Tergo Travels, Bhutan

Tergo Travels, Bhutan

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December 2009

I have been struggling to identify precisely what it is that made our holiday to Bhutan so incredible. The key single differentiating “ingredient” is quite illusive when one tries to put one’s finger on it, but in the end I think if it has to be encapsulated in a single concept, it would be: Bhutan’s other-worldliness.

Bhutan’s unique geography has it nestled against the eastern Himalayas, wedged between India to the south and China to the north. Its physical remoteness, the fact that it was never conquered or colonized, and its determination not to befall the lot of the former Buddhist kingdom’s of Tibet and Sikkim, have left Bhutan gloriously isolated and free of excessive foreign influence. Bhutan is a kingdom with a deep sense of nationhood, embracing democratic values, and the progenitor of the now widely vaunted concept of Gross National happiness (GNH). The concept of the GNH defines Bhutan’s development objective as improvement in the happiness and satisfaction of the people rather than growth of Gross National Product (GNP). GNH has been the over-arching development philosophy of Bhutan as the concept has guided the country’s development policies and programmes since the 1980s. GNH suggests that happiness is the ultimate objective of development. It recognizes that there are many dimensions to development other than those associated with Gross National Product (GNP), and that development needs to be understood as a process that seeks to maximize happiness rather than purely economic growth. GNH’s influence on the country’s tourism policy is in strong evidence throughout any visit to Bhutan.

With its men dressed in gho and the women in beautifully coloured kira, wonju and toego, and everywhere the sights and sounds of its people’s deep connection with the Drukpa sect of Kagyudpa (a Vajrayana school of tantric Mahayana Buddhism), a visitor to Bhutan is offered a rare opportunity to experience a unique, rich and ancient culture going about its ways in the valleys, foothills and mountains of Druk Yul – “the land of the thunder dragon”. Tsechus are held in almost every district on auspicious days throughout the year,  attracting Bhutanese communities in a spirit of festivity, celebration and deep faith. These Tsechus – often set within a Dzong or against the backdrop of a monastery or stupa – have religious roots, and spiritual powers are evoked by dance rituals performed by dancers dressed in fantastically colourful and elaborate, often ancient, costumes and masks. On a cultural level, a journey to Bhutan is a spiritual, almost mystical experience.

But on another level, Bhutan offers the traveller an unsurpassed pristine natural environment, in which to engage with the great outdoors (with more than 65% of the country under forest, and a unique flora and fauna displaying a biodiversity reflective of the great geographical and climatic variations found within the country). On offer are: incredible trekking routes (at lower and high altitudes), rafting, kayaking, mountain-biking, and catch-and-release fly fishing.

With fewer than 25000 visa-carrying visitors a year, travellers can experience Bhutan’s unspoiled magic without the throng and tourist pressure which one would more typically expect of a destination in a developing country offering all that Bhutan does. This is thanks to a statutorily imposed all-inclusive minimum day charge, as well as the fact that the country has only limited resources available to foreign visitors, and this includes: inbound flights (monopolized by the national carrier), accommodation, qualified guides and road transport. Sadly, I doubt this will last: the pressure to grow the country’s tourist sector is likely to see the influx of foreign visitors rise dramatically over the next decade, with a concomitant exponential rise in the pressure this will put on the cultural and environmental experience. One only has to look as far as Nepal to see how quickly and dramatically tourism can change things: not necessarily for the better.

Our trip to Bhutan was somewhat out-of-the-ordinary: firstly, we went during December (traditionally an off-peak time); and secondly, for us it was a family holiday with two young children aged 9 and 10 (more typically, I understand, given the cost associated with travel to Bhutan, it attracts tourists of middle and retirement age). I would, without reservation, repeat the holiday on both counts: The weather in December is actually very pleasant: with the early morning and evenings crisp and fresh, the middle of the day was mostly sunny and warm. Obviously, it being an off-peak time, we encountered virtually no other tourists, and for the times we elected to stay at premium hotels or pursue extra-cost activities, these were all offered at reduced rates (even the in- and out-bound flights were cheaper). As a family activity-based holiday destination, Bhutan is ideal: we trekked and rafted, and gave the children exposure to the country’s rich culture and history. It was a fortnight we will never forget, made all the more enjoyable by the attention to detail as well as the warm, sincere and “can-do” services offered by Tergo Travel. They tailored our itinerary to our exact requirements including: making it very child-friendly; catering for specific dietary requirements; as well as ensuring that all the service providers (hotels, restaurants, rafting and trekking outfitters, airlines, drivers etc) were of the highest quality and standard. I would not hesitate in recommending this highly experienced team to anybody visiting Bhutan: they really do go the extra distance to make your journey to this amazing country a truly unforgettable one. We all hope to return soon: to explore more of this country’s fabulous hidden treasures with Tergo Travels as our guides.

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