Saturday, November 25th 2017.

Destinations

BHUTAN …..
NEPAL FOR THE JET SET?

By Anja De Haen, Head of MICE BeLux, BCD Travel Groups Department

Many call it “The Last Shangri-La”, for others it is “The Last Place on the Roof of the World” and locals know it as “Druk Yul”, The Land of the Thunder Dragon. Lonely Planet however, simply refers to it as “Nepal for the Jet Set”… 

And that last one got me quite confused. How does one match “Paradise” with “Jet Set”? So when the opportunity arose to join the first ever “Belgians only” fam trip to Bhutan, hosted by Jet Airways (www.jetairways.com) and Orient Express Travels & Tours (www.orientexpressltd.com), I took my chance to put this statement to the test.

 

 

Of course I wanted to prepare myself for the trip and gather some background information, so I started reading. But for some particular reason, I never got any further than the true basics – which can be captured as follows: “The landlocked and geographically isolated country of Bhutan is situated along the southern slopes of the Himalaya, bounded by Tibet in the north and by India on all other sides. It is a rather small country, with a size of only about 47.000 km² and a mainly Buddhist population of hardly 650.000 inhabitants. It also is a relatively young country; the hereditary monarchy was only established in 1907 and it took until the second half of the 20th century before it started adapting to modern times. Roads were only built in the 1960’s, TV and internet only reached the country in 1999 and only in 2008 – after 100 years of hereditary monarchy – Bhutan became a democracy with a National Council, a National Assembly, a Constitution and a King as Head of State.” The rest, I decided, I wanted to experience firsthand! So…

On the morning of February 2nd, a bunch of Incentive and Special Interest Travel organizers met at Brussels Airport at 07.30 am. Amongst the “Happy Few”: Anne Cormond of Preference, Claire Massart of Incentive Destinations, Didier Schmidt of In Search of Excellence, Tine Algoet of Mind & Motion, Vicky Deschepper of Escape, Wilfried Corten of Omnia, Yannick Bertels of Ycare and myself. Our hosts Mathias Meere (Jet Airways) and Michel Van Caster (Orient Express Travels and Tours) informed us that Caroline Schanzer and Georges Rivel of HRG, as well as the Poddar family of Orient Express would join us the next morning in Delhi.
 
After a smooth check-in, some nice F&B at the Jet Airways Lounge and a comfortable 7½ hour flight in economy class, we arrived in Delhi. Because of the late hour, the welcome drink (a choice of gin tonic or whiskey cola) was served during the coach transfer to the hotel. Served in plastic cups because of safety regulations, but still very tasteful – and a nice introduction to the Indian hospitality! A short nap and a quick breakfast at the Delhi Ramada Plaza (www.ramadaplazadelhi.com) later, we found ourselves back at the Indira Gandhi International Airport to board our early morning Druk Air flight to Paro.

Druk Air (www.drukair.com.bt) is Bhutan’s national carrier and, until today, the only commercial airline that is allowed to operate flights into the country. The company has a fleet of four aircraft and services limited destinations only; Bangkok, New Delhi and Kathmandu being the most important ones.

If there is one flight where you absolutely want to grab a seat on the left had side of the airplane, it definitely is the one from Delhi to Paro! Never in my life have I enjoyed more dazzling views: a ruby red sunrise, sapphire blue skies and sparkling white snow-capped Himalayan peaks, including Mount Everest. A magical prelude to what we were about to discover over the next few days...

When we disembarked from the aircraft and stepped onto the tarmac of Paro airport – currently Bhutan’s only airport – we got overwhelmed by the cool, crisp and clean fresh mountain air. A delight! It took a while to have our passports checked at immigrations, to pick up our luggage and to clear customs, but nobody seemed to mind. After all, we were in Bhutan!

Right outside the airport building, our guide welcomed us following the “Tashi Khaddar” tradition – draping a white shawl over our shoulders for good luck – and invited us to board a comfortable 20-seater coach, our main means of transportation for our discovery of West-Bhutan, or at least part of it.

