Day 1: 14th December 2015
After saying goodbye to my Bangladeshi family, the tuktuk raced towards the airport and I realised that perhaps, it will be a while before I set foot in Bangladesh again. Transient- yep, this is what all my travels are like. I come, I see, I love then I cry because I leave and I ponder if I’ll return. The check-in process at Dhaka’s run-down airport was relatively quick and the staff was lovely. The waiting hall at Gate 16 for Druk Air was empty and apart from other regional tourists (referring to those who do not need a pre-arranged visa), it was quite an empty flight.
From the first moment I stepped on board Bhutan’s DrukAir, the in-flight magazine reminded me that I was on my way to a unique world where culture and tradition is strong and alive. Even the mango juice carton had GNH on it.
The in-flight magazine was great since it offered a quick overview of the country and after seeing photos of the Fourth King, I realized that I’ve arrived during a special time. Yep- the 60th Anniversary celebration of a King who looks like he is only in his early forty.
A special section in the magazine allowed me to understand a bit more about the King who came to the throne at the age of 17 after the passing of his father. After 34 years of leadership, he is best well-known for transforming an unheard country to a modern nation who holds onto tradition and culture against a backdrop of fast development and modernization. He is best well-known on the world’s stage as the person who advocates for Gross National Happiness (GNH)- an index that focuses on social, personal and environmental well-being rather than economic gains. Often known as the People’s King, he listens to whatever concerns his citizens may have. I was told that if a Bhutanese citizen has some legitimate concerns then there is a chance to meet the King. I’d very much like to meet the King but then considering that I’m a wacky foreigner, I doubt it will happen. Another random fact is that the Fourth King led the army in December 2003 to flush out guerrillas who camped in the southern forests of Bhutan. Instead of yelling out commands and hiding in a palace, he actually went and fought alongside his army- a great way to earn respect for one’s leadership.
With a flight time of over an hour, it was relatively quick. I saw the two flight crew and wanted to say. Since my sister is a stewardess with Air New Zealand and her husband is a pilot/trainer, I’ve always like chatting to crew members. So half-way into the flight, I approached them and they welcomed me with great Bhutanese hospitality. I had a great chat with Tashi and Ugyen who told me that it is extremely difficult to be selected as an air crew with DrukAir (1/500 get selected).
“Finding a job is difficult so there are always more applications than advertised positions. It is very competitive.”
The Bhutanese are very open and frank individuals so a chat about happiness of which Tashi told me that ” Happiness comes from within,” turned into a chat about marriage and divorce. “I had a divorce a while back. Ugyen here is happily married. Divorce rate is quite high in our country,” said Tashi.
Now that was an interesting fact so I noted it down and asked “What is the reason behind this?” I was quite surprised that divorce rate is high.
“Well you see, Bhutanese don’t tend to plan. We love then sometimes, things don’t work out so then we have a divorce.”
After getting a few more snacks from the approachable crew member, we began to approach Paro. The flight crew guided me into the cockpit and I went high with happiness. My dream has come true. The captain and co-pilot greeted me and told me how only a handful of pilots are allowed and qualified to land in Paro. The Captain is a veteran pilot form Czechoslovakia and he was extra happy when I told him that I visited his country back in 2009. I listened in to the traffic controller in Paro and then held my breathe as we flew right past pine trees and eventually made out way down to the runway. It was perhaps one of the best landing that I’ve seen – smooth in a difficult environment since how can you land a plane when the airport is nestled in a valley?
As soon as we landed and left the plane, a blast of fresh air hit my lungs from all sides and I looked around the airport. Just like when I landed in Pyongyang, North Korea, the airport is small and unique. The Paro airport is distinctively Bhutanese due to the surrounding landscape ( reminds me of Queenstown Airport), the architecture and a huge poster of the King and Queen.
Immigration was quick and easy and the first thought that I had was ” I’m glad that the country controls tourist numbers.” I greeted the driver and tour guide then we made our way to Thimphu. The drive took around 40 minutes and along the way, I laid eyes on Bhutanese houses, open mountain slopes and some very nice Dzongs that overlooks crystal-clear rivers and complete serenity.
