Bhutan: Signs, Signs, Everywhere a Sign

I tend to think of myself as a very practical, reasonable, and down-to-earth person. (Just please ignore the fact that I traded an engineering degree for a German degree, and I passed up well-paying job opportunities to teach English in Greece for something like 600 Euros a month.)

I usually consider it pretty hokey when I hear people say things about the universe leading them in some direction and if anyone asks what my astrological sign is, my response is most likely rolled eyes. But damn it, I think the universe is indeed trying to tell me something, and though I’ve repeatedly ignored it, it’s not relenting. Apparently, I am supposed to go to Bhutan.

What makes me so certain, you ask. Well, let me lay it out for you.

1. Long ago, when we first started talking about the trip in real terms, I made a few connections with people who had done similar trips. One of the first people I talked to had done a route very similar to what we were planning, except for the addition of Bhutan. She had pretty much planned her entire trip around this tiny kingdom, and she raved about it so much that I started to look into it. I’ll admit that at the time I knew next to nothing about the place, but I was soon completely enraptured.

2. Bhutan started showing up in the newspaper. This kingdom of less than a million people was suddenly being talked about in the Washington Post. Now I don’t read the paper every day, and I definitely don’t read every page of it when I do, but for some reason I started seeing news about this nation and their transition to democracy every time I opened the Post.

3. Two of our favorite magazines arrived in the mail right around the same time with feature articles on Bhutan. Smithsonian Magazine and National Geographic Adventure both profiled the country, its amazingly well preserved culture, and its holy-crap-is-that-for-real scenery. At this point, I started hinting to Jeff that maybe Bhutan needed to be added to our list.

4. This summer (in just a few weeks as a matter of fact) Bhutan will be featured at the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival. This is the first time that Bhutanese culture will ever be displayed outside the kingdom (in live performances). I work at the Smithsonian. If ever the stars were aligned, this was it. After attending a special lecture offered last week to Smithsonian staff, I came home excited all over again about this nation.

Now, if you’re like most people, you’re probably wondering where the heck this country is and what is so special about it. So let me fill you in a bit. Bhutan is a tiny kingdom in the Himalayas. It’s about the size of West Virginia, has approximately 700,000 citizens, and is nestled between Tibet and India. This year Bhutan is celebrating 100 years of their monarchy, although in just the past few years a constitution was introduced and the first democratic elections took place this past March. Incredibly enough, this change was brought about by the king, and the people were very reluctant to move to any form of democracy. It’s not a complete democracy, however, as Bhutan has maintained a king. Never invaded (at least in remotely recent history), Bhutan has a very distinct culture that is very closely guarded. People still live in traditional houses, wear traditional clothes, and perform traditional labor and arts, as well as practice a very traditional form of Buddhism. The Western World has not made any cross-roads into this country, and speaking of roads, the first road leading to the outside (India, in this case) opened in 1968. The majority of the people have never left Bhutan. Environmental protection is extremely important to the Bhutanese, and they have some of the world’s most dramatic landscapes. Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, the Land of the Thunder Dragon (the name of the country in their language), has declared themselves more concerned about Gross National Happiness than Gross National Product. What’s not to love about a country that places so much emphasis on happiness? (Although, as I was recently reminded, happiness (or at least the pursuit of it) was one of the three rights explicitly outlined in the American Declaration of Independence. I think we often lose sight of that…)

Do I have your attention? Are you wondering why in the heck I’m even debating going?

Well, there’s one catch. One big catch.

Bhutan is extremely difficult to travel to. Preserving a traditional way of life and protecting your environment is not easy to do if you let every Tom, Dick, and Harry (or Theresa and Jeff) who wants to visit your country in. So Bhutan simply doesn’t let everyone who wants to come in. In fact, tourism wasn’t even allowed at all until 1974! They don’t pick and choose tourists by looking at passports or screening applications or disallowing people from certain country to visit. Instead, they control tourism by charging a high cost for people to visit and having very strict restrictions on how you can travel. First of all, all travel must be done with a guide and must be arranged through a Bhutanese travel agency. At minimum, you are supposed to plan 3 months in advance. Secondly, all travel into and out of the country must be done on the Bhutanese airline, and of course, there are only so many seats available per day. You can’t just walk or drive into the country or choose from multiple airlines. Thirdly, there are only so many hotel rooms available, so if you don’t plan far enough in advance, the hotels may be booked and you then aren’t permitted to come. Fourthly, you must pay a price for each day you are in the country based on the itinerary you establish with your tourist company. The price covers everything–food, hotel, admission to museums, treks, etc.–but it is hefty at about $250 to $375 per person per day. This is not a backpacker haven, which is according to plan.