The distance between Paro and Thimphu, the nation’s capital, is only about 65 km, but the drive took us a mere 1½ hours. Not because of the road’s conditions – they were excellent – but because of its shape: a rather narrow and winding road with one sharp curve right after the other. No harm done however, this allowed us to soak up the first impressions of the landscape: arid valleys with scrub vegetation, gentle slopes with terraced rice fields and strands of conifer trees, all softly embraced by the surrounding mountains. I started feeling Zen already!

The Kingdom of Bhutan consists of 20 Dzongkhags or administrative districts and because Paro and Thimphu both are located in different ones, we needed to halt at the district boundary to have our papers checked. It was just a basic formality, handled smoothly by our guide and driver, but it felt like a journey back in time. Was this really how we crossed the border between Belgium and France in the old days?

Upon arrival in Thimphu, we immediately realized that it is unlike most capital cities: not a single sky scraper to be seen and all buildings, including the petrol pump, constructed according to the typical Bhutanese style. The city doesn’t even have any traffic lights! Well… There used to be one at the entrance of the town, but the locals considered it to be too impersonal and so it was removed. Incoming and outgoing traffic now again is directed by a gentle policeman standing inside a brightly decorated gazebo and employing elegant – but sometimes exaggerated – gestures to guide mopeds, cars and trucks in any possible direction.

Somewhere along Thimphu’s main street, we arrived at Hotel Taj Tashi (www.tajhotels.com), (for a visual tour of the hotel, www.photowebasia.com) our home away from home for the next two nights. “Incentive and Special Interest Travel Organizers deserve a special welcome”, the hotel management must have thought. As we pulled up the hotel’s drive way, a variety of musicians and dancers in folkloric costumes were giving it their best; a nice and colorful demonstration of traditions!

Hotel Taj Tashi is a five star property, built in traditional style. It offers 66 elegant and spacious rooms and suites, all luxuriously decorated with dark wooden floors, marble bathrooms and hand painted murals. Together with the inviting spa, the indoor swimming pool, the fitness room, the elegant meeting facilities and the renowned gourmet dining, they definitely put the property in the top 5 of Bhutan’s premium hotel list.

It was still early but our rooms were ready, so we checked in and could enjoy some free time before lunch. Some of us took a nap, while others used the hotel’s spa. Tine and I however, decided to go for a walk through town to get the local feel.

Thimphu has been the nations’ capital since 1955, and although the Bhutanese refer to it as “a bustling town on the banks of the Thimphu Chhu”, our walk rather felt like a stroll through a small countryside village: one rather busy main street – lined with local shops, restaurants and rest houses – and a bunch of smaller quiet alleys crossing them, weaving up into the wooded hillsides surrounding the city. And the people in the streets only emphasized that feeling, the majority of them being dressed in beautiful local attire. The official dress for Bhutanese men is known as “gho”, a knee-length robe tied at the waist by a fabric belt, while women wear ankle-length dresses or “kiras”, secured by a woven belt around the waist and fastened at the shoulders with silver brooches called “koma”. A long-sleeved blouse, “wonju” is worn underneath the “kira” and a jacket called “tego” goes on top. Together with the monks dressed in red and the youngsters in jeans, they made for quite an interesting display.

At certain moments, we just halted to take in the wealth of impressions: pastel painted buildings decorated with beautiful wood carvings, little lumber stores with open windows, colorful vegetables stalls, clean but bloody butcher shops, men playing Carrom (a popular local tabletop game, kind of a combination of billiards and table shuffleboard), women hanging laundry to dry on their balconies, children happily running up and down the streets… And dogs everywhere, too many to count!

It was during one of those quiet moments that I suddenly felt dizzy. A light head and senseless legs soon followed. I could not be drunk; I had not touched a single glass of alcohol! And then it came to me: I was suffering from a mild type of AMS – Acute Mountain Sickness. After all, Thimphu is located at 2350m above sea level. This meant that I was supposed to rest (yeah right!) and drink a lot of water (OK, can do!).

