The Incredible Kingdom of Bhutan. A Real Live Shangri-La
The Kingdom of Bhutan does not make it hard for a traveler to visit, it is just hard to get there. When I first started reading about traveling to Bhutan I was led to understand that only a certain number of visitor visas were issued in a year, and that you had to go with a government approved guide service while you were there. The second part is true, not the first. However, the number of visitors to Bhutan per year could not fill the Rose Bowl. This is the last Shangri-La in my opinion. My fingers want to type all sorts of interesting and amazing tid-bits, but my mind wonders “where do I start? How can I convey the magic of this country while maintaining some level of credibility?”
Let us start with the official slogan of the Kingdom. “Gross National Happiness“. Yup, the government is much more concerned with the Gross Happiness of the people than with the Gross Production. Until just a couple of years ago, this was a pure Kingdom, led by the fifth king since unification. He happens to be well educated, handsome and married to a foxy commoner now his queen. He decided that the country needed to elect a congress so that it would be considered a democracy. Bhutan borders Tibet (Which I refuse to call China, although to keep things cool in Bhutan, they do) and I guess they figured a democracy would be better protected by outsiders if anyone looking is to absorb them. The people did not really want a congress, but if the king did, well, OK. They held elections and there were a hand-full of parties. The party that won a vast majority of the congressional seats had a campaign promise of two words… “No Change”.
The kingdom measures the happiness of the people in an actual census. Figuring the entire population of Bhutan is about 650,000, this seems do-able. The questions range from how is your job, to how is the infrastructure, how is your health care, to, do you like the TV channels you get. The government actually acts on things a great number of people might be unhappy about. If that does not seem incredible to you, you live on a different planet than I.
The population is something like 90% Buddhist. They have a certain, not unique, but different strain of Buddhism in Bhutan. This type of Buddhism is called Vajrayana, which means the Diamond Way because it is based on unbreakable logic. It relies on Tantras and is sometimes called Tantrayana. Here I am talking like I am an expert on the philosophies of the Buddha and I not sure I know the difference between a Tantra and a Tantrum.
OK, about getting into Bhutan. There is a single overland entrance from India. This is where anything you find manaufactured gets into Bhutan, even beer bottles. They brew their own beer, but the bottles come from India.
Both overland travelers and air travelers must pay the daily visitors tariff to the government. This is a US$250 per day charge. “But Wait! You get a set of steak knives with that!” Actually you get a lot more. This “tariff” pays for your transportation, guide, entrance fees and even the hotels you will stay in and 3 meals a day! The only thing it does not pay is your beer.
Most people enter by air on Bhutan’s only Airline Druk Air. They have two or three Airbus A320’s and only fly from Bangkok, Bangladesh or as for us Kathmandu. They are the only airline serving the country.
A few posts ago (here) I linked my readers to a Youtube video of the approach to Paro International Airport. It was definitely different. As a frequent flyer I am not used to the airplane making radical turns after the landing gear is down. But obviously all went well or I would not be here posting this for you.
Immigration paper work was easy because we had printed out our “Letter of Invitation” from the Bhutanese Royal Tourist Agency which confirmed that we had ponied up the money to the travel agency. Customs was a different story, although I was ready for them. They require a %200 duty on all cigarettes brought into Bhutan. You have to hold onto the receipt they give you because possession of tobacco is not allowed unless you can prove you paid the duty. That makes smoking very expensive, so most people don’t. More on that later.
Then we met our guide and driver, both dressed in traditional Bhutanese garments called Ghos. They are very distinct and attractive, but they look very difficult to put on.. Each one is made of different weaves, all quite colorful, yet subtle.
We drove from Paro to Thimpu, about an hour. I felt like I was in a magical fairyland. Disney could not have put Snow White in a more fantastic setting. Even the common farmers homes were quite beautiful.
We arrived in Thimpu and found our hotel to be quite comfortable. However, we were on the third floor and when I asked where the elevator was, the look on the guides face quickly made it clear that Bhutan has no elevators.
I am trying to keep my posts short, so that is all for this one. Next post, the national sport.
Stay tuned, share with a friend.