Bhutan Tourism: The Changing Landscape

I’ve traveled to Bhutan many times over the past eleven years, taking student groups to the country as an experience unlike any other in the modern world. These trips have been transformative for many travelers and continuing such travel is my goal for the coming years (assuming, of course, a break in the COVID crisis).

Currently, the Tourism Council of Bhutan is proposing sweeping changes to the way tourism operates within the country as people consider the role of tourism in Bhutan. Currently, Bhutan operates a minimum daily rate for tourists from countries outside of the SAARC nations. Essentially, tourists to Bhutan contract with a local company and pay a minimum standard daily rate for travel. This rate includes housing, transportation in the country, food, and the services of a licensed tour guide.

As a traveler to Bhutan and the leader of student groups to the country, the existing structure works well for travelers on a specific budget. I can state, clearly, what the cost of travel will be in Bhutan, and students and their parents can manage the costs based on very clear guidelines. For students traveling on a tight budget, the Minimum Daily Package Rate (MDPR) serves the needs of my group well and allows us to plan accordingly. Further, in my years traveling in Bhutan, the quality of service, lodging, and the like have exceeded the needs of my travelers, making the experiences in Bhutan life changing and exceptional.

These kinds of exceptional experiences are the goal of a movement in Bhutan that encourages sustainable travel. Karma Tshering, the founder of the Bhutan Sustainable Tourism Society has urged lawmakers in the country to maintain the high value, low volume approach to travel, ensuring that the MDPR stays in place and serves the needs of all of the people employed by the tourism industry. Tshering has said, “It was evident that if planned and implemented in consultation with the local people and other relevant partners, tourism has the potential to offer a symbiotic relationship in promoting socio-economic development, cultural preservation and biodiversity conservation. Tourism is not a single sector responsibility – as it used to be perceived by people in my country – but a multi-dimensional concept which requires constant communications, collaboration, and partnerships.” (https://sustainability-leaders.com/interview-karma-tshering-bhutan/).

Currently, the Tourism Council of Bhutan is proposing a dramatic shift in the way both money is collected and the elimination of the minimum daily rate. The new proposal states that tourists would pay a standard $325 US plus an additional $30 US per day in country for a 14 day tour. This change represents a decline in the real dollars charged for travel in Bhutan. Effectively, this would impact the lives of individuals who are part of the tourism industry. Further, the reduced price will transform the high value, low volume approach and encourage high volume travel changing the very nature of the industry and transforming Bhutan from a selective destination to just another place to check off the bucket list.

My concern for the Bhutanese is that such changes to the tourism industry will impact religious, cultural, historical, and environmental concerns not to mention the lives of people relying on income from tourism. Driving down the cost of travel in Bhutan may appear to be a way to increase overall income, and would result in declines in all of the areas I mentioned. It doesn’t take much effort to see how high volume tourism impacts society and culture in nation-states in Asia. That effect can be traumatic and determental to the people who live in these areas.

High volume tourism is not unique to Asia and examples of such tourism in countries around the world and attest to its profound impact on local culture and customs. Living in New Mexico in the United States, I can attest to the changes high volume tourism has had on everything from infrastructure (roads, bridges, bike paths) to the lives people lead. For example, in places like Santa Fe, New Mexico a transient community that ebbs and flows with tourism in the city alters the cultural context of the community. As a result, a kind of Disneyland quality emerges that whitewashes the cultural story of the people and the place, creating a mythological representation of the history, culture, and people who live in the area. Culture is sold in trinkets and souvenirs, and these changes alter the very nature of the place. In this way, institutions like religion become a commodity, as the original Spanish Catholic Church is sold as a tourist attraction, stripping the deep spirituality into a picture postcard. Millions come to the city to be awed by the architecture and a glossy, magazine style view of the city.

My concern, then, is that changing the well-established structure of the tourism industry will fundamentally alter the nature of culture and society. Of course, some of these kinds of changes can benefit Bhutan and some people. It is my belief, however, that such changes result in the society loosing control over their culture as the very soul of the country is sold as a commodity on the open market. While change is inevitable and we all face impermanence in the lives we live, maintaining cultural integrity is something worth fighting for in this age of tourism and the quick sale. I will be interested to see how Bhutan balances the many social, cultural, and economic challenges it faces, and hope, for the sake of the Bhutanese people, that these changes come with clarity of vision about what the future may hold.

May you be happy, May you be well.

Still Hiding from COVID while Dreaming of Bhutan

It’s always something when the world changes directions and sends your life reeling from the shift. That’s where we are, I guess, wondering at the world we are in and imagining life outside of a pandemic.

