Even for the most travelled nomads, The Kingdom of Bhutan remains an exotic destination conjuring images of high mountains, monasteries, spirituality and peace.
My wife and I were fortunate to be part of the few Westerners who visited Bhutan in 2017. We left the country with a sense of wanting to see and learn more... Hopefully some of the following observations will transmit the wonder and awesomeness we felt. It may even give you the desire to plan you own trip to a place unlike any other on earth.
Bhutan has been self-reliant for a long time. It only opened up recently, but still deserves its reputation as a closed country with difficult access.
Tourism started in 1974 with 284 travelers. 2017 saw its largest affluence with 250,000 visitors mostly from Asia-Pacific countries.
Flights remain very limited. There are two airlines deserving only four international destinations (India, Thailand, Nepal, Singapore): Druk Air, the flag carrier, and Bhutan Airlines, a private carrier. Together, they only own 7 planes.
Immigration is strictly controlled and chosen. The government forces tourists to spend a minimum amount (about $200 per day that include food and lodging) to obtain a visa. This is not a country for low-budget backpackers.
Marriage to a foreigner is usually not permitted without the King's authorization.
Bhutan is the first country in the world to measure its progress, not by a Gross Domestic Product, but by a Gross National Happiness Index. Despite its apparent benevolence, the country has strict laws.
It is illegal to kill anything in Bhutan. Bhutanese eat meat and fish, but the food must be imported (often from India). It cannot be slaughtered or fished within the country.
All civil servants, students, people involved in the hospitality industry must wear the traditional costume in all official buildings and at work: a gho, a knee-length robe tied at the waist, for men, and a kira, an ankle-length sari-like dress accompanied by a light jacket for women. Even during the coldest months, men cannot wear leggings or pants. And when hiking to the Tiger's Nest under the sun, our female guide had to wear her kira while we were parading with much more comfortable clothing.
The sale of cigarettes is prohibited in the entire country. Smoking is banned in public. However, dolma, an addictive concoction based on areca nut that turns your mouth red, is chewed daily by a third of the population including women, the elderly, monks, and young people.
It is the first country in the world to ban disposable plastic bags.
Bhutan is a landlocked, mountainous country that provides for some excitement and more contradictions.
The arrival at Paro airport between two mountains is spectacular. It is so dangerous that only a dozen of pilots are certified to land in it. Very often, the fog forces delays and cancellations of the daily plane. The national airline does not guarantee departure times, and advises travelers to plan a night at their transit destination just in case...
Bhutan holds many mountains over 7,000 m altitude. However, it does not allow mountaineers to climb them. As a result, the highest unclimbed peaks in the world are located in Bhutan.
Bhutanese civil life seems peaceful and harmonious.
Bhutan is a male dominated and polygamous society. However, women can marry multiple partners, and it is the eldest daughter of a family who inherits the house, not the eldest son. It seems that polygamy is slowly giving place to monogamy.
Buddhist beliefs are embedded in all aspects of daily life. Spirituality takes many forms (prayer flags, chortens, dzongs, stupa, monasteries) and seem to engulf visitors by surprise. We witnessed many westerners shaken and uncontrollably crying after a few minutes of meditation at the Tiger's Nest. .
The king, who went to university in the USA and England, lives in a very simple house.
Houses are decorated with huge penis paintings to protect from evil spirit.
Bhutanese could not live without red chilies (very hot), cheese and rice.
There is no traffic light in the entire country. We were led to the only white gloved traffic officer at a roundabout in Thimphu almost as a tourist attraction.
The national sport is archery. We witnessed a friendly competition by the road. I still wonder how they do not have more injuries.
The national animal is the takin, a mixture between a goat and a yak. It is only found in Bhutan and feeds on bamboo.
We found the country very clean (roads, restaurants, toilets) and all places very well maintained.
Internet coverage was patchy but still present.
Visiting a country for a week only allows you to scratch the surface, especially when you are accompanied everywhere by a guide, even if she is very articulate, friendly and open. The brief exchanges we had with some foreigners working at our hotels and a few locals transmitted the feeling of a homogeneous country, proud and peaceful, confronted to democratization and a modern life that is both attractive and invasive.
This transformation will be fascinating to observe. Hopefully, we will be able to return for three or four weeks in the future to better understand the place. Zora was approached by a resort about sharing her anti-aging program, and I met some people interested in learning more about social networks.
If that does not work out, then we will just go back for 10 days, this time to accompany the people harvesting cordyceps mushroom in the high mountain pastures once a year. This fungus, well-known in China for its health benefits (energy, anti-aging, anti-inflammation) and priced as gold gram for gram, has been part of our supplementary diet of the last few years.
One of my bucket list adventures is to hike a 5,000 m mountain and pick up one cordyceps mushroom in Bhutan!
Please let us know about your amazing adventures. We are always looking for great ideas.