To Bhutan with Sangay

Posted on June 14, 2016

Another way too early wake up call, it’s only 3:00 a.m. and by 3:30 we’re speeding from Surawong Rd in downtown Bangkok to the airport. My experience with taxi drivers in Bangkok is that they always speed, though have to be on the highway for this to be noticeable. Though in the wee hours of the night the mostly empty city permit velocity on the surface streets. Not 30 minutes later we’re deposited curbside and make our way into the never sleeping airport and to the Bhutan Airlines counter. Since the dawn of air travel in Bhutan, only in 1983 the sole means of transport there was with Drukair, the national airline. Last year a new private carrier, Bhutan Airlines doubled the number of carriers flying to Bhutan. The airlines single airplane, an Airbus 319 plies its only route, Bangkok to Paro, Bhutan via Kolkata. Flying to Bhutan not like flying elsewhere, both airlines only just permitted tickets to be purchased on their websites. In most cases ones tour operator books the tickets, and there’s no advance seating, and upon check in one needs to show actually copy of the ticket and printed copy of the visa for scrutiny by the airline staff. I have seen people in tears at check in, as they did not have either printed ticket or visa, and the officious Thais who man the check in counters would not permit them to board.


Once aboard it’s apparent there are 3 classes, business, premium coach and regular coach. We’re in premium coach, more of that leg room that airlines are always trying to entice customers with, and we’ve got plenty of it. Towards the back of the plane in coach are mostly all Indian nationals, flying in what Sangay dubs Indian class.  Flights all over the world pretty similar, you get on, find your seat, take off, eat something, read, sleep and wait for the landing. Much the same on this flight, though the last 15 minutes are over Paro and the descent into Paro, arguably called the most exciting or most challenging is pretty impressive. The plane seems to float down the valley,  though certainly it’s flying at typical speed, though the impression is floating amongst the mountain tops and trees and homes appear just outside the window, not in any way frightening, in the manner that a thrill ride at a theme park provides managed excitement, with the secure knowledge that all in under control. This is the feeling that accompanies my every landing in Bhutan. It’s one expensive thrill ride, though like most of Bhutan, I find it all worthwhile.


The sun is glaringly bright upon alighting on the tarmac, and I wish for my sunglasses, buried somewhere deep into my daypack.  Together Sangay and I make our way towards the terminal,  a pastiche of painted wood and white washed concrete, the appearance of the terminal building probably strikes most first time visitors as unique though they’ll soon learn that it’s the common aesthetic seen all over Bhutan. Bhutan had so little contact with the outside world until 1960 that there was a common architectural vernacular all over the country. No colonizer or outsiders to influence anything. And in years since then it was decreed that all buildings be constructed in traditional Bhutanese style, so that while some seem to have been approved on a day when the design review board was not so vigilant, even these still follow the basic style if not completely faithfully.


I’m overburdened with carry on luggage as I’m arriving with my Bhutanese friend Sangay whose friends saddled him with requests for electronic gadgets upon hearing his plans to be in Bangkok. Much like the rest of the world, Bhutanese want new smart phones, tablets and laptop computers, (all very pricey in Bhutan) and he carried requests and cash to Bangkok, and returns with enough stuff to stock a small store. OK, a very small store, though enough to leave me thinking he may be liable to import duties, so I volunteer to carry the electronics, thinking I’ll escape questioning. As it happens, he is not questioned, nor are other passengers, all sail through customs.


While Sangay and I make our way through customs and immigration at the same pace as other arrivals, another plane arrives and disgorges its passengers who begin to line up behind us. A flurry of activity catches everyone attention as some of these passengers advance through the unused lane reserved for VIP passengers and then murmurs and waves break out as Tshering Tobgay, the Prime Minister of Bhutan and his entourage walk briskly through customs (no stopping to have their passport inspected). I have no experience with heads of state, though expect them to have a larger than life presence and Mr. Tobgay does indeed give of the air of someone in power as he strides through the airport, with a cultivated wave to those of us waiting in line. I am not surprised the prime minister of Bhutan flies commercial, as I have been on a flight with the King of Bhutan, and this not wealthy country is known for frugality amongst its leaders.


Next is customs, no one is asked about their imported electronics (and there are many Bhutanese with wide screen TV’s, not something easily missed, and they all sail through customs without being asked about these. I am asked one question, “are you carrying cigarettes or tobacco?” This as Bhutan is the world’s only non-smoking country, though foreigners are permitted to import a carton of cigarettes.


My friend Dorji is waiting outside the airport, Paro’s international airport one of the easiest to negotiate, and meeting the newly arrived is a crowd of perhaps 100 people, Dorji spots me before I see him, and Sangay’s brother Tashi is there to collect him and off we drive in our respective vehicles. This not my usual visit to Bhutan, most always I arrive here with a group of clients, all eager to see Bhutan, Dorji and I guide them through their Bhutan experience, to some extent cherry picked by us to show what we find most interesting and beautiful in Bhutan. Not that this is a tough assignment, as there’s not a lot that’s not pretty or interesting. This time I am solo and here for a month, the reason being to study Dzongkha, the national language. This is not really necessary, as the official language of the country is English and most all are fluent in this. But I readily admit to being something of a language nerd, so the opportunity to study Dzongkha appeals immensely to me, and this stated purpose provides me with a good enough reason to be granted a 25 day visa. Bhutan does restrict entry to foreigners, most all are compelled to adhere to the daily tariff, of $250 per day in most month, though a few months, deemed the low season carry a tariff of $200 per day. This makes Bhutan quite unsullied by tourists. What the government seeks they term high end low impact tourism, the idea is to extract more money from fewer people thus providing less wear and tear on the culture and environment. The result, one sees fewer tourists here, mostly older, certainly no backpackers and the people are not weary of foreign tourists, nor do they seem dependent upon them, no army of disgruntled Bhutanese serving privileged outsiders, which is all too often the case with tourism when developing countries offer their charms up to those from the affluent world. This visit the daily tariff has been waived for me, and my expenses are rented room, language classes, and eating expenses, though it seems likely I’ll find other places to spend some cash.


I travel to Bhutan a few times per year and each visit is like coming home to a place where I feel even more comfortable than the place that is my actual home; the USA. I think I got the travel bug early and have found it’s unshakeable, and for this I have to say, “thank goodness.” This is not a bug I want to shake, and nothing indulges my passion for travel more than the idea of another impending trip to Bhutan. With the aforementioned difficulties in visiting Bhutan, primarily the high cost I fashioned a method to return frequently: I founded a business to bring Americans to Bhutan. And is almost all cases I accompany my clients here, and this has gained me a certain reputation in Bhutan, and Bhutanese use 2 terms to refer to people like myself, I hear again and again that I am a ‘Friend of Bhutan’ (absolutely true) or they’ll remark “almost a Bhutanese” a great compliment. I am not complaining about this sort of reputation.