Outside the Tashichho Dzong in Thimphu

For the first time in Bhutan and while trying to enter the Tashichho Dzong in Thimphu, I was mildly interrogated. I would have guessed that interrogation of any sort in Bhutan would be mild but it was still baffling. Partly because I was also noticing the guards in uniform with rifles—at several different posts—all lingering their glances a bit too long as I walked around trying to sort out how to get into this stunning fortress. Not the genre of attention I had gotten used to in a country of multifacited-ly attentive people.

Any foreign tourist coming into this country gets steady, caring attention during their stay from the minute they walk off the airplane. Not just because their tourism process is set up this way logistically, but because they are very serious about treating their guests well. And this doesn’t just go for the tour guide whom you are paying, it is true of the person on the street you are taking a picture of who will stop, and stand still for you. Or the proprietor of any establishment who will recognize, acknowledge and perhaps even engage you in conversation if you look willing, each time you enter.

Any foreigner traveling to any different country will get some sort of culturally unique attention, and I’ve always thought it our responsibility to sort out our behavior so that we garnish the kind of attention we desire and to gain some understanding of how to be respectful of people in their own ‘home’. This can mean, how to deal with locals in business transactions, how one should dress at particular locations based on your gender, behavior of locals that might be undesired, etc.

I’m a huge fan of Lonely Planet travel guides because they hit close to offering the behind-the-scenes information on cultural nuances of a country. But even Lonely Planet doesn’t give beta on how to bribe a Russian police officer when they stop your taxi for speeding or how to deal with the uniformed airline attendant behind the counter in Moshi, Tanzania who screws you into paying double for your baggage and then comes over later to apologize. Or, perhaps that telling a merchant in Cairo that you are from America will cause the painting you are buying to double in price. If you are someone like me, who prefers to travel free-range, we are left to sort out via locals we can trust, or intuition (or Lonely Planet), how to work through day by day experiences—all as part of the adventure.

The Bhutanese don’t leave these nuances to chance for their visitors. Prior to arriving and then while here, they will trustworthily sort out all these details for you. And for this service and so much more that you won’t know before entering the country, you’ll happily pay a premium. Your guide will set up all transportation and food, go shopping with you, make phone calls or execute any possible need you might have. Always politely and with the impression that even if you are asking him to completely change up your itinerary at the last minute that its—‘no problem’.

There are daily tariff fees and other charges that range from $250-270 per day that every tourist is required to pay while in Bhutan. For that price you get hotel, food, a guide while in country and all the attention you could possibly want. If you want to stay in a 4 or 5 star hotel (which are lovely here), or do excursions to travel to different parts of the country, you will pay more. As we found out while taking over a year to plan and organize Expedition Bhutan with the BOC, its not possible to throw your backpack on, fly to Bhutan (which only has one carefully regulated airline coming into the country) and traipse around at will. Even if backpacking is all you do here, you will still be required to have a guide at all times and pay the $250/day.

Being on the outside this makes it all sound rather sterile and strict, but once you get here you realize the benefits to this system. That part of what you are paying for is the allowance that the Bhutanese remain a traditional culture, and what within that, you will have a unique and unencumbered travel experience…Priceless.

One quick example of this particular brand of Bhutanese attentiveness happened before I even arrived in country on this trip: I was flying in from Bangkok and checking my luggage with Druk Air, the only airline that flies into Bhutan. The Bhutanese woman behind the counter informed me that the overcharge for my extra bag would be very expensive. She felt really bad about this, so decided she would chat with her supervisor, telling her I was coming to Bhutan to volunteer with the BOC, etc. The supervisor then came over and kindly asked me if I thought it would be fair if they charged me half of the original charges for my extra bag. If I would have said no, would she have renegotiated—again?

When you are handed anything from a Bhutanese—whether it be change from the package of Oreos you just purchased in a tiny stone walled and smoke stained building, or, the fork and spoon set that goes with your place setting at a restaurant table—the exchange is accompanied by a slight bow. While the object is handed to you with both hands. For a moment, time stops. In the pause, attention is drawn to your hands taking something from their two hands—as if to say—’I appreciate your taking time to make this exchange with me’. If you hand them something, they will play it out in the same manner, even if you try and execute an Americanesque quick one handed slap and go.

As Expedition Bhutan we did not come into the country as regular tourists, but we were given attention on all levels by our hosts, the Bhutan Olympic Committee. We did not ask for this phenomenon, nor did we even need or want it, but whether you are paying as a tourist or invited as a guest of this country, they roll out the red carpet while making sure that you are attended to and guided at every possible turn. They are assuring that your experience will be positive.

One additional way this attention is played out is by their instantly drawing you into their intricate social information web. Casually, quietly and without malice, everyone appears to know everything about everyone. And when you enter the country, whether you know it or not or whether you like it or not, you become a part of this knowledge base. The morning after needing to make another Skype call outside of a closing coffee shop, Karma inquired. “I heard that you were sitting outside a coffee shop last night. The owner offered for you to come inside as well as offered you a chair but you didn’t accept these.”

“Uh, yeah. You guys got the secret service out on me or something?” I smiled sarcastically.

“We just know things that happen here.” Karma chuckled, tilting his head to one side.

A look into one of the many nooks and crannies of a Dzong

Coming back into the country as an expat doing volunteer work, I’ve been roaming about daily as a free agent (for the most part). And what I had forgotten when faced with a multitude of questions from armed Royal Army at the entrance to the Tashichho Dzong, was that my guide-less presence was something to be questioned in a country which expects outsiders to always be in the presence of a Bhutanese. And especially when entering one of their most holy sites (and in particular the one where the King holds office). Being so used to roaming about in life in general, as I got asked for my passport, visa, where I was staying, my cell phone number, where I was from, and more, I remained clueless as to the ‘problem’. It was a bit later when I was naively trying to enter a part of the Dzong that was off limits to tourists, that a guard finally asked me, “Where is your guide?” Bingo!

(This guard also knew that I was an athlete and had been a judge at the Mr. Bhutan Body Building Contest and that I was helping the BOC…)

The guys at the front had let me in after my answers appeased them, but in the end it wasn’t really ok for me to be wandering about as solo-white-chick with a big camera and no guide in this particular location. I found out later that there are a LOT of places in the country I can’t go without a BOC escort or specific permission. And that all of these regulations not only allow outsiders to have a pristine and unencumbered travel experience here but support the locals in being tourist-friendly while not getting sucked into being tourist-greedy. The low tourist numbers keep things civil and cordial for both sides of the exchange while allowing the locals to live as they wish without constant observation by outsiders.

But if you come to Bhutan and all of this attention isn’t quite enough for your liking—get sick. Not so sick that you have to go to the hospital. But just sick enough for cake.

When Karma’s sister recently had to go into the hospital the entire extended family accompanied her in. Some stayed by her side until she left the next day. This seemed quite odd because the families here tend to be quite large, hospital rooms are shared by multiple patients and space is quite small. But when we went to pick her up to bring her home, I realized that this was common practice (and, that for a Westerner the hospital was not a place you wanted to visit).

Being sick in my apartment I was asked if wanted to go to the hospital (multiple times) and upon refusing because it was unnecessary, a doctor was brought to see me— along with several other people who offered support. They also brought me a lot of cake. And cleaned my place.

Thanks for all my Bhutanese friends and those back home for the well wishes. I’m feeling much better and may even be well enough to eat all that cake very soon. Rest assured I will work to continue to stay on the optimal side of Bhutanese attention, while still sitting in ally ways making Skype calls—if only to keep Karma busy sorting out my daily exploits.



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