Entering the Kingdom of Bhutan without flying! And reaching Bangladesh.
Day 1,947 since October 10th 2013: 171 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home and min 24 hrs in each country.
(The opinions expressed on this site are my own, and do not reflect the position or policies of the Danish Red Cross)
I smile a lot. Especially on social media.
Social media will always be a manipulation of reality. If you find the right balance it might be okay though. While most media manipulates us to think that the world is on fire and we are approaching the end of the world…reality might be something else? I’ve done what I could over the years to show you the normality of the 171 countries I have now brought us too…including that people fall in love and get married no matter which conditions they face. People are just people.
I think I remember that it once wasn’t possible to enter Bhutan without flying unless you were Indian or Bhutanese? However that belongs to the past. Because all I did was contact an authorized travel agency and ask if I could cross the land border. They replied that I had two land border crossings available. So that was pretty easy. Bhutan is not at all a different country to visit. It is very straight forward. It is however pricy and not a backpackers destination at all. In 1974 the first international tourists were allowed into Bhutan by invite only. Today it’s fully open for tourism, but at the high cost of $250.00 a day per person (can be negotiated to $200.00). You must arrange all your travel through a government authorized tourist agency, but once you arrive everything is taken care of from food through to your transportation and guide. No visitor to Bhutan can arrive freely and travel independently. If you want to ride a motorcycle in Bhutan then you will be issued a special guide on a motorcycle. I first visited Bhutan in 2011 as a tourist and spent seven days in the mountainous country. And what a country!! Given my budget I was quite limited this time but however still had to pay $820.00 for two nights. That is three days of $250.00 plus some additional costs because a driver and a guide had to drive the five hours down to the Indian border and spend the night there in order to meet me in the morning.
Bhutan/India border. Indian side.
After some fairly rough travel with public transportation in India I reached Jaigaon which is the name for the Indian border town. Just across the border the Bhutanese call their town Phuentsholing. It is like two different worlds. The Indian side is noisy, crowded, cows roam about blocking traffic and eat garbage, people urinate in public, horns are honking and it all appears a little chaotic in comparison to the Bhutanese side. While I can’t name and exact book or movie I feel like I know a story about some protagonist from a hidden society who needs to go on a mission in the western world. Like some highly disciplined soldier of the emperor in the Forbidden City who needs to solve a task in the Wild West. Basically a story of when cultures clash. Well, I experienced something similar to that at the border. On January 31st I checked into a hotel room in Jaigaon which was just a few minutes walking distance from the border. I received a call from Mr. Chencho who was to be my guide in Bhutan. He wanted to meet with me and crossed the border to join me at my hotel. Mr. Chencho appeared nice a kind in his regular clothing and we planned how the following day would play out. Then he left me.
Bhutan/Indian border. Bhutanese side.
The next morning I met Mr. Chencho and the driver (Mr. Karma) who were both stylishly dressed in the Bhutanese traditional gho. It is mandatory to wear the national dress in Bhutan to schools, government buildings and on all formal occasions. The national dress is the gho for men and kira for women. It really adds to the atmosphere of visiting a foreign Himalayan kingdom! Bhutan is predominantly Buddhist which ands to a calm and controlled vibe. I met Mr. Chencho and Mr. Karma on the Indian side and looking at them in their gho and calm manor with their hands folded behind their backs was pretty cool. The service from them both was impeccable and as Mr. Chencho was guiding me across the busy Indian street an unfocused driver slowly rolled into the lower leg of Mr. Chencho which naturally surprised him but did not upset him. Someone else would have screamed their lungs out at the driver but that is not the way of the Bhutanese. It was truly like seeing to very elegant strangers misfitted into a very foreign country. However the border was just there less than a minute away. And Mr. Chencho was certainly no stranger to India as he had studied at an Indian University in the past. I was assisted with Immigration on both sides of the border. The car was clean and the fabric on the seats was unique. Whenever I needed to exit the car Mr. Chencho would open the door on my behalf and close it after me.
Two Bhutanese gentlemen in India.
Visiting Bhutan is such a delight. I still had all my project oriented work to do but it was a lot easier with top level service surrounding me at all times. You are basically chaperoned in Bhutan for various reasons. One reason is to secure more jobs to the 1 million Bhutanese that live in the country. Another reason is to ensure that a visit proceeds smoothly. North Korea is perhaps the only other country which requires visitors to be chaperoned. However there has to be a huge crowbar separation between how we perceive the two nations. I have never been to North Korea and now it will not be long before I take us there. However I can tell you that in Bhutan you are free to walk about in Thimphu which is the capital and you can freely interact and speak with anyone you want. Besides, the two nations do not appear to share any particular ideologies as far as I know. The Kingdom of Bhutan is the last remaining kingdom of the Himalayas and it was essentially disconnected from the outside world until the 1960s. Bhutan is then probably the only country where a King decided to install democracy then abdicated! There is a long list of interest facts about Bhutan such as the Bhutan Broadcasting Service only started television broadcasts in 1999, making Bhutan the last country in the world to introduce television. That has become a study case to see how television effects society. Bhutan is also possibly the only country in the world that is Carbon-negative, that is, it produces less Carbon Dioxide than it absorbs. This is partially thanks to the fact that factories are practically inexistent but also because Bhutan has it written in the Constitution that at least two thirds of the country must be covered in forests and that figure stands at 72% today. The environment and nature is held in very high regard – and it is stunning!
