I chose to visit Bhutan because it seemed like a well-kept secret. It’s often the overlooked cousin of the more athletic Nepal with its gorgeous peaks and long line of Everest-conquerors. It’s not quite as well known for the healing powers of helping people “find” happiness with the devote spiritualness of Tibet. And it’s not the go-to place like the fun, mysterious, romantic, artistic, spicy, and more popular India with its unique style of films, music, food, clothing, and body art. Instead Bhutan showed itself to be a unique and special country on its own, but also taking some influences from its more popular neighbors.
This was a semi-solo trip for me. And my first international solo holiday. So safety was an important factor in my destination decision and travel method. Nature, culture, and beer were among my other factors. Being in the desert for three months, the horizon can get a little dull at times….car, building, tent, camel (repeat). Don’t get me wrong, living in the desert can also be pleasant and also quite beautiful. Check out my pics from Shaybah this April.
But, I was looking for those sexy curves of the Earth covered in soft, velvety green, gray, and white. At my job, I had unlimited and mostly unfiltered access to the best Earth porn. Here is the public version, not quite the same, but hey – it’s free and no pop-ups 🙂 As a flight controller, I was primarily interested in the photos taken of the inside of the Space Station so that I could fix the broken box. But, whew….let me tell you, the explorer in me was interested in those pictures taken out the Space Station windows and watching the live stream of Earth as our ship orbited during those overnight shifts…my mind is expanding just thinking about it….
Ok. Back to Bhutan.
Bhutan is beautiful. I have some great photos, but even those do not do it justice. At times, I just put down the camera, stared, and breathed in the moment with the fresh air. Well, maybe it was more like stopping to suck down gallons of air after hiking 5 minutes up an incline greater than the 15 maximum degrees of my treadmill at altitudes reaching 3988 meters (13,084 feet). But hey, it can still be incredible and leave you huffing and puffing…. Even the flight to and from Bhutan was beautiful. It was a little too cloudy on the way to Bhutan, but on the flight back I may or may not have seen Everest. Either way, I took photos of a really large, tall, beautiful mountain off the in the distance while flying across northern India.
I bought a seat on a 12-day guided hiking group tour of Bhutan. I signed up primarily to have a local expert to show me around and because I was too lazy to set up my own 12 day itinerary. Also, since I was traveling by myself, I thought it would be fun to have some consistent people to potentially hang out with. (More on the pros and cons of group tour travel in a future post….maybe) Our group was small, 5 folks (4 girls, 1 dude), and we had one lead guide and a driver. Our trip took us from Paro to Thimphu to Punakha/Wangdue to Bumthang before heading back to Paro.
We hiked just about every day, sometimes twice a day. The hikes would only be a few hours, and being a Texas girl I was not used to the inclines or the altitude. The highest peak I had conquered before this trip had been Enchanted Rock in Fredericksburg (130 m climb, altitude 556 m) and maybe a few hills at Garner State Park in the Hill Country (max elevation 750 m). In Bhutan, I reached an elevation of 3,988 meters!! Technically, I was driven to that elevation and then hiked down, but it still counts. I am not an athlete and I’m what you would probably call a part-time couch potato. Sometimes I’m gung-ho for a week or two maybe even a few months building up to a 5k, 10k, or even a Tough Mudder, but then, eh, I’ll feel like binge watching an entire season of Archer. Hiking in Bhutan was fine for me though. I love walking. My lungs were the only part of my body that didn’t enjoy the hiking as much. My legs and everything else wanted to keep going, but my lungs are what would make me stop and slow down. Granted I could have pushed myself harder and whipped my lungs into shape, but I currently don’t plan to move to a high elevation, and it’s not like I was going to win a medal at the end of the hike…though sometimes there was beer, but I got that whether I was first or last…so I just took my time and stopped to enjoy the view and soak it all in.
Several of the hikes took us through REAL farms, with local farmers actively working the land. I had never seen rice paddies close up, let alone walked through them. Being from Texas, we drive by farms all the time, but usually what I see are HUGE commercially owned enterprises with heavy machinery and specially engineered crops or what I hear about are plantation-esque owners who employ migrant workers to do the manual labor. My high school had a big 4H department and I’ve been to the rodeo a time or two, but even still I never had the opportunity to go for a peaceful hike through miles of farmland. In Bhutan, I saw actual farm owners working their land with their family and using every bit of what they had for sustenance. One hike we walked through the retired King’s land and right by his home. The farm and the king’s home weren’t tourist attractions, a dude ranch, petting zoo, museum, or learning center. It was just a farm and a house and we were just walking through.
Many if not all the hikes took us to a temple, monastery, or nunnery. Making the mistake of making my mental thoughts audible one day, I commented on how healthy and nicely shaped the monks’ bums must be from all the hiking up the mountain and stairs. I got a stare from a fellow traveler that had “inappropes” all over it or maybe that was directed at her husband who was laughing. Good thing I had my filter on that day, because what I was thinking was….“Damn! I bet these monks have some tight booty under those robes!” And no joke, these monasteries are at the tippy top of these mountains and if you want supplies you have to carry them up by foot or horse and I maybe saw a horse carrying supplies once.
