John Barton traveled to the Himalayan nation of Bhutan to go hiking. But, as has happened more than once in his life, golf came calling. “My wife and I love the Himalayas,” John said. We’d been on trekking adventures in Nepal and India, and were planning a trip to Bhutan. When the lady in New York who arranged our trip heard about what I did for a living, she mentioned it to one of her contacts in Bhutan, a man who is an avid golfer. He was thrilled that I was coming, and made sure to arrange some golf.”
Most westerners know little about Bhutan (Land of the Thunder Dragon), a tiny country the size of West Virginia that’s sandwiched between India to the south and China to the north. That’s largely because until the last few decades, tourists were not welcome. The ban on tourists was lifted in 1974, and today, a limited number of visitors are allowed, each paying a tariff of $200 a day (this keeps out the backpacker-types who are less likely to contribute to the local economy.) Those fortunate enough to make the long journey are not disappointed. The Bhutanese are warm people, still very influenced by Bhuddist traditions that seem mystical to the eyes of outsiders; think Tibet, without as many celebrities. And the surroundings are overwhelming. Ancient temples cling to hillsides, defying gravity, while the towering mountains – including 23,996 foot Jhomolhari, the “Mountain of the Goddess” — reach high into the clouds. Perhaps this proximity to the heavens helps lend Bhutan its sacred aura.
Bhutan is a nation at a bit of a crossroads, at an intersection where ancient traditions meets modernity as presented by the outside world. The perfect metaphor for Bhutan’s current state is found in the story of the country’s first stoplight. Several years ago, a stoplight was installed on the main street of the royal city and capital Thimphu (population of 35,000), enshrined in a chorten (a small Buddhist temple). After a short time, Thimphu’s residents decided that a stoplight was inconsistent with their lifestyle, and the light was removed on the King’s orders.
His Royal Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, however, has no issues with golf.
Golf is still a very new phenomena in Bhutan. The first course was constructed by an Indian army officer in the early 1970s on some fallow rice paddies in Thimphu. This track – 9-hole Royal Thimphu – remains the crown jewel of Bhutanese golf…and remains the country’s sole public course. (A few other private ‘courses’ – six holes here, eight holes there – are scattered about on military bases.) There are roughly 100 members at Royal Thimphu; each pays an annual fee of 6,000 ngultrum, approximately $130. While ornately carved Bhutanese masks and finely woven textiles are readily available in Thimphu’s markets, extra sleeves of Top-Flites are not. Bhutanese golfers must rely on friends traveling abroad or the largesse of visitors for clubs and other equipment. The king is among Thimphu’s members. “There was a handicap sheet taped to the clubhouse window,” John recalled. “At the top of the list is one member whose number is 13.2. His name is displayed simply as “His Majesty.”
Conditions on the course are somewhat more rustic than one would expect, say, at the average track in Palm Desert. “Some course maintenance was being performed by a couple of old ladies with scythes,” John noted. “Stray dogs were sleeping in piles in the rough, and a cow roamed one of the fairways. A few holes had small water hazards around the green that resembled buried bathtubs.” While the hardpan fairways may recall mid-summer at an under-funded suburban muni, the surroundings will quickly remind you that you’re not in Kansas. On the fifth hole, for example, you aim your tee shot at the top floor of the Thimphu dzong, a monolithic temple/government building that houses the offices of the King.
In a wonderful story that appeared in the November 2003 issue of Golf Digest, John described the passion with which some Bhutanese had embraced the game. “I met Karma Lam, a wiry golfer who has volunteered for the Bhutan Olympic Committee and is a part-time basketball and tennis coach. ‘I don’t know what it’s like in other countries,’ Karma told me, “but in Bhutan, golfers are completely addicted. We don’t give much time to our families. Golf takes over everything.’” Thanks to the efforts of Sports Illustrated golf writer Rick Lipsey, Bhutan’s golfing ranks are likely to swell in future generations. Working with the government and visiting teaching pros from the U.S., Lipsey and Karma Lam have launched the Bhutan Youth Golf Association, which provides instructional clinics, weekly outings on Royal Thimphu and monthly tournaments.
However cobbled together their swings, however hardpan the fairways, John Barton found something approaching grace in the Bhutanese attitude toward golf. “Some of my most memorable rounds of golf have not been on championship courses. It’s the people you meet, the surroundings, that make it special. That’s how I found things at Royal Thimphu. It doesn’t matter to people there that it’s not a lavish course. People play it with as much fervor as a course in the west. It was a heartwarming experience. Their enthusiasm was wonderful. The barriers fall away when you meet someone from the other side of the world on the golf course.”
If You Go…
In his Golf Digest piece, John Barton calls Royal Thimphu perhaps the most remote golf course in the world. Requiring nearly 24 hours of flying time from New York (via London, Bangkok and Calcutta), capped off by a hair-raising drive through the mountains to the valley where Thimphu rests, it’s not a trip to be taken lightly. Once you reach Asia, Druk Air (www.drukair.com.bt) provides service to Bhutan from Calcutta, New Dehli and Bangkok; cost is approximately $700 round-trip.
Royal Thimphu is a nine-hole par 33 layout measuring 2,700 yards. If you make it this far, it’s not too difficult to get out on the course. Western golfers of even modest skills are lauded like PGA pros! The appreciation of the Bhutanese people that you will likely develop on the course will be enhanced if you set aside some time to take in Bhutan’s cultural wonders. These include the palatial17th-century Tashichhoe Dzong, home of the National Assembly and summer residence of the capital’s monastic community. A hike to the gravity-defying Taktshang Monastery, Bhutan’s most sacred site, is also in order.
You’ll get a wonderful taste of life in Bhutan by visiting Thimphu’s weekend market, where many fine crafts and fresh produce are purveyed.
Because of the limited access to Bhutan and the necessary paperwork that must be completed, travelers are advised to work through one of the tour companies authorized to guide visitors around the country. Individual travelers should contact Bhutan Tourism Corporation Limited ( 975 2 322647, 324045; email@example.com ). Rick Lipsey’s organization, Golf Bhutan (212-531-1602;
www.golfbhutan.com), is the only operation offering golf-specific tours, including play on several of the “private” courses mentioned above. These tour companies will take care of all the details (lodging, meals, etc.), so you can focus on the experience. Excellent general tourism information is available at the official government website, www.kingdomofbhutan.com.
(From Fifty Places To Play Golf Before You Die)