With Mr. Karma behind the wheels we steadily climbed up the mountain road towards Thimphu and the further we got from India the better the visibility got. Some say the mountain roads of Bhutan are dangerous. I say: “rubbish!” They appear perfectly fine to me although I cannot imagine the amount of money that must go into maintenance? Rocks do occasionally roll down from above and hit the roads. Landslides do occur. And the harsh seasonal weather is not to be underestimated. Generally I found the road conditions to be very good and you can top that off with the Bhutanese probably being some of the world’s most kind and considerate drivers. It is very hard to imagine road rage in Bhutan. It was overcast when we reached Thimphu and I had a hard time recognizing anything from my visit in 2011. Generally I find that I have a hard time remembering a lot of stuff. I figure my brain is pretty overwhelmed with more than five years of constant experiences and no time to process it within this perpetual journey. And just between you and I my level of empathy on a general level has been on a downwards spiral for the past year and has not shown any real sign of recovery. I spoke to my father about it several months ago and I hope that I will make a full recovery once the Saga ends and get time to process all of what I have seen and experienced.
Mr. Chencho was convinced that I must have visited several of the sights he took me too in 2011 when I first came to Bhutan. I honestly had a hard time remembering if it was the case. Revisiting Bhutan was much like trying to remember a dream. In 2011 I was working in Bangladesh and eloped to Bhutan for seven days with my good friend Silas from Norway. We used to work on the same project back then. He did design and I did logistics. We were expats and made a fair bit of money back then so paying for it all was no problem. And as we were young and alive we also dove pretty deep into the amazing Bhutanese beer every night which might have something to do with me not remembering as much from 2011 as I would have liked too. A three start hotel is the absolute minimum a tourist can be offered and the one Mr. Chencho brought me too was perfect. I had a hot shower, a nice dinner and went to sleep in a big comfortable bed.
Mr. Chencho in his gho.
The following day we followed the schedule as planned. The sky was blue and that is in my opinion the best way to see Bhutan. It is a beautiful country as it is but under a blue sky it becomes breath taking. While going between two sights I got curious and asked about funeral customs of Bhutan. I don’t know why? It just popped into my mind. Mr. Chencho explained that it was customary to cremate (burn) the remains of those who passed. However in the past there were also sky burials and water burials. In sky burials a body would be brought to a mountain and cut into pieces so birds could feed upon it. Water burials would be the practice of leaving a body in a river so the fish could dispose of it. In today’s cremation practices the body is placed in position where the legs are bent and the head is pushed between the knees. However in order to do that some bones need to be broken so there is a person who does that. Then the body is placed in a hole of some sort and burned. Some remains of bones and ashes are afterwards used in rituals in order to complete the send-off. How amazing is that? I am glad that I asked as this practice really intrigues me and shows me how different our customs can be. The practise of cutting down trees to create firewood for the cremation is slowly being replaced by incinerating the remains under a gas fire. The younger generations lean towards that. You’d also be surprise how quickly Bhutan has placed smartphones in every hand and flat screens across most rooms. Selfies is as big a part of daily life in Bhutan as anywhere else. However I do find that Bhutan has successfully found a way to embrace a modern world while holding on to the countries traditions and customs.
Thimphu early morning cleaning.
Thimphu early morning.
In Bhutan it is not uncommon to eat rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I love my red rice with chilly and cheese! (I had it three times).
The Bhutan Red Cross Society is very special!! It was established in 2016 but remains to be recognized officially by the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross). That is basically just a formality at this point. I met with Lham Dorji who is the program officer and with Dragyel Tenzin Dorjee who is the Secretary General. They came to meet me at my hotel and Lham stayed to have dinner with me. Busy men both of them!! Dragyel had just returned from being 16 days on the road and Lham from 13. Things are happening in the world’s newest national society and it is all happening fast! They already have 593 volunteers and that number could quickly jump to 7-800 as they expand into more districts. A great asset for the Bhutan Red Cross is their president is Her Majesty Jetsun Pema who is the queen consort (Druk Gyaltsuen, literally meaning "Dragon Queen") of Bhutan, and the wife of King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck. The royal family of Bhutan is held in very high regard and to have her majesty as the president of the Red Cross is absolutely amazing. It is in fact also in line with ancient traditions of the Red Cross across its beginnings in Europe where kings, queens and nobility would support the Red Cross in various ways including providing buildings which in some cases still remain headquarters of some national societies. Having Bhutan joining the family means that the movement is now in 191 nations across our spinning blue dot. That is nearly global representation. There will be much for the Red Cross to do in Bhutan which is subject to landslides, floods, earthquakes and a number of other natural disasters. However in these early days dissemination plays a major role as Bhutan first and foremost needs to understand what the Red Cross is and how it helps the most vulnerable people in society. First aid is a corner stone in the work of national societies across every country. In Bhutan they are furthermore engaged in livelihood projects and providing social services. As such they have already been active in dealing with youth problems and giving vocational skills to those in need so they can adapt to society. It is really quite heart-warming. Luck is for those who don’t know what they are doing (someone told me that). So just keep on keeping on Bhutan Red Cross!! You’ve got this one!
