A week in the beautiful kingdom of Bhutan
It’s shamefully embarrassing to admit this, but upon reflection I think I have reached the point where I’m travelling to countries that just a few years ago I knew little, or nothing about. My move to Bangladesh back in 2011 not only introduced me to this golden land, but given that my job is teaching students from 15 different countries, my eyes and ears have been exposed to each and every one of those countries in some way. I’m undoubtedly a lot richer for that.
A few weeks back I finally had the opportunity to visit one of those countries that had most intrigued me, and thanks to the assistance, amazing kindness and visa office doggedness of Dechen (a former student) I was on a plane to Paro and landing in Bhutan.
Bhutan is sandwiched in a somewhat intimidating position between India and China and is unique in its policy of measuring Gross National Happiness (GNH) rather than GDP. In effect, focus is placed more firmly upon the preservation of culture with a commitment to environmental conservation and sustainable development. Thus, it’s not the easiest of places to enter as a tourist or to roam freely once you are there. However, don’t let the bureaucracy deter you because quite frankly, it is stunning and so very endearing in many ways.
In this account of my brief stay in Bhutan, I will try to explain just why, based of course on personal experience, this kingdom of just 800,000 people made such an impression.
Here is an album with a selection of photos – Bhutan
Eastern Himalayan mountains, deep and dramatic valleys, winding rivers, dense forests, fertile pastures, and wide open plains all contribute to the breathtaking scenery that surrounds you. As the plane lands in Paro, it weaves between mountainous peaks and according to this article, only eight pilots are currently certified to land aircrafts there!
Preservation of culture
Bhutan is proud of its cultural heritage, and has taken strong measures to ensure not only its survival, but crucially its conservation and continued significance in everyday life. Television and internet is a surprisingly new feature of life in Bhutan having only been introduced (officially) in 1999. Tourism is limited and controlled, and national dress is a must at various locations including most workplaces. There is a gritty commitment to rejecting and actively fighting those external influences that can commonly be accused of eroding traditional culture in certain other countries that have welcomed tourism with open arms.
Road safety signs
On the beautiful winding and meandering main highway between Paro and Thimphu, which I imagine is one of Bhutan’s busiest, there are regular road safety signs that predominantly focus on reducing speed. They get their message across though in a quirky and sometimes cheeky fashion. I wasn’t able to capture any photos, but I did make a note of two in particular that stuck in my head…
“If you are married, divorce speed!”
“Be gentle on my curves”
On a more serious note though, it does appear that road safety is a huge priority in Bhutan with regular police checkpoints and from what I saw a diligent appreciation of the laws in place.
In Bhutan there are dogs….so many dogs. They are everywhere. On every street corner, under every bridge, asleep on every sidewalk and at night they serenade you until the early hours with huge canine choirs. They are also quite often big, furry things that generally add a level of happiness and warmth to an already happy and warm country!
There are bins. People use them.
There seems to be a genuine commitment to, and pride in keeping the country clean. It may seem a little patronizing to point this out, but from travelling and from experiences back home in the UK, I feel that many places (and people) have abandoned their responsibility to this simple and basic condition. The bins are also covered in motivational and encouraging messages, just in case you feel the inclination not to utilize them.
This was not much of a surprise. Whenever I travel I encounter genuinely kind and hospitable people. Bhutan was no different, and I had not expected it to be. Before I’d even begun the visa application process, my Bhutanese students and their families had offered all kinds of help and support, and once I landed in Bhutan that help and support became even more ubiquitous. From the man in the coffee shop who gave me a warm welcome each morning, to the friend of a friend who within thirty minutes of meeting me had paid for my dinner, it was a week full of unrelenting kindness. Special mentions must go to Dechen, Pema, Sonam, Yeshey, Kencho, Namgay, and to Roma and her family. These wonderful people made my stay in Bhutan even more perfect than it could have been.
In Bhutan it seems there are beautiful old buildings everywhere. In Thimphu many of the newer buildings also display the traditional style, which goes a long way to once again preserving the history and cultural heritage.
So, those are just a few aspects of my trip to Bhutan that stood out and made we wish I’d had significantly more time to really explore further. As with many of the places I’ve visited, I plan to return one day. I’m not sure when that will be, but hopefully sooner rather than later.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, Tashi Delek is difficult to translate directly, but it is often taken to mean “blessings and good luck” and is used in Bhutan, but also parts of Nepal and northern India.
Here is a gallery of some further photos from my trip…
Travelling – it’s all about the journey. All about the spectacular places you see, the food you eat, the fear and excitement of the unknown and the cultures and customs you experience and are often invited into. You click frantically in a desperate attempt to capture as many memories as possible, and if you’re like me, you try to keep notes and write about the unique, random and sometimes bizarre moments that will no doubt occur at regular points throughout the journey.
However, during my most recent trip to Rwanda and the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) it dawned on me that one of the most important aspects of my travels and time abroad has been the people I’ve met, and crucially, the things I’ve learned from each and every one of these people. I have come to realise this cannot be underestimated or overlooked in regards to its value, relevance and impact.
