~ P is for Permits ~
Another reason you'll need to have a guide is that your local tour company is responsible for getting your permits. Almost everything worth seeing in Bhutan is barred to tourists unless they have a permit. You'll notice your guide fumbling in the pouch of his gho for the paperwork he needs to present to the caretaker monk at each old temple. Despite seeing this happen repeatedly, I'm still not clear how it works. When we asked to stop at a dzong which wasn't officially on the itinerary, our guide just popped off to the office to get an old permit photocopied. I liked to think that someone in an office with a rubber stamp had carefully considered whether to allow us to visit or not, maybe checked we were of good character, took up references and googled us to make sure there were no embarrassing Face Book pages – but it seems sometimes all you need is a photocopier.
~ Q is for Queens ~
The fourth king has four queens; apparently they are all sisters. This is a clever approach – four wives but only one Mother-in-law. The Royal Family is large and with the fourth king abdicating but still on the scene, there are several generations of ex-queens still knocking around. One old queen stands out when you see the many photographs of the old kings - I believe she was the third queen's wife and was a woman of outstanding beauty. The new king is cute and single so likely to be - as Jane Austin would have put it - 'in want of a wife'. Apparently he caused a big stir with the ladies of Thailand during a state visit but chances are, he'll marry a Bhutanese lady.
These multiple queens bring me to a topic that just as easily could have been under P - polygamy. I'm not sure what legislation is in place but it's not only men who can have multiple spouses. In the wild lands of the north, polyandry is also practiced, usually with one woman marrying several brothers in order to prevent division of lands and farms. Somehow the idea of four men to pick up after, feed and 'entertain' doesn't come high on my list of attractive concepts.
~ R is for Regulations ~
Tourism in Bhutan is very very regulated but then so is everything else. There are prescribed ways to do almost everything and the whole country is like an impenetrable secret society of funny handshakes and code words. Entering some of the temples and dzongs, our guide had to rush off and find his large heavily fringed shawl that needs to be folded in a particularly complex and illogical fashion. Inside the dzongs you can identify who's who status-wise by the colour of their scarves - royal family in saffron, ministers in red and so on. Since there seem to be only about a half dozen different patterns for the fabric of the gho (although our guide insisted you could have it made in any fabric - I'm doubting there are too many denim, leather, or sequinned ghos) you can find your driver in the same outfit as the king. So it might be useful to have the high-ups distinguished from the hoi-polloi at state occasions. But surely there's something simpler than several yards of drapery – arm bands maybe? Baseball caps? Maybe not.
~ S is for Stamps ~
As the old saying goes, Philately will get you everywhere - and in Bhutan, bizarrely, stamps are big business. Since almost every other souvenir is prohibitively expensive, a visit to the General Post Office in the centre of Thimphu is a good way to source some unusual gifts for your friends, family and people on whom you don't want to spend too much. Bhutan's post office produces zillions of different commemorative stamp sheets and has a thriving international first day cover trade. Along with tourism, flogging electricity to the Indians and something else that I can't remember at the moment but it might be selling potatoes, stamps are in the top 4 income generators for Bhutan. If your country is celebrating the 34th international tiddly winks extravaganza, the Bhutan post office will probably be doing a sheet of commemoratives. First Belgian in space? No problem, they probably did that one. 90th anniversary of the invention of Velcro, there's probably one for that as well. There is no anniversary or event too insignificant to appear on a Bhutanese stamp.
We picked up some sheets for Cats of the World, Dogs of the World, Japanese paintings, History of the Royal Family and goodness knows what else. We also bought the world's first CDROM stamps because they seemed like such a novelty. It would be fascinating - well mildly interesting I suppose - to know what proportion of Bhutanese stamps actually get stuck on envelopes and posted. My guess is it's a tiny amount.
~ T is for Tiger's Nest ~
The Tiger's Nest is the iconic image of Bhutan that appears on all the posters and websites. It's a monastery SO beautiful that they built it 900 meters up a cliff face clinging to the bare rock-face. I believe this was probably just to ensure you really have to suffer to get there. OK, that's not actually true but it's how it felt when we visited. Bearing in mind the average age of visitors, keeping in mind that the Tiger's Nest is often visited very early in a trip when you may not have acclimatised to the lower oxygen levels, it's quite a challenge. The temple is built at a site where it's said that Guru Rinpoche - the man who brought Buddhism to Bhutan - meditated for three months in a cave after flying up the cliff on a winged tigress. It has burned down repeatedly (a common problem in temples with lots of butter-lamps) and was most recently damaged in 1998. According to my guidebook, a few years ago it still wasn't open to the public.
If your knees or lungs won't deal with the climb, there's an option to go about half way up with horses. They take you to the so-called Cafeteria building which offers fabulous views and cups of tea with biscuits. I would have felt it was cheating to have gone by horse - as well as fairly scary in places.