Bhutan - November 25, 1999
I was fortunate to start my trip to Bhutan with a flight
from Kathmandu. What a spectacular way to begin this incredible
adventure! For virtually the entire flight, my eyes were
glued to the dramatic sharp snowcapped peaks of the Himalayas.
I also got my first glimpse of the amazing Mr. Everest.
I was impressed from the moment I stepped off the plane. The outside
of the airport was painted very decoratively, and had a distinctive
architectural design. I quickly learned that this is just traditional
Bhutanese architecture. The countryside throughout Bhutan is scattered
with these beautiful, intricately painted buildings, including the post
office and bus terminal!
The traditional clothing was also immediately noticeable. Bhutanese
are required to wear the national dress, which is made from local
textiles in a variety of colorful patterns. The men wear a Gho, a
tightly belted robe to just below the knee. It is often a plaid or
striped design similar to a Scottish tartan. Women wear a Kira, a long,
floor-length dress with a silk blouse underneath and jacket over the
top. This is a large rectangular piece of fabric that wraps around the
body, with hooks near the shoulders and a tight belt around the waist to
hold it in place. It is eye-catching to see so many people wearing these
distinctive, brightly colored costumes.
Bhutan is the most unique country I've visited. It is small
and rural, about the size of Switzerland, with a population
of a little over 600,000. It is bordered on the northwest
by Tibet; the rest of the country is surrounded by India.
I've met a lot of people who have not yet heard of Bhutan.
It has been a well-kept secret. The Bhutanese say they live
on their own "Roof of the World" and have kept to themselves
for hundreds of years.
Bhutan first started allowing visitors in the 1970's, but
has maintained a controlled philosophy with regards to tourism.
Through a system of a high visitor price per day, the government
has been able to limit the number of tourists and their
length of stay. This is fortunate, as the country has been
able to slowly build infrastructure for tourism in a way
that is not spoiling the country's intrinsic beauty and
Western Bhutan and the King's Birthday
We arrived in the capital of Thimpu just in time for the week-long
celebration of the King's birthday. There was constant activity going on
in the town, the streets were closed to car traffic and the second-ever
firework show was held. It was a very exciting week in Thimpu. The first
firework show was held only five months earlier for the celebration of
the King's 25th year. At the same time both television and the Internet
were introduced to the country!
Shortly after arriving in Thimpu, I experienced the Bhutanese medical
system. Like many people, I've always had some level of anxiety
about needing to receive medical care outside of my own country.
Fortunately, I only had an ear infection and it turned out to be a
fairly pleasant experience. The doctors were very kind and they brought
a specialist in to see me even though he was supposed to be on vacation.
The most interesting part, coming from a country where medical costs are
considered very high, is that health care in Bhutan is free for
everyone, including visitors!
Although my time spent in the capital of Thimpu was enjoyable, traveling
through the country to Eastern Bhutan, and attending a religious
festival, was by far the most interesting. The scenery throughout the
country is spectacular. It is very mountainous with thick green forests
and the hillsides are scattered with beautiful, traditional Bhutanese
buildings. Each district has a Dzong, a large white fortress-monastery
that is absolutely stunning and dominates the hill on which it is built.
The Bhutanese are known for their hospitality and my travel
companions and I experienced it everywhere we went. We were constantly
invited into homes for tea. Many Bhutanese joke about their homes having
"revolving doors" as people are constantly in and out of each other's
Eastern Bhutan and the Mongar Tsechu
The Buddhist faith plays a fundamental role in the lives of the
Bhutanese people and there are many religious festivals. The best-known
festivals are the Tsechus, which are held at different times of the year
in different locations. Tsechus are celebrated for three to five days
with both monks and laymen taking part in ritual mask dances. These mask
dances date back many centuries.
We had the good fortune of attending a Tsechu in Mongar, a town in
Eastern Bhutan. It was the highlight of the trip. Our trip organizer
arranged for us to meet the governor of Mongar and have tea in his home
the day before the festival began. Our good luck kept getting better as
he invited us to a private ceremony in the Mongar monastery at 3:00am
that next morning! Through the cool darkness, we followed a procession
of government and religious officials from his home to the monastery for
a surreal and somewhat mysterious two hour ceremony. When it ended, we
followed the procession back to his home, led by about 20 young girls
singing with the most beautiful voices that echoed off of the hills. My
memories of this night are still very calming and dreamlike.
The mask dances performed at the festival during the next three days
were spectacular! The costumes are so intricate and colorful and the
dances are very medieval. These dances have been performed for many
centuries to educate the people about Buddhist beliefs regarding the
life and death cycle. It is also believed that onlookers receive merit
by attending the festivals. The last morning of the festival, a gorgeous
religious picture painted on fabric, called a thangka, was unrolled. It
was so huge; it covered the entire side of the monastery.
Since Mongar is a very small town with minimal hotel facilities, the
governor arranged for us to camp on the archery field during our three
nights there. This also turned out to be an interesting experience
because many of the villagers had to walk right through our campsite to
get to the festival and to the town. We had many curious children coming
by to look at us and peer into our tents. They were the most entertained
when our guides helped dress us outside our tents each morning. Putting
on a Bhutanese Kira and Gho is not an easy task!
During the next several days, our drive west back to the
capital brought a number of additional interesting experiences.
The most memorable was picking up a monk who was hitchhiking.
He walked several hours from his monastery in order to pick
flowers to make an offering. We spent a great deal of time
asking him questions about his life as a monk and then took
him to lunch to continue our inquisition. He invited us
back to his monastery and arranged special permission for
us to come inside and have tea in his room. He even took
us see temples that we couldn't have seen without him to
accompany us. When we left he told us we would pray for
our safe journey when we left Bhutan. This was a comforting
thought when we left two days later on our DrukAir flight
Ten Tips for Traveling to Bhutan
- Go soon while tourism is still fairly limited and you can experience the traditional culture.
- Plan your trip around at least one festival. If you choose one in the East, there will be fewer tourists. Check before you go to be sure that the festival dates haven't changed.
- Read the Lonely Planet guide to Bhutan. The information is very helpful and accurate and the pictures are beautiful and true to what you will see in Bhutan.
- Purchase and wear the traditional Bhutanese clothing, especially if you attend festivals or visit monasteries. It's fun and the Bhutanese greatly appreciate it when visitors wear the local dress.
- Since you must book your trip through a government approved tour agency, be sure to use a recommended tour operator. Ours was fabulous (Rainbow Tours at www.bootan.com/rainbow).
- Don't expect a correlation between your tour price of $200/day/person, and the class of your accommodation and travel. Rather, think of it as paying for the privilege of going to a unique country.
- Be prepared for last minute itinerary and accommodation changes, and be flexible, as you might be sleeping in a tent if hotels are full.
- Travel to Eastern Bhutan as it is the least touristed and most interesting, but prepare for long, windy, uncomfortable, bumpy roads. I recommend at least two weeks in total if you plan to travel east.
- If you like to eat local food when you travel, and your stomach can handle spicy chilies, be sure to tell your tour operator in advance. Otherwise you will primarily eat food designed for the western palate.
- If you have the time, plan to do some trekking, as the countryside is beautiful. However, you should be physically fit as you will be at high elevations and the terrain can be very steep.
Plan your next holiday today! Happy travels.
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