Never Again Again: The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia

Back in 1945, as the world came to comprehend the width and breadth and depth of the Holocaust, as we came to understand that nearly six million Jews (along with millions of other minority groups and perceived enemies of the Nazi Reich) were methodically and maniacally killed simply because they were born Jewish, we collectively uttered the phrase “Never again.” Though I don’t have evidence of it, I’m pretty certain this wasn’t the first time the world had said “Never again.” It wasn’t the first time we vowed to stand up against hatred and violence, to refuse to let people be killed simply because they had blood or ancestry or beliefs that a more powerful group did not like. It wasn’t the first time we said it, and it wasn’t the last time we failed to keep our word.

Unfortunately, “Never again” has proven time and again to be an empty promise. Witness Darfur. Witness Rwanda. Witness Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge.

In 1975, amidst the chaos of the war in Vietnam, which had spread into Cambodia, and the surge of communism in Southeast Asia, the Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia. For the next four years, they would rule the nation, taking a country that seemed on its way to a golden age back into the stone age. The goal of the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot or “Brother Number One,” was to turn Cambodia into a nation of peasants, all equal laborers in the rice fields. He abolished money, ended all education, destroyed vestiges of culture, and emptied the cities, moving all city-dwellers into the fields. He also divided up families and created a fear that made everyone suspicious of their neighbor and quick to report any misgivings to the authorities.

But he didn’t stop there. As with all megalomaniacs, Pol Pot was obsessed with threats to his power, both real and imagined, and went to all ends to eliminate his enemies. In his case, anyone he considered an intellectual was a threat, and his definition of intellectual was insanely broad. Work at a school, and you were an intellectual. Speak a language besides Khmer, and you were an intellectual. Wear glasses, and you were an intellectual. Fit his description of an enemy, and you and your family were eliminated.

During the reign of the Khmer Rouge, over two million Cambodians died. Some died from malnutrition and overwork. Others were brutally murdered by members of the ruling party. We played witness to this horrible history while in Phnom Penh, visiting the Tuol Sleng Museum and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek.

It isn’t hard to imagine Tuol Sleng as the school it once was, but what stares you in the face is the prison that this school became. The tile-floor classrooms have been subdivided into tiny cells, barren except for a cot and the manacles that kept prisoners immobile as they were tortured. The balconies through which students once moved as they went from classroom to classroom are enclosed with barbed wire, intended to keep the desperate from throwing themselves to their deaths. The playground now houses eleven tombs holding the bodies of the last people killed here as well as instruments of torture used to coerce confessions from prisoners. What is most haunting, however, are the rooms simply covered in photos of the people held prisoner here. The photos are of men and women, boys and girls, even babies. Some look like people you passed on the street earlier in the day. None look dangerous or threatening. And practically none of them, once their photo was taken at this prison, had a chance of survival. Of the thousands and thousands of people that passed through Tuol Sleng, only about seven survived. The rest either died while being tortured at the prison or were taken on to the Killing Fields.

The Killing Fields, located about fourteen kilometers outside the city center of Phnom Penh is an eerie place. Today birds and butterflies flutter about, kids at a nearby school sing and shout, and farmers next door plow rice fields with their water buffalo. Look closely at the green fields, however, and you’ll see grass-covered crater after crater, each the site of one of the 129 mass graves found here. From the ground, pieces of bone and tatters of clothing peek out, exposed by two decades of erosion. A monument in the middle contains the unearthed bones of some of the 9,000 victims found here. Buried alive, beaten to death with blunt objects, hacked to death with machetes, swung against trees until their skulls were smashed (in the case of babies), or sometimes mercifully just shot in the head, many of the victims of the Khmer Rouge were killed here, in what once was, and is again becoming, quiet countryside.

As you wander amidst all the horror, you wonder many things. You wonder how anyone could perpetrate that kind of violence on another human being. You wonder how the world could stand silently while it happened. You wonder how the U.N. could continue to recognize the Khmer Rouge as the official government of Cambodia until 1992, fourteen years after they were overthrown by the Vietnamese army. And you wonder just exactly what “Never again” means and when those words will apply to all people in all places.

