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Kingdom In The Clouds

Under the spell of remote monasteries and breathtaking peaks in a tiny Himalayan country

March 21, 1999|STUART RIDSDALE | Stuart Ridsdale is a Hong Kong-based freelance writer

PARO, Bhutan — High over the Himalaya, as the little 70-passenger Druk-Air jet began its descent toward the airstrip at Paro, the captain gave a running commentary on the snowy mountainscape we could see outside the window--Everest, Lhotse, Makalu and Kanchenjunga.

"I will be maneuvering the plane steeply into the valley, so you may find the trees and the mountains a little closer than usual," the voice warned, tongue in cheek.

Steep, forested mountainsides rushed forward. Isolated houses on ridges just a few hundred feet below whizzed by. Nervously, my wife and I contemplated the alarming proximity of the Himalaya as the aircraft did a tight turn at the end of the valley, swooped down over a rushing river and came to rest on the thin airstrip.

The sense of being somewhere different starts the moment you fly into Bhutan. As we stepped out of our aircraft into the 7,500-foot-high Paro Valley, we saw sturdy wood and mud Bhutanese houses sitting on a hillside right over the runway. From the terminal, not much larger than a log cabin, we watched our bags being manhandled from the aircraft just a hundred yards away. (The new, larger airport terminal that was going up right next door that day is scheduled to open the first week of April.))

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 28, 1999 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 6 Travel Desk 2 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Bhutan tours--Due to an editing error, the price for Bhutan Travel's eight-night fall festival tour ("Kingdom in the Clouds," March 21) was misstated. The price is $2,000 per person; the price listed in the story's Guidebook box, $2,790, is for an 11-night trip.

The tiny kingdom of Bhutan received 6,000 visitors in 1998--more than 20% of them Americans--an astonishingly small number given the country's rich, Tibetan-influenced heritage and the lure of its high Himalayan peaks and valleys.

But this is how the royal government of Bhutan wants it. Tourism is not restricted; anybody can visit. But the kingdom shuns mass tourism, preferring instead what it calls "quality tourism." The quality experience comes at a price: a daily tariff of up to $250 per person. In return, visitors get an all-inclusive deal that ensures a guide throughout their stay as well as transport, lodgings, meals and cultural or trekking tours.

Bhutan's approach to tourism reflects its cautious approach to development generally, with environmental and cultural preservation the cornerstones of government policy. The kingdom is steering a "path toward sustainable development." The king has often been quoted as saying that "gross national happiness" is more important than "gross national product."

We arrived in Bhutan a year ago in the quiet--and cold--winter season. Within an hour of touching down, we were in the Druk Hotel in Paro (there's also one in Thimphu, the capital). Set among pine trees on a hillside above the town and built in traditional Bhutanese architectural style, its fresh whitewashed exterior glowed in the bright afternoon sunshine. Inside, our new home was spacious and stately; we just about had the place to ourselves. We were led up a wide, impressive staircase into a room with big, double windows that opened out onto a deep and satisfying panorama of the Paro Valley.

The proximity of Tibet makes it a strong presence here, although the Bhutanese have their own distinct identity and separate, complex culture. We saw the Tibetan legacy when we quickly made our way down from the hotel onto an ancient covered footbridge crossing the Paro River. From here, there was a good view of Paro Dzong, one of Bhutan's spectacular fortified monasteries, built in the 17th century by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, a monk who fled persecution in Tibet. We spent a few quiet minutes admiring the dazzling white symmetry of the dzong. Here was a building that had not suffered the neglect and wanton destruction that its cousins north of the Himalayas have suffered at the hands of China.

Below us, the clear waters of the river flowed from the distant, high mountains, dusted with recent snow. Beyond the bridge, monks walked quietly in the lengthening shadows of a tidy, tree-lined avenue. We had been in Bhutan less than three hours, and already it had us in its spell.

This may be a small, remote country, but English is widely spoken. It and Dzongkha, the national language, are both taught in schools. So even outside the capital, where English speakers are less prevalent, you can usually find a school-age child with whom you can converse.

There was still enough daylight to go a few miles farther to Drugyel Dzong. This monastery once guarded a trade route to the Tibetan border town of Phari, just 16 miles away, but was partially destroyed by fire in the 1950s. Undeterred, we climbed to the highest part of the ruin, from where we watched the last of the day's sunlight draw back into high, snowy slopes that lead up to 24,156-foot Mt. Jomolhari.

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