Nestled in the Eastern Himalayas is the mysterious land of the Thunderdragon. Medieval monasteries clinging to towering mountains over valleys with clear azure rivers below the bright sunlight piercing the clean air. The gentle people dressed in their colorful traditional clothing set in a landscape of ornate buildings, looking more like a movie set than real life. Bhutan, a land of contrasts, offers a feast for the eyes and the soul.
After spending three days in sultry Bangkok, eating too much Thai food, and joining the masses of tourists at Wat Arun, and the Reclining Buddha, we left SE Asia behind and winged our way north west to the roof of the world. The flight over SE Asia was full of contrasts, from the rice paddies of Thailand and Southern Burma to the mountains of central and Northern Burma, then the delta that is Bangladesh, a lot of it under water.
The air started to get clearer, and the flat plains started rising. Small buildings dotted the landscape, joined by dusty tracks cut through the forest.
“Ladies and Gentleman, off to the left of the aircraft is Mt. Everest”. I was concerned that the plane would unintentionally bank to the left after all the passengers tried to get a view of the world’s tallest mountain.
The approach to Paro Airport consisted of a flight down two valleys, the tops of which were above the plane. A cross between landing at Bella Coola in BC and Kaitak in Hong Kong. Only 12 pilots are certified to fly in and out of Paro, the only airport in Bhutan, and only accessible according to visual flying rules.
Descending the airplane steps, you are struck by the deep blue sky, verdant forests on the mountains around the airport, and the traditional architecture of the airport terminal building, different than any other terminal we had been through. You were definitely in another world.
Bhutan had been closed to tourists until 1974, when the fourth king was inaugurated. The trickle of tourists has increased over the years, but is highly regulated. A policy of low volume, high value tourism is in place to maximize the revenue potential while minimizing the impact of tourism on the land and its people. Less than 25,000 tourists visit Bhutan each year, making it an off the beaten track destination.
We were met at the airport by our guide Rinzin, and the driver Govin. Both were wearing their traditional gho, knee high socks and black shoes. Marg and myself traveled with two friends from Vancouver, Catherine and Shelley in our own 7 passenger van. This type of tour is most common, and is an all-inclusive type of tour, with each passenger paying US$200 per day for all accommodation, transportation and meals. We needed very little extra money to buy some souvenirs, alcohol, and to tip the guide and driver.
The accommodations were better than we were used to staying in on most of our overseas trips, and were generally at the level of a 3 star hotel in the West. Each room we stayed in was very spacious and had its own bathroom and television. Bhutan had no television service until 1998, and now has access to over 50 channels via satellite. The internet was also introduced around the same time, and I was very pleasantly surprised to have high speed access via WiFi in half the hotels we stayed at, This was probably one of the fasted adoptions of technology for any country anywhere.