A Journey to Bhutan
Indagare member, Helen Millson, grew up in Bronxville, NY but moved to India after college to work for a micro-finance organization. She currently lives in Bangalore and works for a start-up mobile technology company. Taking advantage of short and affordable flights to exotic locations in southeast Asia, she finds herself traveling often. She spoke to Indagare about her recent trip to Bhutan.
My Dad and I wanted to take a trip to a place where we could do all kinds of activities but not be too extreme. The Himalayans were out because I didn’t want to deal with such intensely high altitudes.
When did you go and was it a good season to visit?
We went the first week in October, 2011. It was a little chilly but in a nice, Fall-in-New York kind of way. The guides told us we had just missed the hot months.
How did you map out your itinerary and where did you stay?
Indagare Travel Specialist Barkley Hickox organized our trip for us. We stayed at the Aman Hotels and traveled from lodge to lodge. They took care of everything, from pick-up to airport drop-off, and we had our own guide and driver. It was so nice to not have to worry about logistics, especially in such a remote place.
Was there anything you wish you had known before leaving on your trip?
I was surprised by how tough the hikes were. Also, the lack of good infrastructure in the country made traveling on roads a bumpy and slightly harrowing experience. The country is still very underdeveloped. The trip is definitely geared towards people who are very ‘outdoorsy’ with a lot of energy and are in good shape. There’s really no option for skipping the day’s activity whether it’s a hike or a bike ride. The altitude (between 7,000 and 10,000 feet depending where in the country you are) adds to the strenuousness.
What were the Aman resorts like?
The hotels were incredibly beautiful and despite being in very rugged locations were very comfortable. The service was amazing, they’ve really nailed it. Without seeming cheesy, they did a really good job giving us exposure to the culture by organizing fabulous tours and activities and talks every night. One night, a Buddhist monk came and talked to us, another night they had us making traditional Bhutanese figurines. A lot of people are on a similar loop, so you run into the each other throughout your tour. The majority of other travelers were Europeans with a few Chinese, mostly couples ranging in age from 35 to 55. Everyone was really well-traveled.
Did the country live up to its reputation for being one of the happiest in the world?
People certainly seemed very content with their lives, perhaps due to their Buddhist beliefs. The untouched landscape is certainly beautiful and all the homes are very well cared for, despite there being little money and extreme poverty is abundant. There was an incredible sense of community amongst the people – their king was getting married while we were visiting and a lot of the villages were throwing parties and festivals in his honor. We definitely got a sense of the country being a kingdom with a homogenous culture and history. For example, architecture throughout was similar.
Can you describe the architecture? Was there much to be seen while you were in the remote countryside?
The point of any hike or bike ride is to see a monastery or a temple so I felt like we had a good combination of physical activity and cultural sight-seeing. The architecture had a lot of Tibetan, Nepalese and Chinese influence because of the country’s history with those regions.
Did you see influences from neighboring countries in the day-to-day life?
Bhutan is financially supported by India. We saw lot of Indian trucks and commerce. I was led to believe this is a relatively new phenomenon however.
What is the cuisine like in Bhutan?
There’s a lot of yak meat, which I was not necessarily looking forward to, but the Aman hotels’ restaurants were very contemporary and there were alternatives to Bhutanese food available. I did have yak ravioli one night but mostly ate a lot of Southeast Asian food, like Thai.
Did the language, Dzongkha sound like anything you’d ever heard before?
Luckily, everyone spoke English because their language was like nothing I’d ever heard. The alphabet is also very unique.
What in your suitcase were you most grateful for?
I wore my fleece jacket the most, and it was actually the thing I grabbed as I was running out the door. I would recommend visitors dress like you’re going skiing. Even at dinner, people were in heavy sweaters and ski jackets.
Did you pick up any interesting souvenirs?
There was some shopping in Paro (where we flew into) and Timpu (the capital). Some highlights include chunky silver jewelry, silk scarves, and antiques. One good shop is Chencho Handicraft in Paro. I actually bought a silk scarf for my Dad’s girlfriend and she was wearing it this weekend – I wish I had bought 20 more. The prices were not inexpensive, surprisingly, for example the scarf was $50. I bought myself a set of astrology cards. I definitely recommend bringing cash as no place outside the hotel took credit cards.