I woke up early, but luckily was able to get breakfast before heading to the airport to catch a flight to Bhutan, operated by the country’s only airline. The airline only services a handful of cities in neighboring countries, like Dhaka of Bangladesh and Kathmandu of Nepal, and may be difficult to arrange without an agent, so chances to see Bhutan are very limited and restricted (Kathmandu is the best option). Everything was in order so at this point I just needed to board the plane and not worry about the next few days.
The airplane ascended into the clouds and didn’t feel like it ever came back down. Even farms were carved into the mountainside. As we approached Thimphu, the capital, we weaved through cloud covered mountains, and landed in one of the most isolated countries in the world, known for its mastery of archery and Gross National Happiness based economy.
I was greeted by a guide and driver, a strict requirement for entering the country. As we drove into the city, the guide reviewed her suggested itinerary, but surprisingly I was able to request major adjustments.
First order of business was to check in to the hotel and confirm my arrival. The staff were very nice and insisted on providing top notch service, including carrying my bag. I felt kinda bad.
As I waited for paperwork, I was able to read a few interesting government statistics on their happiness index and other economic indicators. English is the official language. My finance background noticed some inconsistencies between different books, which piqued my interest.
Then we headed to the city square for a prearranged lunch, walked around clock tower square, stopped by the post office museum, then the royal textile museum where I learned to put on a traditional Gho, robe-like clothing, which could be seen worn by men around the city.
Next, we headed south to Buddha Dordenma, a large temple atop a hill that overlooks the city and strategic locations throughout the region. The ring of golden statues surrounding the Buddha amidst the background of white clouds was stunning. The complex was almost as large as Mongolia’s Ghengis Khan monument, but almost the opposite in spiritual and philosophic nature. Peaceful Buddhists sitting in Himalayan clouds vs Military horsemen riding through the Gobi desert. Interestingly, Bhutan repelled the Mongols quite easily.
On the way back, we stopped by a temple (chorten), but instead of being dropped off at the hotel at 4pm, which I deemed way too early, I asked to be dropped off at the nearby Folk Heritage Museum, then reassured them that I could walk back to the hotel using my offline map (though I had no intentions to end my day so soon).
I enjoyed the museum then rushed outside to begin my adventure. Instead of turning left, I turned right and headed toward a nearby university, but couldn’t get in. No problem, as I kept exploring, I saw an elementary school, proudly teaching “universal happiness”.
I looked for supermarkets so I could wander the aisles and see unique Bhutanese foods. There weren’t many processed, ready to eat foods, mainly ingredients, but I managed to get a bag of deep fried flour rings intended as an after prayer snack – but it would be my dinner because I didn’t want to spend any time in the hotel.
It started to sprinkle rain, so I ended up passing by the hotel to change into sandals along my way back to the town center to observe the night life and visit some points of interest which I wasn’t able to add to the official itinerary.
I stopped by the Centenary Farmers market, then crossed a pretty cool bridge over the Wang Chuu River to the Bazam traditional market, then walked through the small neighborhood on the other side of the river until I could cross back over via a road.
Even as the sun was setting, people gathered around the bus centers and played games as they waited for their ride. Finally, I made my way back to the clock tower square where there were more people out and about. I walked through some smaller side streets and noticed a few bars playing music. As I was deciding to enter one, a few street food stalls caught my attention. I casually stood by for a few minutes to watch a guy order some steamed dumplings, but he sat down and ate without paying upfront, so I asked him what they were and how much they cost.
He invited me to eat with him, shared his food and ordered more for me, including a super hearty thick soup like gruel. We talked for a while until his friend arrived, but before parting ways, he invited me to join them for a game of darts at another friend’s house over the weekend. I got his contact information and decided to head back to the hotel to get some sleep.
When I got back, the staff was worried but I played it cool. They told me dinner was a little cold, but they would bring it out for me promptly. Not wanting to raise red flags about having already eaten twice, I sat down and ate dinner #3.
If you know that I country really values their tourists, you should be respectful to the rules, but you can also get away with bending some rules, too. (This advice may not apply to North Korea)