As our flight descended below the fog we could see the ground not far below. Up to this point, the short 45 minute flight from Kathmandu Nepal had been perfect: quiet passengers, great flight crew, free snack, and amazing views of Everest and all of Nepal’s major peaks.
Suddenly the plane banked hard to the right. Passengers gasped and screamed at the sudden jerk and onset pressure from the tight turn we were now in. As I looked across the plane, out the far window I could see the ground wishing by not far below. As I looked out our window on the left side of the plane there was nothing but fog.
Even more suddenly we turned hard to the left. This time the screams intensified as Liz and I both instinctively grabbed the armrests of our seats. Liz calmly accepted that this would be our first plane crash. As I looked out our window I could see nothing but the wing tip pointed straight down at the rice fields, only 200 feet below.
Being a skydiver, I have spent a fair amount of time in small planes that make quick movements. And having traveled the world for business and pleasure, I have spent more than my fair share of time on commercial planes as well. But I have never felt a commercial jet (an Airbus 321) make me feel like I was waiting for the green light to come on, signaling all clear to jump.
Not more than a 100 feet off the ground the pilot abruptly leveled the plane and we could feel one wheel touch down. Then the second wheel touched down after what felt like another five minutes and then the brakes were liberally applied. Welcome to Paro, Bhutan!
We later learned that this airport is always ranked in the top 10 of the most dangerous airports in the world. There are only 26 pilots in the world certified to land there, and only one airline that will bring you in, Drukair – Royal Bhutan Airlines. There are no runway lights as they do not operate in the dark, it is too dangerous. It is a very short runway by commercial aviation standards. It is the only runway that is shorter in length, than its elevation, in feet.
We’ve been amazed at how many people we know and meet that don’t know where its located, or didn’t know it was a country. While we didn’t know much, we did know it was a place we wanted to see.
After two weeks of trekking through the Manaslu region of Nepal, a very remote portion of the country in preparation for our upcoming climb, we wanted to take a week and relax somewhere new. We debated between Nepal’s neighbors of Tibet and Bhutan. Both were close and relatively easy to get to. Having spent 5 weeks in Tibet in 2003, I knew Tibet wouldn’t be relaxing. From the strict controls imposed by China, to the third world conditions, we would struggle to recover and enjoy our time.
Bhutan has a mystical reputation as an exotic place of natural wonders and Buddhist traditions. The down side to Bhutan, that we were fully aware of before we went, is that it is a bit pricey. In an effort to keep tourism sustainable and respectful, the Bhutanese government requires that you spend a minimum of $250 / day while in the county. Now, this isn’t as bad as it sounds, because that minimum daily package includes hotel, meals, guide, and transportation as well as internal taxes charges and a royalty of $65. The royalty goes towards free education, free healthcare, poverty alleviation, along with the building of infrastructure. More about that, being a carbon negative country, and Gross National Happiness from their Prime Ministers Ted Talk.
While in the capital of Bhutan we stayed at Le Meridien Thimphu . We booked our 7-day tour through Access Bhutan, one of the government approved tour providers. Our guide Mr. Dorji Gyeltshen and driver Mr. Pema Tamang, greeted us at the airport and were both dressed in the traditional dress of Bhutan, the Gho (women wear the Kira). Our guide was amazingly flexible and supportive of our deviations from the packed itinerary, which made our trip much more enjoyable. Dorji would often say, “I am a flexible man from Bhutan and it’s your vacation.”
On our first full day in-country we were able to attend the Grand Last Day of the Thimphu Tshechu, one of the biggest festivals in the country at Tashichhoedzong, the Buddhist monastery and fortress (AKA festival grounds).
Our driver dropped us and our guide as close as he could to the festival, it was packed! We walked the rest of the way as the rain began to fall. As we drew closer we could see that it wasn’t so much a traditional festival, at least not what we had pictured with booths and events strung out along or around a large area. Instead it was one central plaza surrounded by a few cement steps and stairs to sit on. Our guide did his best to navigate us through the dense crush of people and even haggled with the security staff to get us a place to sit, but to no avail. We huddled under the umbrellas to stay dry as we tried to stand on our toes to see over people.
Having picked up a stomach bug on the flight to Bhutan, Liz grew pale and her desire to attend the festival started to fade. There was no way we were going to stay at the festival all day, and honestly we wouldn’t have wanted to even if we were both 100%. So we called our driver to come get us and we were back to the hotel by lunch time.
I got Liz tucked into bed for a nap and then I went and grabbed lunch with the boys. The hotel staff was AMAZING. After I returned they brought Liz some food and came back to the room just to check on her and see if we needed anything. The funny part was that when we turned on the TV the festival was being broadcast live! So we were able to have front row seats while being warm and dry…
The next day we visited the Buddha Dordenman, which was only recently finished in 2015, in fact the surrounding grounds were still being completed. The statue is bronze and gilded in gold, and it stands 51.5 meters tall (169 feet). The interior is filled with 100,000 eight inch tall, and 25,000 12 inch tall Buddha statues. The entire project, including grounds, meditation hall, and statue, are being built at the cost of $150 million dollars. In a fairly impoverished country, spending that kind of money on such a symbol was our first clue that this culture, government, and people are driven by Buddhism.
Although not on our itinerary, our guides learned from a Facebook post that the King and Queen of Bhutan were due to visit the Memorial Chorten in Thimphu, which was near our hotel. They would be visiting to light butter lamps, pray, and pay their respects to the King of Thailand who passed away just the day before. It is very rare that tourists get to see the royal couple in person so we set off for the site.
