Falling in love with Bhutan

Boulder resident Clyda Stafford recounts her recent trip to the captivating Bhutan

Punakha Valley, Bhutan

Bhutan is not an easy place to get to, or to get around in. Just getting to Bhutan costs a small fortune, but for Clyda Stafford, the price was worth it.

According to the Tourism Council of Bhutan’s website, Bhutan’s national airline — in fact, its only airline ­— is Druk Air. From Bangkok, Thailand, to Paro, Bhutan, round-trip flights for the three-hour journey can cost upwards of $875, not including the plane ticket to Bangkok and back. One Nepalese Airline, Buddha Air, now flies to Bhutan as well.

To get into Bhutan, the Tourism Council says, travelers must purchase a visa through the capital city of Thimphu, but because of the country’s strict tourism laws, visas are only issued to visitors booked through a local licensed tour operator directly through a foreign travel agency.

Every visitor during the high season pays a mandatory $250-per-day tariff, which, according to the Council’s website, pays for hotel stays, a van, a driver and a guide, and cultural activities and treks. During the low season, the tariff drops to $200.

Stafford recounts her landing at the airport in Bhutan as an obstacle in itself. The plane approached the airport through a valley, she says, then had to quickly lose elevation as it dipped between two mountains and sharply turned a corner. All of this is done purely by sight.

The Tourism Council reports that Druk Air has just two airbuses in its fleet, so reservations must be made well ahead of time, and if the weather is bad, they simply don’t fly. According to the Royal Geography Society, during monsoon season, Stafford could have been stranded at the airport for days.

Bhutan’s lateral highway runs from east to west across the entire Connecticut-sized nation. It is narrow and broken and weaves in and out of the numerous tiny villages that dot the Bhutanese Himalaya. Seat belts, Stafford notes, are not a common accessory.

This road is roughly 300 miles long, and according to Stafford, guides told her it can take up to three days to drive in its entirety — longer if they run into a landslide.

And yet, Stafford, a former English teacher, frequent traveler and veteran mountaineer, calls it her favorite place to visit.

“It was like stepping back into centuries ago, into a long-lost world and a long-lost culture,” Stafford says. “Bhutan is dubbed the last Shangri La and it really is. It’s an otherworldly experience from the moment you land at the airport until the moment you leave.”

Stafford and her small group of five Boulder locals didn’t just see Bhutan, they trekked it. Their 19-day trip began almost immediately, with an eight-day hike up to the base camp of Jomolhari, the 24,000-foot mountain that straddles the border between Tibet and Bhutan.

The trek would take the group about half the distance up the mountain, but despite the aches in their knees, they sought higher elevations for the chance to take in just a bit more of the incredibly diverse ecosystem and the newly blossoming rhododendrons.

Her mind, and her camera, paint a picture of the moment she first glimpsed the freshly snow-capped peak.

“These trails have been trade routes for centuries, and there’s no maintenance, and it’s just a jumble of big boulders and you’re picking your way up the trails,” Stafford says. “We got to the high camp on our last day. That night it was clear. You get there and you turn to the left and here’s this 24,000-foot peak looking right at you, and it was really beautiful.”

For Stafford, the influence of Buddhism and the way it has carved out well-respected leadership in Bhutan has led to a deeply connected and strongly protected culture.

Without hesitation, Stafford recalls her favorite moment of the trip, a peek into the Punakha Dzong. Cameras aren’t allowed in monasteries, for fear that the sacred photos might be thrown away, but Stafford’s recollection of the image is unfaltering.

The Punakha Dzong temple | Photo courtesy of Kyle Hammons

“It was a huge interior temple. There were probably a hundred monks, young and old, mostly young, sitting in rows inside this temple,” she says. “And this temple is just covered with tapestries and paintings, and all around incense is burning, and there were nooks and crannies and little altars, and they were chanting. Oh, it was just like stepping back in time because you know they’ve been doing that exact same thing for centuries. It was just marvelous.”

From a distance, such untouchable ancient traditions seem to shroud the people and their country in mystique. But when she was invited into the home of the head Lama in the Ura district of Bumthang, Stafford says, she became a part of that culture, if only briefly, wearing traditional gho and kira and taking part in Ura Tsetchu, an elaborate local festival.

A photo from the Ura Tsetchu Festival | Photo courtesy of Clyda Stafford

“The Bhutanese people are very friendly and warm, even up in the highest parts of the Himalayan valleys,” she says. “Of course, they have so little physical comfort, but they want people to come into their homes and they’re willing to share. … We were stopped in this small town and it suddenly struck me that we had been in that country for about two weeks, and I had never heard a single person raise their voice. Not even the children.”

Bhutan is a land steeped in tradition, in many ways unchanged from centuries ago. Yet elements of the modern world have found their way into the somehow solid yet constantly evolving country. Stafford recalls seeing a mix of Western and traditional clothing, brand-new sedans parked in front of modest homes high atop the Himalayas, and even monks texting. The change is seen in both culture and government. Bhutan’s king has become a figurehead, in favor of a two-party parliamentary democracy that began with the country’s first elections in March 2008.

This balancing act is the very reason that Bhutan places such careful controls on tourism. The system is one Stafford admires and appreciates rather than resents.

“You have this country that has one foot firmly planted in that centuries-old tradition and the other foot in the 21st century, and they are doing an amazing job,” she says.

In fact, Stafford says she would love nothing more than to meet the burdens of travelling to Bhutan again.

“A trip like that is just long enough if a person really enjoys getting to know another country; a tour is just a flavor that makes you more interested,” she says. “It’s the tantalizing experience that makes you want to stay.”

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Clyda Stafford will give a presentation on her trip to Bhutan, the Land of the Thunder Dragon, at 7 p.m. Nov. 13 at Changes in Latitude Travel Store, 2525 Arapahoe Ave., Boulder. For more information, call 303-786-8406.


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