From that perspective, I’m posting a series of my favorite photos from Bhutan. These images bring me joy and hopefully, will bring you the same kind of wonder. If you are planning a future trip to the Land of the Thunder Dragon, look no further than my friends at Illuminating Tours. Namgay and his guides are no less than exceptional in every way and will create a trip for you that is life changing.

Sunset in the Bumtang Valley
Haa Valley Chorten
Soccer at the Temple of the Divine Madman
Waiting on a Prayer
On the Road to Trongsa
Punakha Rainbow
Sleeping in Bumthang
Friends in Bumthang, 2010
On the way to the Temple of the Divine Madman
Mugging for the Camera in Paro Dzong
…this image speaks for itself…
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Playing the fun game of “Where is Evan”!

Don’t Mind Me, I’m Just Hiding from a Virus

As plans often do, they are upended and changed as a result of events beyond our control. The ravages of the COVID-19 virus have changed the face of the world, and, in many ways, the way we think about our connections. In some ways, the virus reveals that we, as humans, are more connected than we can imagine. Our shared sacrifice if a testimony to human connectedness…the idea that we are, in so many ways, a part of a single, grand community.

While it may in fact be too soon to begin planning for next summer and travel to Asia, I am hopeful for the opportunity the future holds for us. If we are allowed to travel and the situation is safe for the places and the people we will meet, then we will travel to Bhutan next summer.

Toward that end, we are leading two trip to Bhutan and Asia in the summer of 2021. These trips are quite different in scope and approach while at the same time sharing some of the best of what we can provide as an experience for students, parents, and those interested in traveling to Asia.

The trips to Asia in 2021 will include a cultural and historical tour of Bhutan and Japan as well as a trek to the sacred heart of the Thunder Dragon in Bhutan. The details of the two trips can be found in the links above; both offer an inside look at Bhutan from two perspectives: one as a series of cultural interactions and the other as a trek into the Himalayas.

More information will be provided as we enter the Fall and access the situation in the world. The safety of our travelers and of the people we meet are of utmost importance to us all. Please know that we will keep you informed with specifics as the situation develops. In the meantime, consider travel to Asia in the summer of 2021. It will be a trip unlike any other you have encountered.

Updated Travel Schedule: BIG Change

“Sometimes you bite the bar and sometimes the bar bites you.” That quotation is an apt description of changes we will make to the travel schedule. We will NOT have the chance to visit the Elephant Sanctuary this year due to a variety of circumstances. We will replace that part of the trip with a visit to Kyoto, Japan.

The alley to our humble abode

Here’s the new plan: travel to Bhutan via Delhi, Bhutan for eight days, then to Bangkok, overnight, and to Osaka and Kyoto for about a week. We will stay in a machiya (traditional house) and travel southern Japan for a few days. The experience is equally wonderful and we will have the chance to see monkeys (!!) in the hills above the city.

Fushimi Inari

I’ll update the itinerary in the coming days and let you know how this trip will play out.

Keep in mind that to travel, we will need 8 – 10 folks!

Preparing for Travel: Bhutan and Thailand Summer 2020

We begin our tenth year of travel to Asia this summer, heading to Thailand and Bhutan in June 2020. Our travels take us to Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Elephant Sanctuaries in Thailand, and on to Bhutan for ten days in the Land of the Thunder Dragon. Our group will spend days in northern Thailand, learning about the jungle ecosystem in the region near Chiang Mai. We will spend a couple of days at The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary learning about elephants and how we can support their habitat and survival.

The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary

After our time in Thailand, we will head to Paro, Bhutan to begin our experience in the country. Our guide will be Namgay from Illuminating Tours. We will find our way from Paro to Bumthang and back again, finding rest in towns and villages across the country. We will meet with students in Tsangkhap and visit Trongsa Dzong, travel to the Tang Valley and stay in Orgyan Choling Farmhouse. We will take in the beauty of the Phobjikha valley and wander the streets of Thimphu. Our experiences will be rich with history, culture, art, and social interaction with families in this magical and wonderful place.

By the time we head back to the U.S. you will have so many experiences to share with family and friends, knowing that you have found a place and a connection with people in Asia. What you will also find is that we, as inhabitants of this planet, share the same hopes and dreams, and the fundamental desire to be happy.

Join us in Bhutan!

Photos from Nick

I sent out a call to the cast and crew that traveled with me this summer and the responses are trickling in.  Here, for your consideration, are photos from Nick.  Of our motley crew, Nick was the “let’s do it!” person, despite his nagging cold, cough, and runny nose.  In most cases, Nick was the fastest of us, flying up a trail or humming down the road on a bike…Nick was/is awesome!

