THE MYSTERY OF BHUTAN

It was probably in the early 2010s when the small Himalayan country of Bhutan caught my attention. I remember being fascinated when I learned about what the Bhutanese government has done to preserve its unique culture while at the same time opening up to the world – Bhutan was mostly closed to international visitors until the 1970s when it let in just a few hundred tourists per year. A rather steep levy is imposed on those who wish to explore this relatively unknown nation, a deliberate policy to keep backpackers away for this group of travelers are often perceived (and in many cases rightly so) as shameless young people who travel halfway across the globe only to get drunk and disrespect the local cultures.

For some time, Bhutan was a destination I could only dream of visiting one day in the distant future, until I read stories from this landlocked kingdom written by a fellow blogger, Kelly, in 2012. Not only did her accounts evoke a curiosity I don’t always feel toward a place I’ve never been, but her photos were so beautiful they encouraged me to make that dream come true sooner rather than later. Also in the same year when I started working at a smaller company, the owner showed me an article about how a journalist compared the values of the firm with those of Bhutan’s, emphasizing its people’s happiness rather than material wealth.

Many travels came in my way, though, including the six-month trip I did back in 2015, which required me to change my lifestyle to be more frugal, and several short vacations to some of the places I had dreamed of going to since I was little, like Japan. Meanwhile, Bhutan seemed to be gaining popularity with the likes of The New York Times and Lonely Planet consistently including the South Asian country in their lists of best travel destinations. However, the Bhutanese government’s commitment to keep mass tourism at bay means that annual international arrival numbers to the country never exceed 80,000 visitors.

Earlier this year I decided to actually make a plan to visit Bhutan by contacting the same travel company called Bridge to Bhutan that Kelly used six years ago (independent travel is not possible for most visitors). At first, to keep the cost ‘low’, a four-day, three-night trip was my preferred choice, until I realized that due to the limited flight schedules of Drukair (Bhutan’s national airline) to Singapore (the closest city from Jakarta where the airline flies) the trip wouldn’t be practical. A few months later I contacted the company again, this time thinking of doing the seven-day, six-night trip focusing on the highlights of western Bhutan. Then in October, six years after I read Kelly’s posts, I finally set foot in the Land of the Thunder Dragon: another poetic name for Bhutan in Dzongkha, the national language.

My week-long trip to Bhutan ended just yesterday, and not only did the Himalayan nation live up to my expectations, but it has now become one of the most memorable travel destinations for me. In that short span of time, I got to see why people rave about the country, and saw through the misconceptions of some others when it comes to Gross National Happiness (GNH), a concept of measuring progress that was introduced by the fourth king of Bhutan. This Buddhist kingdom provides a unique example of how embracing modernity, maintaining rich traditions, and preserving the environment can go hand in hand. But it is still an underdeveloped country, a fact the outgoing prime minister Tshering Tobgay mentioned in his talk at the 2016 TED conference. In the upcoming weeks, I will be publishing stories from my recent trip to Bhutan on this blog, from the small and picturesque capital of Thimphu, to the verdant valleys and beautiful fortress of Punakha, and the impressive Tiger’s Nest, perched on a steep cliff just outside Paro. Bhutan is a country that needs to be understood well, so the world can learn the right lessons from it, and although one week is far too short to come to grips with any nation, I hope my observations of Bhutan reflect its true nature.

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