What is it about Bhutan that provokes your curiosity the most? Is it the focus on Gross National Happiness over materialistic goals? Is it the fact that the Himalayan nation has appeared on many ‘toughest countries to visit’ lists all over the world? Or, is it the intrigue that their Sustainable Development Fee holds: Bhutan levies a charge of USD 200 per day from travellers from all over the world… except India!

A traditional folk dance performed in Thimphu
A traditional folk dance performed in Thimphu

In 2020, the “free pass” that Bhutan gave Indians changed. While we can still visit visa free, we must pay a daily fee of 1,200 per person, which adds up to approximately USD 17 per day. The Maldives and Bangladesh, two other countries Bhutan allowed free access to earlier, were clubbed with the rest of the world, and now their citizens have to pay the daily fee of USD 200 as well. So, as Indian citizens, we must consider ourselves lucky.

1,200 a day is not much,” I argued with a friend who is as fond of travel as I am.

“Indians like to travel in large groups,” she pointed out. “So imagine a family of four shelling out 4,800 a day extra. It gets expensive.”

The idea behind the Sustainable Development Fee is not to be unwelcoming. Bhutan believes this is a way to control the number of visitors they receive, ensure their beautiful country is not overrun by tourists, and that the quality of travellers is high.

The five Aman Resort properties in Bhutan are some of the smallest luxury resorts you’ve seen, with each property having between eight to 20 rooms, making stays feel private
The five Aman Resort properties in Bhutan are some of the smallest luxury resorts you’ve seen, with each property having between eight to 20 rooms, making stays feel private

“Offering free visits to India led to riff-raff coming in from the border states,” a Bhutanese guide explained to me. He also explained how hiring a guide was also an essential for all visitors, Indians included!

And how much do guides cost? “Anything between 1,000 to 5,000 a day, or more.”

Flight of a lifetime

While Bhutan is accessible via land borders in West Bengal and Assam, all arrivals by air land at the only international airport of the country: Paro. This is yet another point of intrigue, especially for aviation enthusiasts. Because Paro, set amongst picturesque mountains, is also one of the most dangerous airports in the world.

As a self-confessed #AvGeek, I boarded the Druk Air flight from Delhi with excitement. I sacrificed my regular “F window seat” on the right hand side of the aircraft for the “A” because, when flying from Delhi to Paro, the majestic Himalayas appear on the left of the aircraft.

Sure enough, within 10 minutes of take-off, the mountains appeared, and stayed in view until the plane banked left around Siliguri to turn towards its destination.

Within 10 minutes of take-off, the mountains appeared, and stayed in view until the plane banked left around Siliguri to turn towards its destination
Within 10 minutes of take-off, the mountains appeared, and stayed in view until the plane banked left around Siliguri to turn towards its destination

Paro airport requires pilots to manoeuvre their airplane through perfectly calibrated turns as it descends towards the runway: one error could lead to disaster. As a result, only specially certified pilots trained by Druk Air or Bhutan Airlines are allowed to operate flights here. Yet another reason why seats are limited, and a visit to Bhutan is a precious one.

“You know what I think,” said the American man in the seat behind mine, jolting me out of my thoughts, “Just this flight is worth a visit!”

Perfectly imperfect

What does a “happy country” really mean? Do people there not have worries at all? Is social security so strong that citizens do not have to work for a living? Is Bhutan a rich country? Or, is it like Cuba, where the people are happy because most of them don’t know better: when I went in 2018, the internet was not free, information was controlled, but people were happy, like the bright-faced street kids begging at our traffic lights.

Gross National Happiness, I discovered on Day 2 of my visit, has nothing to do with riches or comforts. For, even though Bhutan is among the richest nations by gross domestic product per capita in South Asia, it still places 153rd in a list of 190-odd countries and is amongst the poorest in the world. What is free is education and healthcare; and if a Bhutanese citizen needs to travel to India, Thailand or elsewhere for treatment, the government pays for it!

For the love of chillies
For the love of chillies
Ema datchi
Ema datchi

Measuring happiness was a thought put out to the people by one of the earlier monarchs. Not just the Bhutanese, but even people outside in an increasingly capitalistic world, lapped up the idea with glee.

My observations pointed me to the direction of the Buddhist way of life. It reminded me of one morning in Bangkok, Thailand—another Buddhist nation—when a nationwide protest was due to be held. “You’d better leave for the airport four hours early,” I was warned by the concierge. But when I went out into the streets to see what the fuss was all about, I was greeted with crowds of “protestors” enjoying a music concert they’d organised as they sat with their placards. Sloganeering was minimal in between every five to six songs. Why, even food packets were being distributed!

The Buddhist way of life tells you that things will never be all perfect, and that we must find our peace within those imperfections. Which ties in with the Bhutanese philosophy perfectly.

Big little joys

Where one must visit, what should one do, what one should expect in Bhutan is all available at the click of a Google form. That’s not what this column is about. Instead, it’s about perspective and ideas that may make you want to travel and discover something about yourself that you hadn’t noticed before.

The trek to Taktsang Monastery
The trek to Taktsang Monastery

The highlight of my time in Thimphu was the few hours I spent in the centre of town alone. The compulsory guide can be a slightly invasive idea for independent travellers, so when I was “set free”, I made the most of it.

My “Not valid for foreign exchange transactions” debit card (go on, check yours: all credit and debit cards issued in India carry the line) worked in a Druk Punjab National Bank ATM, and threw out 1,000 Ngultrum. One Ngultrum equals one Indian rupee.

But I soon realised, I shouldn’t have bothered; Indian currency works all over Bhutan, and is the preferred mode of transaction.

Many other treats await the traveller to Bhutan. The dzongs (fortresses) in every city with stories during the day and magnificent lights at night; Buddha temples and stupas dotting the landscape with the Himalayas in the background; and last but not the least, the love you see amongst the people for their king and queen that seems far more real than the emotions even the most hardcore Brits feel for their monarchs.

“See, it’s because of our Sustainable Development Fee that you don’t have to wait in line to enter popular tourist spots,” our guide explained. “It feels like you’re on a private tour, isn’t it?”

I disagreed.

For, beyond the conveniences the limited number of tourists offered, Bhutan’s unique outlook offers delightful lessons even a lifetime of experiences cannot teach.

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From HT Brunch, December 17, 2022

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