So if you don’t know, Bhutan measures its economy on Gross National Happiness. I must go to Wikipedia for you if you want to know more.
It’s real. It’s true. It’s Bhutan. About 700k people. Used to be a Buddhist Monarchy. Now a democracy. More facts later. I call it Switzerland in the Himalayas.
So some backstory here. When I went to Humboldt State for my Graduate degree in Energy Environment and Society from 2007-10, I was lucky enough to become good friends with Chhimi Dorji. He is from here. I love Chhimi. He’s been back to the states a few times. He is married with three kids. We had some adventures in grad school. He was my tech guru. Backpacking. Learning to drive in the US. Momo making parties.
My old girlfriend Andrea and I came here in 2012 to see Chhimi and his family.
The rub is that while Bhutan is on many travelers bucket list, for reasons you will see, the Bhutanese govt has a very very controlled approach to tourism.
One normally has to pay to join a group tour. The minimum cost being $250 a day. Per person. However, if a Bhutanese lives abroad they are allowed to have two visitors a year. I believe that’s the rule. So do the math, Andrea and I went for two weeks. But we were Chhimis friends and thus didn’t have to pay and could travel independently. Sweet.
This time I got a one month visa and crossed at Samdrup Jongkar. A remote southeastern border near Guwahati India. Yes. I’m lucky and very appreciative of this opportunity. Not many people get to do this.
So you can basically walk across the border. But of course you have to check in. Indians can enter with no fee and move around freely. But have to register.
So. In I walk into Bhutan. I gave them my passport and visa and he says okay. Please make a copy and drop it later. AND you have to register at the regional immigration office. But rest first.
Of course everyone seems to know everyone and my buddy Chhimi hooked me up with hotels and permits etc. AND he knew the director of immigration. Because they had no idea what to do with an old scruffy backpacker without a guide and tour. 2 1/2 hours later. I got my thru permit today. Monday.
Of course my first night was amazing here. I used to say it takes three weeks to shed your American skin. Less true with mobile data. Samdrup is a cool border town. Safe. Not crowded. Still low so still hot but just a little less so. I sat down for dinner and said man, I gotta explore. So I walked around town in the dark, settling in a “bar” that had about 7 Indian laborers. I walked in. Ordered a Druk beer and stood in the 15 by 30 foot room. No room to sit. The laborers (i found out what they did later) looked at quizzically until I bought a small bottle of whiskey. I don’t think they liked me. But dammit they respected me! There were a few English speaking locals in the place and they invited me to sit and share a beer. They invited me to Karaoke. I went. I drank more. They starting singing. They asked me to. I looked at the list. Knew two songs.
My rendition of Knocking on Heavens Door (Dylan version) got good reviews. My rendition of Californication did not.
I really liked the town. I don’t want to be redundant as I wrote a few emails five years ago on this topic but rolling into Bhutan from India is surreal. Now this border is not as crazy as the other i crossed five years ago. That one had a massive difference in cultures and energy when crossing. This one was just a line. A little less crazy in Bhutan.
Chhimi will tell you it’s not perfect here. But imagine a really old Buddhist Culture combined with a really progressive society. Without a massive amount of people. Well educated. Friendly as hell. Safe. Many speak English as well as Dzongkha. Beautiful hills and mountains with the Himalayas behind them. Traditional festivals and events. Stunning religious sites. Cell service. Incredible food.
What’s the catch? There is none. It’s a great place. You just gotta take a tour. And I don’t.
In addition to their Gross National Happiness, they up until recently were considered 100% renewable energy. They have moved towards some dams as opposed to all run of the river hydro (I gotta get an update when I see Chhimi) but they sell all their excess energy to India. And invest it back in their communities. So one could argue they might not be thriving as much if they didn’t have a billion people south of them charging their cell phones. But they are trying to do it right. If not already, they have a goal of being carbon negative (again gotta check updates but think they are already) and have an intense drive towards sustainability.
Yeah. Go there. You can trek too. What?! Their big bank is Bank of Bhutan. Yes. BoB. And they call it that.
My good fortune was drilled into my head as I walked into my hotel last night, dare I say tipsy, and there were 30 Spanish tourists having the last meal of their tour, all with matching tour t shirts sitting together.
Now I’m gonna miss a lot taking local transport and no tour bus. But I’ll be at my speed and pace. Just how I like it. Except for the landslides again today…..