During our 18 days of travel — on the roads, in small towns and larger cities, walking across – well, some of the way across — a centuries-old chain bridge, in a Dzong (a combination monastery/district administration building, originally built as a fort) , looking at stupas large and small, a school, a market, a flower show, a festival, eating surprisingly good picnic lunches, turning prayer wheels, feeling the wind shaking the prayer flags, chasing after butterflies, orchids, birds, talking, talking and talking to people — we often found ourselves looking at each other, nodding, smiling, simply joyful to be where we were.
Nothing we had learned before we left, none of the careful planning with Windhorse Tours sales manager Jambay, could have prepared us for this amazing trip. A trip customized for just the two of us — a driver, Tenzin, and an SUV that made maneuverings those roads (those roads!) possible and, with the greatest luck — Jambay as our guide. If we were wise, and we believe we were, in choosing Windhorse Tours from the many companies available, we were deeply fortunate in having Jambay select us. We think our desire to go on a longer, slower, trip across Bhutan encouraged him to take us on birding, checking out little used hotels, traveling roads most guests never see. And the time of year. June is not a heavy tourist season. The books call it “Monsoon Season” but it is really just a lush and glorious summer month with a slight bit of rain now and then. A magical semi-tropical zone — rushing rivers, cascading waterfalls, fruits, vegetables, flowers, butterflies and birds, green fields and wandering cows and horses and monkeys.
We are two well-travelled people in our 70s. I turned 79 on the trip. We have never travelled together before, but have known each other for 40 years and separately have been to most of the usual and unusual European and American cities and to a wide range of Asian and mid-eastern countries. From the usually unseen mountain villages of Myanmar to the unknown vistas of Greenland. We thought we knew…and then we arrived in the Kingdom of Bhutan.
This is the only place either of us has been that is not abused by tourism — the number of people invited into the Kingdom each year is limited. The motto of the Tourism Commission is “High Value; Low Volume.” On the Windhorse Web site (www.WindHorseTours.com) we are urged to be travelers, not tourists. And it works.
All of the mechanics of the trip worked too. The breath-catching flight on Druk Airways into Paro. The hotels – the first one we stayed at in Paro, the Gantey, was a palace redone as a hotel and was hosting a wedding our second day there. Of course we were invited and with no fuss Jambay changed the itinerary to make it possible – the first of many changes to suit us and our needs – or the circumstances. The quality of our accommodations varied across the country, from basic farmhouse to luxurious resort. But all were clean, well-managed, (And yes with private bathrooms and good showers) and views that made us wake up and walk to our windows and marvel…clouds, mountains, the river and fields below.
The high points were the festivals, an important part of the religious and community life of each district, the Dzongs and lighting butter candles to help with our Karma, visiting a school and being invited to attend assembly, a visit to the home of the father of a Windhorse Manager high in the mountains on roads that really are not roads, a nunnery where a young woman was just entering, an explanation of crime — or no crime — in the district by the head of police who joined us for dinner. And ever and always the explanations by Jambay and others of the traditional art, religious and secular, and the Buddhist religion of Bhutan. In a country of only 700,000 people, we often found ourselves talking with friends, relatives, schoolmates of Jambay and Tenzin. The most helpful man sitting behind us at a festival? The Assistant Governor of the District and Jambay’s high school physics teacher. That girl learning to be a weaver in a craft school? Tenzin’s cousin. The monk who met us at one monastery in the East? A high school bad boy friend of Jambay’s. That police official? Another friend.
We know we were tourists – but we were invited into the Kingdom. Given glimpses of a way of life we can never really understand but came to appreciate. Our lives are enriched. We are deeply grateful to Windhorse, and especially to Jambay, even for the landslide that blocked our way along a mountain road. We are sure he and Windhorse arranged for that as well as for all the never-ending excitement and beauty of our journey.