Ok this is going to be a super long entry. I hope it isn’t TL;DR.
Such an early morning, 4 am wake up left me really quite tired but running on adrenaline. Off to Bhutan though!
Checking in was a bit interesting. I’m so jaded usually I’m just patiently passing the time till I can ditch the 45+ lb pack. But for this flight there was some interesting things I noticed. Everyone seemed to have oversized luggage, and not just by a little bit. HUGE massive boxes for TVs or big bags of clothes. It took much much longer than normal to check in because of it. It makes me wonder if it’s cheaper to take a vacation in Bangkok and buy a big screen tv there than it is to buy one in Bhutan. I also saw appliances like microwaves, blenders, etc. get tagged and sent on in. A couple diplomats ( judging from their passports ) were in front of me, mother and daughter headed to Bhutan ( I noticed the same visa paperwork as mine ), as well as a large loud American family making me embarrassed for them as they couldn’t find their paperwork or keep their kids behaved or quiet.
Druk Air, the national airline which is the only service to Bhutan seems well run and very professional with a definite quality over quantity approach. The food is nice, and they have by far the best in flight magazine I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. Lots of great stories and articles about traveling in Bhutan. They apparently have it online too at TashiDelekOnline.com so I guess I’ll have to check that out at some point as well. Oh and we made a stop in India, I saw it out my window. From what I hear from other travelers this trip, that’s as close as I want to get unless I’m on a tour that would keep me insulated from what makes Thailand seem tame. The flight from there to Bhutan was also quite an adventure in itself. The plane climbs up to cruising altitude, then suddenly without descending deploys landing gear and flaps. Then we go over a mountain ridge and down into a valley banking pretty harder left then right then left again. Looking out my window and up I see Dzongs on the mountains as we fly down in the valley. The landing itself was surprisingly smooth considering how little distance there is from the last banking turn until touch down.
The airport is tiny. Just 1 strip shared for take off and landing and 1 other plane on the tarmac clearly not taking off just yet. There is just 1 terminal. Inside I go to passport control but find that the tour company has messed up the visa, they transposed the first 2 digits of my passport number, something I missed when checking over the info myself. I’m told they’re going to fix it and they will call my guide. I go get my luggage and wait patiently. Eventually my guide is brought in and it’s explained to him what’s gone wrong. They tell me I can go anyway and they will get me my passport tomorrow. I guess I don’t have to worry about it being stolen? I’m sure they let me in what is otherwise a very difficult country to enter because I’m with a guide on a government controlled tour.
Speaking of government controlled. The government here is very very strong, it’s now very recently a constitutional monarchy though it’s clear that because the last king made the change on his own without external pressure, there was no loss of power centralization. There is a single holdings company that is privately controlled but still largely influenced by the king, and this holding company owns majority shares in pretty much all utilities and the airlines and a bunch of other things. The educational system is free until the 10th grade and after that free to those with good marks to continue. The health care system is also free. Though these services aren’t provided by heavy taxes, but instead from external sources like tourism and hydroelectric sold to India which together forms around 55% of the countries GDP I’ve been told. I suppose that’s not too hard to do when your country has just 660,000 citizens.
As it turns out I have a guide named Lhendup and a driver named Gembo with me the entire trip in a Hyundai Tuscon. They treat you like royalty, taking luggage opening doors, everything is spoken is incredibly polite terms. Its like a bit of culture shock after backpacking. Not 24 hours ago I was being yelled at by a minibus driver in Phuket because Amy had told him at first she didn’t want to take the minibus thinking it was just another shady person. I don’t like being treated like I’m not an ordinary person like them, it just feels weird. I’m not something that special, I’m just lucky to have grown up in America and had the chance with the help of my parents to get a good education.
Our first stop was to watch an archery contest going on just outside the airport. Archery is by far the biggest past time in Bhutan, it’s like if you crammed in NASCAR, Baseball, Basketball, and Football fans all into one big group. And then had them dance. One nice thing about the tour is the guide speaks English well and can explain pretty much anything I ask. Like I find out that the archers are shooting at these 1’x3′ targets from 140m away, that’s over 400ft. And yes I know I mixed feet and meters in the same sentence, sue me. There are two forms of competition: using compound bows and carbon arrows as well as the tradition bamboo bows and arrows. The fellows we’re watching are using the more expensive but more popular modern bows. They each get 2 shots and it seems like 1 in 10 hit the target which is mind bogglingly small and far away. When a shot misses the guys at the other end do a specific call and dance to describe where it went to. When the target is hit both sides do a song and dance. Apparently there are 3 different ones they can do. They’re all dressed in traditional clothing. The competition though seems very communal, they all dance in celebration when someone hits a target. It’s more like they’re competing against themselves and not the other archers.
As it turns out the clothing itself is government prescribed for certain professions. Young people wear western clothes, but students and administrative people within the government wear traditional garb. My dad would throw a fit about the government telling him what to wear, but at the same time I think that’s part of why they have a strong identity and sense of culture something we lack. They take a lot of pride in it and many wear it even though they don’t have to like a Scotsman wearing a kilt. I’m not saying I’d like it either, but I understand it all the same.
We go to the hotel next to drop everything off and have lunch. The hotel is up a dirt road away from everything which seems nice. The hotel itself is really very inviting with lots of character. I have a great view too. They bow and open doors for you. It’s kind of surreal. I had my laundry done though it was more expensive than most I was completely out of clothes. Hopefully I can get it done cheaper in Thimpu to get me through to the end of the trip. Lunch was also unusual. My guide and I ate in a dinning room I’m told would be packed just 2 months before. More food than either of us could eat was brought in, 8 dishes in total plus rice. It was delicious especially the curry. I feel guilty though, it was very wasteful all on my behalf.
The whole thing makes me feel a bit of a fish out of water. I’m a pretty self sufficient person, so having someone open doors for me and make twice as much food as I can eat is off putting. I’m also the only person at the hotel which means there are like 7 people here catering to just me. Plus having a driver and guide just for me? I’m told though that during the high season they have no time to rest, but I’m their only tour until sept since it’s the low season. I’m helping my guide pay his rent in the lean times.
The scenery here is spectacular, Paro is in a valley at 2600m and it reminds me a lot of being up in Idyllwild. The weather today was spectacular with puffy white clouds speeding past. I’m told it’s likely to hold the entire week, I may be the luckiest guy around if that’s true. If I can avoid the hustle and bustle and still get some stellar weather I’m all for it.
After lunch we head to a few different temples and some ruins. It’s a chance to get oriented and see some of the natural beauty. I know more than most Americans about Buddhism, it’s beliefs and it’s customs and I surprise my guide with how much I know, but there is so much I don’t know. I bug him pretty constantly with questions and learn more than I care to share here. Bhutan itself is entirely Buddhist, but a specific sect shared with Tibet, but Buddhism doesn’t preclude religion so much as supplement it. Bhutan has it’s own pantheon of deities and spirits complemented by the Buddhist figures. It’s quite curious. The Buddhism aspect though informs so much of their day to day lives.
Returning I tried to stay awake, but with such an early morning and the active day I couldn’t. It was time for a nap. An hour made such a difference. Then dinner and bed. I’m so exhausted.