BHUTAN AND MYANMAR
ANCIENT BUDDHIST KINGDOMS TOUR
FAR FUNG TRAVEL
I recently returned from a trip to Bhutan and Myanmar with Far Fung Travel. This was just part of a total tour that also included Tibet and Nepal. Although interested in these countries, including them would have taken more time that I had available.
One of the things that made this trip so interesting was the contrast between the two countries.
Bhutan is a small country nestled between China (Tibet) and India in the Himalayan Mountains. About the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined, it is very mountainous. Flying into its only airport in Paro was hair-raising, as the plane swerved between the mountains before finally touching down in a small valley large enough for a landing strip. We could see Mt. Everest and other high peaks in the distance. Once on the ground, we began a drive across the only highway in Bhutan. This was another test of our nerves and strong stomachs, as the highway, which was quite narrow in most places, “switchbacked” its way up and down the mountains. Our driver had to constantly maneuver to avoid oncoming traffic and keep from going over the edge! The gorgeous scenery in Bhutan has often been compared to that of Switzerland, however, I haven’t been there, so I can’t verify this.
Bhutan, which has been referred to as a “magical kingdom”, is ruled by a popular king who shares power with a couple other governmental bodies. The political structure is currently in a state of flux, with a new constitution and a new king (the handsome son of the current king, who recently abdicated) scheduled to take over in 2008. There was a lot of roadwork being done in preparation for the coronation next year. The current king is famous for having said that he is not concerned about the Gross National Product of Bhutan—but, rather, the “Gross National Happiness”. To promote that goal, a high percentage of the budget is allocated to healthcare and education.
The people all seemed relatively well off—we saw absolutely no begging. They were also very friendly, spoke English, and, in general, didn’t mind being photographed. They all wore the national costume—a long robe called a “gho” for the man, and “kira” and “toego” for the women. The homes, even in the countryside, were lovely—fairly large structures, with beautiful dark wood trim. The people and government of Bhutan are very concerned with maintaining their national culture, and the government toward this end mandates things such as the style of architecture and the national dress.
Beginning in Paro, we also traveled to Thimphu (the capital), Punaka, Trongsa, Bumthang, and Phobjikha through some gorgeous mountain scenery during our 12 nights there. The country is Buddhist (a school of tantric Mahayana Buddhism—similar to that of Tibet yet unique to Bhutan), and we visited many monasteries and temples. We also did a lot of hiking, since many of these places were off road and perched on mountain tops. I was thankful that I had brought along a walking stick and my hiking boots! This form of Buddhism is strictly against killing. They do eat meat—but only if a non-Buddhist does the slaughtering. The no-kill policy is the cause of a couple of Bhutan’s problems: roving packs of stray dogs and rats. We saw lots of the dogs, and heard them at night, but didn’t see the rats, thank goodness.
In Punaka, we attended a festival—not the part that was intended (our tour company did not realize they had changed the dates of the festival), but it was still quite colorful. On our final day in Paro, we climbed up to the monastery known as Tiger’s Nest, which is an absolutely awesome sight perched on the top of a mountain, and built into the side of a cliff. This is probably the most physically challenging thing I have ever done. My trekking friends will laugh at this, but hiking and climbing are not my favorite pastimes.
The weather was cooler than normal—30’s-50’s F rather than the high 50’s, low 60’s expected. We saw quite a bit of snow, and even had to walk for about a mile down the highway at one point, since our van was sliding dangerously close to the edge. The sleet that drenched me as I was hiking back down from Tiger’s Nest was no fun either.
Our hotels were quite basic, and, in some cases, had only generators for electricity. Thus, we had only a couple hours of electricity and hot water at night and in the morning. And—small wood-burning stoves, which we had to continually feed, provided the only heat in these hotels.
