Now we’re getting adventurous. Bhutan – the Kingdom of Bhutan, to be precise – is one of the most remote places on earth. Nestled between China and India in the eastern Himalayas, Bhutan is a country of fewer than 800,000 people where by government decree 60 percent of the country must remain forested and more than 40 percent is designated as national park and reserves. It’s the last remaining Buddhist kingdom and only transitioned from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy in 2008 (a good year for politics overall). There are no traffic lights in the country, the sale of cigarettes is prohibited, the value of happiness is celebrated by measuring Gross National Happiness, low-end backpacker tourism is banned, and giant penises are painted on houses as symbols of fertility. What’s not to like about this place?One of the key reasons Bhutan is so remote is that the Bhutanese government wants it that way. Their official tourism policy is “High Value, Low Impact”; in other words they prefer a small number of rich people to having a bunch of low-spending backpackers traipsing through the country. How do they implement that policy? To get a visa to enter the country, you must book a complete tour – not necessarily a group tour, but a tour where all accommodations, meals, and travel, along with a guide for the entire trip – is covered. And to keep out the riffraff, there is a minimum charge of $310 per night per person for a couple like me and Mark. (By “like me and Mark,” I mean two people traveling together, not gay travelers. For groups of three or more the per night, per person charge is a mere $250.) Note that those charges are the minimum; you can always pay more if you want.
So here we are, our 36th country in the two-plus years we’ve been on this adventure, and overall my 84th country (Mark’s 87th). We spent two nights in Thimphu, the tiny capital city. Amusingly, our lodge was immediately next door to a gated, walled, secure compound where the retired ex-king’s four wives live. So much to untangle in those last few words! Here’s what I know. Jigme Singye Wangchuck was the fourth king of Bhutan, ruling from 1972 until 2006. In that year he abdicated in favor of his son, the current king. So there is both a king and a former king. (I assumed the former king retired because he was so old, but I was wrong. Jigme was born four weeks after I was so he retired at the age of 50, which seems kind of young to walk away from the crown.) While the current king has merely one wife, the former king is married to four women … all of whom are sisters … whose brother was prime minister under the former king … and all of whom live in a compound several miles from the retired king.
Wouldn’t you love to see a reality show with that as the premise??
So that’s the start of our two-week Bhutan adventure. After two nights in Thimphu we’re making four three night stops in other parts of the country. Then, having run out of money, we’re leaving. We expect to hike, hike, and hike some more. Stay tuned.