To visit Bhutan has always been a seen as a voyage into one of the most unknown and untouched parts of the world. Emma Slade followed her path from high flying financial advisor to Buddhist monk in this beautiful country.
Bhutan was for many years the elusive, inaccessible last remaining Himalayan Kingdom but the landscape is changing.
It remains a remarkable place of huge contrasts and extraordinary beauty with a growing tourist industry.
The majestic Dzongs and monasteries, the woven national dress and festivals are a visual feast and a glimpse into the culture of a country well known for using the principles of Gross National Happiness to guide its development.
I have had the privilege over the last few years of developing a deep love for this country which is the size of Switzerland with a population of 700,000 people. Having set up a foundation for it in 2015 with the aim of helping children with special needs in the country I have had the chance to visit many isolated areas of this extraordinary place.
If you get the chance I would say not only go East to Bhutan but in Bhutan… Go East!
Until recently there was one working airport in Bhutan, Paro, in the West of Bhutan. It remains the only international airport – famed for its breath-taking and mildly hair-raising entry into the country as the plane offers you a glimpse of the golden tops of temples and prayer flags seemingly so close you could reach out and touch them.
But now you can see smaller planes in the skies across the span of the country. Not that frequent but they are there. The first domestic airport was opened in the centre of Bhutan in the valleys of Bumthang and, just recently, a domestic airport in the East of Bhutan at Yongphula has been opened.
The latter gives visitors to explore the extraordinary and hugely untouched areas of East Bhutan where nomadic life, ancient languages and the myth of the Yeti loom large.
As ever visiting these areas I am caught between the rarity of being with people and in places seemingly so untouched by time and the risk of romanticising what is undoubtedly for many a tough life, dependent on the weather and the fruits of subsistence agriculture.
I find myself caught, as many visitors are, between the benefit they feel to their own eyes and mind of spending time in a place where humans do not dominate the landscape and the hardship of some of the lives seen.
Often I find myself brought to a point of deep reflection where the flight of birds through the sky and the shape of clouds touching the Himalayan range seem miraculous and nothing seems more important than finding the perfect mossy rock from which to sit and let the mind be absorbed in these simple sights.
The human life though can look hard at points. The reality of pulling potatoes out of a tough, muddy field with what looks like a homemade implement leaves me in a state of discomfort; not wanting to stare. Once again I am brought to a state of deep gratitude about my own life circumstances; so easy to go to a supermarket and get endless potatoes all clean and scrubbed and ready to cook.
For the traveller a journey to East Bhutan is outwardly adventurous but may also offer a profound inner enquiry.
Perhaps that is why, in the end, I decided to form the charity. To know that my time spent travelling and reflecting and the impact it had had on me inside was not lost the minute I got back on a plane to England. To celebrate and, in some small way help, this exceptional country of contrasts.
If you are able to take up my challenge and make it to East Bhutan why not visit our school in Kanglung, about 20 minutes drive south of Trashigang? We have around 70 students there learning vocational skills such as weaving, embroidery and painting.
You can see more at www.openingyourhearttobhutan.com.
If you can’t make it in person perhaps you would enjoy reading the full story of how I came to spend so much time in Bhutan. My book Set Free; A Life Changing Journey from Banking to Buddhism in Bhutan is available on Amazon and in bookshops. I hope you love it.
You can also watch Emma’s TedX talk about her Path to Buddhism on YouTube.
Getting To Bhutan
The easiest way to get to Bhutan is to fly from New Delhi or Kolkata in India, Bangkok in Thailand, Singapore, Dhaka in Bangladesh, Kathmandu in Nepal or Yangon in Myanmar.
A visa will cost $40 and must be purchased in advance prior to entering the country. Visas can also currently only be bought via tour operators as the government prefers guided tours and discourages independent travelling.
That’s not to say it can’t be done! If you can be invited as a guest of an organisation or as a media professional then you might be able to enter the country with a little more freedom.
G-Adventures run several highly recommended tours of Bhutan which will show you this spectacular mountain kingdom. Take a look below:
10 Day tour including strenuous trekking and a visit to the capital Thimpu.
10 day tour including mountain treks, visits to villages and the essential sights of Bhutan.
10 day tour hiking and camping along the spectacular Druk Path taking in Tiger Monastery and more.
If you have visited or are going to visit Bhutan we’d love to hear all about it. Drop us a message on the contact form below or email us.
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