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Bhutan - November 25, 1999
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Tashi Delek,

I was fortunate to start my trip to Bhutan with a flight from Kathmandu. What a spectacular way to begin this incredible adventure! For virtually the entire flight, my eyes were glued to the dramatic sharp snowcapped peaks of the Himalayas. I also got my first glimpse of the amazing Mr. Everest.

I was impressed from the moment I stepped off the plane. The outside of the airport was painted very decoratively, and had a distinctive architectural design. I quickly learned that this is just traditional Bhutanese architecture. The countryside throughout Bhutan is scattered with these beautiful, intricately painted buildings, including the post office and bus terminal!

The traditional clothing was also immediately noticeable. Bhutanese are required to wear the national dress, which is made from local textiles in a variety of colorful patterns. The men wear a Gho, a tightly belted robe to just below the knee. It is often a plaid or striped design similar to a Scottish tartan. Women wear a Kira, a long, floor-length dress with a silk blouse underneath and jacket over the top. This is a large rectangular piece of fabric that wraps around the body, with hooks near the shoulders and a tight belt around the waist to hold it in place. It is eye-catching to see so many people wearing these distinctive, brightly colored costumes.

Bhutan is the most unique country I've visited. It is small and rural, about the size of Switzerland, with a population of a little over 600,000. It is bordered on the northwest by Tibet; the rest of the country is surrounded by India. I've met a lot of people who have not yet heard of Bhutan. It has been a well-kept secret. The Bhutanese say they live on their own "Roof of the World" and have kept to themselves for hundreds of years.

Bhutan first started allowing visitors in the 1970's, but has maintained a controlled philosophy with regards to tourism. Through a system of a high visitor price per day, the government has been able to limit the number of tourists and their length of stay. This is fortunate, as the country has been able to slowly build infrastructure for tourism in a way that is not spoiling the country's intrinsic beauty and culture.

Western Bhutan and the King's Birthday
We arrived in the capital of Thimpu just in time for the week-long celebration of the King's birthday. There was constant activity going on in the town, the streets were closed to car traffic and the second-ever firework show was held. It was a very exciting week in Thimpu. The first firework show was held only five months earlier for the celebration of the King's 25th year. At the same time both television and the Internet were introduced to the country!

Shortly after arriving in Thimpu, I experienced the Bhutanese medical system. Like many people, I've always had some level of anxiety about needing to receive medical care outside of my own country. Fortunately, I only had an ear infection and it turned out to be a fairly pleasant experience. The doctors were very kind and they brought a specialist in to see me even though he was supposed to be on vacation. The most interesting part, coming from a country where medical costs are considered very high, is that health care in Bhutan is free for everyone, including visitors!

Traveling East
Although my time spent in the capital of Thimpu was enjoyable, traveling through the country to Eastern Bhutan, and attending a religious festival, was by far the most interesting. The scenery throughout the country is spectacular. It is very mountainous with thick green forests and the hillsides are scattered with beautiful, traditional Bhutanese buildings. Each district has a Dzong, a large white fortress-monastery that is absolutely stunning and dominates the hill on which it is built.

The Bhutanese are known for their hospitality and my travel companions and I experienced it everywhere we went. We were constantly invited into homes for tea. Many Bhutanese joke about their homes having "revolving doors" as people are constantly in and out of each other's homes.

Eastern Bhutan and the Mongar Tsechu
The Buddhist faith plays a fundamental role in the lives of the Bhutanese people and there are many religious festivals. The best-known festivals are the Tsechus, which are held at different times of the year in different locations. Tsechus are celebrated for three to five days with both monks and laymen taking part in ritual mask dances. These mask dances date back many centuries.

We had the good fortune of attending a Tsechu in Mongar, a town in Eastern Bhutan. It was the highlight of the trip. Our trip organizer arranged for us to meet the governor of Mongar and have tea in his home the day before the festival began. Our good luck kept getting better as he invited us to a private ceremony in the Mongar monastery at 3:00am that next morning! Through the cool darkness, we followed a procession of government and religious officials from his home to the monastery for a surreal and somewhat mysterious two hour ceremony. When it ended, we followed the procession back to his home, led by about 20 young girls singing with the most beautiful voices that echoed off of the hills. My memories of this night are still very calming and dreamlike.

The mask dances performed at the festival during the next three days were spectacular! The costumes are so intricate and colorful and the dances are very medieval. These dances have been performed for many centuries to educate the people about Buddhist beliefs regarding the life and death cycle. It is also believed that onlookers receive merit by attending the festivals. The last morning of the festival, a gorgeous religious picture painted on fabric, called a thangka, was unrolled. It was so huge; it covered the entire side of the monastery.

Since Mongar is a very small town with minimal hotel facilities, the governor arranged for us to camp on the archery field during our three nights there. This also turned out to be an interesting experience because many of the villagers had to walk right through our campsite to get to the festival and to the town. We had many curious children coming by to look at us and peer into our tents. They were the most entertained when our guides helped dress us outside our tents each morning. Putting on a Bhutanese Kira and Gho is not an easy task!

Traveling West
During the next several days, our drive west back to the capital brought a number of additional interesting experiences. The most memorable was picking up a monk who was hitchhiking. He walked several hours from his monastery in order to pick flowers to make an offering. We spent a great deal of time asking him questions about his life as a monk and then took him to lunch to continue our inquisition. He invited us back to his monastery and arranged special permission for us to come inside and have tea in his room. He even took us see temples that we couldn't have seen without him to accompany us. When we left he told us we would pray for our safe journey when we left Bhutan. This was a comforting thought when we left two days later on our DrukAir flight to Bangkok.

Ten Tips for Traveling to Bhutan

  • Go soon while tourism is still fairly limited and you can experience the traditional culture.
  • Plan your trip around at least one festival. If you choose one in the East, there will be fewer tourists. Check before you go to be sure that the festival dates haven't changed.
  • Read the Lonely Planet guide to Bhutan. The information is very helpful and accurate and the pictures are beautiful and true to what you will see in Bhutan.
  • Purchase and wear the traditional Bhutanese clothing, especially if you attend festivals or visit monasteries. It's fun and the Bhutanese greatly appreciate it when visitors wear the local dress.
  • Since you must book your trip through a government approved tour agency, be sure to use a recommended tour operator. Ours was fabulous (Rainbow Tours at www.bootan.com/rainbow).
  • Don't expect a correlation between your tour price of $200/day/person, and the class of your accommodation and travel. Rather, think of it as paying for the privilege of going to a unique country.
  • Be prepared for last minute itinerary and accommodation changes, and be flexible, as you might be sleeping in a tent if hotels are full.
  • Travel to Eastern Bhutan as it is the least touristed and most interesting, but prepare for long, windy, uncomfortable, bumpy roads. I recommend at least two weeks in total if you plan to travel east.
  • If you like to eat local food when you travel, and your stomach can handle spicy chilies, be sure to tell your tour operator in advance. Otherwise you will primarily eat food designed for the western palate.
  • If you have the time, plan to do some trekking, as the countryside is beautiful. However, you should be physically fit as you will be at high elevations and the terrain can be very steep.

Plan your next holiday today! Happy travels.
Karen

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