From left to right: Lham Dorje, yours truly, Dragyel Tenzin Dorjee.
Just to enlighten those who might now think that the Red Cross Red Crescent (RC) is for weak countries I would have to say that it is as far from the truth as you could get. Since 191 countries have the RC performing humanitarian work I say that already contradicts such a statement. The RC will in many ways make any country stronger and more complete than what it already is. The RC aims to alleviate the suffering of the most vulnerable people and by doing so a nation grows. Bhutan is a highly unique country in many ways and the government and royal family already takes very good care of the population. It is the first country to switch from the western ideal of Gross National Product to “Gross National Happiness,” which is achieved through four foundations: good governance, natural environment, sustainable growth, and cultural values. Bhutan definitely has one of my favourite flags (there is a dragon on it) and the locals often refer to Bhutan as “Druk Yul” which means Dragon Land.
Gangkhar Puensum is the highest mountain in Bhutan (not in this photo) and a strong candidate for the highest unclimbed mountain in the world with an elevation of 7,570 meter (24,836 ft). Its name means "White Peak of the Three Spiritual Brothers". It lies on the border with Tibet.
There is no end to the incredible stories of deities, gods and lamas. I know a few but I’m not going to fill this entry with them. However as Bhutan is somewhat notorious for its phallus depictions on buildings, water fountains and figurines of penises I will enlighten you a bit on that. These stories stem back to Lama Drukpa Kunley (1455–1529), also known as the Devine Madman. He was a Buddhist monk and missionary in the Tibetan Mahamudra tradition, as well as a famous poet. He is cited for having used his erect penis to set girls on the path to enlightenment. There is also a story where Lama Drukpa Kunley tied a holy string given by a monk around his penis instead of his neck - and then urinated on a scroll painting in a monastery. If fact the stories of Lama Drukpa Kunley are plentiful!
2011: Silas gets dressed in his gho (yes, we each bought one).
2011: Silas and I sporting our gho's. We wore them every day for a week.
2011: Phunakha Dzong.
2011: Silas and Paro Taktzang (Tigers Nest).
2011: The incredible Takin. The Takin only lives in Bhutan and goes with some fascinating legendary stories.
2011: My favorite picture. Silas and I at Phunaka Dzong.
The extraordinary and the ordinary appears intertwined across the Kingdom of Bhutan where breath taking views and parked cars meet. Spirits and dragons are as big a part of Bhutan’s legends as it is when the conversation falls on Game of Thrones. For some it’s hard to find a good job while others can’t believe how lucky they are. Mouths to feed including one’s own and everyone has a selfie to take. For a country which was isolated just 60 years ago the progress is thundering forward while the dragons observe from the snowcapped mountains. What a country!! And then it was time to leave.
I've spotted Maersk in 168 of 171 countries. And if this counts then 169 ;)
Guess which sticker won the competition? Three of them can now be found in Bhutan.
Mr Chencho who was a formidable guide and great conversationalist opened the car door for me and I entered “my car” with Mr. Karma behind the wheel. Mr. Karma used to be a policeman and pursued that career for decades before taking a profession up in personal security and now chauffeuring me about. Down the Himalayas we went in order to ensure that I would catch the bus from Jaigaon to Siliguri on my way to bing-bong-Bangladesh. As we approached the lowlands where Bhutan has elephants, tigers, fresh fruit and vegetables the air also began to get foggy. I was assisted through immigration on both sides of the border and re-entering India (as amazing as the country is) appeared dramatically chaotic in comparison to what I had just left behind. I then embarked the 26 hours of pretty miserable public transportation with five busses and several rickshaws. I cannot deny that I am fairly fed up with this project which I have created. There are certainly moments of joy however here behind the curtains you may often find a man who does not smile and often wonders how to overcome all the work which constantly piles up. I am not a tourist, I’m not on a gap year, I am not doing this for fun and I likely work harder and longer hours than most people I know. Is it worth it? I don’t really know? I certainly hope it is to you. And in the long run I do hope I along with those I care about will benefit greatly from this highly full bodied project. However it is a gamble if I will not succeed to sell it right to the public. Nah…I think it will work out ;)
Back in India. Such a contrast!
Back in Bangladesh will be the next blog on next Friday. I used to work in Bangladesh throughout all of 2011 and that was quite a year! However this is 2019 and much has changed. Some for the better and some for the worse. And thankfully much has also remained the same. In just a few days I managed to meet some old friends, speak at Arla’s annual family day, make a full presentation at Nordic Club and the list goes on. However that will go into next week’s Friday Blog. And that one will probably be written in Myanmar as this one was written at a desk in Dhaka, Bangladesh. People are just people. A stranger is a friend you’ve never met before. Let’s keep on keeping on!!! ;)
Yeah - what I do is "so much fun".
Once Upon A Saga