In this episode, we venture far and wide from discussing the daily tariff for inbound travelers to the 10-inch wooden phallus monks use to bless you.
00:20 What we have learnt about Bhutan
02:22 Bhutan's daily tariff, is it worth it?
05:49 "I think travel is inherently a privilege." - Alex Reynolds
10:15 Long live the King
12:40 Phallic obsession -"And next thing you know I'm being blessed by the monk, in other
18:40 Bhutan's conflicting needs
21:30 Pigs don't fly
22:00 Travel News
26:40 Traveling sustainably
32:46 Bhutan Homestay
39:46 Stumbling across a festival
41:15 Our podcast survey
41:40 Next episode
Marie Javins is an ex-New Yorker who started a blog "No Hurry in Africa" in 2005, then moved to Kuwait and Cairo to make comic books and circumnavigated the world for the second time in 2011.
In this episode, Marie tells us about her visit to Bhutan and its phallic obsession. Look out for Marie in an upcoming Amazing Nomads episode.
Alex Reynolds is a traveler with a blog called Lost with Purpose. We caught up with Alex to discuss Bhutan’s daily tariff.
Mollie Mac has traveled independently to 40 countries, always with an eye to environmental and social sustainability. She works for Eco Bags, cleaning up the planet one bag at a time.
Ulrike Cokl from Bhutan Homestay has lived in Bhutan on and off for many years and has conducted ethnographic research on traditional hospitality practices, traveling & gift-exchange in rural communities. So, she is very familiar with
Ulrike is also co-founder of the Bhutan Network, an Austrian based association to facilitate equal exchange between people in Bhutan and Europe. You can follow the Network on Facebook.
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Explore your boundaries and discover your next adventure with The World Nomads Podcast. Hosted by Podcast Producer Kim Napier and World Nomads Phil Sylvester, each episode will take you around the world with insights into destinations from travelers and experts. They’ll share the latest in travel news, answer your travel questions and fill you in on what World Nomads is up to, including the latest scholarships and guides.
World Nomads is a fast-growing online travel company that provides inspiration, advice, safety tips and specialized travel insurance for independent, volunteer and student travelers traveling and studying most anywhere in the world. Our online global travel insurance covers travelers from more than 135 countries and allows you to buy and claim online, 24/7, even while already traveling.
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Speaker 1: Welcome to the World Nomads podcast. Delivered by World Nomads, the travel lifestyle and insurance brand. It's not your usual travel podcast. It's everything for the adventurous independent traveler.
Kim: Thank you for hitting play on this episode of the World Nomads podcast, with Phil and myself, Kim. In which we feature Bhutan. Look a few things I've
Kim: Now in this episode we will venture, be prepared, far and wide. From discussing the daily tariff, which could be a little off putting to some people.
Phil: For inbound tourists you mean?
Kim: Yeah exactly.
Phil: Okay, yeah.
Kim: To the 10-inch wooden phallus that monks use to bless you. I'm loving this country. Why would a nomad want to experience Bhutan, Phil?
Phil: Do you mean because of the daily tariff? You have to fork out a couple of hundred US dollars a day just for the privilege of traveling there.
Kim: That's off season yeah. And a little more when it's popular.
Phil: Yeah. Look I think we've discussed this before when talking about over tourism. I think everybody's got a right to travel but it's a bit of a privilege. And I think you may have to pay for that privilege sometimes. And being a World Nomads not all about getting by on five bucks a day or what have you. There are some experiences out there that will be worth having, like visiting Bhutan. And it's about getting value for, however much money it's cost you. So even if you're spending a few hundred dollars a day, I think Bhutan should be high on the list for a World Nomad because it is such a unique place, it's so different and it is so culturally rich.
Kim: You are not kidding, as you will find out in this episode. Alex is a traveler with a blog called Lost with Purpose. Now, this is a girl you won't find sipping coconut water on a beach in Bali. She prefers places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran
Phil: The stan's and then there's the an's.
