Blonde visited Bhutan because the idea of it fascinated her; what did “Gross National Happiness” really mean in practice. How was life different in a profoundly Buddhist country? What would it be like to experience a culture still relatively untouched by Western modernization? And how cool would she look in a picture showing that she’d made it the whole way to the Tiger’s Nest?
Those were the thoughts (along with “why am I paying so much money to go on a group tour when I don’t like group tours”?) that were in her pretty little head as she departed on this journey that differed from all previous trips.
If you’re considering visiting Bhutan, here are Blonde’s opinions after 12 days in the country.
- The people – They are kind, gracious and welcoming. Hoteliers, shop owners and restaurant staff have an economic interest in being pleasant to tourists but that doesn’t appear to be the motivation. They’re just genuinely nice.
Their babies don’t even cry and throw tantrums (OK, one did). Whether it’s because of their Buddhist beliefs and practices, or innate temperaments, they’re truly kind, decent human beings.
And the guides and drivers we had were very knowledgable, fun, gracious and of a very high professional caliber.
- Buddhism is so infused into everything that, believe in it or not, you can’t help but gain some knowledge. Blonde isn’t religious and has major issues with suspension of disbelief. So, not surprisingly, many of the ancient tales of how things came to be had her inwardly (she hopes) rolling her eyes. However, most of the messages behind the stories raise valid moral questions. And the basic tenets, if followed, would definitely make the world a better place.
- The Himalayas – Although Blonde has seen many more beautiful countries than Bhutan, the Himalayas, especially on a clear day when you can see mountain peaks, are unique. They have rhododendrons galore, magnolia trees, and great downhill and uphill walks (or treks for the more adventuresome).
- Getting around – There is basically one option, the National Highway, to use when visiting Bhutan and it is an extremely twisty, dusty, almost entirely unpaved road heavily traveled by fume-farting trucks from India. There is nowhere (not even a bush) to use as a toilet for hours, there are no guardrails, and there are frequent rock slides. You will need to have your entire skeletal system re-glued at the end of each day on the roads.
- Medical remedies/access– Blonde became so overwhelmed by dust and fumes on the roads that she developed bronchial problems that threatened to turn into pneumonia. She was saved by her sensible, generous drug-toting Canadian (but sort of American too) roommate who supplied her with Cipro.
You generally cannot stop at a drugstore and purchase any over the counter medicines to help with symptoms. The Bhutanese get their meds for free at hospitals but you might want to make a concerted effort to stay out of the hospitals. (Also, if you come to Bhutan without excellent travel insurance, including evacuation insurance, then you need to leave your affairs in good order before embarking on the trip.)
Food – Plan on being a vegetarian when you are in Bhutan. Meat is almost always available but, as the Bhutanese don’t kill animals, the meat has most likely been brought into the country from Nepal or India. It may also have been brought in unrefrigerated trucks and it all appears to have been literally hacked apart. It most likely will not be the meat of your carnivore dreams. Just be vegetarian while you’re there and life will be easier and most likely healthier.
Our meals were all at buffets, which is apparently the norm for group trips. There is always rice of some variety, some veggies (lots of fiddlehead ferns and fried bitter gourds) and a surprising number of baked beans. The national dish is ema datse a dish prepared with (sometimes quite spicy) red or green chili peppers and cheese.
Depends on how you feel about things, these may be pros or cons:
- Lodging – Although we stayed in 3 (or more) star properties they varied widely. Our last three nights were at a beautiful lodge. Some nights we didn’t have electricity after 9:00 p.m., did not have any heat beyond a wood stove in the room, had very tiny, rough towels and I don’t believe we ever had Wi-Fi in our rooms even though it was often promised. Not having it in the rooms was one thing but it rarely worked at all in the hotels even though the government supposedly mandates it and if you’re stayer in these higher level hotels you’re paying for it.
- Alcohol – If you like fine, or even middle of the road, wines you will not find them in Bhutan. The few wines produced in Bhutan are very sweet and it’s extremely rare to find any imported wines. Beers are Bhutanese brands and Blonde isn’t knowledgeable enough about beer to rate them. (Note to everyone who’s getting all worked up and waiting to chastise me for wanting wi-fii and wine in Bhutan: You pay a whole lot of money to come here – well over $500 a day plus thousands in air fare so expecting some “amenities” doesn’t seem unreasonable to me. You may not agree.)
- Altitude – As a sea level dweller Blonde had issues adjusting to the altitude in the Himalayas. Sometimes you are two miles up in the air and gasping for breath or light-headed. You will acclimate over several days and altitude affects people differently so know how you handle it when considering a trip.
Would I do it again in light of all of the above? No. I like toilets better than bushes, paved roads and a drinkable glass of wine with dinner. And for the amount of money I spent I could have put together an independent trip (or two) to somewhere with a higher degree of likelihood of enjoying myself and staying healthy.
Am I glad I went? Mostly, yes.
As time goes on and the less pleasant aspects fade I will probably be even happier that I went. A bad memory is a good thing sometimes!