When I first visited Bhutan, I was all of 7 years old. My memories from the trip are, at best, vague. I remember the long, tedious bus ride from the Indian border to Thimphu, and I have some recollection of a ceiling—possibly in a monastery—painted with dragons and other fantastic creatures. What I don’t recall at all is the astonishing natural beauty of this Himalayan paradise, the grandeur of its forts and palaces, the serene calm of its people. Such things are lost on little boys.
Happily, the best things about Bhutan have not changed a great deal since my youth. The gorgeous vistas, grand ‘dzhongs’ and graceful people were all in abundance during my visit this summer. To travel through the country, from Thimphu to Bumthang, Punakha and Paro, is to be treated to a succession of jaw-dropping panoramas of mountains, valleys and rivers, punctuated by fabulous man-made landmarks. (Yes, there are still dragons on the ceilings!)
My enjoyment of these was heightened by the knowledge that so few people get to enjoy them: Bhutan receives fewer visitors in a year than New York City, my home, gets every day! One consequence is that Bhutanese have not grown blasé of tourists: there is a genuine warmth toward, and curiosity about, visitors. Many of my interviews were topsy-turvy: I ended up being the one answering questions!
But Bhutan is not some magic land trapped in time, even though people frequently compare it with the fictional Shangri-La. It is a country evolving from a monarchy to a democracy; the first elected government is just four years old. It is also embracing, with appropriate caution, the trappings of modernity. Young people favor jeans and t-shirts over the traditional robes, the karaoke bars are full of customers belting out Bollywood numbers, and although major international retail chains are absent, one ingenious local businessman has named his grocery shop “Eight Eleven.”
Photographer Bharat Sikka captures Bhutan’s evolution in this series of images from our trip together.
Bobby Ghosh is an editor-at-large at TIME. Read his full story from Bhutan at TIME’s new Style blog.
Bharat Sikka is a Delhi-based photographer. See more of his work here.