Kim: The an's yeah. We caught up with her to talk about Bhutan's daily tariff that Phil just touched on and asked the big question, look, is it worth it?
Alex: A lot of people cringe when you think of the, or when you hear of the 200 to 250 a day fee. But it's not so much a tourist tax as it is an all inclusive fee. You're basically paying to go on a tour in Bhutan. And so the 250 a day includes your accommodation, your transportation, your guides fees, your food, entry fees for wherever you're going that day, et cetera, et cetera. And so it seems like a lot especially relative to other countries in the region.
Alex: What Bhutan is doing with that money is actually quite good. A good portion of that money goes towards sustainable developments within the country. So building infrastructure, providing free health care and education for everyone. Stuff like that. So your money is not just disappearing into some deep dark governmental pocket. It's actually being put to good use and for the most part covering basic tour expenditures.
Phil: Well because Bhutan is one of the first countries, and maybe the only country that not only measures GDP but it measures happiness. It has a happiness index as well which is part of government policy.
Alex: Yeah, whether or not they actually measure happiness that much or not measure happiness but hold it to that higher regard within the country, I'm not entirely sure about that. That wasn't necessarily so evident when I was there. I think people are generally somewhat content. They're content but I wouldn't say that there's an immense amount of happiness within the country necessarily.
Phil: Ah no but it ...
Alex: But it's more of like a media stand.
Phil: Yeah but at least it's on the radar of the government is one of the priorities that they want, which is kinda cool.
Alex: Yes the government definitely prioritizes the important things. Like they do value the well being of their people. Something that I really admire is that they put a strong value on maintaining forest coverage in the country. I believe it has to be a minimum of 60% or something like that. And
Kim: Is Bhutan worth the money?
Alex: I think Bhutan is absolutely worth the money. If you have the money it's worth the money. It's hard to find a country that's finding such a healthy balance between kind of traditions from the days of yore and modernity. Like more globalized aspects of culture are starting to creep in. You'll see kids walking around in Nike's in the capital. Everyone has smart phones in
Alex: But I think that it's generally been quite well preserved but not in a museum sort of sense. They're not being forced to maintain any kind of traditions. It's not like super contrived. This is just the way that things are and because the government really puts maintaining it's
Phil: Yeah I'm glad to hear you say that it's still authentic but I do worry about it being kept as somewhere that's a privilege to go to or somewhere that is kind of cast in concrete and never changes.
Alex: I think travel is inherently a privilege regardless of where you're going. It's a privilege
Alex: I think in a country like Bhutan that only has what 800,000 people in the country, I think it's good to try and maintain a balance between foreigners swooping in and doing as they will and the local population maintaining a normal way of life.
Phil: I guess what bothers me is that it's kind of a, you know, given that most travelers that go to South East Asia, it's a very western thing to have the ability to travel in that way and then as you say, swooping in in your elephant pants and smoking weed is one kind of cultural imperialism. But then it kinda bothers me that Bhutan, I mean and to expect 250 dollars a day is a lot of money so kind of is that making it a luxury enclave or a place only for the rich. I don't know I feel I'm conflicted by that.
Alex: Yeah I was also quite conflicted about that because I went to Bhutan as part of a sponsored trip. It was a place that I would never be able to go, to afford to go to, any time in the near future. Possibly never. But it wasn't really something that I questioned because I understood that it was a manner of filtering out kind of people who are less concerned about the country they're visiting so much as just trying to check something off of a bucket list.
Alex: Or hit up every country and all of the tourism officials and people in the industry that I spoke to in the country, they all agreed that they thought it was a very effective way of screening tourists. They said that all the tourists that they had were incredibly respectful of the local cultures and much more engaged and interested in the country because of the effort and finances that they had to put forward to visit the country. And they said that they weren't just getting immensely wealthy people, there are people who had been saving for years and years and years to go to the country. So it's not just an enclave for the rich tourists.
