The ride offers you a jaw-dropping view of the snow-covered peaks of the Himalayan Range rising out of the thick clouds, but then the plane suddenly dips, navigating through the jagged Himalayan mountains, right into a small opening that’s called the Paro airport in Bhutan.
It is probably the scariest plane ride I ever had but also one of the most rewarding.
Bhutan has no huge malls, no noisy bars, and no skyscrapers. There is only one movie house that does not show Hollywood movies like Twilight or Titanic. Bhutan, however, has some 800,000 of the happiest people in the world. And their happiness is contagious.
I attended a conference in Bhutan in 2010. From Manila, I had to fly to Bangkok, and then to Paro. There is only one government airline flying in and out of Bhutan—DrukAir—and it only has flights from Thailand, India and Nepal.
But for the 30,000 tourists who come to Bhutan every year, the long flights—and the pricey $200 per day tariff during peak season—are worth it.
Sandwiched between giants India and China, this tiny country only welcomes “responsible” tourists willing to “remain silent and respectful observers,” Prime Minister Jigme Thinley told me during my visit.
A way to ensure this is through the minimum $200 per day that each tourist must spend on hotel, transportation and food.
Bhutan boasts of big attractions to so-called nature and cultural tourists.
A predominantly Buddhist society, it has many elaborately decorated temples built on cliffs. Trekking is one of the main tourist activities.
An example is the so-called Tiger’s Nest or Paro Taktsang, an old monastery built on a cliff more than 3,000 meters high. It is located in the province of Paro, where Bhutan’s only airport is.
The people are also very friendly. They speak English—it is actually taught beginning in grade school just like in the Philippines—and newspapers are also mandated by law to publish in both English and in the native language Dzongkha.
Its claim to fame, however, is popularizing the concept of gross national happiness (GNH) as an alternative measure of living standards to the market-driven gross domestic product (GDP). They are not rich, but they are happy.
Bhutan adheres to the “high value, low volume” policy that it began since it opened its borders to tourists in 1974.
“Bhutan will continue to be a high-end destination,” Prime Minister Thinley said. “It will be for people who are willing to pay more and who will be, as a result, more culturally and ecologically sensitive.”
This is not surprising for a country whose new Constitution specifically mandates that 60 percent of its forest cover must be maintained at any time.
The US remains its biggest market for tourists, but people from other countries are starting to come in droves. Filipinos have also visited the remote country.
Between 1998 and 2007, at least 208 Filipinos visited Bhutan, said Ted Khatiwara, communication officer of the Association of Bhutanese Tour Operators.
Bhutan got worldwide attention in 2008 when it transitioned from a monarchy to a democracy by holding its first national elections.
The government, dependent on foreign aid and on revenues from exporting hydroelectric power to neighbors Nepal, Bangladesh and India, now looks at tourism as a growth sector.
So yes, souvenir shops accept US dollars.
The food is good and relatively cheap. My personal favorite is a chicken dish that was very tasty I forgot how it was called, although many native dishes come with lots of chili.
For a country still categorized as poor and backward, it is surprising how expensive it could be to stay there.
So if you are like me, obsessed with fridge magnets, be ready to shell out some P600 for just one piece.
It was pricey. But it also made me happy.
Note: Bhutan’s new government, the first after the country’s shift from monarchy to democracy, organized a conference on democracy in October 2010 with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The UNDP invited me as a media delegate to the conference.