Bhutan! The very word conjures a sense of perplexity and complexity, and perhaps an apprehension that it’s hard to reach, controlled, or inhibited. By now we hope you have already seen a number of our recent Instagram and Facebook posts to catch a glimpse of the contrasting truth about the fun-loving, respectful nature of Bhutan and Bhutanese people.
Though some time has passed, participants of our recent Rebecca Recommends FAM trip fondly recall the weeks leading up to our 8-day journey through Thimphu, Punakha, Gangtey, Jakar, and Paro. Some spoke romantically about the unknowns of a journey to the Last Shangri-La, while others held fast to the opening scene of Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1995 film, Little Buddha. With days packed preparing to leave various offices there wasn’t much time for prior research, nor a desire to spoil a fresh, new experience with more preconceptions.
Questions or comments we’ve often heard include ‘where exactly is Bhutan?’, ‘Why is it so restricted?’ ‘It’s impossible to get to. They don’t let that many people in’, ‘the visa is a hassle…’, and so on. And while we want to argue that these are all myths (which they are) there is something about them that keeps this jovial country at a safe enough distance from the less becoming elements of tourism. Knowing what I know now, part of me likes the sense of trepidation Bhutan inspires. It keeps its deeply rooted ancestral mysticism alive in a modern way.
Just off the heels of an extremely successful FAM in Nepal, there was a curious concern that nothing could compare. However, from beginning to end our trip was full of surprises, laughter and luxury, which became immediately apparent as we found ourselves swerving past mountain peaks and landing in a shock of green. Once off the plane in Paro Valley it was hard to get past how fresh the air smelled and how perfect the temperature was: the epitome of clean and comfortable! Even more of a shock was the ornate painted architecture of the airport, the majority of Bhutanese in traditional garb, ‘Ghos’ for men, ‘Kiras’ for women, and the smiles from customs officials as they eased us through immigration. How unusual!
As our journey progressed, the green got greener, the air cleaner, the smiles brighter. We saw some of the bluest skies we have ever seen next to the most intensely dramatic clouds and landscapes you could imagine. We quickly learned that Bhutan is a series fascinating paradoxes starting with its endless tradeoffs of mountain peaks and contrasting valleys, lending to an incredibly simple, yet extremely complicated culture. Almost everything about Bhutan is both formidable and serene all at the same time, and these elements are so opposing they complement each other perfectly.
Bhutan is a nation built on respecting elders, the monarchy, religion and environment. It is uncomplicated by serious crime or conflict, but the history and mythology that led Bhutan to where it is today is so involved it is amazing anyone can keep the who’s who of the last several centuries straight. There is extensive lore involving demons and saviors, the unifier and bearded men, a treasure finder, and four harmonious friends. Even the national animal, the Takin is an ungulate thought to be created by a Buddhist saint who put the head of a goat on the body of a cow and ordered it on its way.
Learning about these important characters and the lineage of Tantric Buddhism, not to mention the yaks, yetis and other lurking creatures you most certainly will not set your eyes on, made me feel a little like I was on the most incredible snipe hunt one could image. But the way in which our local guides could rattle off the related facts and figures made you believe you might just get swept away by a garuda at any moment for 108 laps clockwise around the sun!
Jokes aside, which is actually hard to do since the Bhutanese are quite clever and comic, religion is truly paramount and karma governs as your actions in this life influence the fate of your next. Bhutan’s history is a fascinating narrative that keeps healthy a nation more reminiscent of bygone years. It may very well be the last place on earth so deeply committed to doing so considering tourism was only allowed starting in the 70s and TV only available in the late 90s. The big Bhutanese cities feel more like small towns, and there are no traffic lamps, rather white-gloved police officers (men and women) guiding drivers through the busier intersections. As with other aspects of life construction, style of dress and cuisine carry on as per usual throughout time.
On paper, this description still may lend to the image an archaic society ruled by strong-armed old king keeping the country closed off, conservative and controlled. But it’s quite the opposite. There is not a sense of government paranoia like in other places, and you may be surprised to learn the King is only 35! As a democratic constitutional monarchy the executive power is vested in the cabinet, headed by Prime Minister, and social policies tend toward liberal democratic culture with socialized healthcare, education, and access to electricity.
In fact, Bhutan feels more ‘free’ than almost anywhere I have been. Life in Bhutan can be tough in some ways considering the climate and livelihood practices, but happiness abounds and is taken seriously as it’s been denoted the best indicator of national success. Bhutan is authentic, refreshing, and to be honest, hard to describe in just a few paragraphs! There is nothing like it in the world so we highly suggest you visit the Land of the Thunder Dragon to get a sense of it for yourself.
For more information about our itinerary and details about the Land of the Thunder Dragon please contact Ventours directly and we suggest you read Rebecca Recommends recent Bespoke Bhutan with Ventours International newsletter.