Cambodia with Soul

According to our friend Maryann, who lives and works in Cambodia, most visitors to Cambodia stay for only three days. They jet in from the more popular locations in the area—Thailand or Vietnam for instance—, marvel at the wonder that is Angkor Wat, and then promptly exit. At first, I felt like I could understand why. Though Angkor is amazing, I found Siem Reap, our first stop in Cambodia, to be soulless. I felt like the extent of my interaction with locals was limited to “No, I don’t need a tuk-tuk. No I don’t want to buy 20 postcards for $1. No I don’t have a need for a silk scarf.” No one wanted to just interact with us; they wanted to sell us stuff. And while many tourists love Siem Reap for its countless comforts—Pub Street with its 50 cent beers, restaurant after restaurant serving good Western food, and abundant wi-fi—it felt sterile to me, as if I could be in any country, any where.

But then we ventured down (via a very long boat ride) to the town of Battambang, officially Cambodia’s second largest city, but what felt like a rural village. As we walked along the river, through the market, and up and down the streets of the very compact city, locals would stop and smile at us. They’d ask where we were from and then not follow it up with “Capitol: Washington, DC; President: Barack Obama; Buy my postcards.” The children would yell out hello and giggle contagiously when we returned their greeting, wanting nothing more than a wave from the strange white people walking past their homes. The market sold a few souvenir-type items, but for the most part it sold what locals needed for their everyday life, and it wasn’t spiffed up and polished with a fancy bar in the middle for foreigners who might need a cocktail as they browse. This was authentic Cambodia, and we liked it.

So we dove in deeper, hiring a tuk-tuk and a driver (who called himself Nick to foreign tourists, but whose actual name was Sambath) to venture into the countryside. Our itinerary was anchored around sights—caves that had once been used for theatre productions but had been hijacked by the Khmer Rouge for the killing of enemies, mountain-top pagodas, Angkor-style temples, and a ride on the bamboo train—but what we most enjoyed was the insight into regular, everyday life in Cambodia.

We witnessed a kid get a haircut under a tree in his front yard, right next to a pond full of blooming lotus. We watched a man plow his field the old-fashioned way.

We observed workers stooped over in a field picking and transplanting rice.

We marveled at the family herding ducks.

We waved to little boys running around without a bit of clothing and little girls wearing nothing but skirts. We passed bicycles laden down with more kids than you would think possible and entire families on motorbikes.

We stopped for petrol at a stand on the side of a road, where the bright yellow, red, and green fuel was sold from used soda bottles. We paused at a pagoda and witnessed the funeral of a monk and talked to another monk who was anxious to practice his English and learn about us and our travels. A monk for 18 years, he was well-educated and spoke many languages, but had never ventured out of Cambodia, and he giggled nervously throughout our conversation. Later, as we climbed up to the temple of Wat Banan, we met another monk, who happened to be our driver Nick’s brother.

At the end of the day, as we flew down the tracks of the bamboo train–a strange platform contraption invented by locals to move items from village to village by way of the existing rail lines–passing rice paddies shimmering in the setting sun and laughing village children, we realized just what people miss when they only stay in Cambodia for three days. It’s not lost time at the temples, exploring their intricacies; it’s time with the people of Cambodia, who, despite a haunting recent history, have bright eyes, dazzling smiles, warm hearts, and so much to offer if you only have the time.

Cooking Cambodian Style

Jeff and I love Asian food. And we also like to cook. I’d say that back in our “normal life” we eat food we prepared in our own kitchen about 90% of the time. But it’s rare that we cook Asian food. We cook some curries and stirfries; we’ve made our own dumplings; and we’ve tried plenty of times to create the perfect Pad Thai. But generally when we want Asian food, we eat out. In fact, most of the 10% of eating out we do is at Asian restaurants.

