This past October, my lifelong friend/high school best friend/college roomie Heather Rosdeutscher and I embarked on the adventure of a lifetime when we set out to visit the Kingdom of Bhutan. Yes, it’s a kingdom in the Himalayas, situated between Chinese Tibet and India. This remote and beautiful country provided the ultimate reset to mind, body and soul, and a very welcome respite from the often hectic and chaotic routine of our far-too-jam-packed, everyday lives. (WARNING: My brother said I sounded like I was on “The Bachelor,” because as I was telling him about my trip, I kept using “amazing” as a descriptor for everything.)
I learned about Bhutan back in the mid-’90s, when my neighbor, friend and native Nashvillian Linda Leaming first visited the country. She fell in love with this magical place and has lived there for 20 years. She has written two wonderfully compelling memoirs about her experiences in Bhutan, Married to Bhutan and A Field Guide to Happiness. Having read these books and heard her stories first-hand, I have long wanted to visit this faraway, almost mythical place. It’s not an easy place to hop over to, but the books, the stories and the photos kept calling to my heart, and as it turns out, this was my year. Heather, with an always adventurous traveling spirit, readily agreed to join me on one of Linda’s Bhutanese tours. Linda put together a trip that catapulted us past any expectation we had created in our own minds. It was an outstanding and superb experience!
The whole adventure started when Linda met us in Bangkok, Thailand’s capital city. From Nashville to Bangkok was a 20+-hour plane trip, so it was great to take a couple of days to settle into our new time zone. Adrenaline and excitement also helped as Bangkok is a fantastic city, and Linda knows it well. There are amazing temples, wonderful shopping and delicious food. You should try the Pad Thai in Thailand, and if you’re into the quirkier side of snacking, I saw advertised, but did not get to try, the chili-squid Pringles. To help with jet lag, there were a host of spa services to take advantage of — massage, reflexology and facials, and our American dollars went a long way.
Linda took us on a boat ride along the river to see an incredible temple, and then we went shopping for jewelry. Bangkok is the place for fabulous jewelry. We got real turquoise, sapphire and aquamarine necklaces, earring, and bracelets at costume jewelry prices. No kidding. There were beautiful things and prices that you would never find in the United States. And you can bargain for the best price — it was all huge fun!
After a fabulous couple of days in Bangkok, it was time to head off for the real reason we had made this journey to the other side of the world: the Kingdom of Bhutan. The short flight over from Bangkok to the Bhutanese airport in Paro is unforgettable. The day we flew was a clear one, so the Himalayas were in full breath-taking view, as was the snow-capped peak of Mt. Everest. There were audible ooohhs and aaahs and squeals of joy from everyone on the flight, which was so much fun to be a part of.
We got off the plane and the mountain air was so fresh; everything felt different in the bright sunlight and it was all just fantastical and lovely. The airport looked like a Buddhist temple. We were met by our guide Tshering, and driver Kinley, two nice young Bhutanese men who accompanied us throughout our nine-day trip. Tshering welcomed us by placing traditional ceremonial scarves, called khatas, around all our necks. The khata symbolizes purity and compassion, and they are presented at many ceremonial occasions, including the arrival of guests.
Tshering and Kinley were extremely polite and respectful, and we soon found out, much to our delight, that the Bhutanese really like to laugh. And we really like to laugh, so we did a whole lot of that along the way. I can’t express enough how these two gentlemen enhanced our journey with their knowledge, patience, mad driving skills and humor. We were knocked out with everything they brought to the experience.
Bhutan has what they call “high dollar, low impact tourism.” It’s one of the more exclusive places to travel, and there aren’t many tourists because the mountain ecosystem is very fragile. Bhutan only has a population of about 750,000 people, but it is an ecological hotspot, and the Bhutanese take good care of their pristine environment. Visitors have to pay a $250 per day tariff to the government to travel in Bhutan. This keeps backpackers and budget travelers away. That may sound like a lot, but this daily fee includes all meals, hotels and transportation while you’re in the country, so you actually get a lot for your money. As a visitor, all you have to pay for additionally are any souvenirs or gifts that you want to take home. And by the way, that daily tariff also included the services of Tshering and Kinley, guide and driver, as per the guidelines of the Royal Government’s Tourism Policy.
Linda, who organizes trips that are tailor-made for travelers, is excellent to work with — she is an American with 20 years of experience living in Bhutan, she is married to a Bhutanese citizen, and she speaks the national language of Dzongkha (English is widely spoken as well, by the way). Plus she has access to people and places that you won’t get on a regular tour.
When Linda created our itinerary, she suggested we visit three valleys: Paro, Thimphu and Punakha, all very different and all beautiful (if you like breathtaking views of the tallest mountains on earth and bucolic splendor), plus the Bhutanese are some of the most attractive people on the planet with lovely, open hearts and a joy for life that was so welcome and a happy reminder for me.