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Nick’s view of Taktshang

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On our rainy day hike; nice composition!

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Nick and Pandora waiting for the Shinkansen!

Last Day in Japan

Last days are often filled with trepidation; packing, getting to airports, figuring out subways, trains, and all of the other stuff that makes moving from one place to another a bit more hectic, a bit more strange.

Our stay at the Machiya was generally good. I like staying in a house in which we can all be together and share the experience. While those moments can lead folks to feel cramped, overwhelmed, or sometimes claustrophobic, I’m convinced that the good outweighs the weird that can happen when a bunch of unrelated folks live together.

From my perspective, this group worked together well and, generally, was an easy going collection of humans.

Our travels home are a huge hurdle…after some changes to the flights as a result of United back in February, we fly back to San Francisco, to LA, and then, to just put that little bit of crazy, on a Southwest flight to ABQ. Our layovers are, in a word, ridiculous. Hours spent in airports are, to a great extent wasted. Sure getting time to go through immigration in Tokyo requires more than an hour, but much more than that and it feels a little crazy!

The wacky is that we arrive in San Fran by about 9:00 AM and don’t make it to ABQ until 12:00! What?!

What I can say for certain is that we all miss our peeps and are ready to share stories and plan more adventures!

Biking Kyoto: A Tale of Joy and Struggle

We woke this morning semi-prepared for a bike ride to Kinkaku-ji (The Golden Temple) and places in between. We walked a short distance to Happy Cycles, a small shop located just about a block from our house. The young woman fitted us on the bikes they had. Dylan and I, tall humans, had trouble with the small frames, but we pushed on as the day promised to be great weather.

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We Started off Really Well!

As we rode down Gojo-dori street, it was clear that some of us were less adept at cycling. When I say, “less adept” you can politely read “holy crap we are going to crash!” A few folks in our number found the travel a bit more challenging than walking; in fact, a LOT more challenging. Our planned 20-minute ride of 5 miles took us a solid hour. As we rode, the heat took its toll on our bodies and we were all dehydrated by the time we made it to Kinkaku-ji. I bought loads of water and juices for us to drink. In addition to that small problem, a few of us had avoided breakfast and were absolutely spent.

When riding a bike in Kyoto, the pathways are well-marked (remember LEFT side) and I have to say this form of transportation is the BEST way to visit this city.  My advice: avoid the subways, trains, and busses and rent a bike (many places to rent bikes) for $8.00 a day!  You can get everywhere in Kyoto…when I return to this city, I will definitely travel by bike.

Our wander around Kinkaku-ji was, more than likely, a little less glorious than it might have been. I avoided taking pictures of the students because they requested anonymity on this day.

The site of the golden temple is in the middle of a business district, like many of the temples in Kyoto and Japan, but wholly a world apart once you are on the temple grounds. We gathered at the fence just across a pond from the edifice and it felt surreal. The bright gold glinted almost silver in the sun giving a kind of strange 3-D effect to the building and the surroundings. The reflection in the water was striking when the light breeze slowed, and I was mesmerized by the sight.

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This photo simply does not capture the light shining off the sides of the temple….

We headed around the trail and through the trees and despite the crowds, the place was serene. Jade, Hailey, Nick, Pandora and I made our way back to the beginning. We found Logan and Dylan in a heap settled along a rock wall. I bought more water and juices. Pandora felt faint; Logan felt a little ill. Everyone had seen a better experience to be sure.

As we left the grounds, we decided to visit an annual flea market at Kitsune-Tengu Temple about three blocks from Kinkaku-ji. Had we been in a better state of mind, this festival would have been a place to stay for hours. I bought food for everyone and within a short while moods were improved. Judith, Sarah, and Hailey planned a ride from there to the Bamboo Forest and I took the rest of the group back to the house to recover and revive.

The following video captures Dylan’s mood after food: the HONESTY, it burns!

The ride back to the houses was almost entirely downhill. We coasted most of the way back taking us just 35 minutes to make it to the house. Once back, everyone took showers and rested in the late afternoon.

As you might imagine, the entire group rallied for a walk to food. Nick found a small hole in the wall that served, you guessed it, fried chicken. Logan searched for something different; Dylan, Jade, Pandora and I went to a fast food noodle place not from our abode. When I say FAST food, I’m talking maybe 3 minutes from order to plate. The food was tasty (not great but cheap and filling), and we headed to a Lawson 100 Yen Grocery Store where all items are 100 yen (basically a dollar). I loaded up on some breakfast food has been my custom for the past few days. We’ve had cereal, bananas, grapefruit, tangerines, a kind of giant breakfast pastry, and toast and jam. As an aside, I’ve supplemented by unusual diet with beans and rice, prepackaged and very inexpensive. I can eat a hearty vegan dinner for three dollars. No joke.  The Lawson stores can make ANY visit to Japan a much more financially reasonable approach to visiting this country.

