So my attempt at getting back into blogging was short-lived- because I’m now currently in the midst of recruiting and it’s really intense. Last week I had EIGHT interviews, and this week I have 4. I’ve been doing so much travelling so it’s unfortunate that I can’t share more with you.. but in the meantime, my sister has written an amazing post about her trip to Bhutan. Those that know me personally will definitely know about my sister, but to fin rout more about her and what she does- click here. Enjoy!
A few years ago, whiles paging through a magazine, I stumbled across a picture very similar to this one.
At the time, I had no idea where this was but had a sense that it was a place of mystery, intrigue and spirituality. I knew that someday I would visit this place.
It was a while later that I came across an article on Bhutan, a tiny Kingdom nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas. I was even was more fascinated by this country that measures their growth through a concept of “ Gross National Happiness “ versus GDP, Gross Domestic Product.
I landed in Bhutan in the twilight of my 30th decade. This trip was a generous gift from my husband for my 40th Birthday. I could think of no better way to celebrate than to experience a land that holds such sacredness and that offers a refreshing perspective for the overwhelmed and distracted city dweller.
Bhutan is a country that was isolated from the world until quite recently. It was only in the 80’s that the Paro International airport was built servicing their national carrier. It is probably for this reason that even now, Bhutan is not generally well known as a tourist destination. In fact, there is a perception that only a limited number of visas are issued to tourists annually. While this is not the case and tourism is in fact the second biggest income generator in the country, the preservation of the environment and culture is a key concern for the Government and thus tourism is encouraged but controlled.
I was surprised at how easy it was to organise the trip. When dong the planning ,Google took me to this site: www.bhutantripadvisor.com. An agent was online and happily answered all my questions. Before I knew it, the tickets had been booked and itinerary designed. The interesting thing about the way travel is organised is that the flights and Visas are arranged by a Bhutanese travel agency ( there are many ). There is a standard tariff fee of $ 250 per person per day which includes your personal vehicle, driver, guide, 3 meals a day, 3 star accommodation as well as entry fees for places of interest. This applies to any foreign visitor except Indian Passport holders who can travel freely without a visa.
The itinerary is all planned and organised by the travel agency based on the particular interests of the traveller which eliminates the hassle of orchestrating the the schedule.
Bhutan’s national carrier is Druk Air ( pronounced DUK ) which organises 3 flights in and out from and to Delhi, Katmandu and Bangkok daily.
We chose to fly Delhi which would mean a quick flight just under 2 hours.
Flying above the Himalayas was an unbelievable experience. We flew through a clear cloudless sky were lucky to see the awe inspiring range in all her glory. The sight of Everest just took my breath away.
We landed at Paro International airport around midmorning when the sun was just starting to melt through the icy crisp mountain air.
Paro is the second biggest “ city” in Bhutan. However, our adventure was to begin in Thimpu, the capital, an hours drive by car.
We were graciously received by our driver and guide who were both co-incidentally named Kinley We landed up calling them Kinley 1 and Kinley 2 for the sake of clarity. They were to accompany us throughout our 9 day journey through Bhutan by car.
It required a real shift in my mental pace to experience Thimpu, which is to me felt more like a holiday resort town that the economic, political and social hub of the world’s newest democracy. Here there is no sense of hurry or urgency. The rhythm is quiet and constant. There is no traffic. There are no traffic lights. Buildings seem to blend in with the hills on which they are built. A majestic meditating Buddha figure presides over the valley town offering a sense of comfort to the mortals below.
I first experienced Bhutan as surreal. I found it difficult to believe that a place like this still exists on earth; untainted by commercialisation, unviolated by consumerism, a society based on solid and conscious values and principles. Buddhist values, culture and tradition pervade all aspects of life from the architecture, dress and communication. Here, people wildlife and vegetation live in mutual harmony, a concept that is so foreign to most of us living a version of a Western lifestyle.
The bumpy drives were full of questions. What does Gross National Happiness actually mean? How is it measured? Is it merely a concept? How does it practically translate for the local people?
The next few days, a deeper understanding would unfold as we drove into the heart of the country.
Food in Bhutan is fresh, simple and wholesome, a change from the complex flavours of Delhi Cuisine that we had just enjoyed. Rice is a staple here. I especially enjoyed the red rice which has a nutty texture and delicious flavour. Just knowing that the vegetables are grown organically allowed me to enjoy the simplicity of the food.
Every weekend, people from the village arrive at the local market to trade their home grown produce. I had read that chillies are eaten as a vegetable in Bhutan. This would prove to be true. The chillies are HOT and are eaten with every single meal. Even though I am Indian and grew up eating spicy food, I found it challenging to tolerate the intensity of the heat.
While fresh vegetables are a big part of the diet, dried meat especially dried pork is a delicacy.
Fishing is prohibited here as part of the environmental policy, but like most other products is imported from India.
After an inspiring day in Thimpu which involved eating our fist Bhutanese meal, visiting an art school, a temple and Fortress and the great Buddha, we were exhausted yet wide eyed with wonder. The lifts in our 3 storey hotel weren’t working and we would have managed the stairs better if it wasn’t for the altitude. At a level of about 3000m above sea level, the air is thin!