Paro is where we flew in; Thimphu, about 45 minutes away, is the capital city; and Punakha is about a three-hour drive away. Punakha was my favorite. It’s a semi-tropical valley in the middle of the Himalayas. We hiked in short sleeves in late October and could pick oranges off the trees. It was harvest time, and it was so beautiful to see the golden rice terraces. Everything looked like a painting or a postcard. Everybody was in the fields, singing and cutting rice. We really were a world away.
We took an amazing raft ride down a beautiful blue river in the middle of the Himalayas. I never even imagined this was something I’d do. The beauty was beyond description as we floated on the water, while our river guide sang traditional Bhutanese songs to us along the way. We visited Buddhist temples where we talked and became Facebook friends with monks, rolled magical dice to see what our numbers held in store for us, and had many blessings bestowed upon us. This included one blessing at a temple where a lama tapped us on the head with a big wooden phallus. (Yes, that’s exactly what you think it is!) Phalluses are everywhere in Bhutan, painted on the sides of houses and hung on buildings to ward off evil spirits (so they say).
We went to a local farmhouse, where we ate the most incredible food, including the freshest of fresh popcorn as an appetizer. We ended that meal by sampling the family’s home brew called ara. It was delicious and tasted much like saki. This was truly a farm-to-table experience. Another fantastic memory happened one day after we were driving back to Thimphu following a hike to a monastery. Without saying a word, Kinley, our driver, pulled over next to a rolling river where on the grassy banks we saw a white-clothed table, comfortable chairs, dishes, cutlery and an array of beautiful, fresh food, all laid out for us. Our sweet guide, Tshering, had arranged a surprise picnic, and it was magnificent!
There were certainly many outstanding experiences that we had on this trip, but one of the high points for Heather and me was making the trek up to Taktsang, the “Tiger’s Nest.” This is a temple complex built in the 8th century. This meditation retreat center and monastery is situated on the side of a very high cliff. The trek was an awesome, exhilarating, empowering endeavor, and Tshering coached us all the way up and back. After our trek, Heather and I got reflexology massages on our tired feet. Heather said this massage was one the that would live on as an ultimate highlight of foot massages in her mind, for the rest of her life. I concur. It was that good.
After 20 years, Linda is most certainly a part of the busy, creative community that flows across Bhutan. We were thrilled to get to meet several of her very interesting friends, who are now our friends. We shopped and shopped and then shopped some more. We visited the Weaving Centre, where we got to see the intricate scarves and beautiful shawls being crafted right in front of us, and Heather got to try on the beautiful national dress for women: the kira.
All the food was fresh, organic and mostly vegetable- and rice-based, though chicken, beef, pork and fish are widely available as well. We also got to enjoy wonderful, authentic Indian food. The Bhutanese are crazy about chilies, and their national dish is called ema datsi. This is comprised of chilies and melted cheese, typically served over rice — very hot and very good. I am one who likes some spice, but much like places in the United States, you can order no spice or lots of spice, or something in between. The food served wasn’t spicy, just fresh and organic, and they added chilies for a little heat if we requested.
It is so hard to summarize this experience in just a few words, but I can tell you that Bhutan is quirky, beautiful, sacred and profane, and during our visit we laughed constantly — gut-busting and tear-inducing at times. It was very healing in that way. Nobody takes too much too seriously in Bhutan, and I would go back in a minute if I had the chance. It’s incredibly breathtaking, pristine and extremely relaxing, and the Bhutanese are excellent hosts. I was open to the adventure, I always felt safe, and I enjoyed each moment as it happened. I’m glad to be back home, but I do miss our little traveling dream team. I miss the beauty, the calm, the balance and the spiritual nature of Bhutan — and I really miss the laughs!
Mandy & Heather’s List of 6 Indispensable Things to Know Before You Visit Bhutan
If you want to experience this majestic destination for yourself, here are some things to remember:
- Bring earplugs. You’ll love the well-fed, friendly street dogs that snooze in the sun all day in Thimphu, but you won’t like them as much at night when they bark outside your window.
- You can use your credit cards at some shops, but not all of them, and there are semi-reliable ATMs in the capital and in Paro. Many shops have credit card machines that use dial up internet for approval, so sometimes the connection is slow or doesn’t work. All this to say, you’ll get a better exchange rate and you’ll get exactly what you want if you bring cash. New $100 dollar bills give the best exchange rate.
- Bring good walking shoes, a pair of hiking boots and some sneakers. You’ll be all set.
- Dress in layers. The weather in the Himalayas varies, and so you’ll be comfortable if you can add and take off layers as needed. Ladies: shawls and scarves are a must.
- Bhutanese cuisine is very hot, and the Bhutanese people love chilies. As a visitor you’ll have the option to partake of more subdued Western-style fare. The cuisine is rice-based with fresh fruits, vegetables and meats. Bhutan is an all-organic country, and the food is fresh and delicious.
- English is the medium of instruction in schools, so most everybody speaks English in Bhutan, along with five or six other languages.
Learn more about Bhutan and get the latest travel information on the Tourism Council of Bhutan’s website, tourism.gov.bt. And if you want to get in touch with Linda to help create an unforgettable itinerary, email her at [email protected].
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