Kim: But what sort of experience do you have once you're there?
Alex: So once you're there, it kind of depends on where you choose to go. A lot of the people are just choosing to go to, they go to Thimphu the capital. They go to Paro to see the Tigers Nest, which is the famous monastery up in the mountainside. They go to Punakha to see
Alex: But as the country starts to kind of increase in popularity and gets some repeat tourists, more people are branching a bit further out into the country. Going to the far north or the far east. I myself started in the south of the country that very few people go to. People were really surprised to see foreigners there
Alex: For part of my tour I had a private guide and he was immensely flexible. He was like okay what do you want to do? We could do this if you want to do this, so be it. Do you want me to come with you to translate? If you do, sure. If you don't, also fine, I'll see you later. So that was really nice and far more flexible than I had anticipated.
Alex: And then for the other part of my tour I was with a larger group of about 10, 15 people. And we went to the Royal Highlander festival in Laya, which is Bhutan's northern most settlement and that was really wild. So it's a
Phil: I love how you just threw that away, the King came.
Alex: By the
Alex: He also looks like a Bhutanese version of Tom Cruise in Top Gun. He had his hair slicked back and had aviators on. It was just so cool and charming as he was gliding through the crowds. And so that was a lot of fun because the tour group had kind of come together in the morning. Have a little bit of a chat. Have a bit of breakfast and then we could just disperse and go off on our merry way and do whatever we wanted to do
Kim: What I loved about that story was that you, straight away separated the money from how a nomad wants to travel. Would you
Phil: Totally, yep absolutely.
Alex: The way you separate the money from how a nomad wants to travel what do you mean?
Phil: I mean traveling responsibly and being able to make your own choices and then being able to connect with the people that you meet.
Alex: Yeah and like
Kim: Thank you for that Alex and if you think a Tom cruise lookalike complete with sunnie's is out there as a leader. Take a listen to Marie. Now she joined me to chat about Bhutan's obsession with penises amongst other things.
Marie: Well when I was in Bhutan, this was 2011 so it's a ways back now. One thing that was, I had read about this in advance, and it was less common than I expected but a lot of places in more rural areas there are
Marie: You often can find wooden carvings, like phallus carvings in tourist areas and in one place
Marie: It's not obscene, it's a symbol that's part of their religion and their culture. What it is, is that the phallus, as it's called there by those with better manners than say I do, I have. It's intended as a tribute and it's a celebration of the Divine Madman which is Bhutan's favorite saint. So he was a bit of a prankster and he would do things like
Kim: Oh he's ... All this from a faction that kinda didn't really open themselves up to the world until in recent times.
Marie: Yeah and this is why this still exists. Bhutan is on the cusp, it's one of these places where there sort of wrestling with modernization and how to maintain and keep their actual culture. So in the
Kim: Yeah nice. Now you also
Marie: Oh well, women are the only people who can inherit property in Bhutan, so sort of a sister would inherit the property and the brother has to go
Kim: Fascinating. So what was your, and that word fascinating comes to me every time we chat or read anything about Bhutan, what did you make of it?
Marie: Bhutan was overwhelming to me. I was
Marie: This admission fee, ultimately when I started to break it down it turns out that that fee per day, which I think now is more than when I went. When I went I had to pay 240 dollars a day, which is why I was there 10 days instead of a month.
Marie: But it includes your guide which is compulsory. It includes your driver which is compulsory. It includes your hotel room. It includes your meals. It's basically all paid for so while that is still prohibitive to a budget traveler it is actually quite in line with what leisure travelers pay who are, you know who don't travel necessarily the way you or I might. But they wanna have tourists but they wanna control it and do it in a sustainable way. Which is really how they try to do everything there. They try to find a way forward that is sustainable and that is socially responsible.
