Can’t Travel? Live Vicariously Lor: Bhutan Edition
STORY: Audrey Phoon
02 August 2020
In this Live Vicariously series, we’ll visit some of the world’s top places as seen through the eyes of other travellers and help you plan for future holidays like a true kan cheong Singaporean.
Have your travel preferences evolved because of COVID-19? Mine have.
Formerly-fond daydreams of going shopping amongst the crowds in Myeongdong and Bangkok have turned into nightmares. And the thought of queueing alongside other people at famous restaurants is enough to make me and my usually unstoppable appetite vow to stay home and eat nothing but Spam.
These days, when I search for future travel destinations, my checklist includes one major factor that would never have been there pre-pandemic: Infection risk.
It doesn’t sound like it belongs on a holiday plan at all. But no choice, right? Nobody wants to come back after a vacay, only to realise it was your last…
Going by that logic then, one of the best destinations to put on your list when we can finally travel again is Bhutan, the Kingdom of Happiness. (Just to be clear, we’re not talking about Disneyland, hor. This is the nation wedged on the slopes of the Himalayas between China and India, where they measure Gross National Happiness instead of Gross Domestic Product and the people are said to be the most contented in the world. One wonders if that has anything to do with cannabis growing wild all over the country…)
Why Bhutan? Priorities first: This sprawling nation that’s almost 53x the size of Singapore had a grand total of just 99 COVID-19 cases at the time of writing, and zero deaths. (Plus it never boasted about its low numbers or effective handling - classy.)
Also, this is a country that has for years been limiting the number of visitors by imposing a minimum spend of between USD200 and USD250 ($275 to $340) per visitor per day, depending on the season. Last year, just over 315,000 tourists visited Bhutan - compare that with similar-sized Taiwan, which had almost 12 million visitors!
Tourists aside, Bhutan’s population density is one of the globe’s lowest, with just 18 people per square km, and it’s the only carbon-negative country in the world. Which means your chances of an infection-free, guilt-free holiday are probably as good as you’ll get anywhere.
And while you can’t head to Bhutan on a shoestring, you’ll truly be getting your money’s worth in the land of the Dragon People (fun fact: Bhutan’s official name is Druk yul, meaning the country of the Thunder Dragon), which has some of the most beautiful and dramatic landscapes in the world thanks to its remote location on the Himalayas. Just think of it as the perfect location - virtual or not - to recover from the past few months and recalibrate.
Can’t wait to visit? Live vicariously through these folks before you can travel again.
What is it about Bhutan that’s so magical? It’s not just the mystical-sounding terms (like Dragon People), but a way of life that puts the more important human values before material ones.
That’s what director Ben Henretig captures in this multi-award-winning love letter to the country that shows four athletes attempting a border-to-border crossing for the first time ever on foot and bike. Grammy winner Imogen Heap does the narration.
FYI you’ll have to pay to watch the movie here, but you can watch the trailer above first to see if it’s worth your moolah.
The most credible food recos come from locals, and you can’t get more real than the suggestions from this smiley, adorable Bhutanese grandpa.
Join Dasho Benji for meals at his favourite restaurants in the capital Thimphu as he recommends local staples like sikaam paa (dried pork belly) and ezey (a type of chilli sauce). Actually, he isn’t just a grandpa - Dasho Benji is also Bhutan’s “godfather of conservation” and he served as a United Nations ambassador in the ’90s.
One of the highlights of any trip to Bhutan is a trek to Tiger’s Nest, a sacred site precariously perched 900m high on a cliffside in the Paro Valley (better known to boomers as the place where Hong Kong stars Tony Leung and Carina Lau got married).
The uphill hike to the ancient monastery and spectacular views usually takes 2 hours, but you can do a virtual speed-walk through via this video (below) by American travel vloggers Kara and Nate, who glamp on-site and share every inch of the trip, down to that very necessary detail - the bathrooms.