For me, cooking Asian food is intimidating. Well, I’m not sure it’s the cooking so much as the shopping for ingredients. Asian food requires items that aren’t necessarily pantry basics; items that sometimes can’t be found at the regular grocery store. Now D.C. has no shortage of Asian grocery stores, and I have ventured into them, but usually I leave empty handed. The store is full of items that, to a good ol’ southern girl like me, look weird and smell even weirder. And to top it off all the writing is in Asian script and the staff rarely speaks English, so I usually don’t have any idea what the weird thing I’m looking at, smelling, and poking actually is. I once did manage to find shrimp paste, a necessary ingredient in some recipe I was trying. I swear I’ve never smelled something so bad. Apparently the dish tasted fine (according to Jeff); personally I couldn’t eat it because I couldn’t get the smell out of my nose. When it was time to move out of our D.C. apartment, it was the one jar that I didn’t recycle. While I emptied out, washed out, and recycled literally every other bottle and jar in our refrigerator, I wasn’t about to open that one.

But not wanting scary shrimp paste to permanently scar me and prevent me from making some of the dishes we love most, Jeff and I decided that we’d dive into some cooking classes while in Asia. Up first, Cambodian cooking in a half-day class at Battambang’s Smokin’ Pot.

We started out with a trip to the market, which made the Asian supermarkets in D.C. look as non-threatening as a Care Bear. We scuttled in between women deep-frying crickets and fish flopping out of buckets and wiggling toward parking lot puddles. I tried not to wonder how long the huge slabs of meat had been hanging there, and I only asked Jeff once if what I was looking at was noodles or worms. By the time we exited, we were all laden down with bags full of the ingredients we would cook—lemongrass, eggplant, chiles, garlic, chicken, fish, snake beans, and more—as well as tips on what to look for when shopping and a pretty good idea of what all the fancy packaged ingredients in the U.S. look like before they’re nicely preserved.

And then it was time to cook. Our first dish was fish amok, a curry that is probably the most popular dish in Cambodia. This wasn’t cheater-style curry; we actually began by making our own curry paste, a feat that required much chopping and then some stone mortar and pestle action.

Ingredients prepared, it was off to the stove, where we sweated (very literally) over a flame, as we mixed our homemade curry with our hand-squeezed coconut milk and our hand-chopped veggies and fish. As soon as most of the coconut milk was boiled away, we transferred our food to plates and chowed down on the best fish amok we’d had yet.

I was stuffed after cleaning my plate, but we were just beginning. Two more dishes awaited. The second was a spicy basil stirfry with beef that required us to throw ingredients into our wok at astounding speed while making sure that nothing burned. I felt very chef-like, and I must say that my dish could have made the menu at any of the Asian places we frequent.

And to end the day, we made a soup, one of my favorite kinds–a sour-spicy lemongrass chicken soup. Though normally I’d say it was too hot for soup, and though I was already stuffed, I finished it off anyhow. Delicious.

And though I’m still not sure I want shrimp paste in my refrigerator (or fish paste for that matter, which we used in our amok), I don’t feel nearly as intimidated about cooking (or shopping for) Asian food. We’ve definitely got three new dishes to add to the rotation, and I bet there’s a few more we’ll like in the cookbook they gave us at class’s end. Maybe if you’re lucky we’ll invite you over for dinner once we return home.

The Boat to Battambang

There’s a definite appeal of boating along in the watery world that is Cambodia. The Tonle Sap, a giant lake literally through the heart of the country, is the lifeblood of Cambodian life. Entire villages exist floating on the lake, and there is nary a shoreline or rivers edge without a house alongside it. Before the roads became paved, boats were by far the best way to get around. But times they change, and buses now zip between the major cities in less time and for a fraction of the cost of the boats.

But wanting to have the experience, we opted to take the boat from Siem Reap to Battambang, through floating villages and along some of the most scenic waterways of Cambodia. We were told it would last between five and six hours. And for five hours it was great pretty great. We passed slowly through countless villages along the river banks full of local life. There were floating restaurants, floating shops, floating churches. It was beautiful.

