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Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Bhutan: Land of the Thunder Dragon

Bhutan: Land of the Thunder Dragon
After a hiatus of a few months – of course not counting a short weekend trip to Phuket – I will be heading for Bhutan today. Bhutan – where’s that? The small Buddhist kingdom in the Himalayas, just north of India. The Lost Paradise and legendary Land of Gross National Happiness, a measure Bhutan’s leaders cheerfully adopted to tell the world that despite a low GNP (because they have very little to sell to the rest of the world), the Bhutanese are a happy people who lead a blissful life in a land away from the world’s troubles and unhappiness.
This is a land of traditions long lost elsewhere in the world, where the king and his crown prince are well loved; where people where traditional robes in everyday life, where archery is the most popular national sport; where there is only one set of traffic lights and that works only in daylight; where the national dish is cheese mixed with hot chili.
I will be in Bhutan to attend the Thimphu Tsechu, the annual religious festival where Bhutanese monks put on loudly colourful, perhaps even ghastly looking masks and dance to act out ancient epic tales of the land. Many of these traditions are similar to those once performed in all seriousness in Tibet, the land where Bhutanese ancestors once left a few hundreds ago, to build their new kingdom in the valleys of the eastern Himalayas.
To the romantic traveler, Bhutan is often the Shangri-La, the ultimate lost land. To the backpacker, however, Bhutan is the atrocious antiparadise where one can only get the entry visa on a package tour that cost on average US$200 a day. The Bhutanese see it as a way to limit entry only to those who are willing to spend to appreciate the country’s unique cultural and historical heritage, as well as its enviable way of life. Through this, they have avoided the excesses of mass tourism and excluded the drugs obsessed hippies. Even then, frankly, the US$200 a day charge isn’t too expensive, as it includes a tax payable to the Government for social services and infrastructure, hotel, all meals, transport, sightseeing and entrance fees. The amount is not significantly different from the daily budget of an average business traveler or the demands of a mid-range package tour somewhere in the developed world.
Romantic and idyllic it may be, I am seriously worried about contactability in this remote land. My mobile service provider, m1, unfortunately, sparked a mini panic when they told me on Monday that their phones only roam in Bhutan via a satellite phone – ok, my fault, I had assumed that they roam everywhere through normal GSM/Tr-band phones. In my current job I cannot afford to be uncontactable, or maybe so I prefer to imagine. I rushed to their offices and rented this bulky weapon four times the size of my pretty Nokia 8920. Let’s see if they are any good – I have been warned that even satellite phones are no use if the mountains block the satellite’s direct path! In the instance, perhaps the phone is at least useful when an angry yak charges in my direction…
The way to get to Bhutan is via Bangkok – first on Air Asia and then from Bangkok to Paro, where Bhutan’s airport is located, via Druk Air, the country’s national airline. What a name! Believe it or not, it actually means Dragon-Air, named after the name of the country in the Bhutanese language, Druk-Yul, which means land of the Thunder Dragon. And I heard that the Druk-Air flight actually passes through a place with airport code GAY, which I have just discovered is Bodgaya, a sacred Buddhist city in India.
Bangkok – a city recently on headlines for the first coup d’etat in 15 years. One of my favourite cities – I almost thought my Bhutan trip would be endangered but fortunately the situation seems alright now. With the Druk-Air flight at 5am, I would be among the first international flights out of Bangkok’s new international airport on its opening day on 28th September. Wish me luck – before the flight, I will definitely head for the Royal Plaza of Bangkok for a picture or two next to Thai army tanks – if casual tourists do that, why can’t the war-tourist wannabe?
Ok , next from me from the Kingdom of Bhutan, Land of the Thunder Dragon.
Wee Cheng

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