Marie: But it's treated to us as this idyllic remote kingdom in the clouds where they don't have MTV and they don't have plastic bags, single use bags. All of that is
Marie: Everyone there knows what to do if you see a Yeti. No one has actually seen one but everyone knows exactly what you're supposed to do. With the male
Kim: Okay, let me clear up a couple of things. The Divine Madman is a maverick saint, Drukpa Kunley. Do you reckon I've pronounced that correctly?
Phil: I've no idea.
Kim: Why am I asking you? And he introduced Buddhism to Bhutan and as Marie said he was known for his crazy methods of enlightening other beings, mostly women Phil. Which earned him the title the Saint of Five thousand Women.
Phil: Enlightened to within an inch of your life, yes.
Kim: Exactly. He was also a poet and a song writer.
Kim: I am happy that I am a free Yogi. So I grow more and more into my inner happiness. I can have sex with many women because I help them to go the path of enlightenment. Outwardly I'm a fool. Inwardly I live with a clear spiritual system. Outwardly I enjoy wine, women
Phil: Do you know how that alternate sentences there.
Phil: Yeah. I'm only one of each. I'm not the other one I'm just the first one.
Kim: So outwardly you enjoy wine, women
Phil: Yeah that's it.
Kim: So what do you make of the Divine Madman?
Phil: Yeah, look yeah.
Kim: He had a bit of fun.
Phil: He's had a bit of fun and if he can get away with it then. I'm not trying it though.
Kim: No. Now to those pigs that get high. Now apparently true not that I doubted Marie. Marijuana does grow plentifully in Bhutan. While it's illegal for the locals to smoke it that doesn't stop farmers feeding it to their pigs.
Phil: Is that right?
Kim: Yeah apparently.
Phil: Uh, okay.
Kim: You wanna eat, and eat a lot, so the pigs become nice and fat. What's travel news?
Phil: Alright, okay, travel news.
Phil: Well exactly. Well and then an F word.
Phil: But look, thousands of people are stranded because of the sudden closure of this airline because they fly from Iceland to
Kim: What do you do though if you have a ticket from an airline that goes bust?
Phil: Well look, WOW air has put advice on their website which is exactly the same advice I would give as well. Which
Phil: May be able to help you out there so check with that. If you'd paid with a credit card because the service hasn't been delivered you may be able to get a refund from them. And then if you bought your plane fare with WOW as part of a package tour in Europe then the European rules around package tours, the protection there, you should be able to speak to your travel agent and they should have to arrange you on another flight to gey you where you need to go.
Phil: You may also be entitled to compensation from WOW air but you're gonna have to join the queue and get that from the liquidators when that happens. So good luck with that one. But what about travel insurance I hear you say. Did I hear you say?
Kim: What about travel insurance?
Phil: I'm glad you asked Kim. Well look it depends on who your provider is because insolvency is handled in a number of different ways. Some of them simply don't cover it. Even World Nomads plans handle it differently depending on your country of residence so you do have to read up on the policy.
Phil: But for US customers I can tell you what the policy wording says here. We will pay a benefit due to bankruptcy only if no alternate transportation is available. Which means if another airline helps you out with one of those rescue fares and you're sorted then that's it. But if alternate transportation is available the benefit that you can get will be limited to the change fee you get charged.
Phil: So if you get one of the rescue fares but it also costs you another 50 bucks or something like that then that's what it's limited to. So it's really complicated so speak to your travel insurance provider especially if your a World Nomads will help you out there. And having said all that you know what has to happen next Kim?
Speaker 6: (singing)
Kim: Everything in this episode. Poetry, music. Now Bhutan is not only the happiest but also one of the greenest countries in the world. They not only are carbon neutral but reportable carbon negative. And they've built sustainability into their national identity. So how do we make sure we don't ruin all their good work and be a responsible traveler and that Phil is not just to Bhutan but generally? Let's ask Molly Mack.
