Bhutan: Seduced By A Country
I’ll admit it’s unusual, but have you ever flirted with a country? Been tempted to toss everything and start over, by a sovereign nation? Felt weak in the knees, butterflies in the stomach and knew that you were smitten, all by a place and not another person? In my case, the tiny seductress is the Kingdom of Bhutan, and she is now one of the most important parts of my life. I’ve seen Bhutan make grown men and women cry, when upon departure at the airport they hug their Bhutanese guides, tears welling up in their eyes and say “I will never forget you or your country.” I see this time and time again, and the only reason I am not crying about Bhutan is that I’ve arranged our love affair so that I repeatedly return. Yes it’s a long distance relationship, but it works, and here’s how it began.
Some six years ago my travel agent friend arranged a trip to Bhutan. One fine spring morning seven of us met at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport, boarded the Drukair, Royal Bhutan Airlines flight, and hours later stepped onto the tarmac in Paro, Bhutan. First-timers to Bhutan are noticeable as they do not walk to the terminal, rather they twirl about as they take in the view, including the Paro Dzong, a 17th-century fortress/monastery to one side and the snowy peaks beyond this; tree-covered mountains and enormous stone and timber houses in other directions; and the small terminal itself, a mostly white building, partially clad in timbers with elaborate carvings and embellishments, arrestingly compelling upon first sight, though one soon learns this is the Bhutanese architectural vernacular seen throughout the country.
We were met by Dorji our guide, he draped white prayer shawls over our shoulder, and greeted us with the words “welcome to Bhutan.” Then we climbed into a van, and set off for downtown Paro, Bhutan’s second largest city, home to 20,000 people. The buildings—mostly two and three-story structures and all made of rammed earth painted mostly white and interlaced with timbers all ornately carved and painted— looked vaguely Tudor, though the walls with painted dragons, Garudas, and giant phalluses erased any notion of Tudor England. None of this made any sense, though this is the wonder of travel, seeing sights so different they delight with their strange beauty. The pedestrians on these streets were red robed monks, heads shaved and feet clad in sandals, and women in ankle length skirts and men in what appeared to be knee-length dresses, the traditional clothing, kira for women, gho for men. Most of the garments were made in colors and patterns that you’d see when gazing into a kaleidoscope, an eruption of color, yet neither gaudy nor garish. Our group appeared dull and drab next to the Bhutanese.
I love to travel, just the idea gets me excited, and the actual process is one of the most thrilling activities I can imagine. After a few days I could easily say Bhutan was the most remarkable place I’d visited. Everything was so different and unusual, an aesthetic so foreign yet so comfortable. Towards the end of our trip a sad thought appeared in my mind: we’d soon be leaving. The Bhutanese government limits the number of visitors by adopting a policy of high-end, low-impact tourism, making an extended stay in Bhutan costly.
Did you ever have one of those proverbial light bulbs goes off in your head? I had my first one in Bhutan. It went like this: “I’ll start a business bringing people to Bhutan.” I ran this idea by Dorji, and his comment was: “No problem, just find the people and tell me where you want to go.”
Since then, I have led sixteen trips to Bhutan and I will be departing for trip number 17 in two weeks. After all this time, my love affair with Bhutan has not diminished, only grown stronger. Dorji is now my business partner, and all those that I’ve brought to Bhutan have only fond memories of the country and its people, and many left with tears in their eyes.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John Leupold owns and operates Champaca Journeys, offering small groups cultural tours to Bhutan, Laos, Cambodia and Mexico. Mr. Leupold worked as a landscape designer until the travel bug took over his professional life, now his commute to work takes much longer, though he has absolutely no regrets about life as a tour operator.