I only have photos of the outside of the temples. The reason being that the temples are sacred religious places with gorgeous artwork and artifacts and making them into celebrities with people paparazzi’ing worshipers would not be right. It would be like someone going into your peaceful place and shoving a camera in your face. Also, the treasures inside the temples are so rich in meaning and symbolism it would be a shame for people to see them and not understand the context. For example, in one temple there was a big wooden dong placed at the top of my forehead. A simple moment that could be misconstrued. I was in the temple of “The Divine Madman” in Punakha. The Divine Madman brought a unique style of teaching Buddhism to the people of Bhutan including among other things, the phallus symbol which is meant to bring good luck and protect from evil spirits. The temple is rich in its told history and believed to be the place to receive special fertility blessings. Being someone who would like to have children sometime in the future, I took the opportunity to make an offering and receive my special blessing from a young monk which included taking a sip of saffron water, putting some on my head, and then being touched on the head with the wooden phallus and an ancient bow and arrow. Hey, it can’t hurt, right?
I have worked hard at learning to publically control my emotions, but I was overwhelmed twice in Bhutan. The first was in the temple of one of the dzongs, a transformed fortress that now holds monasteries or government administration. The dzong was in Thimphu and it was huge. The day we visited happened to be a prayer day and the large temple was full of probably over a hundred monks, even more worshipers, and a thousand Buddha statues along the walls. I had never heard monks chanting in real life let alone a hundred chanting all at once. We sat for a while just listening and watching, the deep chanting and incense filling the room. I was overwhelmed with an I-Never-Thought-In-A-Million-Years moment. It was one of those moments that I can recall all the senses. The biggest emotional moment for me was Tiger’s Nest temple in Paro. Tiger’s Nest is the Bhutan postcard. The temple was constructed in the 17th century around a cave that was inhabited in the 8th century by the man responsible for bringing Buddhism to Bhutan. Oh, and a helpful tigress flew him up to said cave. I did it with my own two feet. I wasn’t expecting to be emotional about it at all. I was just focused on getting up there. But it was a bit of a feat to get up that mountain with some steep terrain. When we got to the top and my guide showed me where we started, I was so proud of myself combined with the spectacular view and another INTIAMY moment. It was pretty special. Later, I realized I accidently left my laptop in my unusually heavy daypack from not properly unpacking the night before the hike. That earned my unintended hiking companion a Bhutan sticker for making it to Tiger’s Nest.
So, I didn’t want to tell you about Bhutan because it is unique in its identity and I want it to remain that way. I feel strongly that it is something worthy of protecting. Bhutan is wonderful and what makes Bhutan special is that it’s just itself. It’s easy going, not overly complicated, and it isn’t flashy trying to impress you or get you to buy anything. It’s that person who is naturally beautiful inside and out and just wants to hang out with you. With the increase in tourism, Bhutan is beginning to modernize, particularly in the capital, Thimphu, and bigger cities. Its modernization is probably not considered up to some North American traveler “standards” in all areas quite yet, but that’s ok. I hope Bhutan finds its own path and is not too swayed by the tourism industrial complex. Yes, it’s nice sometimes to have 20 dishes to choose from at dinner, and to be able to find a clean Western toilet (Buc-ees would have been nice a time or two), dogs barking at random hours of the night can be annoying, and what all roads don’t come paved and pothole free?! But Bhutan was the second country I’ve been to without a McDonald’s (the first was St. Lucia). The Bhutanese food was pretty basic, but it was complete, filling, tasty, and almost always included optional chilies, which was great for me. It was refreshing to not see the capital suffocating with neon brand signs and littered with take-out wrappers (though some litter was still around). Instead there were local businesses and vendors, each with their own personality. The country also seems to be doing a fantastic job maintaining its natural beauty and retaining its cultural artistry with schools. I hope that western travelers don’t push it to produce 32 oz steaks or to always have 20 different dishes on the menu (often times we didn’t even have a menu and ate family style). I shudder to think of those beautiful valleys of farmland potentially being converted to mass produce cattle and chickens for tourist consumption. I hope they never build huge gondolas up to the Tiger’s Nest and simply charge for the ride up there. Or export Bhutanese patterns, drawings, and symbols to be manufactured by the millions in cheap print and plastic factories that can be as easily bought at Wal-Mart as the majestic valleys of Bhutan.
Bhutan should simply be experienced. Tourists are well taken care of and in my encounters were of interest to the young Bhutanese who are learning English and want to know where you are from and what you’ve thought of their country. At times, I felt like I was on a parade float waving back to all the smiling waving children.
I hope to one day take my future children to Bhutan and NOT have the option of buying them chicken nuggets or to take a 10 min ride to Tiger’s Nest with the $12 tacky framed photo and stuffed animal at the end. I want them to experience minimally touched nature and engage with a different, beautifully kind culture. I also want to take my hypothetical potential children to Mars one day. But I feel that accepting and loving Bhutan for what it is and helping it grow at its own pace to retain its culture is something that can be attained instantly if you open yourself up to new experiences.
~~Saudi update: A little piece of Texas