Lost Horizon Found: Bhutan

The serene faces of the monks were lit by the glow from thousands of candles burning on the altar. "Om Mani Padme Om", soft chants hung in the night air. The clatter of hand-held prayer wheels mingled with the shuffle of felt shoes on ancient cobble stones.

A giant figure of Buddha, woven centuries ago, looked down from the thanka that covered the whole front wall of the monastery. The revered tapestry had been carried here as a roll and carefully revealed even before we arrived. Pilgrims touched the hem of the cloth with awe as their lips moved in prayer.

It was 3 am and the last day of the Paro festival. High in the Himalayas, the temperature was near freezing so spectators, Bhutanese and foreigners alike, huddled together and shivers ran through the groups like waves. There was a warm room nearby reserved for tourists but none of us felt tempted to move. The scene in front of us came out of the mists of time.

My mind struggled in the numbing cold to absorb every element of the scene. In several ways what I was witnessing was so ephemeral that each moment was precious. In the short term, the tanka ceremony was to conclude with the dawn. Sunlight has never touched the tapestry because at first light it is rolled up and stored for another year. First light was only a few hours away. In the longer term, it is hard to imagine this tranquil medieval ceremony surviving into next century.

James Hilton wrote "Lost Horizon" more than 50 years ago. Since 1933 when that book introduced the concept of Shangri-la, all the likely candidate countries have lost their magic. Only one country has been largely overlooked - Bhutan.

I visited Bhutan last year and discovered Shangri-la does exist. I also found that Bhutan's isolation from the rest of the world is very deliberate and achieving Bhutanese aims. Although highly civilised and extremely hospitable, the Bhutanese people permit just 4000 tourists a year to visit their country. Immigration from neighbouring India and Nepal is actively discouraged.

Bhutan is a tiny independent kingdom about the size of Switzerland high in the Himalayas. Its neighbours are Tibet, Sikkim and India. The northern part of the country lies within the foothills, snowfields and jagged ramparts of Chomolhari range of the Himalayas. From here, it slopes down to the plains of West Bengal.

Culturally it has the uncorrupted richness that Tibet must have had. Miraculously, Bhutan still has the atmosphere of an idealised medieval kingdom. It is a perfect Tantric Buddhist society frozen in time. Towns and valleys are dominated by dzongs, imposing fortress monasteries where monks and civil administrators intermingle. There are cars and tarred city streets, even some narrow winding highways, but, for much of the nation, life has changed little in the past few centuries. Traffic still gives way to yaks and many villagers have to walk several days to a shop.

To understand Bhutan we must look at the fate of its neighbours, the other potential Shangri-las. For many years, Tibet was considered the perfect stereotype - until the Han Chinese took it over and the Dalai Lama fled in 1950. It now houses thousands of Chinese troops and has a Holiday Inn. Kashmir was another option but political unrest has taken the gloss off its image. Sikkim is now effectively part of crowded India and Darjeeling has had a tourist boom since Kashmir closed.

Within a generation, travel's furthest frontiers have largely disappeared. Many lament their passing. In 1953, Edmund Hillary had to walk from India to Kathmandu in Nepal before he even started to climb Mount Everest. No country in the world remains as remote as that today. In the 1960s, Kathmandu and Nepal became the hippy Nirvana. Nepal remains a wonderful place to visit but among its Toyotas-and-trekking tourist culture it's hard to capture any remaining mysticism.

Then there is Bhutan. This is a country so remote that until China took over Tibet, Bhutan regarded the pass to Tibet as its main access to the outside world. On any scale of remoteness, there must be a special prize for a country that regards Tibet as mainstream.

Although technology has put Paro just an hour or so by air from Kathmandu and Calcutta and four hours from Bangkok, Bhutanese has always endeavoured to maintain its cultural integrity. It's law that houses must be built in the ornate local style and all Bhutanese must wear their national dress (Tibetan-style robes) at all times. There's one local radio station - but you need a special licence to receive corrupting Indian television. Until 1968, Bhutan didn't even have currency. Rather it relied on barter of butter, rice, cheese, meat and wool. The Beatles had long split up before Bhutan's first currency note appeared in 1974.

And it's illegal to be a lawyer in Bhutan. People are required to settle disputes privately - or represent themselves in court.

