Rainer Jenss and his family are currently on an around-the-world journey, and they're blogging about their experiences here at Intelligent Travel. Keep up with the Jensses by bookmarking their posts, and follow the boys' Global Bros blog at National Geographic Kids.
Land of the Thunder Dragon . . . Kingdom in the Clouds . . . Shangri La . . . Himalayas . . . Gross National Happiness.
Read anything about the Kingdom of Bhutan, and these will likely be among the buzzwords you'll come across. They're what piqued my curiosity a few years ago while researching possible adventure vacation options for a friend and I. Investigating a little further, I discovered that this remote country nestled between Tibet and India only allows about 20,000 foreign visitors a year, perfect for someone like me who was looking for something unspoiled and exotic. And after being exposed to Buddhism's basic principles through years of practicing yoga, I could further explore the religion in this remote part of the world.
When our family's around-the-world trip became a reality I had to inform my trusted travel companion that the "boys only" trek to Bhutan would have to wait. But as Carol and I started mapping out our route through Asia, I couldn't resist tossing up Bhutan as an option. Was it a risk to take Tyler and Stefan to such an isolated country in a region we knew little about?
We noticed that National Geographic Expeditions offered tours there and asked if Bhutan was a good family-friendly destination. They responded with a resounding 'yes,' and with their enthusiastic endorsement, we made it work, anticipating that this might just be the highlight of the trip.
If there were any trepidations about how we would handle Bhutan's harsh terrain, spicy food, or unique culture, we figured the six weeks spent in Asia leading up to the trip would have us prepared. The kids seemed thrilled to be going on another tour because of the positive experience they had in China, so when we met up with the group in Bangkok, I wasn't surprised to see Tyler and Stefan immediately gravitate to the trip's expert, Richard Whitecross.
What did surprise me, however, were that some aspects of Bhutan didn't mirror my preconceived ideas. The areas we covered on the tour, for example, were not snow-covered or as rugged as I had imagined. In fact, daytime temperatures climbed well into the 70s and the evenings were cool, not cold. We saw beautiful peaks every now and then, a reminder that we were indeed in the Himalayas, but we didn't see any yaks. I would learn that yaks are found in large numbers in the higher altitudes, which also explained why we didn't find much yak meat on the menu. Instead, most dishes were vegetarian and almost always included Bhutan's national dish, ema - chilies and cheese.
I also didn't expect to see many other tourists, or 'Chilips,' the Dzongkha expression for "foreigner" that our guide Tshering would so lovingly call us. After just a couple days, it was easy to understand why we did. Bhutan is only about the size of Switzerland, and there are just a small handful of roads and hotels, so you are going to see other Westerners whether you like it or not. Even though it's remote and few people even know where it is, we didn't have Bhutan to ourselves. That said, the people we did cross paths with were not backpackers, mountaineers, or hard-core trekkers. Like us, they spent more time traversing the majestic countryside by mini-bus than on foot, providing for trips that were family-friendly and not physically demanding. While there are opportunities to do some serious hiking and whitewater rafting in Bhutan, that's not what we signed up for. We were here to witness some of the most magnificent scenery on Earth and engage with a culture unlike our own.
I was most surprised at how fascinated the boys became with the Buddhist faith that's so omnipresent in the Kingdom. Initially, I was concerned that the kids would be completely disinterested in the scheduled visits to various temples, monasteries, and dzongs (fortresses that serve as the religious, administrative, and social centers of their district). Instead, they embraced the whole experience and were completely captivated by the statues, prayer wheels, and ceremonial offerings. At our last stop in Paro, Stefan even arranged a shrine in our hotel room with all the items we picked up along the way, complete with Buddhas, incense, offering bowls, prayer beads and flags, cymbals and bells. I wonder just how much interest in this he'll retain as the trip goes on.
Regardless, Carol and I to got to see an aspect of our children we had never really seen before - their spiritual side. This seemed to confirm what we've been feeling since this trip began, that we are truly blessed.
Up next: Part 2 of Bhutan - Gross National Happiness
Photos by Rainer Jenss