Falling for Bhutan

Posted on April 27, 2009

The Bhutan seduction is going as planned. My clients impressed and dazzled, but also a bit dazed with jet lag, lack of sleep and culture shock the first 2 days. By day three, as always they have a tenuous but growing understanding of the place, and end the day smitten with the country. I tell you, it's like new love, every time. The first night the word slipped out that it was Kim's birthday. Now while birthdays are no big deal here, Dorji is wise enough to know that in the USA people celebrate with birthday cake. He sets out to find one, and the only cakes are in Thimphu the capital, 90 minutes away from us in Paro. No problem, he orders the cake, has it taxied to Paro, where after dinner the hotel staff carry it, candles alight and chorusing Happy Birthday. Dorji has present and card, and Kim has tears in her eyes.

Day three brings more surprises. Berous is a dentist in California, and had asked if he might meet with a dentist in Bhutan. With government provided health care in Bhutan, there are no private practice doctors, and Dorji arranges for us to meet with the equivalent of the Surgeon General of Dentistry, Dr. Wangchuk at the main hospital in Thimphu. He spends a generous hour of his time explaining his views for development of dentistry in Bhutan. A dental school will soon open as part of the country's first medical school. Berous is so impressed with this man and his vision and wisdom, that he offers to come and teach. I feel a moment of envy, to realize he and Wendie may be living in this land that has also seduced me.

The day is spent exploring Thimphu. Neither beautiful nor ugly, but unarguably unique. The 4 and 5 story buildings all built in traditional style, thus painted white with multihued and timbered eaves, windows always in groups of three narrow panes, with a bubble shaped top (to mimic clouds), buildings painted with flowers, mandalas, tigers, and the mythical garuda, dragon, snow lion, and the not so mythical 5 foot penises, usually adorned with a painted ribbon. The streets, not crowded, but still full of locals, the men in knee length ghos, knee socks and leather shoes (the gho is a robe like garment, folded and pleated so that when worn it appears like a dress). The women in ankle length kiras, a skirt of silk and cotton, topped with a tegu, a tunic like vest, also silk and cotton. People either ignore us or stop to talk. The days when foreigners were so few the Bhutanese stopped to stare ended about 10 years ago. With English at the official language, communication is easy. With these people so friendly, it's welcome. The busiest intersection in Thimphu has a traffic kiosk with a cop inside, directing traffic with elaborate hand movements. Several years back a traffic light was installed here. It proved so unpopular it was removed and the waving cop restored. One of Thimphu's distinctions, the only capital city without traffic lights.

We move through Bhutan in the company of Dorji, the government required Bhutanese guide. This is now my fifth trip with Dorji, and I'd not come here with anyone else as guide, as I know him to be one of the best guides in the country. All those who travel with me would agree, and perhaps it's the un-Buddhist thing to do, to gloat over the excellence of ones guide, but gloat they always do, comparing our guide to the other guides we observe. Though in fairness to other guides, Dorji is one of the best of a very good bunch.

Bhutan discourages tourism. No more than 300 tourists are permitted at any one time, and they must pay a minimum daily tariff, travel on a prearranged, prepaid itinerary, and be with a licensed guide. All to safeguard the culture and environment. The government is willing to allow tourism and recognizes it to be a money earner, but they want only low impact, high end tourism. Combined with its image as the last and true Shangri-La (let me say here, this is just travel writing and journalistic bull shit, Bhutan is no Shangri-La, there is no such place, and the government makes no such claims, but they are smart enough to not complain when others make this claim). Throw in another myth that it is difficult to gain access to Bhutan (it's not, you just sign up early the 2 flights per day sell out quick, and pay your not insignificant amount of money, and you're in).