Saturday, July 05, 2014

Blessed in Bhutan Part 1 of 2

Many of my friends have asked me why I chose Bhutan as a travel destination. It's not a common place to go on a vacation, and access is still quite restricted and expensive.  I guess Bhutan is the closest thing, next to Nepal or Tibet, that will bring me to the Himalayas.  Being the home to the highest mountain in the world, Mt. Everest is not only a goal for the mountaineers but it also represents a vision of success, of hard work, or reaching a dream, of overcoming challenges, of completing a journey, of gaining great satisfaction, and these serve as an inspiration for any regular human being, in almost every part of our lives.

So when the opportunity called to go with a photography group to Bhutan, I was ecstatic and excited. Everest is not attainable by many, at least in the physical or literal sense. This trip sort of serves as a preview, or a peek or even a short cut, depending on how one looks at it.

Well, I didn't get to see the Himalayan mountain ranges as thick clouds covered the view both times we drove through Dochula Pass, where one can enjoy a panoramic view of the Himalayas. Nor did I get to see Mt. Everest on our flight in and out of Bhutan. But 
Bhutan turned out to be a bag of surprises for me, unexpected but very welcome.

I hope to share my personal experiences and impressions of Bhutan to supplement some of the fast and fun facts below. 

Fast Facts and Fun Facts

  • Bhutan is a landlocked country in the Himalayas.  It is bordered by China in the north and by India in the east, west and south.  Nepal is to the west of the Indian border connecting Bhutan

    Bhutan has the most dangerous airport landing pads in the world. Only 8 pilots are certified to land here, in Paro International Airport, which is 2,300 meters above sea level, and lies in a valley surrounded by steep and high mountains

    Little did I know that Bhutan wasn't even beside Nepal or Tibet, despite the fact that they are all part of the Himalayas.  I never expected it to be surrounded by India nor China.  That shows you how little I know about our geography!

    Before embarking on this journey, I didn't know about the risk factor associated with the Bhutan take off and landings.  I knew that I didn't have any choice for getting there except through their national airline, DrukAir, the Royal Bhutanese Airlines.

    So there we were almost reaching Paro, I noticed as I looked out the window, that we were flying below the tips of the mountains beside us. In a few minutes, the pilot made several turns, left and right, as we flew through the valley densely compressed between the steep mountains. For a moment there, I felt like I was flying in a fighter aircraft with Tom Cruise (Top Gun) or Josh Lucas (Stealth), pressured to find a flat landing somewhere. Or maybe I was actually in a Flight Simulator game or IMAX movie after all. I'll give it to the pilots, and yes, he's one of the few eight, yes eight, pilots certified to fly to and from Bhutan.  In fact, the flight was so smooth.  As I looked out my window, there wasn't any bit of fear, instead I felt that I was in a dream adventure.

    As we landed in Paro International Airport, we disembarked through the back door.  We breath the first of the Bhutanese air and stepped on the land of utmost happiness, and so they say. We could literally see the entire length of the runway, which is surrounded by a range of steep mountains. A giant billboard of a beautiful young couple in traditional attire, probably in their early to mid 30s, welcomes us as we walked towards the airport structure that looked more like a temple than an airport.  I assume the young couple was some sort of a celebrity, and celebrity indeed they were, just of a different kind.  This young couple is actually the King and Queen of Bhutan.

  • Bhutan is led by a monarchy with a king and queen.  It now has a constitution so part of the administrative powers are now managed by a council members

    Bhutan's current king was crowned at 28 years old in 2008 and he has recently married in 2011 at the Punakha Dzong

    Speaking of that young King and Queen, that's something quite unique to Bhutan.  I always had this impression that a king or a queen should be "old" at least in age, and I'm sure most people think the same way. And this is one of the things that is so interesting about Bhutan.

    The elder king and queen had decided to abdicate the throne to give way to his eldest son who was just 28 years old at that time.  He wanted to entrust a great legacy. Bhutan has gradually moved to the modern era and the elder king played a very important role in steering Bhutan successfully without the negative effects.  Exposing a country and its culture to the western world often brought about harsh changes and inevitably, negative side as well.  But Bhutan never compromised their identity, their culture.  I attribute this to balance.  While it is also detrimental to not progress, there needs to be balance where one can actually achieve the best of both worlds. The elder king did allow modernization through effective health care, "appropriate technology", and environmentally friendly solutions that do not necessarily bring in the harmful side effects. The balance plus the strength of their culture made it possible for them not to lose their identity.

    On our way through Dochula Pass, the mountainous road that brings us between Punakha and Thimphu, we had to make stops to give way to the scheduled road closures. Construction continues as the Indian workers clear up the rubbles from the landslides. This actually reminded me of the zig zag road between Manila and Baguio and one can't help but enjoy the mountainous scenery along the path.  It was our time to stop and we were sitting still in a van lined up behind a row of cars. We see some folks getting out to stretch their legs. But the road was very dusty. We begin to see some cars emerging from the opposite side and noticed a few cars with flashing lights, which we assumed were doing that to avoid an accident. Our guide suddenly stood up and alerted us to look as it might be the royal family passing by.  And indeed it was.  As I looked out my opened window, I saw a beautiful young lady in the back seat of her car, with her windows opened 2-3 feet away from us, and with a young child in hand. She smiled charmingly and humbly as she passedb by.  I was still looking out for the other cars but soon it was quiet. Our guide told us she was the queen mother.  For a moment there, I couldn't fathom how that young lady could be the queen and wondered if maybe I missed it. Well, she is now in her 50s and she's definitely aging very well. Wow! What an honor to see the queen mother herself!
  • Bhutan is the happiest country in the world, backed by its Gross National Happiness Index, which is used to measure one's happiness level

    Who wouldn't want to be happy?  And what better place to find happiness than the country with the happiest people?  So what is Bhutan's secret?

    We actually joked that it was the cannabis plant that made Bhutanese people the happiest people in the world.  Ironically, these are used as pig feeds in Bhutan.  See the next fun fact for the background story on this.

    Personally for 
    me, there are three things that I think Bhutan possesses that contributes to their happiness index: its simplicity, humility and authenticity. In our society these days, we just complicate our lives so much that we inherit more bad than good. By remaining simple and practical, one achieves peace (rid of conflicts) and enlightenment (clarity), and thus one can attain the so called happiness that they are so proud of. And by being true to oneself, there are no opportunities for trying to live for someone or something else.

  • The cannabis plant (marijuana) is common in Bhutan.  It is freely grown everywhere and is legal, unlike in the rest of the world. These are used as pig feeds. Besides, smoking, even a normal cigarette, is not permitted in Bhutan

    Everywhere we went, we would see the cannabis plants growing everywhere just like weeds in the wild. But as indicated, they are simply used for feeding the pigs. And maybe that's why their pigs are happy and the people who eat pork are even happier, and the joke never stops :-)

    This is my first time to see the live cannabis plant and the leaves look like maple leaves to me, which I guess are part of the same family.

    We learned that the flowering buds in the middle of a female cannabis plant (and yes there are male and female species) are the most potent part of the plant, followed by the leaves.  The seeds and the roots are not.  One of the locals actually asked his chef to cook some pakora for us using the cannabis leaves found in the grounds of our hotel and we challenged each other to try one each before we headed off for the night and see who gets hit the next morning. Of course, we knew that no one haves it this way and the cooking process probably ruined the effect, if ever there was any. We just had to satisfy our curiosity. Besides, a little happiness won't hurt, will it?

More fast and fun facts in part 2 of my blog :-)

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