Travel to Bhutan before everything changes

April 09, 2019

One reason why we travel is to show off. Don’t deny it. It is at least a part of why we bother to send postcards from far-flung locations. “Wish you were here.” But, really we mean, “glad to be here and don’t mind if you know it.” The farther-flung, the more exotic, the more exclusive the location, the greater the bragging rights.

Few travel destinations are more exotic and more exclusive than Bhutan. As a destination, Bhutan often puzzles travelers. It isn’t so easy to find on a map, unless you know where to look (its enormous neighbors, India and China, can prove distracting). Some international travel agents have no idea how to get a tourist here (the fact that Bhutan is served by only one airline, the national Druk Airways, and that tickets cannot be bought through any of the popular web-based travel sites lends to the uncertainty).

Tourist visas are given out according to Bhutan’s “high value, low volume” tourist policy, designed to protect the traditions, culture and environment of the nation. And, as one of the least-developed places on earth, Bhutan has a lot to protect. Bhutan has a population of fewer than 750,000 people, increasing numbers of whom are leaving rural areas for the charms of city life. Bhutan is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet and the requirement (mandated by the Constitution) to maintain 60% forest cover hopes to keep it that way.

Bhutan, however, doesn’t exist under a bell jar.  Its days of isolation are over and outside influences cannot help but take hold.  Television did not arrive until 1999 –and today the country is served by the local station (Bhutan Broadcasting Services) and by a variety of international channels (many of U.S. or Indian derivation).  More tourists arrive every year, bringing with them modern notions of service and modern requirements of hospitality.  Thimphu, reported to be the only world capital with no traffic light, continues to grow at a remarkable rate.

A wealth of tour options exist for those who wish to earn their bragging rights by visiting Bhutan.  If you only have a few days, you can focus on the popular Paro-Thimphu region (the airport is in Paro as is “Tiger’s Nest” [Taktsang], one of the most popular tourist destinations).  Thimphu is, of course, the capital and the major urban center.  With a few more days, you can travel to Punakha, the ancient capital of Bhutan. The Punakha dzong is famous for being the site of the coronations and weddings of Kings of Bhutan.   If you have a week or more, you can tour the more eastern regions, including Bumthang, often referred to as the “Switzerland of Bhutan.” 

Do you wish you had traveled to Eastern Europe right after the Berlin Wall came down, before western influences and development money changed it?  Or toured some other untrampled location before all the tourists arrived and “ruined the place?”  Well, now is your chance.  Bhutan won’t be the same in five years as it is today.  It will still be worth visiting in five years, of course – a place as spectacular as Bhutan will always be worth a tour.  But it won’t be the same spectacular place in five years.  Its spectacle will be a different spectacle. 

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