After a nice buffet lunch at the hotel, it was time for the official discovery of Thimphu. Our first stop was The Folk and Heritage Museum, a restored three-storied traditional building which dates back to the mid 19th century and portrays the daily family life in the Thimphu valley in the old days – kind of a “Miniature Bokrijk”. It was also our first introduction to the importance of phalluses in Bhutanese culture. A little weird to us, Westerners, but In Bhutan, they are commonly seen painted on, or carved in, the exterior walls of rural homes to ward off evil spirits and negative energies. Others however claim that they are used to bless the residents with fertility. I guess the occupants can pick whichever explanation suits them best!

We then continued to The National Memorial Chorten. This sacred shrine or stupa dates back to 1974 and was built in memory of the nation’s Third King (today, Bhutan is at its Fifth...). It was fascinating to watch the local people walk around it in clockwise direction – over and over again – some praying, others just talking amongst each other.

Our next stop was at the National Textile Museum, to learn more about major weaving techniques, styles of local dress and a wide variety of textiles typical for Bhutan. Unfortunately, we did not get much information about the displays so the importance of the museum passed by us completely. Too bad!

The city tour was concluded with a visit to Tashichho Dzong, the “Fortress of the Glorious Religion”, which is Bhutan’s administrative and religious centre.


Before entering the grounds of this gorgeous white and heavily decorated building, our guided added a “kabney” to his traditional attire, a three meter long white scarf with fringes, worn over the left shoulder and draped diagonally over the body to be knotted on the right side. This ceremonial scarf is mandatory when visiting a spiritual site or attending an official function and its color indicates the person’s rank: white for private citizens, red for officials and yellow for the King – amongst others.

Tashichho Dzong houses the Throne room of His Majesty the King, the ministries, the nation’s largest monastery and the headquarters of the country’s spiritual leader, known as His Holiness Je Khenpo – which is a title, not a name. Unfortunately, we were only allowed to visit the inner court yard and the main prayer hall.

Later that evening, we enjoyed pré-dinner cocktails and canapés at the cozy hotel bar. Somewhere along our conversations, we tried to rate the past day and realized it was not at all easy to put our feelings to words. We finally came to the conclusion that the day had been a truly wonderful experience but that somewhere along the road, we had missed out on the true incentive feeling – something I always refer to as “the belly feeling” (don’t ask…). Our hosts and the entire hotel management reassured us however, being absolutely convinced that we would definitely discover the incentive value of Bhutan in the next few days ahead. We decided to wait and see, and after a nice buffet dinner at the hotel’s restaurant – which for some of us also included an extra night cap at the bar – we retired early.

A 6.30 wake-up call, a 7.15 breakfast and an 8.00 departure - that was the start of our second day in Bhutan. On the program: a full day excursion to the Punakha region.

After about an hours’ drive, up the hills and along the 3088m high Dochula Pass, we arrived at the district boundary between the Thimphu and Punakha Dzongkhas. We took advantage of this stop to get out of the coach, stretch our legs and enjoy the rural scenery: wooded hillsides, small farmhouses and local ladies selling dried cheese and fruits.

A short drive later we arrived at the top of the Pass and excited with anticipation, we disembarked to admire the stunning panoramas of the great Himalayan peaks we had been promised. A bummer! Thick and heavy low hanging clouds blocked the entire view and there was absolutely nothing to be seen.
Fortunately, there still were the Druk Wangyel Chortens to discover – a collection of one hundred and ten chortens (or stupas) standing in the middle of the road, surrounded by innumerous prayer flags. From a quiet spot, I gazed at the colorful but yet serene composition in front of me.

The building of the chortens was initiated by the Queen of Bhutan when her husband, the Fourth King, led his army against Indian intruders in 2003, who had set up numerous camps in the South East of the country and were using Bhutanese territory to launch hit and run attacks on targets in India as part of their separatist agenda. The thought of war was very disturbing to the peace-loving people of Bhutan and the Queen picked this spot as the site for the construction of stupas as a visible symbol of prayers to the Gods to protect the country. And obviously, it worked, as the King and his army succeeded in destroying more than thirty camps and making the intruders leave the country.

