TRAVEL

Bhutan Beckons

by Anton D. Javier
Photography by Franz Navarrete
14 Sep 2018

While still mostly closed off to the world, Bhutan doesn’t hesitate to open up to you once you’re there

Flying into Bhutan calls to mind scenes from Hollywood movies where the protagonist arrives at a fictional location like Wakanda in Black Panther or perhaps Themyscira in Wonder Woman. While on the Drukair flight, I immediately knew that we were approaching the Land of the Thunder Dragon because the cabin lights were suddenly dimmed, traditional Bhutanese music started playing, and all of a sudden, the small aircraft skillfully maneuvered through a breathtaking, but dangerous, Himalayan mountainscape. It’s dramatic, for sure, especially since landing in Paro airport is considered to be one of the most difficult in the world – just ask the eight pilots who are qualified to land there.

Once we disembarked and breezed through customs, it soon became clear why Bhutan has a reputation of being one of the happiest countries in the world: Everywhere you look is a picture-perfect postcard view, with colorful traditional Bhutanese homes dotting the mountainside, towering trees all around, a roaring river nearby, and some of the bluest skies you’ll ever see.

  • HIGH VALUE, LOW IMPACT TOURISM
  • AT ONCE FOREIGN AND FAMILIAR
  • WHERE TO STAY
  • HOW TO GET THERE

High Value, Low Impact Tourism

With the wonders of nature in abundance, coupled with comfortable alpine temperatures, even in the middle of summer, and the fact that it is one of the few carbon neutral countries in the world, Bhutan has a lot going on for it that the rest of the world has yet to discover. In order to maintain its almost untouched nature, a “High Value, Low Impact” tourism policy has been set in place ever since the country opened up to tourism in 1974.

With daily tariffs and surcharges applicable per person, as well as visa requirements, the small country with a population of about 750,000 is able to maintain a level of quality tourism that benefits the country rather than overwhelm it. It’s good to know that in addition to the development of the country’s tourism industry, tourist dollars also go back to the people in the form of free education, healthcare, and more.

  • HIGH VALUE, LOW IMPACT TOURISM
  • AT ONCE FOREIGN AND FAMILIAR
  • WHERE TO STAY
  • HOW TO GET THERE

At Once Foreign and Familiar

One of the first questions I asked our knowledgeable Druk Asia guide, Mr. Passang Dorji, on the drive to the capital Thimphu was if there were any overseas fast food chains around. “There are none,” he said. I prodded further. “KFC? McDonalds? Maybe Starbucks?” The answer was still no. But it all made sense in the end because when you have access to organic produce coming from all corners of the country, which we saw at the colorful Centenary Farmers’ Market, processed and instant food suddenly loses its appeal.

Now if you’re starting to think that Bhutan is far removed from how the rest of the world is, it isn’t. Just like everybody else, the Bhutanese also scroll through their iPhones, follow the latest Netflix series, and wear outfits beyond the traditional Gho and Kira (I saw a teenager wearing a Anti Social Social Club tee once).

A chance encounter with Wangchuk, a monk at the Tashichhodzong (The Fortress of Glorious Religion) in Thimphu, proved this further because once we reached his room for a spot of tea, I spied a tablet on his bed. And in other dzongs across the country, a lot of the younger monks would busy themselves with their smartphones in between lessons and prayer sessions.

However, there are still many things about Bhutan that will spark your curiosity. There is a sense of calm wherever you go, what with all the prayer wheels and flags, simultaneously sending up prayers and well wishes to the heavens every time they’re spun or get blown in the wind. Regular gatherings for a casual or competitive round of archery, which is the country’s national sport. The absence of traffic lights, the unique flora and fauna, the interesting food items sold along zigzagging roads, the obsession with chili and cheese, and other cultural nuances that delight and confuse, as they should.

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Finally, the people make an equally positive impression the same way Bhutan’s picturesque landscape does. Their excellent command of English ensures nothing is lost in translation, while their ever-ready smiles will make you feel welcome wherever you go. They are curious about you and where you’re from, the same way you’re curious about them and their beautiful country. They ask, they share, and are always willing to pose and smile for a photo, knowing that they each play an important role in representing their country.

  • HIGH VALUE, LOW IMPACT TOURISM
  • AT ONCE FOREIGN AND FAMILIAR
  • WHERE TO STAY
  • HOW TO GET THERE

Where To Stay

Thimphu
Located in downtown Thimphu, Le Méridien Thimphu boasts a striking Himalayan backdrop and easy access to various points of interest that include temples, markets, cafes, restaurants, and monuments. The property boasts 78 rooms, which include nine modern top-floor suites. Le Méridien Thimphu also boasts revitalizing treatments at Explore Spa, an indoor heated pool, as well as Western and Asian delicacies at Latest Recipe and Sese Shamu.

For more information, visit www.lemeridienthimphu.com

Paro
Nestled in a stunning Himalayan valley and located next to the Paro River, Le Méridien Paro Riverfront will take your breath away with its surroundings. Conveniently located 10 minutes from Paro Airport, the property boasts 59 modern rooms that overlook the river, as well as a spa, indoor heated pool, fitness center, and restaurants like Bamboo Chic and Latest Recipe.

For more information, visit www.lemeridienparoriverfront.com

  • HIGH VALUE, LOW IMPACT TOURISM
  • AT ONCE FOREIGN AND FAMILIAR
  • WHERE TO STAY
  • HOW TO GET THERE

How To Get There

A trip to Bhutan must be made through a certified Bhutan travel agency – from airline bookings and tailored itineraries to hotel stays and visa applications. In Singapore, you can book through Druk Asia Tours & Treks. In addition to a Singapore office, Druk Asia also boasts 30 full time and 15 freelance guides that come highly recommended by clients from Singapore, Malaysia, USA, UK, Australia, and more.

Find out more at www.drukasia.com

Druk Asia is also the officially appointed General Sales Agent for Drukair, the flagship carrier of the Kingdom of Bhutan, in Singapore.

For more information on Drukair, click here