Published: September 19th 2012September 16th 2012
The taxi driver to the airport to catch flight number 15 was a bit of a maniac. We were glad it was early on a Sunday morning so it was nice and quiet. In India outside Ladakh we have loved the architecture and enjoyed the company of some of the people we have met (both locals and 'tourists'), the colourfullness is nice and the chaos can be fun. The heat and humidity was manageable, it didn't kill us, but we would have enjoyed it far more if they were both cranked down 2 notches. And we don't mind paying tourist prices in poor countries (as long as they are reasonable) or being touted for business. But we hate the underlying dishonesty and being messed around, by no means is everyone like that but it is so common your guard has to be up the whole time and it is not conducive to meeting some genuine people.
After the amazing friendliness and helpfulness of the people in Burma and the well, general lack of people in Mongolia it was always going to be a very differnet experience, but that is why we went.
Bhutan is different again. A Himalayan kingdon (the youngest in the world) it controls tourism to protect its culture through a policy of high value and low impact (this equates to low volume) tourism and as a result has a reputation for being one of the most expensive and exclusive countries in the world to visit.
The many rules include a requirement to take at least one flight in or out of the country on Druk Air the national carrier and basically the only carrier. They have just expanded their fleet and have leased a third plane. You have to pre-book your tour through a Bhutanese tour agency who must apply for your visa for you at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Thimpu (the capital) who in turn checks you have completely paid for your trip (paying involves wiring money via the US to the National Bank of Bhutan, who passes it on to your agent). Payment checked and approval is issued to the tour operator who can then make the formal visa application. Visa issued the Ministry sends the application number to the tour operator and Druk Air. The airline will not issue tickets without a visa confirmation number.
However, it is most famous for charging $250 USD per day per person for the visa. This puts a lot of people off and sounds ridiculous but for the fact that you get everything - accommodation, food, entry tickets, a car and a driver and an approved guide. In theory once there you could spend nothing. That said it is still the most expensive counrty we have visited by a long way. There is a myth that you have to visit in a group on a set tour. You don't have to but you do have to pay more for a group of less than 3, though if you're like us you book directly with the Bhutanese tour operator they can waive that. We sent the tour company a list of the places we wanted to go, from that they developed the itinerary and made some suggestions.
A country where they have a national 'dry day' once a week, a weekly 'car free' day in the towns to protect the environment, where buying cigarettes is illegal, schooling and healthcare are free and Gross National Happiness not GDP is the guiding principle of economic growth. Is Bhutan really the last Shangri-La?