An interesting story indeed, but it was the prayer flags that impressed me even more. There seemed to be millions of them, in a variety of colors, and moving gently in the light breeze as if spreading their blessings on all of us.

Too soon, we had to board the coach again to continue our journey downwards into the Punakha Valley. The ever winding road took us through thick forests, along sloping rice terraces and passing tiny villages, where it seemed as if time had stood still. By now, the skies had cleared and the views were absolutely stunning! So stunning even, that we asked our coach driver to make a photo stop every few hundred meters or so – which he joyfully did!

It was almost noon when we finally arrived in Punakha, the city that served as capital of Bhutan until 1955. But what we were about to discover absolutely made up for the long journey: Punakha Dzong, standing majestically at the junction of the rivers Pho Chu and Mo Chu. The so called “Palace of Happiness” is a massive structure that dates back to the 17th century and is known to be the country’s most beautiful fortress. Punakha still is the winter headquarters of the central body of monks and the Je Khempo resides here close to six months of the year. Furthermore, the Dzong is held in reverence because it holds the embalmed body of the Zhabdung – one of Bhutan’s most charismatic and influential leaders – who died here in 1651. His remains are enshrined in one of the temples of the Dzong and only the King and two caretakers are allowed to enter.

Today’s buffet lunch was set up at the restaurant of the Damchen Resort (www.damchenresort.com), a standard hotel on the banks of the Punakha River. Didier, who likes it hot – his food that is… – ordered some chili sauce to spice up his noodles, but instead received a plate of “Ema Datchi”, the national dish, which is a stew of green chilies and cheese. We all gave it a try, but only few of us actually enjoyed the country’s favorite and instead went for a second portion of… French Fries, believe it or not!

After a quick site inspection of the resort (35 nice and simple rooms, a bright meeting room, a large restaurant, a cozy bar and lush gardens along the river), it was time to continue our journey. We crossed the river and followed an off road track into the hills towards Wangdiphodrang to explore the Dzong of the same name, located on top of a high ridge and offering fantastic views over the river valley below. Unlike other sites we had visited so far, the alley leading up to the main entrance of this fortress was bustling with activity: craftsmen cutting and chopping wood, others carving and painting nice decorative elements. It soon became clear why: the Wangdiphodrang Dzong is in bad shape and absolutely requires some major renovation! But still, it was quite interesting to explore – if not only for the contrast with the glorious Punakha Dzong we visited earlier that day!

As we were running short on time, we unfortunately had to skip the planned visit to the town’s local market and immediately started our 3½ hour drive back to Thimphu. A few kilometers outside of Wangdiphodrang, some major construction was going on and when asked about it, our guide laconically told us that a new city was being built. Just like that. “This seems like a cool spot, let’s put a new city here!”

And then it was time to close our eyes and enjoy a well-deserved siesta. Not much to be missed anyway, as we had to drive back the same way we came in. Just before reaching Druk Wangyel Chortens again, we stopped for coffee and tea at the Dochula Cafetaria. The ideal moment to try another local specialty: salted yak butter tea, also known as “suja”. I kind of liked it, but it tasted more like soup rather than tea to me!

In the evening, dinner was served at the Orchid Restaurant, located on the third floor of a low storied apartment building in the center of Thimphu and renowned for its excellent local food. We started off the evening with “ara” (home brewed alcohol) accompanied by the typical local snack “zaw” (toasted rice) and cold fried vegetables. We also got to try a cup of typical soup and a wide variety of other local dishes – of course including the “Ema Datshi” again – nicely displayed on a buffet. A delicious dinner indeed!

Before we left the hotel the next morning, we got ourselves involved in an animated discussion with the hotel management about the development of tourism in their country.

Bhutan only cautiously opened its doors to foreign visitors in 1974 and made a decision to follow a policy of “high value, low volume” tourism to limit the number of visitors and to protect itself from the negative effects of mass tourism on the country’s fragile culture, heritage and environment – Nepal being its best example of how tourism should not be managed. There is no restriction on visitor numbers; however, there is a minimum daily tariff fixed by the government.