Unfortunately, the boat took 9 hours to get to Battambang. The last three got a little tiring. Beyond the simple notion that you somewhat expect to get there around when you’ve been told you’ll get there, and therefore are only mentally prepared for a certain time, there were a few downsides to the boat. For example seating was simple wood benches. The options for seating were either on these benches in the open air (read: no cooling of any kind) cabin rattling with the sounds of the engine or on the roof of the boat in the hot sun. There were only so many times we could go back and forth before both felt pretty uncomfortable. Throw in a few issues with the propeller and there were a few issues.

So was I happy we did it? Sure. Would I do it again or recommend it? Probably not. Maybe in the very wet season when they claim it only takes three hours to get there since they can go very directly (though I’m sure not sure I’d believe it). And the thing is, there would be very easy things they could do to make the boat so much more comfortable. Like put some padding on the seats. Or put some sound dampening on the engine so that the passengers could have a conversation while the boat was moving. Or even putting a second level with a few seats or some padding and a sunshade. Really easy things that would really make the trip more worthwhile. But I’d definitely recommend getting out to see some floating villages, and preferably the less touristy ones. It’s a pretty beautiful and different way of life.

Thoughts on Independence Day

So today is American Independence Day, a splendid holiday in my opinion. To celebrate the greatness that is our country, we get to eat tons of food, drink cold beverages, and shoot off all kinds of explosive devices (some legal, some not). If you’re especially lucky, you get to eat my mom’s pulled pork and Mississippi Mud. What could be better?

While I guess I’m not especially lucky this year, I’m not too bad off, as we’re actually hanging out with a college friend in Siem Reap, and attending a Fourth of July party with her. There will be food, drinks, and fun, but I’m not so sure about fireworks. So I guess I need you to shoot off a few extra Roman candles for me. And while you send explosives into the sky and try to avoid singing off your eyebrows or burning down your neighbor’s house, take a minute to reflect on all the things that you probably take for granted, but which trust me, should make you feel lucky that you live in the land of the free and the home of the brave. For instance:

*Western-style toilets–a throne with a seat, water in the bowl, a flushing mechanism that doesn’t require buckets of water, and toilet paper (that can be thrown into the toilet!).

*The right to wear whatever you want, even if I think you probably shouldn’t.

*Cheese in its many delicious incarnations.

*The right to make your opinion heard without fear that you could end up dead or “disappeared”.

*Laws that require your parents to send you to school rather than send you out on the streets to sell postcards, bracelets, or even worse, yourself.

*Tex-Mex food. Barbecue. Summer evening cookouts.

*The right to choose your own partner (even if, unfortunately, not all Americans are given the right marry them) and to decide whether or not you’ll have children and how many you’ll have.

*Drinkable water straight from the tap.

*A culture that believes women are as valuable as men, that the color of your skin doesn’t dictate what you can or cannot do, and that anyone can grow up to be President.

Now go celebrate the USA and set the sky (and nothing else, please) on fire! Happy 4th of July!

Too Many Temples

There’s really too many temples in the complex of the temples of Angkor. Trying to plan a trip is pretty mindblowing. Especially when you try to start factoring in the weather (which wears you out in a minute) and the light to catch the best temples at the best time of day. You could spend more time planning where to go than doing it.

We took two very busy days to visit the temples, as many as we could cram in. We exhausted ourselves from sunrise at Angkor Wat to a late afternoon visit to Ta Prohm. We occupied ourselves with the main temples (and that should tell you something, if that took us two full days). What’s incredible about the temples is not so much their sheer size and scope, but the detail with which every nook and cranny is filled. Angkor Wat, for example, is covered floor to ceiling with galleries depicting Buddhist and Hindu mythology.

Every wall is filled with Apsara (celestial dancers) imagery.

Angkor Wat itself is impressive, but we found a few other temples more to our liking.

My favorite was Ta Prohm, a temple in the process of disintigrating into the forest. Big, beautiful trees grew through and around everything. It was best when we went back late in the afternoon when the tour groups had left and the light was softer.

