After collecting my luggage, I took a deep breath and walked out of the airport to find my guide. To visit Bhutan, it is mandatory that you have a guide and a driver for the entire stay. Thus, these two people are who I’d be spending the next nine days with during my solo trip to Bhutan. While I get along easily with most people, I desperately hoped we would connect.
Dressed in a gray-colored gho, a pair of black knee-high socks and freshly polished black leather loafers, my guide smiled warmly holding a sign with my name. Nicole Melancon, Trans Bhutan Trail.
“Tashi Delek. I’m Singay. And this is Dorgi, our driver,” Singay said pointing to another young man dressed in a red and green plaid gho, Bhutan’s traditional dress. “Welcome to Bhutan”.
Little did I know, Singay, Dorgi, and I would be great friends by the end of the trip. We made the perfect team, and their jokes, laughter, knowledge, and passion for Bhutan made the trip all the more memorable.
Despite a decent night of sleep, I was incredibly tired. The twelve-hour time difference made the jet lag rather difficult for my first few days in Bhutan but like I always do, I powered through going full speed ahead. Coming from flat Minnesota to mountainous Bhutan, I was also dealing with a bit of altitude. Paro International Airport is located at 7,332 feet (2235 meters) above sea level. While we would be spending the nights in the valleys of Bhutan, the hiking would be higher up in the mountains along the Trans Bhutan Trail. I would acclimate over time but the combination of jet lag, altitude, and incredibly windy roads, made me feel a bit off the first few days.
After putting my luggage in the back of the Toyota SUV, Dorgi, Singay, and I headed to Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, where we would do some sightseeing and spend the night. With an elevation reaching 8,688 feet (2,648 meters), Thimphu is the fifth-highest capital city in the world. Thimphu’s blend of the modern world with Bhutanese tradition is what makes this city so unique. Crimson-robed monks chatting on cell phones, hip coffee shops offering any kind of coffee or tea your heart desires juxtaposed with farmers herding their cattle across the one and only “highway” to graze, are all common sights you will see in Thimphu. It is also the only capital city and country in the world without traffic lights. Instead, they have a neatly dressed traffic guard directing traffic down Bhutan’s original “highway” with white-gloved hands.
As we drove along Bhutan’s east-west Highway, Singay told me a bit about himself and his background. He grew up in Thimphu, alongside his older sister and younger brother with his parents.
He was a bright child and student, earning good marks in school, which afforded him the opportunity to study at a university in Germany. After a challenging year of learning German and taking university-level courses in a new language, Singay returned to Bhutan, disheartened, to finish his degree in Business Administration. During a stint working in tourism as a translator for German tourists coming to Bhutan, Singay realized he had found something special.
“I feel my best when I am outside connected to nature, culture, and tradition,” Singay explained. While his friends continued on to become doctors and engineers, he knew he was different. A life behind a desk was not what he wanted.
“As a tour guide, I am able to preserve our culture by sharing it with guests like you,” Singay tells me. “I am grateful to have my wife and my family’s support to follow my passion”.
As one of Bhutan’s few German-speaking guides, the demand for Singay’s guiding services skyrocketed. Then the pandemic hit bringing tourism to a close and leaving many including Singay out of work. Around this time, His Majesty the King had the vision to revitalize the 600-year-old Trans Bhutan Trail that had been left in disuse for over 60 years. The restoration and revival of this ancient rugged 403-kilometer trail through some of the most pristine nature and remote communities of Bhutan provided work to over 900 Bhutanese, including Singay.
As trail inspector for the Trans Bhutan Trail Organization, Singay and another fellow guide were the first to complete the entire trail before it reopened this past fall to the public. I was thrilled to be in such good hands!
As we begin our tour of Thimphu, Singay said he worries that in the next few years Bhutan, as it is today, will have been completely lost due to modernization. Bhutan has witnessed more change and modernization in the past 60 years than it has in centuries. The tiny kingdom that is sandwiched between China and India was almost completely isolated and closed off from the world until the first paved road was constructed in 1961, connecting 175 kilometers from Phuentsholing to Thimphu. Before the road was built, it took ten days to walk across rugged, ancient trails. Access to print media, mail services, radio, and television followed along with the opening of Bhutan to tourism.
The next generation isn’t as interested in tradition and the past, Singay tells me. Instead, they are influenced by TV and the internet. As a tour guide, I have a very important role for our country and our guests. I am a Cultural Ambassador. I am working to preserve Bhutan’s unique culture and heritage.
Singay’s words resonated as I had read a lot about the rapid change facing Bhutan, which was a big reason why I wanted to see the country as soon as I could. While the government has received some pushback concerning the hefty $200 per day sustainable development tax that each international visitor must pay to visit Bhutan, I understood the tax more after visiting Bhutan. It is not only a way to keep tourism numbers lower, but it is also a way to ensure the money produced by tourism goes back into the country and is reinvested in important programs such as healthcare, education, and sustainability measures. With a population of roughly 800,000 people and 70% of the country preserved as forests, I can see what is at stake if Bhutan becomes the next Iceland or Venice. Overtourism could destroy the beauty and culture of this magical place that still very few foreigners are fortunate to see.
Click on each photo to enlarge and for a description
One of the best ways to explore a country is through its cuisine. in Thimphu, make sure to make a visit to the large farmer’s market where you will see spices, incense, red chilies, dried pork, yak cheese, and more.
Over the next nine days, I would learn a lot about this unique country thanks to Singay. I would soon discover there was quite an advantage in going to Bhutan only two months after it opened after one of the longest pandemic closures in the world. During the entire time I was there, I saw only four tourists and on most nights I was the only tourist in the hotel.
On my last day, Singay told me that I was officially the last guest of the year on the Trans Bhutan Trail and that meant something special.