Today, each foreign visitor is required to spend a minimum of US$200 per day. This amount includes basic accommodation on twin shared basis, food, local transportation, services of guides and porters and cultural programs. It also covers a US$65 tax, which is used by the government to fund free education and health services for all its citizens and to upgrade the country’s infrastructure. The rate applies uniformly, irrespective of the location you are visiting or the type of accommodation you have booked. This means that, in case of overbooking, you might get walked to another hotel of lesser quality, without having any recourse.

Apart from the airfare, visa, insurance and beverages that are not included in the daily tariff, there are endless potential options to individualize your itinerary but also cost quite some extra money: expert guides, special permits, luxury vehicles, cultural shows, courses and classes, special food and premium accommodation. Staying at a five star property for example requires an extra fee of at least $ 150.00 per person per day.

That’s the situation as it is right now, unless something has changed since the beginning of February. After all, it seems that since late 2009, the cabinet has issued a series of executive orders – based on a McKinsey Plan for tourism – to completely change the country’s tourism policy.
This plan is centered around nine initiatives, of which abolishing the minimum package and liberalizing tariffs are the most important ones. The main goal of this plan is to increase the number of tourists visiting the country to 100.000 by the year 2012.
Knowing that Bhutan only received 5000 tourists in 2005 and 24.000 in 2009, the questions of course remain if the nation is ready for this growth and what will be its direct and indirect effects on the country. The plan also requires a total upgrading of the current hospitality infrastructure. And instead of going down, tourist rates will go up! If this plan really gets accepted, optimizing the inflow of tourist dollars will become one of the major tasks of the government.
All of a sudden, Lonely Planet’s statement started to make sense…

I left the hotel with a bitter feeling. A short while later however, when strolling around the lively Thimphu weekend market, the friendly farmers who proudly offered their goods for sale made me forget all about Bhutan’s tourism policy.
Little did they care about tourism policies; this was their reality, this was what counted for them, so why would I let the bitter aftertaste of our discussion ruin my day?

By the time we reached the National Library, I was completely back on track; back to realizing how fortunate I was to actually being in Bhutan. The library, located in a beautiful building, holds a vast collection of Buddhist texts and manuscripts, some dating back several hundred years, as well as the world’s largest published book – roughly measuring 1,5m x 2,1m and containing gorgeous illustrations of Bhutan.

On our way from Thimphu to Paro, we paid a visit to Simthoka Dzong, the oldest fortress of the country and home to the School of Buddhist studies. As we were about to leave, we got called back inside and were invited into the main prayer hall to attend a ceremony. Quietly, we all gazed at the serene scene developing in front of us. A truly unforgettable experience! But suddenly, a ringing cell phone abruptly brought us back to reality. One of the praying monks stood up, took his mobile from under his cape and stepped out of the hall to answer his phone. Maybe it was a Buddha calling?

Under the pretext of making a sanitary stop, we halted at the Treasure Cottages of Terma Linca (www.termalinca.com). An excellent plan, I must admit, and not only because of the restrooms! I immediately fell in love with this small premium resort. Its 30 spacious rooms artfully unite traditional architecture and modern design, while its location – away from the city center and on the banks of the Wangchu River – offers exhilarating views of the surrounding nature. A jewel!

For the two following nights, reservations had been made at Hotel Zhiwa Ling (www.zhiwaling.com), a premium 45-room resort situated a few kilometers outside the city center of Paro. It gently combines the traditions of a fine Bhutanese guesthouse with the modern facilities that are expected by demanding 21st Century travelers. We entered the hotel lobby and were overwhelmed by the beauty of the elaborate hand-carved wooden decorations and the masterful stonework. If Terma Linca is a jewel, Zhiwa Ling is a diamond!

After a quick buffet lunch and an even quicker check-in, we were back on the road – ready to discover what Paro had to offer. And we did not get disappointed.

We started off with a visit to Ta Dzong. Originally constructed as a watch tower for the defense of Rinpung Dzong, it now houses the country’s National Museum. It holds a vast collection of arts, relics, religious paintings, handicrafts, costumes and armour and provides a good insight into the rich culture and traditions of Bhutan.

