The Kingdom of Bhutan: Thimphu

I decided that I had WAY too much to say about our trip to Bhutan (and just about as many pictures), therefore I’m splitting it up into three different blog posts for each city we visited on our trip.  Here is post one.  Enjoy!

There is always something exciting about traveling to exotic places, especially places that are not always at the forefront as popular tourist destinations.  If I’m being honest, I didn’t even know where Bhutan was on a map until I moved to Japan.  It was my desire to travel the Himalayan mountains, get as far away from south-east Asia as a I could, and a few conversations with fellow expats, that led me to the Kingdom of Bhutan.

This tiny country is nestled right smack dab in the middle of two giants, China to the north and India to the south.  It is legit amazing that it hasn’t been taken over by these two yet (not that they haven’t tried), but somehow this tiny but mighty country keeps marching to the beat of its own drum.

Before I get into our adventures in the Land of the Thunder Dragon, I think it’s important to highlight just how much of a process it is to enter the country, especially for those considering a trip.  Bhutan is not a country that encourages independent tourism and it’s damn near impossible to enter Bhutan unless you booked through a certified tour company via their official tourism counsel.  What all that mumbo jumbo means is that they heavily control who comes in and out of the country, to the point that unless you are a native of India, you have to pay a daily tariff just to enter, as well as obtain a visa well in advance, and fly only one specific airline (that only travels from four different locations) to enter the country.  If that wasn’t enough we were required to be with a guide and a driver for the entirety of the trip.

Now before you think about what a pain that is, they aren’t following us around wherever we go, we had some freedom.  However, for the most part you have a dude with you the whole time.  But really when do you have someone available 24/7 to answer any and all questions, as well as buy you beer?  Like never!  Since John and I travelled during the high season our daily rate was $250 PER PERSON!  Honestly, I didn’t have a problem paying this because a portion of this goes towards healthcare and education for its citizens, which everyone gets for free.  What a concept…annnd moving on.

Bhutan only started allowing tourism in like the 70s, around the same time that they established a formal form of currency.  Yup that’s right this place didn’t even have real money until 1972(ish), heck one of the villages we visited only just got electricity 9 years ago.  This place is very, very protective of it’s identity and does everything it possibly can to preserve its culture, which includes their hope of modernizing without westernizing.  In my opinion, that is what makes this place so fascinating, you have very littler western conveniences and there is not a single outside corporation mucking up the place.  I’m talking about you coffee shops and fast-food chains Starbucks and McDonald’s!  Not a single one!  Hallelujah!

People who have actually heard of Bhutan have probably heard of its push for gross national happiness, or in other-words the happiest country in the world.  Which by the way, is all true.  One of the first things our guide, Yonlin, shared with us was the countries efforts to make sure it’s citizens were happy and provided all of life’s basic necessities.  Given the fact that this country is 100% Buddhist, it’s not surprise that this is their goal, and it appears they are achieving it.  However, I think it would take more than a week in country to really see if their population is as happy as they claim them to be.

Onto our week-long adventure!  By adventure, I really mean it!  The trip started off with a 50 min flight from Kathmandu to Paro, with stunning views of Mt. Everest.  In case you missed my last blog post on Kathmandu here is a photo:

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From there we took our decent into the mystical, mysterious, Himalayan kingdom via VFR.  Another fun fact about Bhutan, is that their airports run solely on visual landing, which I think is fine in the flat lands of middle-of-nowhere America, however, these pilots are landing in a valley between giant mountains (remember we saw Everest? Yeah they weren’t small).  To me it was insane and that brings us full circle as to why they only allow one airline to fly into the country, the pilots need to know what the frick they are doing.  For real.

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After meeting our guide and driver for the week, we were immediately off to the capital city, Thimphu.  It was during this time that we got our first taste of the beauty and mystic that is Bhutan.  We also quickly learned that a) there are no traffic lights in Bhutan, and b) why they require a guide AND and driver.  If the guide was guiding and driving at the same time, he likely would have driven us off a cliff, as there are no guard rails on the roads.  Remember how we went to the Himalaya’s?  Yeah that was legit scary.

Our first two days we spent exploring the capital city and learning about the country’s government and how it provides for its people.  Their primary focus is not on economic advances but on the happiness and stability of its people and core buddhist values.  Which is super fascinating.  It was also refreshing to be in a capital city with no skyscrapers or Starbucks commercialized coffee chains.

During our time in Thimphu we took a trip to a trade school, which I assumed at first would be something like electricians or plumbing, something that I’m familiar with as trades, however, turns out sculpting, wood working, embroidery, and painting are the trades heavily favored in this country.  Mostly, because they are always growing and building their temples and the signs of buddhism are heavily prominent everywhere you look, therefore these skills are super useful.  Below are some photos of Tashichho Dzong, which is home to most of Bhutan’s government…and basically next door to the palace, where the king and queen live.

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We started day two at an archery tournament, which thanks to a visit to Bhutan from Kate and Will last April, I learned was the countries most popular sport.  During our time in Paro I actually got to try my hand at it, but more on that later.  From there we traveled to a temple that many elderly people of Thimphu spend time at.  Turns out there is a temple for just about anything in this country.

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Unfortunately, during our trip to Hong Kong we didn’t have chance to visit the Tian Tan Buddha, which to my understanding was the largest sitting buddha in the world.  However, turns out Hong Kong helped build the Dordenma Statue in Thimphu, which I guess according to our guide is now the largest sitting buddha in the world.  Not sure what’s true or not, but it was a pretty freaking huge buddha.  So do with that what you will.  Here are some pics.

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This is not the buddha…

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Finally we ended our day at a temple, the trade school I mentioned above, and finally a famous paper factory.

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Our first two days in the country were only the beginning of what we quickly learned to be the most breathtaking and mystical county we have visited.  Look out for my posts on Punakha and Paro in the coming week.  I’m telling you this place only gets better!  Until then here is a picture of a Takin, real but “mystical” animal indigenous to Bhutan.  We visited a sanctuary since these guys are endangered.  The animal is said to have a head of a goat and body of a cow and created by a Tibetan saint in the 16th century.

Until next time! じゃまた!Ja Mata!

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