If one delves into the history of trousers, one finds that it is replete with practicalities. Excitingly, trousers were first worn by impressively named historical coteries such as the Scythian Horsemen. These Scythian Horsemen went around terrorising simple country folk by galloping around the deserts and steppes booming “I am a Scythian Horseman. Submit!”. One could not fail to be subjugated by such a charismatically delivered imperative.
This particular sort of threat, usually also made by so many other horsemen groupies of the time, was for once not undermined by the cold air of the steppes making an impression on their bits thanks to the trousers. This therefore prevented the simple folk from making an immediate appraisal of the situation at eye level before them and concluding from a sweeping glance that the conquerors were not, in fact, related to horse-kind in any way. Due to the success of the Scythians, it was clear from that time onwards that skirts were on their way out.
Other groups followed upon the practical success of these Scythians. Chinese soldiers, French peasants, Italian sailors and American miners. It is then clear that trousers are for a practical-minded person. In fact while all these clothing revolutions were on-going for commoners, robes and dresses were still all the rage for the aristocracy, whichever of these two categories your clothes fell into depended on whether you were male or female, or for that matter, whether you were English or French.
Bhutan then, must be full to the brim with aristocracy since no one wears trousers. It is quite possibly the only country in the world left for which the outfit of choice for men about town is not the Western suit. Instead the Gho is to the Bhutanese as the shirt and tie is to us, a sort of large robe hiked up to the knees by means of a woven belt wound around your real waist so tightly, it can only be meant to heighten the impression of thin air at high altitudes.
Bhutan then, seems not to be a country of the practical-minded. But then one comes to some conundrums of definition. The term practical begets a final purpose, and one must allow for differences in final purposes across cultures. Over the course of history, we have been persuaded that purpose has changed from spearing enough fish for dinner, to polishing political and philosophical rhetoric, to ensuring stability in empire building and now to maximising financial growth. Bhutan however, enjoys the benefits of benevolent monarchs, only enjoyed by even the greatest of nations in the shortest of periods for their periods of greatest advancement. One may point to monarchs such as Henry IV of France and Elizabeth I of England who spearheaded the Renaissance of their own countries.
The whole point of having a monarch isn’t to tell people whether or not they should have their tea poured in before the milk. It is to iron over small and irrelevant mountains of dissent. The French have a saying that if you want to fill in a swamp, you don’t ask the frogs to vote. Here in Bhutan, the monarch, a man who must have been well-steeped in typical oxfordian traditions of queens, teas and pot of the usual university blend, has decreed that the final purpose here is happiness. Happiness has been defined as a confluence of 7 separate statistical matrices, only one of which is the economy. This of course immediately sounds like the sort of mumbling red herring talk about the loveliness of the gear knob that one gets when one is confronting a second-hand car dealer about accident history. Some investigation was therefore due.
A trip to Bhutan from Singapore is a little tricky. Because the only airline departs from Bangkok on the only flight of the day in the wee hours of the morning, a stay in the airport hotel overnight is mandatory for all but the very brave or absurdly fortuitous to already be in Bangkok in the first place. Fortunately the Novotel, which was meant to be umbilically attached to Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport but in the context of the usual Thai political shenanigans has therefore not been physically connected after all, is more than sufficient for the task. Its clean and very generously sized rooms overlook a large central lobby, reminiscent of a mini Luxor of Vegas complete with slightly tacky Ionic columns supporting faux lintels. If one is on an extended vacation, I would highly recommend spending a few days in central Bangkok in the Four Seasons overdosing on decadent hedonism first then hightailing to Bhutan for the complete opposite.
This is not to say that Bhutan is a voluntary military boot camp. Some would say in fact that Bhutan retains the essence of true luxury. Luxury pared back to its elegant essentials. Luxury that remains exclusive, an enclave of privacy and service, unrevealed to the masses, dreamt of by all. Luxury that harks back to the time where nothing was too much trouble, everything was bespoke and one-to-one.
A few clues present themselves on the Druk Air flight to Bhutan. Druk Air maintains that the reason they are the only carrier to Bhutan is a lack of travel demand necessary to create competition, but whatever the reason, the usual fears of monopolies creating laxness and a poor quality product are unfounded. Though the lack of economies of scale for Druk Air make their flight rather expensive and basic, the air is of genuine helpful friendliness, the lack of scale conversely contributing to the boutique make-do feel of a good Austrian mountain hotel & restaurant, rather than the supreme crushing efficiency of Singapore Airlines. For instance the leather seats on the plane are wide and supportive for a broad person like myself, and yet come with no leg rests, a strange combination especially for a business class flight. And you will be on a business class flight because there is no significant difference between an economy or business class priced seat. The meals aren’t spectacular yet the coffee comes alive on your tongue, a welcome treat served with an eager need to please. These are the dichotomies of Bhutan which present themselves in greater detail upon arrival.
Our guide, assigned to us by the Amankora, was himself a fascinating mix. Tashi, a handsome and voluble man in his mid-twenties who professed to be part-time hip hop junkie, all-time Buddhist adherent, rest-of-time Playstation addict, he was our window and doorway into Bhutan, his similarity in age to us yet close following to the development of Bhutan enabled our understanding of the country. If all guides from the Aman are anything like him, then one must expect to be mesmerised by Bhutan.