Next on the list was a refreshing walk down the trail to Rinpung Dzong (commonly known as Paro Dzong) itself. The “Fortress on a Heap of Jewels” dates back to the mid 17th century and was built to defend Paro Valley from invasions by Tibet. It survived an earthquake in 1897 and was heavily damaged by a fire in 1907, but got beautifully restored right afterwards. Many scenes of the 1993 movie “Little Buddha”, starring Keanu Reeves, were filmed here. On one of the Dzong’s inner courts, a little monk was selling good luck charms and I guess we made his day! Later on that evening, we were still having had good laughs about our purchases, as some of us seemed to not only have bought amulets to wear off bad spirits, but charms to call upon fertility as well...

The last visit on our list for the day was the most impressive one: Kychu Lhakhang. Known as one of the oldest and most sacred temple complexes in the kingdom, it consists of two temples inside a low-walled courtyard; and although both temples look almost identical, they were built thirteen centuries apart. The first temple was constructed in the 7th century by Songtsen Gampo, a Buddhist Tibetan King. Legend has it, that a giant demoness lay across the whole area of Tibet and the Himalayas and was preventing the spread of Buddhism. To overcome her, King Songtsen Gampo ordered the building of 108 temples, which would be placed on all the points of her body to pin her down and stop her evil deeds. Kychu Lhakhang is the temple that was built over her very left foot. The second temple was only constructed in 1968 and is dedicated to Guru Padmasambhava and his teachings. The site simply breathed serenity and again, I felt grateful to actually being in Bhutan.

That evening we attended a cultural show, allowing us an insight into the importance of performing arts in the daily life of the Bhutanese. After all, Bhutan is a country of festivals, with music and dances being the main ingredients. The demonstration included colorful and well choreographed religious mask dances, as well as a variety of folk dances and songs. This short demonstration was a real treat to the eye and the ear, so imagine what attending an actual festival must be like! I only regretted that we were requested to join in for the last dance. To me, it completely ruined the true intention of the performance and turned it into some kind of funfair attraction. But maybe I got it all wrong and was the invitation a simple act of hospitality…

We continued the evening with a private cocktail and relaxed dinner at the hotel, followed by a good night’s sleep, as the next day promised to be a very special one, but also a very heavy one. We were going to take a hike up to Tiger’s Nest!

Tiger’s Nest, also known as Taktsang Monastery, is Bhutan’s most revered temple, perched on the side of a 900m cliff above the Paro Valley. The story goes that in the 8th century, Guru Padmasambhava – a renowned tantric Saint from northern India, who brought Buddhism to Tibet – flew here on the back of a tigress, to meditate in a cave where Taktsang now stands. Hence the name Tiger’s Nest.

Until today, I still can’t find the right words to express how overwhelming the trek to Takstang Monastery really was.
We left the hotel around eight that morning and arrived at the car park at the base of the climb a little before nine. The walk started gently through some woodland and passing a charming water-driven prayer wheel that rang out each time the wheel knocked against a bell. So far so good…

But then started the hike up a continual incline, beginning at about 2600m and all the way up to 3300m in the sky. Before taking off, we had agreed to walk at our own pace. Fortunately! The more sportive members of our group joyfully marched on, while the ones in lesser physical shape took it slowly, taking a break every few meters to catch their breath, pretending to admire the views – although Tiger’s Nest was absolutely not in sight yet!

The first landmark on the climb came after about 45 minutes when I reached a small water fountain. There it was, far away in the distance, the majestic monastery! I could do nothing but stare at it in wonder.

A short walk later, we arrived at a colorful prayer wheel, surrounded by thousands of prayer flags. We had made it to the so-called cafeteria view point! The hike had taken us about one hour and we arrived only 15 minutes after the rest of our little group. I was breathless, but so was almost everyone around me. And it was not just the spectacular views that had stolen our breath; the steep hike, the high altitude and the thin air had a lot to do with it as well!

Reunited again, we all enjoyed a very welcome cup of tea and some biscuits, with Tiger’s Nest watching over us from high above. But then the inevitable question arose: who wants to continue? Our guide explained that from the cafeteria, it was still a long climb to reach the second view point. From there we would need to head down several hundred stone steps, cross a waterfall and then climb up a few hundred steps more to actually arrive at the monastery.

