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Subject: #3 Bhutan
Date: September 7, 2007 4:17:25 AM PDT

Hello All,

Writing from Bangkok after having walked probably 10 miles in the heat and humidity. So please forgive any lack of enthusiasm. It doesn't reflect Bhutan, just my fatigue.

After leaving N Korea and Beijing, i spent 7 days in the Kingdom of Bhutan, which is in the Himalayas north of India and bordering Tibet and Nepal. I traveled with a friend. As is required of most visitors to Bhutan, there's a hefty daily fee of approx. $200, which is all inclusive: car, driver, guide, hotels, meals, and entry fees. So really, it's not out of line. Reason for the hefty charge is to keep tourism from getting out of hand as it has in Nepal - a haven for low-budget backpackers. They had less than 2,000 tourists last year.

The king of Bhutan has been very forward-thinking in terms of growth, environmental policies, and education. There is no clear-cutting of forests - anything cut is replanted. Health care and education are free. English is taught in the schools and widely spoken. Many people attend university often outside of Bhutan. There is a serious commitment toward cultural preservation, including wearing traditional clothing in all government offices and tourism-related capacities. But most people wear traditional clothes in public. For men, it's a Gho, a silk coat-like garment that is belted and bloused to just above the knees and worn with knee socks and good shoes. The women's Kira is similar but comes to the ground and is worn with a silk jacket over the top.

Bhutan's population is primarily Buddhist, with some Hindus in the mix. There are monasteries and dzongs everywhere, many of which we visited. Our guide, Tsering, was very knowledgeable about all-things Buddhist (our driver Jigme had a masters in Buddhist studies). Every so often we were "tested" on what we learned. We actually got "templed out" after a while.

Bhutan has a population around 700,000 and is similar in size to Switzerland. It has an agriculture-based economy; we saw people packing apples for shipment to Bangladesh and rice is grown everywhere. Tourism is the third largest provider of foreign exchange. First is exporting hydro power to India. Bhutan has officially banned smoking in public places and it is illegal to sell tobacco though smoking does exist.

We spent time in three different towns: Paro, Thimpu, and Punakha. There is one main road running east/west through the country, with small branches running off it. The road is narrow and winding and the drivers are courteous, pulling over to pass each other. There was a road-widening project going on between Paro and Thimpu, all done by hand by guest workers from India and Nepal. Both men and women were breaking rocks with sledge hammers at the side of the road. It pays better than anything they could do in their own countries.

All of our hotels were quite decent; hot water, comfortable beds, and in-room tea service. The food was outstanding. Bhutanese enjoy spicy food and so do i. The specialty is chili-cheese, hot chilis cooked with a mild cheese that didn't really taste cheesy. You can see chilis drying on roofs all over the place. Lots of vegetables, red rice, noodles, chicken, beef, pork, fresh apples, bananas, and pineapple. My favorite dessert was fruit cocktail with fresh cream!

The towns are small, several blocks long and easy to get around the "downtown" areas. There were shops carrying goods for locals (food, plastic wear, etc), as well as souvenirs for tourists (silk fabric, hand-made paper, baskets).

We were lucky to see an archery championship in Thimpu. This was televised in Bhutan. The archers used compound bows made in Utah! The target is several hundred meters from where the archer stands and the crowd sat fairly close - putting a lot of trust in the accuracy of the marksmen. We never saw a bulls eye but people did hit the target frequently.

We visited a school of traditional arts in Thimpu where students learned to paint Buddhist religions artwork, carve wood, sculpt clay, and sew traditional clothing. Most of the buildings have some form of painting and there are plenty of religious sites that are often restored, so there's no shortage of work for these kids once they finish school

We also visited the traditional medicine clinic and exhibit where we saw herbs, minerals, and animal parts used in treating various ailments.

One of the highlights was a hike to Tiger's Nest monastery, about 3,000 feet above the town of Paro. This was the only day that the rain impacted us, though it drizzled a bit and rained at night throughout. The hike took us up through a forest and eventually to a scenic overlook from where we could view the monastery intermittently through the clouds. There was a steep stone stairway down then up leading to the monastery itself. Coming down was very slippery as the rain had gotten worse during the hike. It was warm enough, as it had been the whole time, just pretty wet on this day. We were at the trail head early and up and down before the majority of tourists started their hike. Most of them rode mules and ponies up part way and walked down, as it is too slippery to ride the animals down.

We really lucked out by traveling just before the peak season. Until the last day's hike, we didn't see more than 15 other tourists. We were alone at most of the hotels.

Bhutan really is an amazing place. It's an traditional culture trying hard to remain that way and at the same time allow its citizens the opportunity for education and growth.

My day and a half in Bangkok has been spent eating from the street restaurants - fantastic soup, hot & spicy. Also a wonderful Thai iced coffee, which really hit the spot after walking for miles. Food is dirt cheap and delicious!

There's a wonderful skytrain system here, sort of an above-ground subway, that is the fastest way to get across town. It's clean and air-conditioned. We took it in one direction and walked back the other way.

Heading home tomorrow. I'm looking forward to spending some time in the brand new airport, the newest and largest in the world. It's gorgeous! A thoroughly enjoyable trip!



Sheryl Shapiro is a freelance writer and photographer based in Boulder, CO.