When you consider that in the rest of the Asian countries we plan to visit, we expect to spend an average of less than $50 per day (as outlined by Jeff in our last post) the cost seems even more exorbitant. We could live for months in the Southeast Asia for what we’d spend in a week in Bhutan. Money-wise it doesn’t make sense.

But putting money aside for a moment, is there anywhere else on earth that could give us the type of experience we’d have in Bhutan? And as it seems that Bhutan is in the beginning stages of changes that could lead the country in very different directions, is it possible that this is a place that we can’t just put on the “we’ll get to it some other day” list.

My practical side says no way, you just can’t go there. My “screw the engineering degree and study German” side says hell yes Bhutan should make the cut.

What do you all say?

[poll id=7]

17 Replies to “Bhutan: Signs, Signs, Everywhere a Sign”

  1. I say go for it. You can always save up money somewhere cheap by teaching english or whatever it takes and splurge on some time in Bhutan. My husband and I are following a similar model. 3 months in the very expensive Madrid, then 6 months in the much cheaper Mexico. After that we’ll likely go back to europe for three months, then hide out in southeast asia for 6 months.

    Since you have a blog, maybe you could query some travel agencies in Bhutan and see if you could do a work exchange… build them a site or write a blog about your experiences there for their website so they can drum up more english speaking business. It couldn’t hurt to try– a couple of nice emails just to feel out the waters, and worst case scenario they say no.

  2. I voted that you should go for it. I think it sounds like one of those places where you’ll kick yourself later if you don’t go. After you get home from your RTW trip, every time you read about Bhutan, you’ll say to yourself, “we had the opportunity to see it first-hand, but we didn’t.” If you have the money to do it, I say splurge and go!

  3. I don’t know if I was the person who told you about Bhutan (since we did plan our RTW trip around the Paro tsechu), but I am definitely in the gotta-go-there camp. The country is changing *so* quickly. It’s such a fascinating place, and is in the middle of such an interesting transition–now’s the time to go. It’s gaining too much media attention & I worry that it will soon be overrun with tourists. I hear you on it being ridiculously expensive (we spent 1/4 of our trip budget on 8 days in Bhutan, which is crazy), but we never regretted it. We’re constantly talking about going back & spending more time there (especially to do more of the outdoorsy things like whitewater rafting & hiking). Here’s another sign: our Bhutanese guide, who we absolutely loved, is going to be at the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival! He’s been trying to get a visa to the U.S. for years, and is finally coming here to participate in the Smithsonian event. He just emailed us about that today. 🙂 I’d be happy to put you in touch with him. Just shoot me an email.

  4. This is a chance of a lifetime. Spend the money, you have lived frugally to be able to embrace these opportunities. I don’t think you will regret spending a cent.

  5. The idea that you have to go there before it changes(as Dahab claims) seems like a leaky idea when you consider that it is your tourism that is (maybe, partially) contributing to this change.

    This is a complicated idea — the country is financially benefiting from your travel, demand is greater than supply so someone is going to take your spots if you don’t take them, you have very little control over Western expansion into the country, etc — but, personally, I’d feel wrong about being part of this intrusion.

    Maybe if you more outlined how your intrusion benefits the people of Bhutan, I could be persuaded of the need. Even then, I don’t see you having an experience in Bhutan that leads you to convince people not to visit. Maybe you have such a great experience that you invest time in working for the continuation of responsible tourism(which seems to be the approach right now). Great tourism experiences, alas, lead to greater tourism experiences.

    I guess a RTW trip is a selfish endeavor by nature. Your whole post is centered in what you and Jeff will get out of the trip into Bhutan, and the other comments seem to be feeding that monster. I didn’t vote because I don’t see it as a practical money issue. As you have outlined the idea(and that’s about all I know other than the GNH kernel which I had read about in the book “Deep Economy”), I don’t see what value your intrusion into the country adds to anyone but yourself(s). But, hey, maybe that’s the point.

  6. Wow, someone’s in a snarky, holier-than-thou mood today aren’t they, Matthew? If you want to think about things on that level shouldn’t you just go ahead and ask the broader question of what value anyone of us is actually having in our own countries, or even more broadly, just being alive?

    I think the value that one brings to one self, to another country, and to the world in general through travel isn’t something very easily classified or even well understood until you yourself go out and do it. Not all situations can be approached from an academic standpoint.