International travelers inspire. Their sense of adventure and courage in the face of the unknown is at times baffling, but more often than not, totally energizing. They are often brave, curious, open, and unafraid to try new things, unburdened by logistics, and often equipped with a sharp and equally patient sense of humour. Those who travel live for the moment and instead of asking “Why?” the question is usually “Why not?”
Some may remark it is an irresponsible and risky existence, but I would say the outcomes of these risks are moments that will stay etched in the memory for a lifetime. From my personal experiences during my explorations I have encountered all manner of personalities, and this has undoubtedly been paramount to my own personal growth. It has inspired me to do things I had probably never before considered.
I have become more open and confident in meeting new people and more eager to strike up a conversation. My willingness to try new things has known far fewer bounds in recent years, and whilst I try my very best to be as careful and respectful as possible, I think the dive into the unknown is a truly formative experience.
At various points on my recent trip, I interacted and spent time with a group of people who truly emphasized the diversity and collective adventurous spirit of the international worker and traveller.
Firstly I reunited with three good friends who have all carved out their own individually international paths in recent years. Inga (from Norway) volunteered with me in Rwanda in 2010 and since then has gone on to spend an extended period teaching at an international school in Kigali. She has also spent time teaching in refugee camps in Lebanon (predominantly home to Syrian refugees) and is now about to begin a PhD at Oxford University researching education in refugee camps, which will once again take her to camps in East Africa and the Middle East.
Kirsty (from Canada) is a web designer and online entrepreneur currently based in Rwanda and responsible for this great website www.livinginkigali.com. She also travels extensively and a major part of this is dedicated to her work with disaster relief projects. In the past few years she has been to Haiti, Bangladesh, Malawi and most recently, Nepal as a volunteer for an organisation which sends volunteers to assist with work after major disasters (www.hands.org).
Finally Kim (from the US) is also a former fellow volunteer in Rwanda. Since our work together in 2010 she has lived in Bogota, Colombia and Dar es Salam, Tanzania and travelled a great deal during this time. It is safe to say that Kim has experienced some of the very real challenges of life in major international capital cities and has been a constant and reliable source of knowledge and advice during the past few years.
So, as you can imagine, the stories and experiences shared when we all came together were humorous, intriguing, eye-opening, but most importantly they provided a very real insight into a wide variety of life experiences and challenges.
We all signed up to hike Mount Nyiragongo in The DRC and personally I was a little reluctant when the volcano hike was in the planning stages due to cost and risk. Eastern DRC is an area rife with extremely dangerous rebel groups that reside in the dense forests and often unleash brutal and devastating attacks on surrounding towns and villages. It is the reason why there are large numbers of UN peacekeepers based in nearby Goma.
In addition to that Nyiragongo is an active volcano, which last erupted in 2002 leaving the town of Goma covered and destroyed by lava. The people are still rebuilding their homes and lives today. However, with a bit of peer pressure and that adventurous spirit, I was persuaded to sign up for the hike. Why not?!
Also in our group for the volcano climb was Johnny from Ireland. Now if you want to hear stories about international adventures, Johnny is your man. He is currently on an 8 year mission to visit every country in the world. At the time of meeting him he was up to about 145 countries. How does he fund this you may ask? Well, a few years ago he was in a 9-5 office job which he disliked. So, he set up a travel blog/website and once this gained interest and popularity, it quickly attracted advertisers and he realised this was a liberating and exciting way to earn money. He recently celebrated breaking the $1 million mark for income generated by his online work. This is one of his websites; http://onestep4ward.com/.
The hike was tough, but chatting with Johnny and hearing his many stories from almost any country you can think of helped pass the time and keep our minds off the sometimes gruelling ascent and knee-jerking descent.
At our hotel in Goma before beginning the hike we met Finbarr O’Reilly, an international correspondent and photographer, who was based in Africa when Mount Nyiragongo erupted in January 2002 and arrived on the scene the very next day. He has been visiting and working in the DRC ever since. He has also spent time working in Afghanistan, Darfur, Niger, Somalia, Libya and many other ‘hotspots’ which have exposed to him to some of the most emotionally challenging scenes you can imagine. This is his photography website http://www.finbarr-oreilly.com/.
We also shared a ride with Finbarr back from Goma to Kigali and in the car with us that day was Paul. Paul’s job is to work in conjunction with the US State Department organising hip hop workshops around the world. The overarching mission of the project is to promote diplomacy, reconciliation and trauma relief amongst young people who have been affected by various challenges often due to war and conflict.
It was fascinating hearing about such a program and how it has achieved such positive results in a diverse set of countries to date. Paul has facilitated these all over the world and it was really very cool to hear about such novel and unique methods of providing assistance and support to young people across the world.
So, in the space of just a few short days I was able to speak with, and more importantly, draw inspiration from a fascinating collection of people. Our volcano hike group was truly international and this is what I love.
Of course, this is not solely reflected in this one specific trip. It has been the case everywhere I’ve travelled/lived, and it is one of the reasons the travel bug gets you. You never know for sure who you are going to meet, where they will be from or what their background is. The one thing you can almost guarantee though is that whoever you cross paths with at that particular time will have a new story to tell, a new place to recommend and an ability to open your eyes to a new perspective that you may not have considered previously. And that I have found is priceless.