As we were approaching our destination, we looked out to admire the Himalaya Mountain Range sitting right next to us. The clouds were trying to hide it. However it’s presence was still dominating the whole area. Somewhere behind them was the magical Kingdom of Bhutan!
Shortly after the plane entered a valley with scattered houses, winding roads and farmland. Was that what this country looked like from the sky? Thanks to the pilot’s very capable maneuver, we landed in Paro International Airport safely.
After expriencing the landing we realized why it is considered one of the world’s most challenging airports. It is surrounded by peaks as high as 5,500 m, no wonder only 10 pilots are certified to land here!
There was no rush to get out of the plane, it felt like we were surrounded by a sense of calm. However, once we stepped out I could breath crisp clean fresh air, my lungs took it all in! It was much-needed after 3 days in highly polluted Bangkok!
A large image of the King, the Queen and the little Prince was there to welcome us to the Kingdom of Bhutan.
As we approached the immigration desk, we were greeted with a smile. This hasn’t always been the case in many other airports. The friendly agent chatted with us. In the meantime all the other agents were trying to capture Luca’s attention!
As soon as we walked outside, I heard a jolly laugh, it was Sonam (our guide for the next week) greeting our kids. He asked their names, put a scarf around their necks and welcomed all of us to Kingdom of Bhutan.
Our dream came true, we were officially in the Kingdom of Bhutan!
A little bit about Bhutan
The Kingdom of Bhutan, is a little buddhist country nestled in the Eastern Himalayas between China and India. Druk Yul is the local name for Bhutan, which means “Land of the Thunder Dragon”. That explains why the dragon appears on the Bhutanese flag.
Bhutan was completely cut off for centuries from the rest of the world. It only opened its doors to tourism in 1974. In fact when the former King was coronated, international media were allowed in the country to witness the celebration. Today, although it has let in some aspects of the outside world, it is still guarding its ancient traditions.
Another interesting aspect is the fact that TVs only arrived here the 1990s! As we were checking in, at Bangkok airport, every bhutanese traveling with us was checking in a new flat screen TV!
As our guide explained to us that flat screen TVs are still very expensive to purchase here. Due to customs costs that are still high, people go shopping elsewhere for it!
How did we hear about Bhutan?
One day Mass found a video on TED about the Kingdom of Bhutan. Their Prime Minister at the time, Tshering Tobgay, was talking about this little underdeveloped country. He was also explaining their concept of Gross Product of Happiness. We listened to him mesmerized and very curious. We wanted to experience for ourselves what he was talking about.
I’m embarrassed to say that before that day I didn’t know anything about this country!
How to travel to Bhutan
We immediately looked into flights and accommodation. We found out that the only way to visit the Kingdom of Bhutan, is through a registered tour operator. The Bhutanese government doesn’t impose a limit of visitors a year but simply all visitors are required to pay the daily fee. They must travel on a preplanned, prepaid, guided package tour. The only exception is for people from India, Bangladesh and Maldives.
The reasons for these restrictions? The Bhutanese government wants to control tourism and protect the environment. Considering the size of the country there is also a limited availability of infrastructure. It would be really hard to manage a larger amount of tourism every year.
We looked into the list of registered tour operators that the Tourism Council of Bhutan has on its website and picked three. A bit clueless by the whole process, we emailed each one. We finally picked the one that seemed more professional and more interesting for packages offered: Wind Horse Tours.
We found out that “the Minimum Daily Package” to Bhutan is set by the government. In High season (March, April, May, September, October, and November) the cost is $250 per person per day. In Low season (January, February, June, July, August, and December) the cost goes down to $200. The price is bit higher for 2 or less people.
The price includes: all accommodations, meals, transportation, guides and driver, and cultural programs. A portion of the fee goes towards funding free education, free healthcare, and poverty alleviation in Bhutan.
Bhutan was the first part of our world travels. We booked it a year and a half in advance! We decided to go in low season, so we could contain costs. Luckily the older kids pay half the price and Luca only the visa!
Gross National Happiness
Bhutan is famous for Gross National Happiness (GNH). This concept was coined in 1972 by the former King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the fourth King of Bhutan. The country’s wealth should be measured by the happiness of his people and not the gross domestic product.
The concept of GNH consists of four pillars:
- Socioeconomic development.
- Conservation and promotion of culture, for example wearing their traditional outfit.
- Protection of the environment, in fact Bhutan’s forests cover 65-70% of the territory.
- Good governance.
The concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH) has become popular in the west.
Today, Bhutan is ranked among the top 10 happiest countries in the world.
Our guide and driver were dressed in their traditional outfit all the time. As you walk around town you will see most people wear it. The Gho for men and the Kira for women. For the whole week we joked with Soman that in his pouch he could hide so many things! It is really spacious!
On our second day in Bhutan Soman took us to Gagyel Lhundrup Weaving Centre. We had a chance to admire the beautiful textiles, all hand made. We also had the opportunity to try for ourselves what it felt like to wear the Gho and Kira! It took two people to help us put it on (I have a video of the whole process), but it was worth it! Cosimo and Emma insisted to wear them as well. On the other hand Luca was willing to do it until they tried to take his sweater off. At that point he wasn’t ok with it anymore!
This has definitely been one of the healthiest countries we have visited so far. Every meal has a variety of fresh vegetables and fruits, rice/potatos, previously dried beef reconstituted or fresh chicken. Since buddhist don’t kill meat, but they do eat it, it is shipped from India.
Most of the places we ate at were buffet. If the place wasn’t too busy the dishes were brought to our table, otherwise we could just go and serve ourselves. As for dessert, they don’t have any typical ones. If you do find a dessert it is for sure Indian. Bhutanese instead serve fresh fruit after every meal.
We also had a chance to walk into the farmers market. We saw for ourselves all the fresh fruits and vegetables available. All we wanted to do was buy it all!
Spirituality in Bhutan
One of the most touching moments for us was visiting the many buddhist temples around Kingdom of Bhutan. We soon came to realize that Buddishm has a avery important role in the life of Bhutanese. It is more a way of life than simply a religion.
It was fascinating to watch people daily circumambulating the stupas while reciting their mantras. This is an important ritual and devotional practice still very present today. Every stupa one or more prayer wheels. This is a spiritual tool for distributing loving, compassionate and kind blessings with positive wishes for yourself, all those you care for, as well as all beings. They are activated by turning them clockwise, mostly with one’s own hand.
A very important spiritual moment for us were the hikes. Each one led to a beautiful temple. The real challenge was finding the strength and will power to continue, to not give in to doubts and fatigue. For a few hours we had to find the strength inside us to keep on going…..in our case also make sure our kids didn’t fall off a cliff! So many thoughts go through your mind in those moments, you can pray, recite a mantra or simply believe that you can do it. The final outcome is the same: you successfully get to the end of it! Maybe with a new understanding and respect for yourself.
One of the first things Sonam told us, was that it was in our karma to meet. Initially I didn’t take him seriously, I thought it was just something nice to say to a tourist. After just one day, I felt it, we were meant to experience the Kingdom of Bhutan with him. If I think of how everything that led to this unforgettable trip, I know he is right. He shared his love and passion for this country. He made us feel it in every word he said. In every story he told us. In every hike we did! When we had to say goodbye we were all in tears and already wishing to change our plans and go right back!
If you are curious to see more, take a peak to our photo gallery and then book your trip to the magical Kingdom of Bhutan!