The bravest amongst us took off immediately, while Tine and I hesitated. But having come so far, we couldn’t really back out, so we set off. I began the second half of the hike with good intentions but I soon found myself struggling to breathe again and I told Tine to go ahead without me. At first, she refused and promised me one spectacular view after the other as an incentive for not giving up – but then she realized her efforts were of no use and continued her walk alone. After she had left, I decided I would keep taking slow steps just to see how far I could go. Step-by-step, walking more slowly than I can ever remember, I kept moving ahead, stopping often to catch my breath. But then, all of a sudden, the second phase of the hike flattened out into a winding path and I rose up my pace. Maybe I could still catch up with the others…

Suddenly, I arrived at the second view point and there I stood, eye-to-eye with Tiger’s Nest – it seemed like I could almost reach out and touch it. As I stood there – all by myself – I started to cry.  Overcome with the beauty and perhaps exhaustion, I was humbled by what had been built atop this granite mountain.

And then I saw the others, standing on one of the terraces of the monastery hanging from the rock cliff on the other side of the gorge. I waved at them and they signaled back enthusiastically, encouraging me to continue the last part. I looked down on all the steps that were still to come, took a deep breath and started descending the flight of stairs. But then I slipped, gazed down in a fathomless depth and froze in panic. With pain in my heart, I had to admit that this was not my piece of cake and called it the day. I carefully climbed the short way back up to the viewpoint and quietly sat down on a piece of rock, allowing intense emotions to rush through my body, while tears flowed heavily… I would have given a fortune, if it would only have allowed me to hang on to my state of mind of that particular moment for the rest of my life… I finally had encountered myself again!

It was way passed noon, when we all gathered at the parking lot again. The short transfer back to the hotel was a rather quiet one, as we all tried to put our impressions into the right perspective.

After lunch I treated myself to a wonderful massage and I soon was back to being my normal self, ready to try some typical sports and games: archery and darts. Archery is Bhutan’s national sport, but it differs completely from our standards in terms of target distance and general atmosphere. Traditional Bhutanese archery is a social event and competitions are held regularly on all kinds of occasions – always accompanied by an abundance of food and drinks as well as singing and dancing. When it comes to the game itself, two targets are placed 140m apart from each other and teams shoot from one end of the field to the other. Khuru or “giant darts” are played with heavy wooden darts, pointed with a 10cm long nail, which are thrown at a target 10m to 20m away. After a short demonstration, we were invited to give both sports a try… Needless to say that none of us actually hit one single target!

We continued our afternoon with a visit to a local farmhouse. The “woman of the house” proudly showed us around her a three-storied home with stalls for livestock on the ground floor, storage space on the first floor and the living quarters and the shrine-room on the second floor. She and her family looked so happy, although – through our eyes – they seemed to have so little. No doubt this had something to do with GNH – Gross National Happiness.

Bhutan’s principle of Gross National Happiness became the country’s philosophy of economic and social development in 1972, when the Fourth King announced it to be far more important than the Gross National Product. The heart of this concept states that economic growth is not an end in itself, but rather a means to achieve more important ends. It’s all about harmonizing economic progress with the spiritualand emotional well-being of the people.
The policy is based on four pillars, being: equitable and sustainable socio-economic development, preservation and promotion of culture, conservation of environment and promotion of good governance. And it seems to have worked: Bhutan experienced a rather quick development over the last couple of decades, but indeed with a minimum impact on its culture and environment. In 2005, a survey was conducted in the country to measure the level of happiness and 45% of the Bhutanese reported to be very happy, 52% was happy and only a minor 3% claimed to be unhappy. These findings ranked Bhutan as the happiest nation in South Asia and 13th out of 178 countries in the world in the international ranking of happiness.

