Wings of a Dragon

Words cannot even begin to describe the (incredibly long) day that my family and I have just had. It began, of course, in Bangkok (where the rest of my family safely arrived on Sunday) at about 2:45 this morning. We had a flight to catch to what very likely may be the last “Shangri-La” left on Earth. As first light broke, we took off on the wings of a silver dragon; Druk (literally Dragon) Air, the only carrier flying to the tiny Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan.

My seatmate was a Bhutanese national who worked in the local Planning Ministry and was returning home after a conference in Denmark.  He was quite happy to converse with us which proved to be a truly fascinating and insightful experience, sharing with us that his home town was 680km or a three day drive from Thimphu, the capital. As a nice taste of things to come, my newfound friend smiled and laughed the entire way, even as we were rather surprisingly diverted to Calcutta, India due to bad visibility in Paro, home to Bhutan’s sole airport. Alas, we were not allowed off the plane and about an hour later were again headed to Paro (for real this time)!

As we cleared the intensive cloud cover into the Paro valley (one of the most difficult landings in the world), it became immediately apparent as to why my grandmother, whose ashes we will scatter here, so adored this place. Traditional buildings, looking the same as they have for centuries, were visible everywhere. A village here, a village there, a house on a sheer cliff or on the top of a high peak. Even the airport terminal building featured this truly unique architectural style.

Bhutan requires that all visitors travel on a guided, package tour, and Sither (pronounced Sitar (like the instrument)), our guide, met us at the airport, where he had been waiting since our original arrival time three hours earlier! From there, it was into our van and off to Paro, which was experiencing the very last day of its annual festival.

As we joined the throngs of locals heading up the mountain to the festival grounds, it was hard to ignore the fact that everyone was wearing Bhutanese traditional dress (though many donned anachronistic sneakers). Sither grabbed a white shawl for himself that he elaborately wrapped around his body, explaining that different colored shawls indicated status: white for ordinary people, blue for military, red for monks (who, incidentally, wear maroon robes here instead of saffron as they do in Southeast Asia. They are a different sect of Buddhism here; Mahayana, as opposed to Theravada), orange for high ranking government ministers, and yellow for the King.

Sither explained that there is different etiquette for each status, including the King. I wondered how often people actually saw the King but I did not have to wonder for long. Ahead was a Dzong (a fortress, now used as a Civic Center) and the King was inside with a large group of underprivileged children whose education he was sponsoring! We joined a large crowd gathered to see His Majesty’s exit and before long a procession emerged. The chief monk appeared, slowly clapping as he walked to indicate someone important was on his way and then a young face appeared with an unmistakable yellow shawl.

Until 2008, Bhutan was an absolute monarchy, but the previous, immensely popular King, abdicated the throne in favor of his eldest son in order to institute a democratic system. That relatively new (and young) King, who we were now incredibly close to a mere hour after arriving in the country, posed for photos from his official photographers (nobody else is allowed to photograph him) and joked with the children before making his way through the crowd and down the path. As he passed, people extended the ends of their shawls out as a sign of respect.

We followed the procession of dancers, clowns and musicians further up the mountain for the rest of the festival, where performances occurred in a large square surrounded by hordes of Bhutanese that went all the way up the hill to see. This was not some special show put on for tourists like you’d see in many other countries but the real thing! We had a blast interacting with the local population, who is just incredibly friendly and warm. Most even speak a good deal of English.

As we headed back down to our vehicle, we were now keenly aware that there was something very different with people here. They quite enjoy to be photographed (in stark contrast with people in many parts of the world) and will even strike a pose for you and even, at times, thank you for taking their picture! People are so content, a direct effect of the country’s emphasis on “Gross National Happiness” rather than Gross National Product. Sither also explained what a strong sense of community existed amongst the people here. You take care of your friends and neighbors in ways we wouldn’t dream of in the West!

Once we reached Thimphu, (the world’s only capital city without a single traffic light) for the night, the five of us reflected on what has truly been an astounding day. I’ve traveled to a lot of different countries but I can’t say I’ve ever been completely awe struck like I was upon arriving here. This place is simply mind blowing and quite literally feels like stepping onto a different planet. Landing in Calcutta did not look terribly different from any other city, but when you land here, it really smacks you in the face. But it’s not just the fact that all the architecture in this country is traditional, but it’s also the intense warmness of the people.

Absolutely everything about this day, between randomly ending up in Calcutta to seeing the King of Bhutan in person, was just incredible! And to think, we still have 9 days to go!

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4 Responses to Wings of a Dragon

  1. Amer March 26, 2011 at 9:59 pm #

    Fantastic reports on Bhutan. Would love to go there one day but I’ve just heard it is quite expensive and you can only go there with a guide. I also heard that you need to book like 6 months in advance. Was it really expensive to visit the country? And did it take you long to reserve a tour there.

    • Aaron March 27, 2011 at 7:54 pm #

      Yes what you’ve heard about Bhutan is correct. It is ridiculously expensive and you must go on an organized tour. Unless you are invited by a Bhutanese citizen, you cannot travel independently. The tour operators must charge you an all inclusive rate of US$200 per person per day (all inclusive except drinks). The price goes up to US$250 per person per day in January 2012.

      We had family reasons to go to Bhutan so we know far in advance that we were going and planned our trip (and my subsequent Asian adventure last year) around that. We first contacted a tour operator in June 2009 for a March 2010 arrival. That said, there was a lot of waiting around, as they couldn’t even book our flights on Druk Air, the only airline that flies into Bhutan (which is also wildly expensive…US$700 r/t from Bangkok) until late November 2009 and didn’t arrange our Bhutanese vias until the end of January 2010.

      So, I would assume that 6 months out is strictly so that you can get flight arrangements into Bhutan. It is possible to enter via land from Assam in India, but you would have to get yourself there. Presumably this would reduce how far in advance you’d have to arrange your tour.

      I should note though that, though expensive, a trip to Bhutan is worth every single penny it takes to get there!

  2. Vishnu September 23, 2011 at 11:43 am #

    Great travalogue!

    A small note on the visa: citizens of India, Bangladesh and Maldives can get into Bhutan without a visa. I went to the border in Assam (a town called Phuentsholing), crossed the border, applied for a “permit”, got one within 2 hours and caught a bus to Thimphu. I still needed more permits for visiting Dzhongs and the rest of the country like Punakha, Bumthang, Trashigang etc – but they were all free. I could stay in the country for 30 days and could backpack alone.

    Needless to say, that trip was life changing!

    • Aaron September 24, 2011 at 2:32 am #

      Interesting. I knew that citizens of India were exempt but didn’t know that it extended to to Bangladesh and Maldives too! You can also be exempt from a visa if you are invited by a Bhutanese national. Sounds like you had a great experience! How was local transport (our guide fondly referred to the public buses as “vomit comets”)? Thanks for sharing your experience!

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