A couple of weeks have passed since Patrick and I got back from our Bhutan trip, and we still can’t get back to our normal lives. It was one of those trips that was (as much as I refuse to use cliches) life-changing. Bhutan has set the bar for our future travel choices.
One of the last countries to open its doors to tourism, Bhutan is a small kingdom that sits in the Eastern Himalayan mountain range, flanked by China and India. It was ruled by absolute monarchy until 2008 when they had their first democratic elections. It is one of the most exclusive travel destinations in the world. A trip to Bhutan will require commitment, planning, and some saving up. But once you get there, you get to experience a small piece of an unspoilt environment, culture, and people.
The Royal Government of Bhutan has adapted a policy of “High Value, Low Impact” tourism. This means no mass tourism, no budget travel deals, no big chain establishments. They are very cautious about growing and developing their tourism industry and have decided to promote Bhutan as a high-end destination. This way, they can preserve Bhutan’s pristine environment, culture and society. Every visitor must spend a minimum of $250 per person per day (or $200 per person per day in the months of January, February, June, July, August, and December). This rate covers hotel accommodation, meals, a licensed Bhutanese tour guide for the extent of your stay, internal transportation, tours, camping and trekking. A portion of this fee goes to tourism royalty to fund free education, free healthcare, poverty alleviation, and infrastructure projects. Your licensed Bhutanese tour operator should be able to explain and arrange everything for you including your visa.
I knew that at some point in our lives, we would go to Bhutan. Patrick has been very fascinated by this “kingdom far, far, away.” So it was a complete surprise and a major blessing that I met Amala Destinations’ founder Ee-Cheng though a common friend, Ole Eugenio of Options Studio. Amala Destinations, licensed in both Bhutan and Singapore, is a “bespoke travel service” that focuses on unique and authentic experiences in Bhutan and other locations. Ee-Cheng invited me to Bhutan to experience Amala’s very carefully considered and personalized service in order to prepare me as the spokesperson/ambassador for Amala Destinations. Patrick came along to help me shoot videos (yes, we will have Video Postcards!).
I’ll be writing a quite few stories about the 8-day journey we took to Bhutan. Now I know why it’s referred to as “the last Shangri-la” and “the kingdom of happiness.” The minimum daily package is actually a small price to pay for the gift of seeing a pure, untouched world.
Back in 2009 only 9 pilots were qualified to fly in an out of Paro, Bhutan. It has a short landing strip nestled between mountains. Planes can only fly during the day. And much of the flying relies on actual sight and not computer instruments.
The immigration gate. All visitors need a visa to Bhutan, pre-arranged through a licensed Bhutanese operator. One cannot just go to Bhutan on their own. It is government regulation that all visitors be assisted by a licensed Bhutanese guide during their stay.
Upon arrival in Paro, we visited the Tachogang bridge, a hanging iron chain bridge built by Drupthob Thangtong Gyalpo in the late 1300s. He is said to have built 108 of these iron chain bridges around Tibet and Bhutan.
The prayer flags, stamped with Indian sutras, come in sets of five different colours arranged in this specific order – blue, white, red, green, and yellow. They represent the five elements — blue symbolizes the sky and space, white for the air and wind, red for fire, green for water, and yellow for earth.
Bhutanese prayer flags trace their roots to Tibetan Bonism. Not all Buddhists practise the hoisting of prayer flags. Generally, in Bhutan, prayer flags are hoisted for happiness, long life, prosperity, luck and to offer karmic merit to all sentient beings. When the wind blows, the prayers and mantras stamped on the flags will spread good will and compassion into everyone within that space. Prayer flags are believed to benefit all, not just the person who raised them.
Bhutan is marketed as the “Kingdom of Happiness.” This is not to be confused with the “happiest place on earth,” for that we have Disneyland. Do not expect to see Bhutanese people laughing and smiling all the time. It’s not that kind of happiness.
Bhutan has a unique concept for development. Instead of only measuring the GNP or Gross National Product, His Majesty the Fourth King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck created the concept of GNH or Gross National Happiness in the 1970s. It basically means, they will lead the country to development and progress, but they will give equal importance to non-economic aspects of well-being.
