“The ban on television was finally lifted by the King in 1999. But for some reason reality programs have been very slow to catch on.”
To suggest how we might create a bespoke adventure in Bhutan, here are a few impressions from Philippe Brown’s travel journal:
After lunch today at the home of our guide Duba, we set off to see Bhutan’s parliament, the Tashichoedzong. As we drew near, a man waved us over and murmured something that made Duba pick up the pace. “What’s up?” I asked. “Oh, he wanted us to know the king is almost finished work for the day, if we want to see him as he heads home.”
This is the kind of refreshing informality we’ve encountered everywhere in Bhutan. People come up to Duba – in the market, on a hillside – and by their tone and manner you assume they must be his old friends or at least from the same village. But no – they don’t know each other from Duba. This is just how people interact in a tiny landlocked kingdom protected for centuries by the empires on its borders. It’s the Lost Horizon version of small-town life, right down to the single (decommissioned) traffic light.
Each year Bhutan admits only a few thousand fortunate travellers. The aim is to balance preservation of its cultural uniqueness with the need for a bit of revenue as the nation eases gracefully – and very slowly – from medieval to modern. From the moment we arrived in Druk Yul, Land of the Thunder Dragon, we’ve felt immensely privileged to be here. My partner came to deepen her appreciation for the concept of Gross National Happiness promoted by the last king and shared with us by members of the royal family. And I simply want a bit of time in a pristine mountain land, far from tedious Westerners like me. So I suppose we’ve both come for the same thing.
We’ve learned the importance of balance. First, in accommodations: we’re combining stays at comfortable local hotels with private luxury trekking camps in remoter parts of the country, plus a few nights at luxurious Aman, Como or Taj properties where it’s always nice to rejuvenate in the spa. Next, we try to balance visits to sacred sites with time devoted to everything else – because it’s that impromptu gathering at someone’s home, or a chat in a village square, that often yields the fondest memories. In Thimphu, for example, we met a man who’s been in Bhutan longer than any other Westerner and who once taught mathematics to the king. And at various Buddhist temples, we’ve forged relationships with monks who are happy (naturally) to offer their perspective on achieving happiness.
As for our final balancing act, I’m afraid that’s been a dismal failure. We just can’t get enough of the wonderfully spicy chili and cheese concoction that is Bhutan’s national dish. Another ema datse for two, please!
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