Theresa’s favorite was Banteay Srei, an ornate and beautiful reddish sandstone temple with intricate and expressive carvings. It was rather small, but it definitely embodied the quality over quantity mantra.

The other particularly impressive temples and buildings are centered inside Angkor Thom, a large wall encircling an entire city worth of temples. Five gates lead in, four in the cardinal directions and one Victory Gate also in the east.

At the center is the Bayon, another temple full of faces and intricacies galore.

Just north of the Bayon are the Terrace of the Elephants, very aptly named considering it is a terrace containing tons of bas reliefs of near life size elephants, and the Terrace of the Leper King, which is less clearly named and a more confusing story.

And the thing about Angkor is there were plenty of other temples we visited that we didn’t talk about here, and even so, there were plenty of temples that we didn’t have time to visit. The complex is that vast. And that impressive. And that astounding.

Impressions of Bangkok or How Bangkok is Completely Different From Africa

First thing, and this hits you as soon as you step out of the airport, is the humidity. Completely draining. Africa may be hot (although we found this reputation overstated) but its typically a drier heat. Bangkok is something else entirely. And this from people who have handled the heat and humidity of Houston and D.C.

Then, the taxi drivers form a line next to the public taxi fare counter to wait for their fare. The civility and orderliness of it all is a bit shocking (not necessarily to continue!).

The room when we check in is immaculate, complete with free wifi internet, cable TV with bazillions of channels and hot water on demand. No further comment, its just much more than we’ve come accustomed to living with and makes us feel like we’ve just checked into a five star hotel (no, we didn’t splurge).

The food is completely as advertised, though some of the street places cut corners. We devour pad thai and a green curry with thai iced tea and a mango shake at a local restaurant. This only gets better as the days go by and we discover where to get the best food. Not to mention how little it all costs, less than a dollar a plate usually, maybe two at a real restaurant.

The variety of street food is completely overwhelming, and at times, a bit disturbing. The dried squids and various entrails piled up for sale definitely have me quickening my step.

The prevalence of fresh squeezed juices, shakes and teas (iced or hot) for a song is a welcome change from our previous world where the cheapest beverages were coke and beer.

The hordes of Western tourists in Khao San are intimidating, and guys lacking shirts are a bit too common. Its not really our scene, as we didn’t come to Asia to buy hemp jewelry or knockoff threadless tshirts or watch endless showings of movies.

The streets are incredibly lively at almost all hours and the city is so lit up it almost seems to get brighter after the sun goes down.

A 48 meter long golden reclining Buddha is a very impressive thing to see. Especially when his feet are inlaid with mother-of-pearl iconography.

So is the rest of the temple complex the built around it. I love the color and imagery used in the buildings.

We’ll see how accustomed to all of this we’ve become after four more months. For now, we’ll just enjoy.

The Joys of Border Crossing

We walk up to the visa-on-arrival office at Poipet on the border of Thailand and Cambodia ready to deal with our very favorite part of travel—border crossings. We have in hand our passports and in our pockets the $20 we know the visa costs. We grab a visa application form and provide the requested information–name, passport number, date of birth, intended length of stay, and so on and so forth. We take out one of the many passport photos we carry with us and staple it to the form, and then we hand the passport and application form over to the immigration officer standing in front of the window through which it seems you’re supposed to hand in your application.

“Money,” the officer barks, so we pull out our crisp $20 bills and hand them over.

“No good,” he says. “Only Thai baht here. 1000 baht.” He’s a young guy, round-faced with splotchy facial hair and an expression that makes you think he hasn’t smiled once in his life.

We smile and tell him that we have no baht, though we have more than enough tucked away in our pockets. One thousand baht is about $30, $10 more than the visa should cost, and we don’t intend to pay that. We then point to the sign over his head, which clearly states “Tourism Visa: $20”.

He shakes his head and insists that we must pay in baht and we must pay 1,000. We smile again and say no. We tell him that we will pay in dollars only and that the sign clearly states the cost is $20.

