Jewel of the Himalayas
“Mention the country to a lot of people and their first reaction is ‘where is it?’ That’s if they’ve heard of it at all," says Anthony Eddies-Davies. “Most people give a blank look – and then confuse it with Borneo." There are few closed societies left on the planet, but Eddies-Davies, the founder of Live The Adventure, has the keys to one: Bhutan (and, for those unsure, Bhutan is on the Himalayas’ eastern edge, bordering China and India).
The adventurer, educator and guide was asked by the royal family to visit the country 10 years ago to chart its river systems. Bhutan then had one road running east/west, while the many rivers running north/south offered the potential to open up the largely unexplored country. What Eddies-Davies found there was a place ripe for a special kind of tourism.
“When I was asked to go, to be honest I knew nothing about Bhutan myself," he says. “But it’s stunning. It’s a very conservative country and in many respects it’s like stepping back 150 years. There’s a big emphasis on national dress, certain styles of architecture and traditional culture. It’s unique, exclusive, still largely closed off and the royals (Bhutan only transitioned from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy in 2008) have every intention of keeping it that way. They’ve started at the five-star level and may only work their way down the scale in time."
Consequently, while the homegrown tourist industry is gaining momentum – Eddies-Davies is training its key institutions in best practice, service standards, regulations and the like – his company last year became the only one outside Bhutan to be accredited by the country’s tourism council. And while the few travellers who get to Bhutan have historically been drawn, predictably, to its many monasteries and fortresses, Eddies-Davies sees it as having more potential for the active holiday-maker.
“The landscape, from sub-tropical plains to mountain ranges, is very special," he argues. “There’s a real opportunity for what you might call extreme sports made accessible. There’s nowhere else where you can gently river-raft for days and step right up into an ancient temple – because the river system allows you to get deep into the country – or get to the top of a pass that allows a two-hour downhill mountain bike ride without having to peddle."
This year, Live The Adventure has introduced paddle-boarding too – since Bhutan happens to have any number of slow-moving rivers that are ideally suited to those who want to try the sport out. Other activities Eddies-Davies has facilitated include zip-wiring – naturally, on some of the longest, most spectacular zip-wires; hiking – over anything from a day to three days; and what he calls “colonial camping", which is to say camping of a more luxurious kind. Activities such as these can be tried in many places, but – Eddies-Davies argues – few also in the kind of pristine surroundings that make them that much more enjoyable. “You’re away from people – in fact, you’ll rarely see other tourists here," he says. “And there’s no air pollution. It’s a country that still has un-climbed mountains."
Ones, indeed, that the government says – since they’re of special cultural significance – will never be climbed. “The mentality is very much to keep the country pristine," says Eddies-Davies, noting that vast swathes of forestry has recently been given protected status – one reason why, since timber export was central to Bhutan’s economy, it is now turning more to tourism.
“Of course," he says, “the challenge will be to keep the balance between protection and opening up the country. You can see change happening so now is a good time to go. Some would call that a shame, but it’s the kind of change that needs to happen. If a single track road that gets washed away every monsoon is replaced by a proper, two-lane road, you have to see that as a good thing for the people who live there, and for those who want to explore it."