Bhutan Goes Bonkers
'Bonkers Hits New Heights'
St Andrews business women with support of well-known St Andrews gift shop visits mountain kingdom in the foothills of the Himalayas.
Just before Christmas, local businesswoman Claire MacLeary realised a long-held ambition to visit, with her husband, Alistair, the tiny mountain kingdom of Bhutan.
Sandwiched between Tibet to the north and India to the south and sharing part of its border with China, landlocked Bhutan, with a population of around 700,000, has only allowed entry to foreigners for the past 40 years or so.
Even now, entry to this ‘Land of the Thunder Dragon’ is tightly controlled. Visitors must obtain a visa and travel on an all-inclusive tour booked through a government-licensed Bhutanese travel company.
Tourists are required to pay a type of development tax, which is used to fund education and healthcare. This charge (currently around $250 per person per day) includes food, accommodation and travel within the country. It is, nonetheless, high when the standard of accommodation (which is relatively simple in most places) is taken into account.
As part of Claire’s preparations for the trip, she established that, although education and healthcare in this small country are free, and begging frowned upon other than in a religious context, schools are grateful for small gifts of stationery, pens and pencils, monasteries for reading glasses and the entire populus, it seems, for ‘small flashlights’.
According to Tshering, Claire's travel agent, it is customary in Bhutan, in addition to making monetary donations to monasteries, to offer a small gift in return for hospitality.
left : 'The lama and senior tutor in his new sunglasses'
These were the most practical - and portable - gifts she could suggest.
Having combed the Pound Shops of Dundee for wind-up torches and reading glasses, Claire decided to pay a visit to the well-known St. Andrews gift emporium, Bonkers.
Enthusiastic owner Lindsey Adam was delighted to support Claire, and supplied her with a stock of Bonkers’ distinctive lime-green carrier bags, from which to dispense the original gifts and stationery for which the shop is so deservedly renowned.
(Above : 'Boy monks with their tutor at the temple of Lama Drukpa Kunley')
After flying to Calcutta, Alistair and Claire boarded Bhutan’s national carrier, Drukair, for the short flight into Paro. ‘We flew over Mount Everest,’ she recalls, ‘and my first impression of Bhutan was of wooded mountains dotted with painted alpine chalets - like a picture-postcard Swiss scene.’ This vision of loveliness was soon tempered, however, by the rigours of the trip: road travel within the country is slow - vehicles are rarely able to travel at more than 30mph; mountain roads are precipitous and beset by road-works, since landslips and monsoon rains constantly damage the road surface.
Bhutan is not a poor country - it exports hydro-electricity to India - yet its hotels do not have central heating, sometimes no hot water. Furnishings can be very basic, beds hard, and food is invariably buffet-style, lukewarm and comprising mainly rice and vegetables, meat and fish being imported from India. However, the grandeur of the scenery - soaring cypress trees, tiered rice paddies, rushing rivers, all with the backdrop of the snow-capped Himalayas - and the magnificence of its historic buildings far outweighed any discomfort we endured.
Whilst its monarchy has remained central to Bhutan - the king is still revered as a God - Bhutan’s Fourth King showed great prescience by instituting, in 2008, a democratic constitution. The government upholds the concept of Gross National Happiness, based around the four pillars of sustainable development, environmental protection, cultural preservation and good governance. Through this, they hope to maintain the customs and age-old traditions for which this unspoilt and deeply spiritual country is renowned.
Buddhism, the state religion, manifests itself everywhere - in the red robes of the monks and nuns, in the monasteries clinging to the mountain-sides, in the gilded buddhas and sweet-scented incense and the prayer flags fluttering across every mountain pass. The continuity of Bhutanese tradition is maintained by, among other measures, making national costume mandatory for schoolchildren and public servants, by the setting up of an Arts School in the capital, Thimpu, to preserve traditional crafts, and by instituting new festivals to augment those that have survived for centuries.
The Fourth King also abdicated in favour of his son - a handsome, university-educated thirty-something with a populist approach who last year married a beautiful, dark-haired girl, whose father just happens to have been an airline pilot... Now, does that sound familiar to Citizen readers?
Traversing the country from west to east, we visited majestic Dzongs - the defensive forts which are now used for religious and administrative purposes - remote monasteries (including the iconic Tiger’s Nest), and colourful village festivals. At the temple of Lama Drukpa Kunley (otherwise known as the divine mad monk) we were able to give gifts of stationery and torches to tiny boy monks. At Kila Goempa Nunnery, nestled in a crag on the mountain below the Chele la Pass, we drank tea with giggling nuns as they tried on reading glasses. In the remote Haa Valley, we shared our lunch - plus some souvenirs from St. Andrews - with a teacher from the village school.
We drank local whisky sitting on the floor of someone’s ‘front room’ in the weaving village of Khoma, were invited into the V.I.P. tent by the local lama at the Gyelposhing festival, exchanged pleasantries - and a couple of torches - with the husband and wife in charge of a pack train high in the mountains and sat in the sun watching an archery competition - Bhutan’s national sport.
We were overwhelmed by the gracious welcome we received from the highest lama in the land to labourers picnicing by the roadside. And everywhere we went our guide, Tashi, was able to delve into the boot of the car for the bright green Bonkers’ bags.