Bhutan has thoroughly charmed us.
It captured our attention from the moment our plane descended into the valley, completely surrounded by mountains. Stepping out into bright sunshine and a temperature of around 40 degrees felt refreshingly brisk after the haze of Bangkok. The plane was parked outside the airport door — the most beautiful and austere international airport I’ve ever seen. There were some desks, two baggage claim belts, and a few chairs on the side. No gates, no Starbucks, no frills or rampant commercialism whatsoever. Come to think of it, I didn’t see any other planes other than the one we arrived on.
Our guide, Chador, met us on the other side of the airport and drove us to our hotel, which used to be a palace. The rooms inside are far from opulent. Instead, they’re elaborate in an old world sense, with colorful Bhutanese designs on the wall, painted carvings along the trim, embroidery in the comforters, dragons on the rugs, creaks in the wooden floors and that fantastic almost cabin-esque wood smell permeating the air.
Bhutan is the only country in the world to measure its success in GNH, or Gross National Happiness. I’m not sure if that’s supposed to apply to tourists as well, but I certainly couldn’t stop smiling. We did a short run through the town, where I couldn’t stop staring at the peaks encircling us. After the best lunch of the trip thus far (IMHO), we visited a monastery, toured a fortress (called Dzong here), and watched local men exhibit fraternity and terrifying skill during archery practice.
At each stop, Chador gives us a tour, and fields all of our questions
Archery is the national sport of Bhutan. At this practice, two targets sit 140m apart. One group stands at one end, the other group at the other, and each side takes in a turn, like you would in a game of shuffleboard. Teammates are split between the two sides, so when someone hits the target, the member on the receiving end informs his partner of his victory by doing a little jig in front of the target, accompanied by jovial exclamations that must travel 140m.
Chador and our driver Harka ferry us around in an 8-passenger van devoid of seatbelts. Stray dogs nap in the sunlight. Cows lumber up curvy 2-lane mountain roads. There are no stoplights in the country after their recent implementation went poorly. TV was first introduced to Bhutan in 1999. This is certainly the most remote country I’ve ever visited, and yet there’s wifi.
Tomorrow we start our 3-day trek. We’re exhausted from today and feel no shame in making this the earliest New Year’s Eve of our adult lives. Cheers 🙂