I suspect that a lot of people haven't even heard of this tiny Himalayan kingdom and that would be fair enough. Don't beat yourself up if you don't know Bhutan - most people can't find it on a map so you're not alone. Bhutan is tucked away in the Himalaya mountain range, sandwiched between Tibet and India.
By strictly controlling who comes in and who goes out, the Bhutanese adopted a tactic that reminds me of Douglas Adams' creation the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal. This creature appears in the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy as a "mindboggingly stupid animal" (not that I'm suggesting in anyway that the Bhutanese approach is anything less than wise) which assumed that if you can't see it, then it can't see you. By looking inwards and ignoring the outside world, Bhutan has long been hiding in plain sight.
So where should I start to write about such a bizarre place? As Julie Andrews would say 'Let's start at the very beginning'.......
~ A is for Archery ~
The ancient art of "bows-and-arrows" is the National Sport of Bhutan. Bhutan likes 'National' things as you'll discover later. I did wonder if archery had grown from a history of hunting small furry critters for food but I was wrong. Archery is not about food it's about war - shooting at invading Tibetan armies or fighting with your neighbours. In a country with tricky terrain that limits many of the usual forms or warfare, archery remained an effective form of warfare.
On any Sunday afternoon when any self-respecting young man in Europe would be out playing football with his friends or drinking down the pub, his Bhutanese counterpart can be found in his traditional dress (plus expensive trainers) with his ultra-technical bow firing arrows at a target no bigger than a football 150 meters away. Forget your normal 'big ringed target with pretty colours about 50 m away - this is hard-core archery. I struggled to even see the target, it was so far away. And the only way you can tell if the archer has hit it, is that all his pals on his team start dancing and singing and jeering at the other team. It's a bit like badly behaved crown green bowling. And so confident are the local stray dogs that they'll happily curl up and sleep in the middle of the archery grounds without any fear.
~ B is for Buddhism ~
The twin pillars of Bhutanese society are Royalty and Religion and the religion is Buddism - or more strictly Buddhism mixed with quite a lot of superstition and animism. In an average day on our tour 4 or 5 different things would happen that we'd be told were auspicious or inauspicious - seeing grey langur monkeys for example is lucky but brown langurs aren't. Bizarre.
But back to Buddhism. Amongst Bhutanese attractions that pull in visitors from all over the world, it's the temples and the scenery that sit at the top table. Most towns have a 'dzong' - a castle-like building that's a combination of monastery and fortress. You'll also find lots of goempas (or gompas) and lhakhangs which are monasteries, either for teaching or meditation. There are thousands of stupas and chortens (strange little monuments that generally commemorate something or are placed to prevent some kind of inauspicious energy) and prayer wheels which all must be circumnavigated in a clockwise direction. We even saw a small stupa slap-bang in the middle of a narrow mountain road - presumably lucky but probably not for any driver who isn't paying attention. Traditionally every family – and families are large – would give at least a son or two to the temple to train as a monk and we met red-robed monks from just a few years old up to elderly gentlemen.
The mainstay of the Bhutanese tourist calendar are the festivals. Always held in the dzongs and monasteries, the monks dress up and dance for the admiration of large crowds of camera-wielding foreigners who pay even more to be in the country at festival time. One of the most famous of these festivals takes place in the Phobjika valley which is the stopping-off place for black cranes. The festival involves people dressing up as cranes and flapping around.
~ C is for the Coronation ~
You may have seen on the news that in November 2008 the Bhutanese crowned their 5th King. He's a good-looking 28 year old with sideburns and more than a touch of the young Elvis about him which is apparently not accidental. We met a couple whose daughter studied at university with the 5th king and said he was known to be a massive Elvis fan. The 4th King is still around - he abdicated in favour of his son a couple of years back. Bearing in mind that he has four wives, I guess he needed a bit of a rest after being the country's longest serving monarch.
The Bhutanese certainly seem to adore their royal family and during our visit, everyone and everywhere was getting ready for last week's coronation. Since it falls in the centenary year of the royal family, royal-fever was at fever pitch with lots of people wearing badges with the faces of the two kings.
The coronation celebrations took place over several days and several of the dzongs we visited were decorated and full of locals practicing some really 'lame' dances for the king's visit. King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck hopefully has a finer appreciation of such dances than we did.
~ D is for Drukair ~
The national carrier of Bhutan is called Druk Air. The country has one airport, one airline and two planes - some reports suggest there might be another two but I'm not convinced. No other airline is allowed to schedule flights at the airport and only 8 pilots worldwide are qualified to land at Paro Airport which works on Visual Site Rules - i.e. if you can't see the runway, don't land; if you can't see the mountains, don't take off.
Druk Air has the sort of monopoly that thankfully rarely exists these days and it's very well protected. It's a condition of getting your visa that all visitors (with the exception of Indian passport holders who can use the road border at Phoentsholing if they can face a horrible drive) must either enter or leave the country through Paro airport. So there's a monopoly supply and a legal obligation to use the carrier which - not surprisingly - leads to high prices and a general lack of respect for the art of timetabling. Your scheduled flight time is not so much a commitment as a suggestion. We met a woman who was two days late arriving from Khatmandu because Druk kept changing the flight times. Considering that once you arrive your tour is highly regimented and inflexible, Druk's habit of flying when they feel like it can be a major inconvenience. However, the service on-board is good, the pilots keep pointing out which big mountains (Everest, Lhotse, Makalu, Kanchenjunga) are outside your window and the crew are very nice. Don't be surprised though if your flight leaves and/or arrives at a completely different time than you expected or doesn't stop somewhere it's supposed to on the way.
~ E is for Ema Datse - the National Dish ~
This scary concoction has a name which means chillies and cheese - and that's pretty much what's in it. Most of the food served up to tourists is dull and bland in the extreme but often at the end of your hotel buffet there will be one smaller, innocuous looking dish of 'something green in white sauce'. Don't be tempted to mistake those green bits for green beans or green peppers; they are chillies and they are hot. In any other country, chillies are seen as a spice but in Bhutan, they are used as a vegetable. You have been warned!