EPIC ROAD'S SAFARI BLOG

Entries in tTravel to Bhutan (1)

Friday
Aug302013

Interview with the Marketing and PR Director of the Tourism Council of Bhutan

 

This week, we had the pleasure of speaking with Niall Murtagh, the Marketing and PR Director for the Tourism Council of Bhutan. He got us very excited about travel to Bhutan. He talked about the wildlife reserves of Bhutan, happiness, the history, his favorite treks in the Himalayas and much more. He made it very easy to see why Bhutan is called the Magical Kingdom of Bhutan and why it's such a great time to visit now. Run to Bhutan!


1.     What makes Bhutan so unique as a travel destination?

Wow, I think this is a hard question for me to answer.  Bhutan is unique in so many aspects, it’s a small landlocked country, nested and protected by the mighty Himalayas and surrounded by two of the world’s emerging powers, India and China.  Nearly two thirds of the country is covered in forestry and it is one of the world’s last remaining biodiversity hotspots.   With a population of only 700,000 people, this deeply Buddhist country has a unique outlook on development, which was coined by the fourth (Dragon) King as Gross National Happiness.  What lies at the heart of this development paradigm is the truth that, at our most basic level, happiness is what we all strive for.  I think in this day and age we are sometimes overwhelmed by the stresses and strains of everyday life, Bhutan as a nation is verbalising this simple message, that happiness is all we need in life. 

2.     The first tourists entered Bhutan in 1974, leaving the country’s culture and landscape widely untouched. What makes this a great reason to visit?

There are very few countries in the world that have been closed off from the rest of the world for so long.  It is because of this that Bhutan has, still to this day, such a strong and distinctive everyday culture.  The traditional dress (Gho for men, Kira for women) is still worn in the day-to-day lives of the Bhutanese.  This predominantly Buddhist country is dotted with beautiful ancient temple, monasteries and fortresses, some of which are located in some of the world’s most remote locations.  Its landscape is stunning, featuring what are predominantly north south trending snow peaked mountains and lush green fertile valleys.  By royal decree, forest cover cannot fall below 60%, it is currently at 72% and on the rise.  There is a deep respect for nature, which I believe stems from the philosophy of Buddhism that is hard to find anywhere else on earth. 

3.     Bhutan has some of the world’s rockiest terrain and varying altitudes. What activities can a traveler partake in to explore the landscape?

Bhutan is a country full of adventure.  Hiking is extremely popular and I just completed the 12 day Jomolhari Laya Gasa Trek along a route which covers some of the most varied landscapes in the Himalaya’s.  You trek through leafy deciduous forests, up into the blue green pines before you reach the high alpine meadow and into the snow-capped mountains and glacier feed valleys, every day was visually different.  Aside from the hiking, off road mountain biking is becoming very popular with the local Bhutanese while visitors are discovering the country by cycle tours.  Rock climbing, white water rafting and kayaking are becoming increasing popular and we recently started seeing the rise of adventure racing, traversing the country on foot.  These multiple day races cover everything from high mountain passes to paddy fields on an adrenaline fuelled holiday across the country. 

4.     What role does Buddhism play in Bhutanese lifestyle and travel?

Buddhism, as the predominant religion in the country, is intertwined with everyday life.  Some of the major landmarks in the country are some of the some sacred Buddhist sites.  Take for example the Tigers Nest (Taktsang); built on a sheer cliff face high above Paro Valle, a site where Guru Rinpoche meditated here in the 6th Century, he brought Buddhism to Bhutan.  It is believed that he was carried here on the back of a winged tigress, hence the name Tigers Nest.  This is one of three extremely sacred sites in the country and a must on any tourist’s itinerary, while we may initially visit for the ascetic beauty, few people leave without feeling the scanty of the site. 

5.     With China bordering on the north and south and India along the east and west, how can these diverse influences be seen in Bhutan's modern day culture?

While you expect to see close links to its neighbours, this is not really the case. Bhutan and its people are distinctive, it has a deep, rich and varied culture set in a stunning backdrop and ultimately this sets it apart as unique.  In Bhutan today I think you still see a society that looks into itself for answers and while increasingly influenced by the world around it, I do not think it is looking to its neighbours for inspiration.  You have to remember, TV and internet only reached Bhutan in 1999 and practically all sections of society now have mobile phones.  The change which can be seen is within its youth who look more to countries such as Korea, Japan, Singapore and the United States of America for some of their inspiration.

