post-Bhutan post-mortem

I travel to exotic, remote places in the world to experience different cultures, peoples, and landscapes and to hike in vast, open spaces.

After spending a week in Bhutan, I would not recommend the Kingdom of Gross National Happiness, or GNH as the locals call it, as a travel destination.

My husband and I decided on Bhutan because last fall we were fascinated by the Tibetan area of China.  We thought Bhutan, nestled high in the Himalayas, and also referred to as the Kingdom in the Clouds, would have similar qualities that we enjoyed in the Himalayas in China.

The scenery in Bhutan is monotonous.  The roads nonexistent.  We traveled on the main east-west road, which is essentially a dirt trail with a few bamboo guardrails, for up to 6 hours a day.  Our driver, Sonam, called it “automobile massage” because it was so bumpy.

The basic Bhutanese diet consists of 3 ingredients: red chilies, red rice (tasteless), and cubes of yak cheese that are so hard you’d crack your teeth if you bit into it.  (You put a cube in your mouth for 10 minutes to soften, and then you chew.  Also tasteless.)  As one traveler, facing more another meal of lentils, said, It’s hard to be in a country where the food is so bad you have to close your eyes to eat.

The Bhutanese have nothing to show travelers except monasteries and nunneries.  But the monks and nuns are often orphans, so it’s a little as if in the U.S. we’d take visitors to tour our orphanages?

The predominant color–other than for the monks and nuns–is a somber brown.  Even Ed, who isn’t usually that observant about clothing, remarked that everyone was wearing brown.  The traditional dresses, worn by men and woman, are almost always brown.  This lack of color is a somber contrast to the explosion of dazzling, vibrating colors of India, which is just to the south.

In Gangtey, the Nature Trail, which crosses over a wetland-marshland, is in such serious need of repair that it is dangerous to balance on the rickety planks.  And should you fall off, you’re up to your knees in mud and muck.  If the Tourism Council of Bhutan continues to tout this as a destination, then they need to repair it.  Now.  The Council could look at the wooden walkways in Torres Del Paine National Park in Chile for an excellent idea of sturdy, stable, safe wooden walkways in a public area.

On the positive side.  Bursts of color are provided by prayer flags which are flown everywhere.  The Bhutanese believe in the power of these flags to spread good will and accumulate blessings.  Nice.  (We have some flying in our backyard in Malibu now.)

Lemon-grass is the aroma of Bhutan.  It smells fresh and clean.  I brought several small vials home which bewildered the security agents at the airports.

The Bhutanese are a gentle, soft, shy, kind people.  I don’t regret traveling to their country.  It’s just that the world is wide and wonderful and there are other destinations that offer much more.

In case I’ve left the wrong impression, I have to add that we were not roughing it.  I call what we were doing luxury hiking.  We were traveling, albeit on the bumpiest, scariest, of roads, from one Aman resort to the next.  The Aman resorts in Bhutan are architecturally handsome.  Our travel agent said, “I don’t know how they built them.  How they got the building materials to those places.” Exactly.  One stroke of genius that Aman did in Bhutan is that the rooms have a similar layout.  Whether we were in Amankora Thimpku or Gangtey or Punakha or Paro, we knew our way around: We could find the light switches.  And the service was excellent.