Our afternoon came to an end with the site inspection of the Village Lodge: an old farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, converted into a gorgeous 9 room guesthouse. Of all the hotels I had seen so far, this was my absolute favorite: simple and so totally Zen! No better way to unwind than sitting at the bonfire on the lodge’s patio, while gazing at the star-spangled sky, listening to some local music and sipping a cocktail… which of course we did! Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. So before we knew it, we were heading back to our hotel, where another cocktail was waiting for us! And at this point, it was no longer the altitude that made me feel dizzy!

After an excellent served dinner at Zhiwa Ling’s gourmet restaurant, we gathered around the open fire in the bar of the hotel to further unwind and to assimilate our emotional experiences of our last day in Bhutan.

While the others enjoyed a lazy morning, Didier and I took off early to visit Paro’s weekend market and a small Archery Tournament that was scheduled that day. Unfortunately we had to rush, as we were expected to be at the airport no later than 10.00 AM. But we enjoyed every single minute of our quick excursion and soaked up as many last impressions as possible…

Only a few hours later, we found ourselves onboard our flight back to Delhi. Upon arrival, Tine, Wilfried, Michel and I decided to take a rickshaw tour of Old Delhi. Tine, who had never been to India before, could not believe her eyes! And honestly, after five days in Bhutan, I was kind of shocked as well. The contrast simply was too much.

After a quick shower in our day rooms at the Claridges New Delhi (www.claridges-hotels.com) and an even quicker site inspection of the contemporary five star property, we were expected at the “Poddar Residence” for farewell cocktails and to get a short introduction to Orient Express Travels & Tours. Being pioneers in tourism promotion since 1947, Orient Express is the oldest Indian Travel Agency. It employs over 100 staff and features over 50 destinations worldwide, offering a wide array of travel solutions to each and every client. The incoming department does not only organize services in India, but in Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bhutan as well.

Later that evening, we enjoyed our last dinner of the trip at the Bukhara Restaurant, located at the ITC Maurya Sheraton in New Delhi. Although Bukhara was named amongst the “Top 50 Restaurants in the World and the Finest Restaurant in Asia” by Restaurants Magazine in 2006, it is a very down to earth tandoori eatery, a place where you are encouraged to eat with your fingers, and where the food is simply delicious….(www.starwoodhotels.com)

And before we knew it, we had said our goodbyes and were on our way to the airport…

On the flight back home, my mind wandered off as I tried to put together and incentive trip to Bhutan. The country most certainly had given me the famous “belly feeling”, but was it the feeling my clients are looking for? After a while, I concluded that it was, as long as I added some creative ideas. Because in the end, being creative is what my job is all about. And then I finally closed my eyes and dozed off, with only one last thought on my mind: “Bhutan, I will be back… And that’s a promise, not a threat!”

Back to the top

BBT Online

Travel industry   agenda

Make sure that you do not miss out on the MICE events that are of direct interest to YOU! Consult our travel industry agenda on a regular basis and be sure to block the relevant dates in your diary.

Something FUNNY? !! NEW !!

Laughing is good for you! Get your regular dose of ‘fun vitamins’ by clicking here.

Mailing List

You do not yet receive our monthly newsletters, or you have a colleague who wants to be kept up to date on the latest business travel news? Enter your email address to subscribe.

BBT Online

Official media partner.

F-list

The problem of freeloaders* is one we all share in the MICE industry, and we are hearing more and more complaints from suppliers everywhere.
BBT Online is therefore proposing a major new initiative - to maintain and keep up-to-date on behalf of the MICE industry an 'F' listing for the industry, made by the industry.

  • Imex
  • South Africa

Advertising

You want to use our extensive and up-to-date MICE planner’s database for an e-mail marketing campaign?
You want to add your banner on our website or in our newsletter?
Click here for more information and conditions!

Maybe you have been intrigued by one or more of our commercial e-mail campaigns but did not keep a copy?
Check our archive for inspiration.
Click here for access to the archive.

Jobs 4 hotels

Trip2B

BBT Online / A. Van Eyckstraat 29, 1050 Brussels - Belgium / T. +32 (0)476 267 567 / F. +32 (0)2 640 61 26 / E. info@bbtonline.eu / Mediapartners: SITE - BATM - MPI / Realisation: Y-media