The next morning we began our journey eastwards. I was struck by the peace and tranquility of the landscape. The bumpy windy road did little to pull me out from the stillness I was absorbing from the mountains and rivers. Driving past a nunnery set up up in the mountains, I felt as if I was experiencing a scene I had only imagined in my mind when reading books set in mystical Tibet.
Clusters of vertical white flags punctuate the landscape. 108 flags are erected at certain sacred sites whenever someone passes on. There is something beautiful about the knowing that each cluster of flags honours a soul that still somehow feels present. In the spirit of the Buddhist philosophy that acknowledges the impermanence of all things, the flags are simply left to disintegrate and return into the earth and wind with the passage of time.
My travels never quite feel complete unless I’ve connected with the locals, experienced the everyday life and begun to understand the struggles and challenges that people really face beyond what is typically seen on the surface. One doesn’t have to go far to access this in Bhutan.
Kinley 1 and Kinley 2, were very happy share their family stories.There is no tone of bitterness or complaining in the sharing of their hardships and challenges. There is a sense of acceptance and what is and yet a desire for progress and a better life.
Along the way, Kinley 1 pointed out his home village and was very happy for us to visit his home and meet his parents.
Both Kinley 1 and 2 grew up in the same village small that is made up of about 20 homes.
Each homestead is connected to a piece of land and for the most part is self sustaining and centred around farming. Each home typically has 3 storeys with the bottom level serving as cowsheds and storage for rice and other produce.
The living areas are sparse and rustic with little or now furniture. Every home has a temple area where daily offerings are made and rituals performed.
The TV and cellphones are the only giveaway that this is the 21st Century.
Kinley’s mom was attending a prayer ceremony at the local temple that day so we sadly didn’t get to meet her. His dad was just wrapping up with ploughing the fields.
Hid dad, a warm hearted man with smiling eyes was clearly fascinated by the sight of two Indian looking people claiming to be from Africa. The Bhutanese are shy, but so open hearted and warm. We were welcomed as honoured guests and enjoyed a delicious cup of home brewed tea and snacks of roasted rice together. Not much was said but so much was shared.
Experiencing village life in Bhutan, I began to gain a deeper insight into the concept of Gross National Happiness which essentially rests on the 4 pillars of good governance, economic progress, environmental preservation and cultural preservation. The pillars are a reflection a collective societal value systems that honour and support holistic and conscious living.
In saying that, life is Bhutan certainly not easy, in fact, far from it.
Children walk up to 2 hours to school and back every day , the road infrastructure is poor and travelling along the winding narrow roads pose a real challenge for the villagers.
But in Bhutan, there is no squalor. No one goes hungry. Education is free and encouraged.
The government is striving to support development and progress in a way that is does not conflict with the culture, traditions and value systems. This is proving to be quite a challenge . With the country opening up to more tourism and with western influence creeping in through exposure to the internet, the youth is becoming restless. They are no longer satisfied with living a simple village life.
The move towards the city creates the need for more jobs and issue related to a lack thereof.
Buddhist monks clad in flowing red robes are a common site in Bhutan. While they live in monasteries, they integrate into everyday life. One day we were driving along and saw a young monk helping his teacher doing a ritual, a blessing to mark the beginning of road construction.
Another day, during a visit to a holy site, we discovered a holy man chanting in a cave.
Scenes like this really capture the magic and spiritual life in Bhutan.
The only real tourist “ attractions” in Bhutan are the majestic fortresses most of which were built in the 17th Century. These huge fortresses are now still used as monasteries and administration offices for the particular region.
The fortresses also house beautiful temples filled with majestic of Buddhas figures, deities, offerings, elaborate butter cakes, incense and butter lamps.
Monastic life is hard. Young monks spend their days in prayer, meditation, study of the scriptures and performing chores. Some monks honour the calling from a very young age, others are sent away because its eases the financial burden on the family. Some leave the monkshood to pursue a civilian life.
Monks are deeply revered, respected and acknowledged for their life of self sacrifice and service. Our guide candidly shared stories of how young monks sneak into nightclubs, hook up with nuns and succumb to the pleasures of everyday life, and expression of the normal restlessness of youth.
Our 9 day adventure ended with what has to be one of the most memorable experiences of my life, the hike up to Tigers Nest Monastery in Paro.
We set off on an early morning hike as the sun was just hovering on the horizon and the mountains were hiding behind a misty curtain. We arrived early before the other tourists, and embarked on the steep climb. My lungs were struggling to keep up with my enthusiasm as we climbed up to an altitude of 3200m above sea level. In that moment as the monastery appeared through the mist, I knew that this was the reason I had come to Bhutan.
Don’t visit Bhutan is you are looking for excitement, a glitzy shopping holiday or if you want to put your feet up and relax. While the travel agency ensures that all the basic comforts are well met
Bhutan is also not the place to go if you can’t do without 5 star luxury and a gastronomical adventure.
The best time to visit is between March and May or in September. There are also many festivals happening at the time which could be fun. If you don’t plan to trek, then about 7- 10 days is ample time.
Travelling in Bhutan requires an open mind and an open heart and it promises to stretch it open even wider. Go to Bhutan is you are craving simplicity and deep peace. Go to experience a place in the world like no other. Go to Bhutan if you are curious about how a society is opening up to the world whilst still holding tight to its identity. Go if you are a ready for an unforgettable experience of heart.