I have wanted the visit the Buddhist nation of Bhutan for many years.(The South Asian nation is bordered by China to the north and south, east and west by India.) It is approximately the size of Switzerland and its population of 700,000+ is close to that of San Francisco. But its remote location in the Himalayas and the government´s requirement for foreigners to join an official tour group (and pay $250 per day) made it a tough choice for me. My style of traveling independently does not fit with the official policy. But I finally decided to do it this year and even lined up 5 or 6 friends who were interested in joining me. But they eventually dropped out for one reason or another and I have come as a group of one. Basically I have my own private guide who has has drawn up a 7 day itinerary taking me to the country´s major sites in his late model Hyundai SUV. Being an individual traveler, I can ask him to make extra stops as I wish and he has been very accommodating.
My flight into Paro, the country´s only international airport, was breath taking as the A319 jet landed in a valley surrounded by pine covered mountains shrouded in clouds and mist. My guide drove me directly to the small town of Haa which was holding its annual festival of traditional music, dance, archery competition (archery is the national sport) and a mountain bike race. As my guide drove up the rough and bumpy mountain road, we passed about a dozen bikers chugging up the 10,000 foot mountain pass before flying down to Haa at 8,700 feet. Along the way, I saw many terrace farms and rice fields. I learned from my guide that almost 70% of the Bhutanese people are farmers and rice, corn and produce are its main products. I also learned that due to its mountain rivers and streams, Bhutan is able to generate a lot of hydroelectric, far more than is needed domestically. So the rest is sold to nearby India and this is a big source of income for the country. With this money, the government is able to provide free education and full health care for all its citizens.
The festival was smaller than I expected (I was to find that everything in Bhutan happens on a smaller scale). There were approximately 300 people in attendance to watch the various activities and partake in the local foods (deep fried vegetable dumplings is the specialty). An occasional rain shower would break out but it never interrupted the schedule of activities. I had a chance to interact with the locals who all pretty much spoke some English (it is taught in all the schools). Some were dressed in their festive best but most of the men wore their daily ¨gho¨outfits and the women were in their normal ¨kira¨ dress.
Bhutan´s distinguished prime minister, a Mr. Tobgay, was present to bless the events and mix with the people. I had a chance to chat briefly with him; he was very much a gentleman and a down to earth guy. After presenting awards to the top finishers in the bike marathon, he drove off himself in a brand new four door Tesla, chauffeuring three members of his staff.
More to come on my adventures in Bhutan.