Travel Changes on the way to Bhutan

Looking at the international travel landscape, things look challenging. The spread of COVID across the globe has changed the way we can move in the world. My plan, originally, was to travel first to Thailand and then on to Bhutan. As it turns out, this plan may not be possible.

Right now, the best possible way to get to Bhutan from the United States may be through Delhi, India. The flights to India are significantly cheaper than to Thailand, and Bhutanese airlines have more flight choices out of Delhi. Right now, the price difference is more that $700US. That could mean that we will need to adjust our itinerary to stop in India instead of Thailand, and make arrangements with my contacts there.

The benefit for those of us interested in traveling to Asia in Summer 2022 is that we can adjust to changing circumstances. Also, airlines are willing to offer refunds for trips that get cancelled for COVID. As a result, we have the unique ability to decide on changes to travel as things develop.

Further, should India, Thailand, or Bhutan NOT open to travel next summer, we have options. I do expect Japan to reopen and we can pivot to Japan, a trip I planned to take in the summer of 2023. As things change, we can monitor and develop plans based on conditions in the countries we are considering.

I will post TWO alternative plans for travel this summer, relying on my friends in various locations in Asia. Honestly, I look forward to the possibility of travel this summer and hope for all of us that we can again see our friends around the world.

Travel to Bhutan and Thailand, Summer 2022

After years trapped in COVID isolation, it’s time to get back into the world. In the Summer of 2022, we are headed to Bhutan and Thailand for a remarkable cultural experience. Our travels will take us into the heart of Thailand and Bhutan. We will spend about two weeks traveling in these countries, doing service projects in Thailand at an elephant sanctuary and in Bhutan visiting a school for some cultural exchange. Our trip will travel in the first week of June, leaving Albuquerque for Los Angeles and then on to Bangkok. We will spend a few days in Thailand before flying to Bhutan for our meander through the country. As is the case with this trip, all planning, flights, housing, and etc is in-house, meaning that we work together to design a trip that both allows for remarkable experiences and can fit with our collective interests and schedules. A trip itinerary is posted on the site and everything is flexible from the dates we travel to some of the stops along the way.

Namgay, talking to students about the Trongsa Dzong

Is It Safe to Travel to Asia?

The short answer to the question about travel to Asia is yes, it is and it will be. Take a look at some of the links to news about COVID in the countries we will visit. You will notice that Thailand and Bhutan took the outbreak seriously from the beginning, ensuring that the COVID would have a limited impact. In Bhutan, the adult population is vaccinated to about 93% of the total adult population. By the time we arrive, the population over the age of 5 will be vaccinated.

To travel we will all have to be vaccinated and have a negative COVID test prior to travel. In addition, we may face multiple COVID tests on the trip itself. What I know is that this trip will be among safest international trips you can take.

What Will We Experience?

On this website you will find many stories about travel to Thailand, Bhutan, and Japan. Read through student comments and ideas, look at the photos and imagine yourself on a short hike to a temple in Bhutan or a visit to the Elephant Sanctuary in Thailand. Each story you read gives you a glimpse into this trip of a lifetime.

After the football match on a field of mud.

In brief, we will visit museums, temples, and shrines. We will meet people from all walks of life and interact with these folks in so many ways. You’ll buy street food in Bangkok, hike to one of the most iconic temples in the world, sit in meditation in a scared space, and play games with students in Trongsa, Bhutan.

Through it all, you will find a travel experience unlike any other. As your guide throughout the trip, I will introduce you to the people and places we visit and, along the way, you’ll have the chance to venture out on your own.

Ultimately, our goal is to get to know the people and places we visit and not just tour a place. I can promise that you will discover something about yourself that will last forever.

The Tiger’s Nest

How Do I Join This Trip?

Email me and I can provide you will more details, information, and ideas. I’ll provide a cost breakdown, schedule and other details you will need to know prior to deciding on travel.

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…
Superman
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!