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REALLY fast food.

Tomorrow’s excursion is completely up to the folks on the trip; they wander wherever they want….I have a phone they can use to contact me, AND they have some rules to follow along the way.

Lastly, tomorrow is our last day in Japan before we take our ridiculously long flight home (crazy layovers in airports). I’ll post a variety of trip photos in my next post….stay tuned!

In and Around Kyoto: Hiking Fushimi-Inari and Kiyomizu-dera

After a rainy day in the city yesterday filled with Manga and the Nishiki Market, we headed south to hike Mt. Inari through the Torii gates that dot the mountainside.  The train ride from Kiyomisu-dera stop to the Inari stop takes about 10 minutes of nice, cool comfort in the steamy weather of this part of southern Japan.

We got off the train in Inari and found ourselves caught up in a huge Sunday crowd.  Sundays are days when Japanese families and friends get together and do something…in this case hike Mt. Inari.  The walk up to the start of the hike was crowded with people in the very close proximity of the very narrow streets of the village of Fushimi. As one walks across the train tracks and into the town, the street, used by cars, becomes a walking path, not much bigger than a sidewalk.

All along the way, street vendors offer everything from grilled rice cubes to skewered fruit to my personal favorite Okanomiyaki.  This dish is a revelation if you have not encountered it: grated potatoes, vegetables, and additions like Bonita flakes, a sweet barbeque-type sauce made from Ponzo, and, finally, a Japanese-style mayonnaise that is slightly sweet. Judith grabbed skewered grilled rice balls (about the size of a 10 cent Japanese coin) coated with a sweet brown sauce. Logan, Dylan, Jade, Hailey and I dove into the Okanomiyaki.  Nick, as has become his custom in Japan, ate fried chicken bites.

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Preparing Okanomiyaki

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Okanomiyaki!

As we approached the temple complex, the numbers of people swelled…movement was really a challenge…we shuffled along, slowly up the first steps to the Torii gates.  These vermillion red structures line the entire hike up the mountain.  On one side are the numbers of each Torii and on the other a kind of prayer, saying.  As you wind your way up the mountain and through the gates, the numbers of people dwindle to the point that, in sections, you walk alone.  This phenomenon is fascinating…especially once you cross the mountain top (after section number 14) you could walk all alone for almost the entire way down!

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Ready for the Climb up Mt. Inari.

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Lots of People on the Path.

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…and then NO people on the path!

Our group broke up into three distinct masses: the ones who practically ran up the trail, those who went up gradually, and those who stopped to take pictures.  The entire journey of 4.7 miles took us about 2:00 hours (leisurely pace). It was hot, and we were filled with sweat despite the cool breeze amidst the trees and under the Torii.

We all made it down in different groups and we went on a search for our friend Logan who, somehow, had become separated from his hiking partner Nick.  Once down from the hike, the numbers of humans milling about made finding young Logan a bit of a challenge.  We spread out, searched around and Dylan found him eating some wonderful food.  Crisis abated!  Problem solved.  For a minute. I had sent Nick and Pandora to slowly search some of the small shops on the sides of the path toward the train station…then we promptly lost them!  We searched for them and found them!  Excitement! Thrills!IMG_2298

We walked back to the Keihan line and jumped on the train for the short ride back to the city.

Some of us crashed back at the house after the hike and the rest of us walked up to Kiyomiza-dera temple/shrine.  The temple is directly up the road from where we are staying, and the walk was steep but easy.  Since I have been visiting Japan, this temple has been under reconstruction.  I talked to an attendant and he said the plan was to finish about two years ago, but they found drainage problems under the main part of the temple….the main building is situated in the steep side of a hill supported by huge timbers.

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Pagoda at Kiyamizu-dera

We wandered the grounds and much like the crowds at Fushimi-Inari, disappeared as one walks along the various paths through the trees and out to a distant Pagoda dedicated to children.

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On every way up to a hike is…a vending machine…in this case, selling Tappiness.

After this visit, we headed back down to our house, directly down the hill.  I ordered folks Domino’s Pizza for delivery (!!) and they chowed on pepperoni and cheese pizzas.  A taste of home revived the lethargic group.  Another successful day in Japan!

Tomorrow, biking to Kinkaku-ji and the Bamboo forest in Arashiyama!