You know you have arrived in Thimphu when you see streets after streets of low-rise buildings and houses. The landscape automatically changes and offers signs of urbanization. Such rate is slow when compared to the rest of the world but is nevertheless continuous.
I had lunch with the boss of the tour company Mr Chambula Dorji and after climbing a flight of stairs, my head began to hurt.
“Hello and welcome!”
I turned around and felt my cheeks burning.
“I’m Chambula Dorji, you can call me Champ.”
Charismatic Chambula is an genuine and approachable individual. His voice carries much knowledge about his country and he is himself a fluent German speaker since he studied abroad during the time when the country was just opening up to tourists. So I told him about my symptoms and he reminded me that Thimphu, the capital and largest city of Bhutan (since 1961) is on average around 2400 meters above sea-level. Therefore, it’s normal to feel a bit light-headed. Ok- I’m not dying.
As I looked at the beautiful panoramic view of the Capital, I began to ask a lot of questions about Bhutan. The food was great especially ema datshi ( Bhutan’s national dish). Ema means chili and datshi is cheese. We had a very thought-provoking chat over lunch where Chambula answered all of my questions and shared with me some interesting facts about Bhutan. Since there are so many tour operators promising the trip of a lifetime in Bhutan, finding the right one can be the difference between a dream and a nightmare. After wasting many days doing research on the final selection, a colleague and friend of Victoriadarling told her to contact http://www.bhutandorji.com . I immediately tagged along. The rest was easy and Chambula was more than helpful. If you pick a small family-owned business then you can’t go wrong.
“You’ll find that the Bhutanese are very friendly people and you’ll walk away with lots of friends. It is not hard to make friends here,” said Chambula.
He was right since I felt that I can already connect with the country. We started to talk about our family and out of nowhere, Chambula suggested that I should meet up with his children. I never thought that I would end up meeting his family. That was a sweet and thoughtful gesture and certainly a privilege. I’m glad that someone gives his words and keeps them.
Off to my afternoon activities.
The driver took me to a traditional paper factory where the process from start to finish is a long one. The paper has a great feel to it though.
Then, I ducked in to see the traditional medicine hospital. Unfortunately, it was fairly empty since I went just before it closed. The last place for the afternoon – The National Memorial Chorten also known as Thimphu Chorten.Built to honour the memory of the third King, the white chorten is decorated with rich annexes facing the four directions. A popular place for locals, it is a tranquil place for daily worship.
After the visit, I had some free time on my own so I walked around the streets in Thimphu and slipped into the role of being a silent observer. It was stimulating to be in a foreign country and although I only had 3 hours of sleep the day before this trip, I was full of chicken-blood (Chinese saying which means to be full of energy). I was minding my own business until some local kids ran out of their parents’ shop and started following me.
Friendly and curious, the local kids are adorable! I guess in Bhutan, parents don’t freak out when their children run off and follow a stranger for half an hour. I goofed around with them and they didn’t want me to leave.
Darkness fell quickly so I went back to my hotel before Chambula’s children came to pick me up for dinner. Tashi is just amazingly good looking with his cool haircut and black jacket. Deki is beautiful and so genuinely friendly and the same goes for her super funny husband Sonam. Yidhen is stunning and I was quite rude since I ended up looking at them for a long time. Why? I can’t take my eyes away – such lovely and super good looking people. Looking back, I was quite rude since I asked them ” I bet your mum is beautiful – probably a former Miss Bhutan!”. Oh dear, me and my mouth.
The dinner was a valuable opportunity for me to learn from young Bhutanese. All educated in the west and with unique experiences, they answered all of my queries with great patience and told me how Bhutan defended itself from Tibet and UK, unemployment rate is high, 60% are under 30 years old, permit is needed for fishing and hunting, there are no dowry system, night-clubs and pubs are up and coming in Thimphu and the daily tourist tariff + opening up has always been an ongoing debate.
The fact that we all clicked and spoke so openly reflected what he said to me earlier in the day: ” The Bhutanese are very genuine and friendly people and it is easy to make friends with them.”
It was an absolute delight to breathe in fresh air and watch the dozen or so dogs running around the empty streets at night. I drifted off to sleep with a smile on my face- your surroundings, the environment and the people plays a huge role in helping you find that inner satisfaction.