    Obviously, Bhutan sees some value in having visitors, otherwise they would not have opened their doors to them in 1974. This isn’t an invasion or an unwanted guest banging on the door and demanding entrance. I think it’s their right to pursue tourism in whichever way they wish, whether that be by opening their doors wider or closing them right back up. The traveler’s responsibility then is to respect their wishes. The changes happening in Bhutan are actually coming from the inside (witness the King’s decision to transition to democracy for one), and it’s not my right to tell them to stop or to demand that they maintain their traditions or whatever. I think one of the biggest problems of the developed world and its people is an attitude that we know what is best for the rest of the world and should tell others how to do things. Not everyone works in the same paradigms we do.

  7. If you have the means, go to Bhutan. Like you said, its hard to get to and you’ll be in the area. Bhutan is an amazing travel place and one I will be going to next year. It’s worth the money. Everyone I’ve known who has gone has said nothing but great things.

    Splurge a little. The experience will be worth it!!!

  8. Matthew does have a point, and it’s an issue that I have spent a lot of time thinking about. My husband and I talk about it all the time. Every time we visited a place that seemed special & still relatively untouched, we felt a very selfish desire keep it “pure” (whatever that means) and free from the influence of western society. On the other hand, we recognized that it wasn’t our place to try to “protect” a place from western influence, and that such an attitude is the ultimate in western hubris. If a country wants McDonalds and Madonna, who are we to tell them it’s wrong? But the point he’s making is valid–our visit there was changing the place, and our desire to see an untouristed part of the world was leading to the very change that we decried. It’s a very difficult issue, and one that I certainly haven’t resolved entirely for myself. The problem is that, after a while, you realize that this sort of thinking doesn’t get you anywhere–it’s classic navel-gazing. The fact is, taking a RTW trip–or any vacation–is inherently selfish. There’s no getting around that. We travel to better ourselves (but then, isn’t the same true of education?). Whether we’re traveling to get a tan, sample a foreign cuisine, or learn a foreign language, it’s self-indulgent. Even volunteer vacation are, IMO, generally pretty selfish (as Theresa noted in a great post a while back). We’re incredibly fortunate to live in the U.S. and to have a standard of living that allows us to visit other countries. We can feel guilty about it, and never leave home, or we can travel responsibly and try to have a net positive impact on the world.

    I do think it’s important to keep in mind what impact you’re having when you travel. There’s a fine line between exploration and exploitation, and that line is different for everyone. My own way of traveling responsibly is to always try to give my money to the local economy (hire local guides, not American/international companies, stay with locals when possible, eat at local restaurants, etc.), and to avoid visiting places where I feel like local communities are being exploited for commercial gain (I refuse to visit the “long neck” tribes in Thailand for this reason, though I understand others feel differently). I do believe that responsible tourism is possible. We saw a lot of examples on our trip of tourism that had a strong community development component. Bhutan is definitely trying to use tourism to raise the country’s standard of living (and it’s working, at least from what we saw). Tourists aren’t forcing themselves on the country; the government made a conscious decision to open its borders, and is doing a very good job of keeping tourism from becoming exploitive. There are many other great examples of community-guided tourism that seem to be win-win situations for both the tourists and the local communities.

    Sorry for the super-long post. This issue just struck a nerve because it’s something I think about often, and am trying to resolve in my own head. In the end, I guess everyone just has to do what they’re comfortable with.

  9. This post and the related responses have been very interesting to me. First, I didn’t expect the vote to be so overwhelmingly in the “Go” column. I thought more people would balk at the cost. Second, I didn’t expect the conversation it would inspire about the cost/value of travel. But I do think that’s a very valuable conversation. It’s definitely something Jeff and I have considered, though I’m not sure we’ve discussed it here, or at least point blank. So Matthew, even though you know how much your devil’s advocating can drive me mad (oh, you have a way like no other), thanks for getting that started. And don’t take this comment as the end of the conversation. If you have something more to contribute (or you just want to register your vote), please do.

  10. The best part of a blog w/comments is that you may be surprised where the conversation goes.

    The worst part of a blog/w comments is that you can’t control where the conversation goes.

    But sometimes the worst leads to the best. And sometimes…not.

    T, I think, because you hate my devil advocating(rarely my goal these days), you took my first post too personally. On the other hand, I should have done a better job of saying, “Have all the Yes voters considered this?” and gone from there.

    Dahab’s post, being that it is a first-hand account, articulates the issue quite well. Thus, I have nothing to add.

  11. First, I feel like I should introduce myself. My name is Andrea and my husband and I are planning a RTWT starting summer 2010. I have been reading blogs of other people taking RTWT and they have made me positive that this trip is something that we will not regret.
    Anyway, I felt that I should chime in on this subject and I feel the universe has been pointing me to Bhutan for years now. I would say that if you dont go you will always wonder what you missed and if there was something there you were supposed to see/experience/meet.
    We know this will completely blow our budget but we are making it our #1 priority.

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