Tourism, that ultimate destroyer of unique cultures, is closely regulated in Bhutan. Until the 1970s, tourist visas were simply impossible to obtain.

What do you find if you come to Bhutan? Well, you certainly don't come for the food. Bhutan may air freight wonderful asparagus to Hong Kong but the national dish is Ima Dachi, that is, boiled chillies cooked in a cheese sauce. This is a nation that regards chilli as a vegetable not a condiment!

Actually, by Himalayan standards the food in Bhutan is quite good and the standard of hygiene is excellent. But after you've tried the red rice, which is very nice, and the fried ferns, meals can become monotonous. The best hotel accommodation is comfortable, warm and clean but is certainly not luxurious.

But, landing at Paro, such considerations are furthest from one's mind. The short flight times to the Land of the Thunder Dragon make the temporal dislocation from the twentieth century all the more startling. Scarlet cloaked Buddhist monks swirl around the tiny, dusty terminal, and a large religious fortress looms above. Farms cling to impossible slopes and icy Himalayan ramparts shine through in the distance.

Within a few hours of landing, we were outside town on the short walk to Taksang Monastery. Legend has it that a founder of Bhutanese Buddhism arrived here flying on the back of a tiger. It must have been a very sure-footed cat because Taksang appears to grow out of a vertical cliff face. It is the most photographed feature of Bhutan. Close up, the monastery is a 300 year-old aesthetically perfect architectural feat. It's even worth the very steep 1000 metre climb to see it.

Active travellers will find that Bhutan is a wonderful place to trek. Those parts of the landscape that aren't hills are mountains. The season runs from April to November and donkeys, rather than porters, carry the loads - Bhutanese don't see themselves as beasts of burden. Walking these mountain trails offers a special challenge to the unwary: many archery grounds lie across the pathways. Archery is the national sport - and the only Olympic event it contests.

Some 65 per cent of Bhutan is covered in forest. By an act of Parliament it can never drop below 60 per cent. As Lyonpo Dorji, Minister and Chairman of the Planning Commission told me: "You people have messed up your countries and are now trying to undo the damage. We are in the fortunate position that we haven't ruined Bhutan and don't intend to."

This is not a crowded country: it has a population of about half a million.

And Buddhism permeates every aspect of life. Bhutanese believe that even tiny plants have souls and monastery walls display elaborate paintings of the special hell reserved for those who squash insects.

Thimpu, the national capital, is a more bustling town than rustic Paro. Its population is about 15000 and the main street of Norzim Lam is where you'll shop for Bhutanese handicrafts. Its tiny shopping area is a single strip of wooden buildings where three storeys is high rise and the bridges are festooned in prayer flags.

Here, too, is Tashichoedzong, the seat of government which also houses a rich collection of murals and sculptures. Every surface appears to be elaborately carved with crests and dragons and religious symbols.

With a calendar crowded with religious festivals, Bhutan is the most spectacular cultural experience in the world. Most visitors plan their trips to coincide with a festival. The main ones are: Paro (March), Thimpu (August), and Wangdi (October).

During the festivals, people flock into the towns and everyone is wearing their very best, elaborately embroidered, clothes. However, Bhutanese wear their distinctive national dress year round. While more simple than their festive finery, the striped men's tunic (rather like a knee-length kimono) and the women's dress fastened at the shoulders and pulled in around the waist by a wide belt are striking enough.

I visited Bhutan with a group that had travelled widely throughout the Himalayas from Pakistan to Sikkim. At Paro airport waiting to fly out, we discussed our various experiences and our quests to find the perfect Himalayan paradise. I asked them where they would venture next. After several moments of silence, one stated what we were all thinking "We've found it. My next trip - and the one after - will be back to Bhutan."

If you have ever fantasised about visiting a place where every house is a work of art, where peace and quiet predominate, there is no crime, and where monks in saffron robes are part of every street scene, visit Bhutan. You'll join a select group of world travellers who have discovered Shangri-la.

For more information:

Bhutan is a difficult country to find out about. The starting point is to buy a copy of Introduction to Bhutan (282pp, Odyssey Guides, 1991) by Francoise Pommaret for $19.95. This is the only guidebook to Bhutan and can be obtained from the Travel Bookshop at 20 Bridge St, (02) 241 3554.

David McGonigal © David McGonigal Pty Ltd