He stares hard at us and then changes tactics, “Okay, he says. You pay in dollars. $20 plus $5.”

We stick with the party line. “It’s $20. We’re only paying $20.” We try to reach around him to pass our passports, visa applications, and $20 through the window to the officer sitting behind him, but the round-faced officer closes the window. They’re all in this together anyhow.

So it’s on to offer number three. “Okay,” he says again. “$20 plus 100 baht.”

Our response doesn’t change. He’s getting nowhere with us. But by now there are four people in line behind us, so he moves on to them. The Israeli guy behind us gets the same spiel we do, and sides with us. He’s not paying more than $20. The three guys behind him get a shortened spiel, asking directly for the $20 plus 100 baht. He tells them that the 100 baht is an “expediting fee.” They ask how long it will take if they don’t pay the fee. He says 2 or 3 days. I’d call his bluff, but they don’t, just handing over the 100 baht.

“Shit,” I think, “we’ll never win now.” How will the officer consent to just take $20 from us if others are so willing paying the fee, aka “bribe.” But we’re not about to give in. He isn’t either.

He shoos us off to the side and very quickly processes the three visas of the guys who anted up the extra 100 baht. We stand there and chat with our new Israeli friend.

This isn’t the first hassle we’ve had today. First it was finding a legitimate bus in Thailand, not one of the scam buses that after a marathon trip of fake breakdowns and multiple food stops delivers an exhausted you to a crappy guesthouse that has paid the bus to take you there and makes it very, very difficult for you to go elsewhere. Then it was getting our tuk-tuk driver to put the bike back in gear and take us to the border, not the “consulate office” conveniently located in a tourism shop on a side road near the border and charging a sweet 1,000 baht for the visa, the extra $10 a tip for the tourism agent and the tuk-tuk driver of course. Beyond the border, we’ll face the hassle of finding onward transport to Siem Reap. It was going to be a spectacularly fun day.

Border crossings are one of the unspoken joys of travel. For us, it’s gotten progressively more “fun” as we’ve traveled east. South America border crossings were cake. Hand over the passport, get a stamp, and move on. In Africa, the hassle wasn’t the actual immigration office—everyone we met inside the office was surprisingly honest—it was getting to the office through the gauntlet of touts, moneychangers, taxi drivers, and other border good-for-nothings. In Asia, it seems, the hassle is going to be with, well, pretty much everything, at least if it’s like the Cambodian crossing.

So there we were on the border of Thailand and Cambodia, being ignored by the immigration officer who was desperately looking around for his next victim to appear. Unfortunately for him, no one else wandered up. He had to deal with us. And shockingly, that’s what he does. With a sigh and an evil eye, he takes our passports, our applications, and our $20 (and no more) and passes them through to the officers on the other side of the glass. He then motions us to take a seat nearby while he himself sits down for lunch. We begin taking over/under bets on how long he’ll make us wait.

But it’s not so bad. We use the bathroom, we get a snack, we chat with our new friend. And guess what? It’s only about 15 minutes later that our passports come back out the window, visas inside. It didn’t take the threatened 2-3 days. Who would have thought? Though in the end it came down to 100 baht, or $3, it was about more than the money. It was about standing up for ourselves. It was about standing up for what was right. It was about saving our dollars to hand over to the hard-working and honest guy cleaning the bathroom rather than lining the pocket of an official who pre-bribe is probably already better offer than 90% of his countrymen. It was a small victory for sure, but it felt good. We’d stood our ground against corruption, and we’d won…at least this round.

Bhutan Comes to America

Today the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival came to a close, and in lieu of a written post, we’re going to have an almost silent Sunday here at Lives of Wander, letting a few photos from the Bhutan part of the festival do the talking for us. I think that this small taste of Bhutan (and taste we did literally, eating their national dish of Ema Datsi) only has us wanting more. Here’s hoping our next post about Bhutan is titled America(ns) Come to Bhutan.

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?

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