As world travel seems more and more accesible these days, there are still a few destinations that remain fairly elusive for most travelers. One such destination is Bhutan, a Himalayan country sandwiched between China and India. As of late, the country has become more accessible to tourists and today, Kay Dougherty, author of Blonde Brunette Travel, shares her first-hand Bhutan travel tips with us in order to make the most of a visit to this enchanting country.
The Tourism Council of Bhutan cites the main reasons people choose to visit as the culture, Buddhism, nature and because it’s seen as being undiscovered. Whatever the reason, Bhutan is certainly not a place you go to for casinos, Broadway shows or fine dining!
As a firmly committed independent traveler, I had mulled going to Bhutan for years but hesitated as it meant I would need to go on a group tour. The Bhutan government has imposed restrictions that apply to tourists and make it very difficult to go on your own. Additionally, it is not an inexpensive destination. You have to use a licensed tour operator and spend a minimum of $250 per day. My 12 day trip, not including air to Bangkok where the group met, cost about $5,300 or a little over $441 per day. That included flights to and from Bangkok to Paro, all hotels, meals, our guide, drivers, 2 SUVs for transport and all entrance fees.
I went with a women’s cultural tour that included five of us ranging in age from early 50’s to 70. Bhutan is a destination for fit boomers who do not have any significant medical or mobility issues. It is also a destination where, before going, you should purchase medical evacuation insurance because in the case of urgent medical attention you will not find Western standards of care in the country.
The Charm of Bhutan
So what about their culture is so beguiling? The main thing is that it’s truly and uniquely theirs. In a world where it often seems as if you can’t escape Starbucks, McDonalds and other outside influences, you can escape them all in Bhutan! Television wasn’t even legal until 1999 so no one will know who shot J.R. and with any luck they may not have even heard of the Kardashians. That alone is a good reason to go!
About 10% of the men have gone off to monasteries for many generations and continue to do so today. They receive religious education, learn trades such as carving and painting and may spend their lives as monks or use the trades they learned to make a living if they leave the order. Most become farmers, laborers, government employees or perhaps business owners or employees.
The women are hard working whether taking care of the children of the extended family, preparing meals, weaving or working in the fields. They are not isolated or disenfranchised but early marriages and a lack of educational opportunities, for both men and women, limit the degree to which they can elevate their economic or social status.
Bhutan is in the Himalayas and has essentially one drivable road in the country. Most of the people get around by foot or stay in the villages where they grew up and where their children will also grow up. We were fortunate enough to go to a private home for tea. The elder daughter, who was our hostess, said that her family has lived in the same home for 23 generations.
Bhutan, Buddhism and Phalluses
It’s impossible to extricate the culture from the Buddhism. Buddhism, as practiced in Bhutan, is a pervasive and ancient belief system and seemingly the central theme of life in Bhutan. Almost all sites you will see are temples and monasteries. The countryside is thick with gently waving prayer flags to honor the dead, appease gods or protect the living.
A most unexpected element of Buddhism in Bhutan is their fondness for – choosing words carefully here – phallus decor. There are more legends than you can imagine but one of my personal favorites was the monk Drukpa Kunley, aka The Divine Madman. Amazing tales of his exploits abound, the majority of which involve his penis and its magical powers. It is not uncommon to see homes and businesses with anatomically correct um, erections, or paintings.
Across the country, you see charming traditional homes with ornate carvings and colorful painting reflecting the skills men have learned in the monasteries. Many other homes are extremely basic. Only recently has the entire country had access to electricity and running water in rural homes is unlikely.
To be very candid, I was not as awed by the nature in Bhutan as I expected to be. The Himalayas are beautiful, there were lovely magnolia trees and, when there wasn’t fog, some of the vistas looked like postcards.
However, most of what I saw was the seemingly unending, switch-backed, unpaved and dusty national highway. Riding in Bhutan is not for the faint of heart, those who suffer from motion sickness or respiratory problems. Trucks from India spew diesel fumes, Indian road workers live in roadside shanties, drop-offs are extreme and unprotected and litter is a pervasive problem. Not everyone would agree with my assessment but to me that was the disappointing aspect of the trip. I had pictured beautiful alpine settings with clean air.
The best thing about Bhutan was the people. Their reverence for every living thing is a difference that sets them apart from most of the rest of the world. The Bhutanese we met were gentle, shy, polite and had a twinkly sense of humor. The fact that they virtually always wear their national dress also creates an image of a culture set apart from the rest of the world.
Bhutan is truly like nowhere else you have been. As tourism continues to increase it is unlikely that Bhutan will be able to maintain its air of being untouched by modernity. Going now means sacrificing some creature comforts but going later may take you to a different place altogether. Your call.