Molly: To me it's not just about kind of being low waste and green, it's also about kinda not stepping on the
Phil: Well that's an interesting point like whether or not you agree with them we had some people comment, well we had a person comment on one of our articles on World Nomads recently. We were talking about women's safety where the usual advice
Molly: Yeah that's kind of what we do.
Molly: And also it's just, it makes for a more enjoyable travel experience. Maybe you don't agree with people but you're gonna be welcome to talk with them and learn about their culture. You're gonna be just more welcome than you would be if you just, saying I don't care about your culture, I don't care what you believe I'm gonna walk around in my booty shorts and deal with it.
Kim: So as we say immersing yourself in the local culture is really the best opportunity that you have to have
Phil: And do ...
Molly: I do, I think there was one time I really got sick of it. But we were in the middle of nowhere hiking to Kurdistan in a walnut forest and I put on my Nike shorts and immediately our guide said get out of that outfit.
Kim: What was wrong with putting on your Nike shorts?
Molly: They were too short they showed my thighs.
Kim: In a walnut forest? Who's gonna see you?
Molly: That was my thought, I was like I'm sure we've spent a lot of time but it's really hot and I'm going on a hike in the forest and just the guide and that time my boyfriend and I was like well does it really matter?
Phil: Have you taken the opportunity to, just going on this about having a proper travel experience connecting with people. Do you think you've had the opportunity to do some education back the other way as well? Rather than just rolling over and accepting what's happening. And do you think you've been able to express to other people that maybe their rules are not right?
Molly: I'm sure we have. But my biggest things that what I usually will
Molly: Especially since a lot of places I travel have been more remote and third world and they're just like oh my god it's someone visiting here in general. You kinda wanna make a good impression for other people who may come through.
Phil: So have you always traveled with this social responsibility mindset or is that something that you learned?
Molly: I think it's definitely something that I
Kim: Some of the other tips that you offered to travel responsibly include things that we've talked about on previous podcasts like shopping locally but also never giving money to children.
Molly: Yeah that's controversial and it can be hard, you see a child whose really in a desperate situation but the amount of times that that money is really going to that child to buy food is very few and far between. And the ultimate point is that a child shouldn't be on the streets. They should be at school and if they're out there collecting money whether it's for their family or in some cases it's for, they're basically slaves out there on the street collecting money for someone else.
Molly: But if you're out there and you're giving your money and even if it's just for their family that family will say oh it's more important being on the
Molly: People also tend to give out like pencils or notebooks or give them candy and that's also something that I'm wary of because I think if you want to make a true change they're always like a local school you can donate those things
Kim: Yeah and they're are some great charities that have been set up exactly like that so that you are giving and it's going directly to benefit those children.
Molly: There's so much to be wary of there's a lot of research that you really have to do.
Phil: Molly's traveled independently to 40 countries always with an eye to environmental and social sustainability. She works for ECOBAGS and their mission is to offer thoughtful, ethicaly and sustainably sourced, durable, reusable bags. Say that quickly five times. That is to inspire people to reduce, reuse, recycle and reimagine the world that we live in.
Kim: Yeah and leave no trace and do no harm.
Phil: Good idea.
Kim: Our next guest is one of the founders of Bhutan Homestay. Now Ulrike has lived in Bhutan on and off for many years and she conducted ethnographic research on traditional hospitality practices, traveling and gift exchange in rural communities. She'll explain that further. So she's very familiar with village livelihoods all over Bhutan but how did it come about?
Yuli: Well that's quite an interesting story, so in 2011 I started my
Kim: Well how has tourism changed Bhutan?
Yuli: Well actually what I feel has changed most is the infrastructure. It's mainly the road infrastructure, guesthouses, facilities over the past 15 years have really improved a lot. So the first time I was in Bhutan you barely found a guesthouse in rural areas but now you have, really along the main roads with, they call it the highway through Bhutan it's going from the south in Phuentsholing to Thimphu, the capital, to the east and again you can exit from Samdrupjongkhar which is the border town in the east.
