Dispatch, Bhutan: Pot plants and phalluses

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Dispatch, Bhutan

Travel Weekly Editor in Chief Arnie Weissmann recently traveled to the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. His first dispatch follows.

PARO, Bhutan — I’m a big fan of the Himalayas — the scenery, art, architecture and lifestyles — and have previously visited Tibet, Nepal and, in India, Darjeeling, Kashmir and Ladakh.

For decades, I’ve also longed to visit the remote kingdom of Bhutan, sandwiched between India and China, east of Nepal. (View a slideshow from Arnie's visit to Bhutan by clicking here or on the photos.) 

It has traditionally granted very few visas per year (as recently as 15 years ago, only about 2,000 visas were approved), and had narrowly restricted areas that could be visited.

Its relatively high minimum spending ($200 per day) discouraged backpackers, and, even now, unescorted travel is not allowed.

Marijuana plants in Bhutan

But things are changing quickly. It has maintained the $200 minimum but has opened up much more of the country. This year, Bhutan tourism officials estimate it will welcome 20,000 visitors. Next year, they’re shooting for 100,000.

And among the 20,000 in 2011, you can now count my wife, my two sons and me.

I’m going to be reporting about what Bhutan has to offer (and why it’s opening up) in a series of dispatches and a cover story in Travel Weekly in the coming days, but here’s a few first impressions:

On the way from the international airport in Paro to our first hotel, our guide, Mr. Nado, pointed out the marijuana plants that were growing wild along the road. (Mr. Nado, like many Bhutanese, has only one name. He is a tourism officer for the Tourism Council of Bhutan.)

He said that although the government tries to get rid of pot plants, the efforts have been largely unsuccessful. Bhutanese are not big recreational consumers of the plant, he added, but some farmers harvest it to feed to pigs. The result: Lethargic hogs with the munchies, which fattens them nicely.

Indeed, we were to see pot growing along hiking trails, roads and in unlandscaped areas just about everywhere we went. In the middle of Jakar, the main town in the region of Bumthang (pronounced “boom-tong”), we watched a municipal worker hacking down a huge stand of hemp plants, just trying to clear them out.

Another common, but unexpected, sight was the representation of phalluses. We saw them painted on the outside of restaurants, farm houses, shops, and even available on key rings in handicraft stores.

Phalluses in Bhutan

Note that I’m not saying phallic symbols. These are not the abstracted Shiva Lingams one sees in Hindu temples throughout India. These are detailed, accurate (except, perhaps, in scale) representations of male sexual organs.

They’re thought to bring fertility: to fields, to cash drawers and into families.

They also brought moments of acute embarrassment to my 8-year-old son, who could never quite get used to their presence.

Pot and phalluses are hardly the most important distinctions Bhutan has to offer. Its scenic beauty, people and culture are what define it as a must-visit destination.

But as far as first impressions go, these make quite an impression.

Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter. 

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