by Stan Armington
Lonely Planet Hawthorn (Australia), 1998
309 pp, USD 12.99
ISBN 0 86442 483 3
Visiting Bhutan is an honour bestawed an the few who get to go. Here is a book that will help make you make the best of it.
Bhutan is one of those South Asian destinations meant for a few hardy tourists, and even fewer researchers, scholars and development workers. Isolated geographically at the eastern end of the Himalaya, and culturally by a policy that discourages hordes of visitors, it remains a remote and intriguing place; the locals have limited access to the international media—national television and Internet will be arriving only later this year. Visiting Bhutan is an honour, and living and working here (as this reviewer does), all the more so. Thus, it’s welcome that a new and truly well-written book about the country, its geography, history, culture and society, has appeared.
The few outsiders who go to Bhutan each year have gradually contributed to the growing literature about Bhutan. Stan Armington’s is the latest ‘guidebook’ to the country, and it does an excellent job of bridging both touristic and scholarly interests; with the one informing the other in such a way that both the casual and the sophisticated reader gets to learn a great deal.
Armington is a well-known figure in Himalayan travel. He first toured Nepal in 1969, then stayed on as a trekking guide, and is now the owner-operator of one of the largest trekking firms in Nepal. He has travelled to Bhutan numerous times, exercising a keen eye and a lucid pen in the preparation of this book.
I would briefly examine Bhutan from two points of view. One, as the curious visitor, whether he or she travels by car, treks, or is in the armchair; and the other, from the perspective of an anthropologist who sees in it a comprehensive glimpse of some of the richness and wonder that make Bhutan such an awesome destination.
For the regular tourists, Armington offers pretty much what they would want and need to know: notes on health and safety, travel to and within the country, key aspects of geography and society, including the languages spoken (with a section on useful phrases, and a glossary), all listed in a detailed index. The colour photographs are splendid, and there are numerous small maps, although readers would have gained much more had there been a large topographical road map.
The section on “Facts for Visitors” is especially interesting, with sage advice —on barking dogs, challenging toilets, various annoyances and dangers (altitude, winding roads, vehicle breakdowns, the weather, leeches, hotel services), and for those with particular lifestyle persuasions (such as gay, lesbian). There are also tips on responsible trekking behaviour, the social importance of gift-giving, and even one on how to put on the Bhutanese national dress (the men’s gho and the women’s kim). The descriptions of travel and trek routes, spectacular landscapes and of local attractions, are thorough without being tedious. The style is quick, to the point, and often witty.
From a mildly scholarly perspective, Bhutan has no dearth of interesting asides in special sections and boxes. Armington does a great job, in a few pages, of relaying the basics of Bhutanese history (religious, secular and political), and backs it up with a good bibliography. The book also touches on current affairs (both internal and regional), including the ethnic troubles along the southern border (where tourists rarely go).
Armington is superb in his description of one of Bhutan’s most popular and fascinating cultural attractions, the annual Dances of Tsechu, which is held at virtually every goemba (a Mahayana Buddhist monastery or temple) and dzong (a fortress-monastery) in the country, in each place at a different time. Armington then colourfully describes the figures of “Drukpa Kagya Buddhism”, interprets the Buddhist “Guardians of the Four Directions”, and dwells on Bhutanese textiles, stamps and the different types of the ubiquitous prayer flag.
Of particular interest to this reviewer is Armington’s coverage of the life, history, geography and culture of central Bhutan (Bumthang) and the far east (Mongar, Lhuentse, Yangtse and Trashigang). Bumthang’s central Choskhar Valley is one of Bhutan’s culturally significant sites, with the Jakar (white bird) town and the impressive Jakar Dzong at its centre. For many, Choskhar, with some of the oldest temples, is Bhutan’s religious heartland. Bumthang’s temples house some beautiful and ancient wall paintings, some of which unfortunately are in acute deterioration.
It is in upper Choskhar Valley that one can see the beautiful and rare black-necked cranes in season. It is one of only a few places in Bhutan where they winter-over. Armington describes some interesting day walks around Bumthang and its vicinity, to many of the more famous sites. The photography is spectacular.
Mongar is the next town of size beyond Jakar, a seven-hour, 193-km drive through some of Bhutan’s most exciting landscapes. On the way, the traveller passes through the smaller Ura Valley, with its almost Swiss-like farms and villages. Then the road becomes narrow with abrupt curves passing along some very steep cliffs. After crossing Thrumsing La (pass) at 3750 m, it rapidly drops 3200 m to Lingmethang within a distance of only 84 km.
Near Mongar, a side road leads up into the geologically impressive and historically important valley of the upper Kuri Chhu river, once an important trade route to Tibet. The Kuri Chhu is a major headwater of the Manas river system which drains eastern Bhutan into Assam, where it joins the mighty Brahmaputra. For the adventurous traveller, the upper Kuri Chhu is noted for its thrilling “Class-5” kayaking. Trashigang, 92 km beyond Mongar, was also a major trade centre. It is dominated by a brightly painted 17th-century dzong strategically perched high above the Kulong Chhu, and is the site of the famous Iron Bridge, first built two centuries earlier.
A side road from Trashigang leads to Trashiyangtse, in the neighbouring Yangtse district. Yangtse is famous for its hand-made wooden bowls, black-necked cranes in winter, and the sacred Chorten Kora, site of an annual pilgrimage and a colourful fair. The Chorten Kora is patterned after the larger Boudhanath Stupa of Kathmandu Valley. Local legend has it that a monk went to Kathmandu and carved a model of Boudhanath into a large white radish, with which he returned to Yangtse to build a replica. “The reason that Chorten Kora is not an exact copy of Boudhanath,” writes Armington, “is because the radish shrunk during the trip and distorted the carving a bit.
The book is full of such charming tidbits of fact and fancy. Armington writes briefly, and well, of each major site along the way, and describes in boxes some of the more interesting aspects of religion and history of the region. And while many guidebooks are cut and dried, each reading very much like the other, where Armington succeeds is in the dose of adventure he injects into the book
Bhutan is, in sum, an excellent resource and traveller’s compendium, sure to become a classic among guidebooks. This is the most encyclopaedic, practical source of information on Bhutan yet published for popular consumption, in a readily comprehensible style. This one will be hard to beat.