6.     What role does the Gross National Happiness play in Bhutan and where do its values derive from? What are its domains?

Gross National Happiness plays a large part in the government policy of the last number of years.  The fourth King of Bhutan declared the country should not look only to the economic growth or Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to measure development but to a more holistic measure, coining the term Gross National Happiness (GNH).  Within the country GNH is measure periodically via an extensive survey.   Happiness is determined by looking at Sustainable and Equitable Socio-Economic Development, Preservation and Promotion of Culture, Conservation and Sustainable

Environment Management and Good Governance.   These are broken down into 9 domains that have 33 additional indicators.  To discover happiness, the process can be extensive, the survey once touch 4 days for a person to answer and I believe now it’s down to about 4 hours. 

So it’s one thing to know how happy you are but what do you do with this information? 

The answer is the Gross National Happiness Commission (GNHC), this body stands over all ministries in the Bhutanese Government and any project that these ministries which to carry out must go through the GNHC for its approval before it can be rolled out.

7.     With a large number of wildlife reserves and national parks to visit in Bhutan, what type of wildlife can one expect to encounter?

Well approximately 42% of the kingdom is under protection with national parks linked by a series of protected corridors so that wildlife can move between these parks.  With the changing topography you encounter varying ecosystems, each valley tends to have a different environment.  The warm southern part of Bhutan supports wildlife that is usually associated with a tropical-jungle climate. As you travel north, the wildlife changes accordingly as the elevation increases. Considering the size, Bhutan has the most diverse ecosystem at least in Asia, if not the world.  Some of the facts: 678 recorded species of bird, 5603 species of flora 579 wild orchids, 46 rhododendrons, and over 300 medicinal plants. At least 30 bamboo species and Close to 200 species of mammals have been recorded in Bhutan. 

What can you expect to see?  Royal Bengal Tiger, Snow Leopard and a host of monkeys including the Golden Langur.  The cuddly Red Panda, Bhutan’s national animal, the Takin,  the Asiatic Elephant along the southern border region and the Himalayan Musk Deer, not to mention yaks, blue sheep and plenty of dogs.   During fall, winter and spring you should visit Phobjikha Valley to see the majestic Black-Necked Cranes (all 3ft).

8.     Local cuisine plays a big role in planning any trip. What are some of Bhutan's traditional dishes? How are the spices?

The most distinctive characteristic of Bhutanese cuisine is its spiciness and the Bhutanese love chillies, no meal is complete without some.  It is the only country in the world where they considered a chilli as a vegetable and it is eaten with nearly every meal.  For people traveling to the country they are however, optional.  Some of the most popular Bhutanese dishes are Ema Datshi, the de facto national dish of Bhutan. A spicy mix of chillis and the delicious local cheese known as Datshi. Momos are a Tibetan-style dumplings stuffed with pork, beef or cabbages and cheese. Traditionally eaten during special occasions, these tasty treats are a Bhutanese favourite.  Phaksha Paa is pork cooked with spicy red chillis. This dish can also include Radishes or Spinach.  No meal is complete without red rice.  This rice is similar to brown rice and is extremely nutritious and filling. When cooked it is pale pink, soft and slightly sticky.

While these are more of the traditional cuisine, practically all restaurants serve a mix of Indian and western style foods. 

9.   If you had only one week to spend in Bhutan, what would be highlights on your itinerary?

I would suggest ditching the land cruiser and explore the country by bike; the pristine Himalayan air is best taken liberally.  A must is white water rafting down Punakha valley where you stop off at Punakha Dzong; this beautiful fortress dominates the riverside.  You can stretch out those legs by hiking from Dochula Pass (mountain pass between Thimphu and Punakha) to Lungchutse Monastery.  This beautiful three hour round trip is worth every step for the awe inspiring 360 degree mountain views.  People often get carried away with running round ticking off places to visit, I think it is essential to have at least one day to stop and take a meditation class and unwind with a traditional hot stone bath.  Of course, last but not least, is a trip to Tigers Nest, located high above Paro valley.   This monastery, which clings to the mountain side, is not only remarkable in its location but one of the most significant Buddhism sites in the Eastern Himalayas.