Bhutan: The Last Authentic Place on Earth

The mystical mountain idyll has made it one of the world's most coveted destinations. But when everyone wants a piece of paradise, can paradise stay intact?

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Bharat Sikka for TIME

Paro Taktsang, known as the Tiger's Nest, is an ancient Buddhist temple perched 10,200 ft. above Bhutan's Paro Valley

So in 1974, K4 slapped a minimum tariff on visiting foreigners. Depending on the season, it’s now $200 to $250 per person per day, covering room, board and local transportation; surcharges and taxes take the minimum closer to $300. K4 introduced other laws designed to insulate Bhutanese culture from unseemly foreign influences. TV was banned; the national dress was made compulsory and the Bhutanese language, Dzongkha, obligatory. All buildings, new or old, had to conform to traditional architectural style.

To K4, cultural preservation, as well as environmental conservation, was as important as economic growth. “It was the only way to save what it means to be Bhutanese,” says Kado Tshering, who was K4’s bodyguard and now runs a travel agency. “If he hadn’t been so careful, we’d have been lost.”

Slowly, the allure of the “real Shangri-la” (damn, I did it again!) began to grow. To cater to well-heeled tourists, boutique hotels started appearing, none swanker than the Amankora, part of the Aman Resorts chain, which arrived in Bhutan in 2004. Amankora is a minichain unto itself: five lodges sprinkled around the country, each providing luxury without overt opulence. By 2008, when K4’s reforms gave Bhutan its first democratic government, the annual number of tourist arrivals had hit 28,000, up from fewer than 300 in 1974.

Low Impact, High Volume
Bhutanese democracy is the gift of a King, not the reward of a revolution. (K4 abdicated in favor of his son Jigme Khesar Namgyel, who has mostly ornamental powers; today the retired K4 goes mountain biking and steers clear of the press.) But elected rulers have different compulsions than monarchs. Their re-election prospects demand quick results, and the quickest way to deliver is to goose the economy and produce employment. There’s pressure, too, to cope with another of K4’s legacies: greatly increased access to education in the 1980s has produced a generation of university graduates who have no desire to return to their parents’ farmsteads and instead require city jobs.

For Prime Minister Thinley, the solution was obvious: open the tourist tap. Arrivals soared to almost 65,000 in 2011 and are projected to touch 100,000 this year. Thinley doesn’t worry that the spurt in foreign arrivals will endanger the King’s preservation efforts. The tariff will remain, keeping out the backpacking hordes. Instead, Thinley hopes to attract wealthy, eco-conscious travelers who will spend big bucks for environmentally friendly adventuringtrekking, bird watching, kayakingin Bhutan’s mountains, valleys and rivers. “We’re evolving from low-volume, high-value tourism to low-impact, high-value tourism,” he says.

Thinley hopes to manage the flow so that visitors arrive all year round, not just in the spring and fall, and to distribute them across the country. That hasn’t happened yet. When my wife and I flew from Delhi to Bhutan’s only international airport in midsummer, the Drukair flight was practically empty, and there were few tourists in most of the towns we visited.

“They Had Special Powers”
Not that we were complaining. The three-hour trek up the narrow, sometimes precarious path to the Paro Taktsang, the temple complex known as the Tiger’s Nest, would be much less fun if we had to keep stopping to allow more-agile tourists to pass. We share the mountain only with a family of visiting Chinese, who are even slower.

The Tiger’s Nest is named after the mythical beast that carried the Guru Rinpoche, who brought Vajrayana Buddhism to Bhutan, to the mountaintop caves. Those who don’t bring their own flying jungle cats can take a pony ride nearly to the top, but we decide that would be cheating. Our bravado is rewarded with breathtaking views splashed with color: of the green Paro Valley, onto whose black rock the Tiger’s Nest is grafted; the ocher and orange of monks’ robes; the gold leaf of the statues of the Guru Rinpoche; and the endless lines of red, white, blue and yellow prayer flags strung from rocks and trees. Afterward, our knees and ankles are in pain, but it’s nothing an herbal hot-stone bath at the Amankora can’t cure.

Many Bhutanese make this trip before they can walk, usually on their parents’ backs. They believe that the first question asked of them in the afterlife is, “Have you visited the Tiger’s Nest?” (This trek is the second thing I’ve done to ease my path in the hereafter: in Bumthang, I cleansed my sins by walking three times around the inner sanctum of the Tamshing Lhakhang temple while wearing the 50-lb. chain-link jacket of a 16th century saint.)

Bhutan’s Kings, especially K4, are regular visitors at the temple complex. Built in the 17th century, it defies both gravity and civil engineering as it juts out from the sheer rock face. The country’s pre-eminent tourist destination was once the exclusive preserve of holy men, who have been traveling here since the 8th century to meditate in the mountains. The cave walls still bear faint remnants of early paintings of figures and scenes from Buddhist texts.

As we ascend the mountain, the structure seems at first to be carved from the rock face itself. Two lookout points offer better views, and it becomes clear that the people of the valley had to haul the building materials up the steep incline to build the magnificent thing.

How did prehelicopter Bhutanese do it? I ask an old man who has been meditating at the monastery for 40 years. “They had special powers,” he says. He shakes his head when I ask his name, as if such mundane matters have no place here. He stoops forward, as if his posture has adapted to constant climbing, and his gray eyes hint at wisdom acquired from long contemplation. I ought to be asking him the meaning of life.

Instead, I summon another quotidian question. How do today’s Bhutanese, with no special powers, manage to install long strings of prayer flags between mountains, across impossible chasms? He mimes the action of an archer pulling back an arrow on his bow. Of course. A traditional technique for a timeless need. In Shangri-la, there’s no more-authentic solution.

PHOTOSTravels Through Bhutan

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