhutan is a climbing place but also the happiest place in the world. "Gross National Happiness" is by decree. I don't think we have heard a word spoken in anger or sarcasm and smiles abound. They love their young King, Queen and baby prince. Most Bhutanese wear the national dress of Gho and Kira. I am wondering if the people are so happy because they have never suffered under any colonial rule or for that matter, rampant tourism and consumerism? The Kingdom of Bhutan has remained apart from the world, a hidden Shangrila until very recent times.
But change is in the air. Mobile phones are everywhere, and construction of new tourist hotels is very much evident. Western style shoes and dress are appearing, especially on the very young children. Still no franchises in sight thank heavens!
Travel in Bhutan is not for the independent and budget minded (unless you are a near neighbour Indian, the only travellers allowed to be independent). You pay a compulsory US$250 per person per day (a whopping $A670 per day a couple!). This does however, cover accommodation, transport in Bhutan, a guide, food, visa and entry fees. You have no choice of airline other than the extremely expensive and no frills Druk Air. You can enter from India by road, but only if you have pre-arranged and pre- paid your daily charge and visa.
The Kingdom of Bhutan has long been on our bucket list. Earlier this year, we read that Bhutan was making a "friendship offer" to Australians for the months of June, July and August, 2018 (monsoon summer season!) that would reduce the required spend to $US65 per person. Additionally, some Druk airfares would be reduced by 30%.
We booked in a heartbeat.
It was most surprising that there were so few Australian travellers given this friendship offer. Perhaps it wasn't widely publicised or perhaps a flood of Australian travellers will arrive with the flood of Monsoon next month. Most travellers we've met are from India, Malaysia, Singapore and China with an occasional European.
Our six days have passed all too quickly. The weather has been kind and our personal guide Bijay always attentive and informative. We've learnt so much about the Bhutanese way of life, history and religion as we've explored Thimphu, the Punakha Valley and Paro. We've enjoyed the quaint road signs urging safety: "it's not a rally enjoy the valley" and "Safety so you can be safe for tea". We were greatly impressed with how Bhutan's distinctive architectural style is carried through in all new building projects and that young students study the country's unique methods of woodwork and painting. We learnt that Bhutan is building new and impressive religious monuments, not, as most countries do, relying wholly on their ancestor's enthusiasm for building. Equality for women is very evident in contrast to our recent observations in Sri Lanka.
The "be kind to animals" Bhutan philosophy allows cows to roam where they will, even crossing rivers on pedestrian suspension bridges ("be kind to animals" even seems to include not killing mosquitos and flies!) An interesting recent concession is that male dogs are now being sterilised by decree to assist in more comfortable numbers.
We crossed paths a few times with our "always climbing" Singaporean traveller during our 6 days in Bhutan. Meeting again on the way down, after a strenuous climb to the iconic and unmissable Tiger's Nest Monastery, he acknowledged us with a wink and said, "Now at last our climbing is all done!"