We found a spot to wait and sat down next to an 86 year old monk. After waiting just 45 minutes dignitaries, religious, and military leaders began arriving just ahead of the royals who travel with a very small security detail.
The crowd was mostly locals and dignitaries, only a small handful of us tourists. Everyone lined the walkway to the temple hoping to get a good look….which turned out to be tough as we were instructed to bow as they passed and were told that photograph was strictly forbidden. Still it was great to see the royal couple up close, as they are a driving force in this country.
We also visited the Royal Government Traditions Arts and Crafts college, where wood carving, sculpting, sewing, and painting are taught. If you are lucky enough to get into this school, and can afford this school, you spend the next 3 to 4 years learning and mastering one of those skills….to make only approved items, usually Buddhist symbols. Since crafting the likeness of the Buddha, or most any religious symbol, in error is a sin, most all work is done by tracing or stencil. But, since most all building, furniture and other main elements of the culture are adorned with these symbols, graduates from this school face a promising career.
After two days seeing sites in and around the capital city of Thimphu, we set off for Punakha in the countryside. This entailed driving for several hours on a dirt road which was being redone by Indian laborers because it wasn’t done well enough the first time, to pass government inspection. The road is plagued by poor drainage, steep cliffs, dense jungle, high elevations, deep mud, big truck traffic, poor materials and yeah, you get the picture. Despite the conditions of this road it was still leaps and bounds better than our drive to start the Manaslu trek in Nepal.
The road slowly climbs up and out of the Thimphu valley and crests a ridge at roughly 10,000ft on Dochula Pass. The pass holds a monastery and 108 memorial chortens built by the eldest Queen Mother to honor the 4th King and the Bhutanese soldiers who were killed in the December 2003 battle against Assamese insurgents from India.
We arrived at our destination town of Punakha in mid-afternoon. We checked into our hotel, RKPO Green Resort which turned out to be our least favorite of all of our nights in Bhutan. But, it was quiet, somewhat clean, and had air conditioning which was nice as we drove into a warmer part of the country.
Punakha is home to the largest fortress in Bhutan, the Punakha Dzong. It sits in-between to large rivers that flow from the Himalaya and is quite a sight to see. After touring the fortress we walked to and crossed over the longest suspension bridge in Bhutan which provided some nice views.
Our final city of our week long tour was the mountain town of Paro. We visited a 7th century monastery that was similar to other monasteries we had visited, but much smaller in size. We were lucky enough that the head monk just happened to be working in the “inner sanctum” for just a view minutes, and allowed us a peek inside, something that usually isn’t afforded to tourists.
In Paro we stayed at the Le Meridien Paro which is located right on the Paro river which flows out of the mountains and provided some coolness and nice background noise.
Bhutan was an interesting cultural experience, much more so than we anticipated. The people are amazingly friendly and easy going….we heard almost no car horns honking as all people are so polite. The way that religion is deeply rooted in their government, culture and day-to-day life, is something that we have never seen before and certainly was an eye opening experience.
There truly is no other country in the world that is managing their natural resources as effectively or with such a global view as Bhutan, something they should be commended and recognized for. I hope their people are as happy as they seem. Here are some photos from our trip.
Some interesting things we learned about Bhutan:
- Bhutan is governed by a King, who acts as head of state, a Prime Minister, and a Chief Abbot, who is the head of the Central Monastic Body.
- Their constitution (enacted in 2008) promises that a minimum of 60% of Bhutan’s total land shall be maintained as forest for all time. They cannot log, cut, or clear any more trees once they reach 60% forest cover. Currently 72% of total land area is under forest cover. More about this
- The previous fourth King stepped aside at an early age, in his 50’s, so that his son could rule
- His son, the fifth Dragon King of Bhutan, is very progressive, for Bhutan that is, and added a provision to the constitution that will allow the people to impeach the sitting King if they so desire.
- Bhutan’s number one export is electricity. Due to their topography and large amount of moisture they produce much more power through hydroelectric dams than they need. They primarily export their excess to India.
- In order to slow or prevent so many farmers from giving up their land and way of life for the draw of the city, the country is providing rural farmers with free electricity as a means of retention.
- No animal may be killed in Bhutan, religion factoring in here again. If an animal dies of natural causes, and is determined to have done so by a branch of the government, than it may be eaten. Most people don’t eat meat as it is deemed a sin. But those who do, have imported from India.
- Shopping on Amazon.in is widely popular, as it is cheaper than buying locally. But, those packages cannot be delivered to Bhutan. So, people drive to the India border to collect their order. And yes, it is still popular despite that.
- The food was disappointing!!!! Even their national dish Ema Datshi. I think we only ate one or two meals the entire trip that didn’t come from a buffet line. Sadly, each buffet we had included almost identical options ….primarily choices of your favorite boiled vegetable, rice, maybe some potatoes and then one meat option (which we skipped). The flavors were bland, texture was slimy and overall it lacked any flavor. We found one or two desserts that made the grade, but that was it.
- Smoking is a big no no in Bhutan. Travelers coming into the country are only allowed 200 sticks, or individual cigarettes. You cannot buy any in country. When you are watching TV or a movie and someone in the scene lights up, a text warning scrolls across the screen warning of the danger of smoking! (Side note – there is also a message at the end of each show with an email address that you can send a message to if you are unhappy or upset by the show you just watched.)
- The national speed limit is 50 kmp (31mph), yep, nothing faster than that in the whole country!