The food was also basic. We usually ate in our hotels (per government mandate), and the buffet-style food was pretty similar day-in and day-out. Bhutanese cuisine is spicy, however most of the dishes had been toned down for us. The Bhutanese don’t normally eat much meat, but there was a holiday period in progress, during which no meat is consumed. However, we tourists were usually provided with one meat dish on the buffet table—from meat stored by the hotels/restaurants—which was often just tough slices of beef or yak. My favorite dishes were the red rice grown in the area, and potatoes—often with cheese sauce. We were also short of fresh fruit, since it was out of season.
We saw very few tourists while in Bhutan. This is also the result of government policy. In order to keep from being overrun by tourists, they strictly limit the number of visitors allowed, and further restrict them by requiring all visitors to spend at least $200 per day in the country.
Was Bhutan a magical kingdom? Although a very interesting country, I didn’t really feel the magic. The problems with dogs, rats, and what amounted to child abuse in the monasteries were very real. And—there were other problems that detracted from my enjoyment of the trip. I had a very bad cold through much of our stay in Bhutan, which certainly curbed my enthusiasm. And, the snow, cold and unheated hotels didn’t help. Also, there were several personality conflicts within our group of 12, which created a lot of tension. Our guide in Bhutan was very knowledgeable, but tended to give a lot more detail about the Buddhist sites than we could absorb.
After a couple nights R&R in Bangkok, we moved on to six nights in Myanmar. Half of the original group did not take this part of the tour, and the cohesiveness of the six remaining improved considerably. Joining us were a Buddhist lama (a high-ranking monk), and the daughter of a lama, who were friends of our tour leader—very interesting additions to the group.
So, we moved from the cold and snow to weather in the low 90’s. The hotels were fancier, and all had A/C and swimming pools, which I took advantage of during the hour or two of siesta time in the afternoons.
Myanmar (called Burma when it was ruled by the British) is the second largest country in Southeast Asia (after Indonesia), and similar to the size of Texas. The areas we visited—Yangon (Rangoon), Bagan (Pagan), and Mandalay were all located on fairly flat land around the Irrawaddy River. Because of the distances and the lack of decent roads, we flew between all the cities, rather than driving as we did in Bhutan.
A repressive military junta rules Myanmar. It took some thought before I even decided to travel there. Would my money support this repressive government? I finally decided that much of my tourist money would help the poor people there, and my experience there confirmed this. As our guide said, the “generals” (the rulers) and their friends all make plenty of money from selling off the natural resources of the country—teakwood, gems, natural gas. They don’t bother much with the tourist dollars. Unlike Bhutan, the government spends very little on healthcare and education. In fact the healthcare situation in Myanmar is on a par with the poorest countries in Africa.
The people themselves were beautiful and very friendly. Most of them also wore the national costume—by choice not by law. The sarong-like skirt called a longyi was worn by both sexes. Our guide said it was much more practical in that hot country than pants would be. Many of the women decorated their faces with a sandalwood paste—which is supposedly a sunscreen, skin lubricant, and beauty cream. We saw some begging—for money, shampoo, lipsticks—but not as much as I had expected. There were lots of street vendors selling tourist items, and I did my share in supporting them.
Myanmar is also a Buddhist country, but they practice a type known as Theravada Buddhism. Among the highlights of our trip were visits to the Schwedagon Pagoda in Yangon (an incredibly elaborate jewel-studded temple complex dating back 2500 years), and the more than 2,000 pagodas of Bagan, most dating from the 11th to the 13th centuries. We also had a lovely cruise on the Irrawaddy River to visit one of the ancient capitals.
Our food here was really delicious—somewhat similar to Chinese cuisine. We were able to eat in many local restaurants, each with their own specialty. We had plenty of meat and seafood dishes and more fresh fruit than in Bhutan.
Our Myanmar country guide was excellent. He had a great sense of humor, was responsive to our needs, and didn’t overload us with too much information.
We really enjoyed our stay in Myanmar, and can only hope that they will have a more caring government in the future.
If you are interested in my photos and the detailed trip report that I plan to write, please let me know (firstname.lastname@example.org), and I will Email it as the segments are completed. Also--let me know if you are interested in only the Bhutan or only the Myanmar segment.
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BHUTAN AND MYANMAR