Our flight to Bhutan, like Bhutan itself, is small and quiet. The small Buddhist nation in the Himalayas is a favorite for many types of travelers, and the difficult nature of entering Bhutan alone makes it an attractive option for some. Americans, along with all other foreign nationals aside from Maldivians, Nepalese, and Indians, are required to visit Bhutan using a licensed tour operator, and must spend a minimum of $250 per night that they plan to stay. Bhutan has hundreds of registered tour agencies, so when I booked this tour, which includes visa, lodging, meals, water, guides, and activities, I was still a student so I was able to secure the most inexpensive possible tour with a group that offers student discounts. For my three-day, two-night tour, I paid around $600 including flights, while my dad had to pay around $1000. Once again, my UConn student card saves me money.
Only two state-owned airlines fly into the idyllic country of Bhutan, so as to limit the number of people who can enter the country. Bhutan, where the royal family proudly celebrates their “gross national happiness” figures above their gross national product, cherishes its nature and its land; with global warming affecting the mountainous, snow-capped country, the environment is important. Our small flight from Dhaka is nearly full, and it is said that flights into and out of the country sell out months in advance during peak season, for fear that running too many flights from Paro--the nation’s only international airport--will emit excessive carbon into the air and diminish the quality and cleanliness of Bhutan for everyone else. I am elated to have one of these prized spots.
Day 1: Beyond the Gates
We are traveling at the end of the off-season, so we were able to secure yet another deal on our tour package by traveling during the often-rainy month of August. We depart from Dhaka in the middle of a steady downpour, but Paro airport is nice, sunny, and serene. There are no other flights coming or going in the near future, so all of the passengers walk across the tarmac, taking pictures of the planes, Buddhist architecture, and the caldera-like mountains surrounding Paro airport.
Beyond customs, two Bhutanese men greet us: our guide and our driver. In true Bhutanese fashion, they seem happy to see us and introduce themselves. They also happen to be donning actual Bhutanese fashion, which consist of short robes for men. As part of our tour, we also get to wear similar dress once we return to the hotel in Thimphu, but first we visit some of Bhutan’s sacred Buddhist sights before we arrive in the capital 40 minutes away.
First we drive to capital Thimphu’s Memorial Stupa, taking care to walk around it three times in accordance with Buddhist tradition. Off to the side, we spin the prayer wheels amongst a group of elderly Bhutanese who spend their days chatting and socializing near the prayer wheels, practicing their religion as they prepare for the next life. Next, we visit the nation’s largest Buddha, overlooking the Thimphu valley. Inside, 12,000 smaller Buddhas sit in a hall, along with shrines and pictures of various religious figures. The royal family, largely admired and loved by their people, also has a few pictures set up in a corner. Calm seeps from every window and door below the monument, and guide Namgay explains the hierarchy of Bhutan’s devout monarchical government.
In the evening, we change into our robes and visit monastery Tashichho Dzong, where we get a crash course on Buddhism and how it plays a role in Bhutanese society. A mural displays the six worlds: those of the animals, humans, gods, demi-gods, restless spirits, and the world of Hell. Namgay explains how reincarnation allows for our spirits to live in other worlds after death, depending on how we live on earth. At the monastery, we see a local scout troop visiting, and sneak a peek at the Royal Palace nearby.
Day 2: Into the Tiger's Nest
Bhutan’s most picturesque site, which looms high over Paro, is the Tiger’s Nest Monastery. Built into the side of a cliff, a few hours’ hike takes the adventurous and the pious alike to some of the most spectacular views from the many mountainside temples enclosed in the monastery. But the trek is not easy.
Thin air and high altitude makes the climb to the Tiger’s nest a struggle, but the rewards are regular and impressive. We meet monks, tour guides, and tourists, most of whom come from India. In the off-season, we feel like we are the only westerners making the trek in this serene, remote Eastern wilderness. When we climb to 3150 meters above sea level, we can hardly breathe, but rain starts falling in a drizzle and I appreciate the relief.
At the top, we spend a few hours experiencing the temples and stupas in the monastery, and, just as we are about to descend, the rain subsides enough for us to begin our descent. Halfway down, we stop at a mountainside watering hole with a vegetarian buffet and fill our bellies with some of the most wholesome food I have ever had. When we arrive at the base, the monastery is shrouded in fog and we leave to soothe our joints in a Bhutanese hot stone bath.
In a Farmhouse Outside Paro
A local apple and vegetable farmer makes a few extra bucks hosting the occasional tour group for archery challenges, hot stone baths, and home-cooked dinners. Tonight, my dad and I are that tour group. After missing the target for fifteen straight minutes over hand-picked Paro apples, we climb into our respective tubs and soak for forty-five minutes, chatting about how we cannot believe we are here. Words cannot describe the mystical nature of this real-life Shangri-La. People are actually *happy* here, and it shows. Everyone we meet eagerly shares their homes, their food, their culture with us, and nobody seems to be in need. Namgay explains that the government supports the farmers of Bhutan by strongly limiting the taxes they pay. The idea that land is a part of life, and that the things that grow in it are one with us, seems critical to the Buddhist nation where so many are vegetarians.
That evening, we eat a farmhouse dinner where we are served simple, organic Bhutanese dishes like spinach, mixed greens, and pink Bhutanese rice. We eat well, and I am overwhelmed by the savory flavors in these natural, high-quality ingredients. We also sip butter tea, which is exactly what it sounds like; I find it to be the only upsetting part of the whole meal. After dinner, we return to Paro from where we are unfortunately scheduled to leave Bhutan in the morning. We sleep well in the only country with enough happiness to export it, and awake early to transfer to the airport.
To Nepal, via Everest
Paro airport is calm, filled mostly with Indians wrapping up their peaceful Himalayan holidays. In Nepal, we will be applying for visas on arrival so my dad goes to the ATM to withdraw Bhutanese dollars, which he then exchanges with the duty free cashier. I roll my eyes, hoping his hedging missteps don’t lose a bunch of our money like they did in Albania. We ask for seats on the right side of the plane, hoping to get a view of Mt. Everest on our westward flight to Kathmandu. The woman at check-in happily obliges. The Druk Air flight is short, and the heavy gray clouds dwarf the highest peak in the world before we turn off to land in Kathmandu.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.