The Kingdom of Bhutan does not necessarily make it hard for a traveler to visit - it's 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 still 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 central conceit of the kingdom: ”Gross National Happiness“. Yup, the government proclaims itself much more concerned with the "gross happiness" of the people than with their gross production. Until 2008, the "Thunder Dragon Kingdom" was an absolute monarchy, led by the fifth king since unification. Jigme Khesar Mangyel Wangchuck 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 handful of parties. The party that won a vast majority of the congressional seats had a campaign promise of two words… “no change”.
The kingdom attempts to measures the "happiness" of the people in an actual census. Figuring the entire population of Bhutan is about 650,000, this seems doable. 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-percent 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 whereanything you find manaufactured gets into Bhutan, even beer bottles. They brew their own beer, but the bottles come from India.
Above is my wife enjoying one of three brands of beer for sale in Bhutan. This one called Red Panda Ale is a Hefeweizen. Brewed by a German who came to Bhutan many years ago and found a way to stay. The bottle is embossed with the name of an Indian beer (King Fisher) because you cannot manufacture bottles in Bhutan, too much pollutiion. By the way, it was the 4th of July, hence the shirt.
Both overland travelers and air travelers must pay the daily visitors tariff to the government. This is a charge of US$200-250 per day (depending on time of year). “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 three 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. It has two or three Airbus A320′s, and only flies from Bangkok, Bangladesh - or in our case, Kathmandu.
Some time 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.
My wife Mary Ann is a fearless traveler, but she was as glad (at least) as I was to reach the ground in Paro.
Immigration paperwork 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 read; it levies 200-percent 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.
A look at a very typical agricultural setting in Bhutan. This country has yet to suffer from overpopulation. They see what that has done to India and China (and the rest of the world) and the king has “asked” the people to have a zero population growth rate. Not a law, but a request, and the current generation is going along with it. Therefore, the countryside is left to agriculture and just left alone for the beauty. Gross National Happiness!
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.
Above is the main intersection in Thimpu, the capital city. A few years ago, there was a traffic light here, but it made the people unhappy,and it was removed. Thimpu is the only national capital in the world without a traffic light.
Stay tuned for more!