There are four pillars in Gross National Happiness – good governance, sustainable socio-economic development, cultural preservation, and environmental conservation. GNH is the reason why Bhutan is developing its tourism policy for only “High Value, Low Impact.” Yes they want to develop and be accessible to the outside world, but not at the expense of their culture and environment. The King has put a lot of importance on the preservation of their culture and the well-being of each Bhutanese. Example, all Bhutanese farmers own their land. Farmers children are given scholarships to good schools. I encourage everyone who is interested in local governance, urban planning or strategic planning to study this concept.
On New Year’s Day my brother in law, Fr Dennis Paez, in his homily, asked us to contemplate on the meaning of the greeting “Happy New Year.” We spend a lot of time on the pursuit of happiness through people, things, thoughts, places — always looking for the key to happiness. He said the true key to happiness is when you give it away – when you make someone else happy. He encouraged us to do something to make another person happy, and not expect anything in return.
In Bhutan, I witnessed that kind of happiness. Amala Destinations took us to Gangtey, one of the prettiest valleys in Bhutan. There we stayed in a luxurious lodge, Gangtey Goenpa Lodge, overlooking the valley. Amala’s founder, Ee-Cheng asked if I wanted to see the village where they donated a new roof for a small monastery, an informal project initiated by one of her guests. Apparently her guest felt so moved by Bhutan that he wanted to give something back to the community. With no formalities, the guest donated cash. Amala’s co-founder Phub Dorji personally took charge of buying roofing material at the border near India. Dorji was able to hitch a ride with an empty truck and got the iron roofing material delivered to Gangtey. The villagers did the construction. Amazing.
This little act of kindness and generosity went a long way for the monks and villagers. At the end of our visit, the village elders served us tea and biscuits. I was moved to tears.
Amala’s Ee-Cheng and I walking through this village. Bhutan’s economy, one of the smallest in the world, is predominantly agricultural. The major contributor to their economy is hydroelectric power, which is exported to India, and tourism. Majority of the population still live in farms, which they own.
This is the monastery and the new roof donated by Amala Destination guests. All structures – homes, farm houses, temples, monasteries are made from mud brick. Typical roofing material was made of wood, kept in place by stones (they didn’t have metal nails). Recently, the government has started to encourage home owners to choose corrugated iron, as it is more practical and environmentally sustainable (wood has to be replaced regularly).
It was quite cold for me, though nothing like Arctic weather we get in Canada. During the day, the sun cancels out the cold alpine temperatures of the Himalayas. Note that the villagers were just wearing rubber slippers while I was in double layers, thermal socks and trekking shoes, haha.
Traditional Bhutanese architecture uses stacked earth or mud bricks as construction material. Roofs are made of light material, traditionally wood planks held in place by stones. Metal nails were not available. Here you can see the new roof, donated by Amala guests.
Monks’ pots and pans. Notice they have electricity. This valley only got electric power three years ago via underground cables. This was done in order to protect the habitat of the once-endangered migratory black necked cranes.
As a sign of respect, tourists are asked not to take pictures inside temples. I was “allowed” to take photos in this one, but I decided not to. I wanted to keep that respect. I just documented whatever was outside the holy room.
Monasteries and temples are so important to the Bhutanese life. It is actually the centre of their village life. This small temple probably dates back to the 16th century or earlier. It was touching to see how much importance the local villagers put in caring for their temple.
There were no expectations from both donors and recipients. There was no ceremonial hand-over, no speeches, no thank yous. And yet this simple act of serving us tea spoke volumes of both the sincere generosity and deep appreciation that went on. It reminded me that if you want to do good, you can do good.
Thank you, Amala Destinations, for taking us on this incredible journey.
I still have so many stories to tell about Bhutan. There were a lot of jaw-dropping moments like stunning views, luxurious hotels, and bucket-list architecture like Tiger’s Nest monastery. But it is the silence and simplicity in the ordinary Bhutanese villages, that left Patrick and me so enamoured by this pure and untouched culture.
It was a real privilege to have been given a chance to be with them.
Read about the hotels we stayed at in Bhutan here.
Disclosure: This trip from Bangkok to Bhutan was sponsored by Amala Destinations, a bespoke travel service delivering authentic experiences to enrich and enlighten, with focus on Bhutan, Bali and other special journeys. I am now the spokesperson/ambassador of Amala Destinations in the Philippines.