Yuli: And Thimphu, the capital, has really grown immensely.
Kim: So what then is a typical homestay like? As opposed to checking into a motel or a hostel?
Yuli: Yes so in Bhutan you have different categories of homestays. You have homestays for example nearby towns or in towns where you have facilities that are not necessarily with
Kim: Well yeah on that with someone with a
Yuli: Yeah that's great, actually I really enjoy staying in the village homes because not only for some people they just like to, what we call, hang out and observe and just enjoy sitting around and watching people going about their chores, but you can also participate, for example, milking the cows in the morning. Helping with field work depending on the season. You can go and help with the weeding or harvesting or firewood collection in the forest. Or you can
Kim: How does this type of experience differ to the ones that we've heard earlier in the podcast about the guided visits, the minimum spend et cetera?
Yuli: Actually it's, you can only travel to Bhutan based on preplanned itineraries based on this daily tariff so no matter if you stay in a farm or you stay in a hotel you will have to pay the same tariff. Your tour will always be accompanied by a guide and the driver and it will be preplanned so that won't change but it's a choice you have that we offer.
Yuli: If you
Kim: So will that, do you think and I think you just mentioned that, that that current method of the daily tariff will remain?
Yuli: Yeah that remains. That's the basic tourism, basic policy in Bhutan that regulates tourist arrivals through this tariff, that's 250 US dollars during highs season and 200 US dollars during low season but it includes your overnights, guide, driver, transport, three meals a day so you basically only have to buy drinks and your souvenirs.
Kim: So in summing up is there anything that you would like listeners to know about Bhutan?
Yuli: Yeah I think that in it's, Bhutan is a great place to visit if you really want to see a place that's really not overrun with tourists. And one thing you should do is you should really plan your trip properly and try to get away from the main, how to say, from the main tourist roads and get a little bit into the valleys.
Yuli: The thing you have to be aware of is that the roads are not very good, so the moment you leave the main highway the roads will be a little bit, how to say, not very well maintained but you will be rewarded with great immersion into more traditional village life and there are certainly places where not many tourists reach and occasionally our guests for example in East Bhutan. East Bhutan is a great place to visit and sometimes our guests have been to places where they stumbled over a festivals, where they were the first ever tourist to visit and they were treated like chief guests so that's really what you can still experience in Bhutan if you plan and tell your agent what you're interested in and what you would like to do. A lot of information prior to your arrival is good for the tour operator and for yourself.
Kim: And Ulrike says your experience in Bhutan stands and falls with your guide so do your research. Now that brings us to the end of the episode on Bhutan. I hope I've said that correctly cos I've heard, stop smiling at me.
Kim: You mentioned Iceland earlier while you're on a roll with your
Alex: I mean personally the only one I can think that isn't talked about as much is fardarlffordarsun which is on the way to the glacier lagoon and I don't think everyone goes there.
Kim: Now Phil?
Phil: Hey what do you think of the podcast because we wanna know what you think about it. We actually built a survey and we wanna ask you just a few simple questions about what time of day you listened to it. What you like about it, what you don't like about it, personally for me it's you.
Kim: Terrible. You've gotta watch what you wish for alright.
Phil: No but be honest. Do the survey for us it's embedded on the show notes so hop on to the show notes at Worldnomads.com/podcasts. And fill in the survey for us we'd really appreciate that.
Kim: Okay you can get the world nomad podcasts on iTunes. You can download the google podcasts apps, subscribe, rate, share and tell your friends about us.
Phil: Hey I just, 78% of podcasts are discovered by word of mouth so help us out there.
Kim: Yeah exactly so next week amazing nomad Angie Davis joins us. She's a photographer,
Speaker 1: The World Nomads podcast, explore your boundaries.
Considered to be the world's last Shangri-La, the small Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan tightly controls tourism. Here's what you need to know about laws, etiquette and visas.