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Bhutan: Splendid Isolation


The monk and the HipsterThe photo above speaks a lot to me about Bhutan, a very small country in the Himalayas.  I was fortunate to be able to visit Bhutan in March (2015) on a tour organized by GeoEx. The photo which I call the Monk and the Hipster is a meshing of the old and the new that is happening in this tiny landlocked country far away.

 Twelve travelers joined GeoEx staff, drivers and guides to make our way across this remote, and I mean remote, country about the size of Switzerland, nestled into a mountainous area between India and Tibet.  It is known by locals as Druk Yul or “Land of Thunder Dragon.”

It’s not far from Nepal, in the news right now because of the horrendous and tragic earthquake.

You might be asking where is Bhutan? Or you may have heard of it as the country that measures its success with  Gross National Happiness.   Here’s a map to give you an idea.

Bhutan in Asia

 It took a while to get to from Grand Rapids MI to Bhutan.  Multiple flights sending me through Japan, Bangkok and finally landing in the country’s only international airport in Paro.   The airport is  such a big deal that they have a “look out” spot to observe the runway.

Flying into Paro




They do have at least one other airport for internal flights, but air travel is quite new and not very reliable.  The photo below shows several people in the Bumthang Valley in Central Bhutan looking up and to watch a plane land.  It is such a novelty.



So, back to the photo at the top of the post.  I was really fascinated with seeing the signs of change in this country steeped in their traditions and way of life. Bhutan has been in splendid isolation for most of its history, only opening the country to foreigners since 1970s and really only to tourism since the 1990s.

It’s often called the Last Shangri-La with no roads, no electricity, no phone or TV, no internet or postal service until the 1960s.  Truly a land that time forgot.






The government has limited the  number of tourists and travel has been  tightly controlled so that their culture  not be impacted.  The country was never colonized or conquered so its centuries old traditions and way of life have been preserved.  But nothing stays the same and even Shangri-la is forced to move forward. Signs of western development are creeping in……cell phones and cell towers.  Kids in Thimphu in Western dress.  Cars and buses.  It’s a country attempting to leap from the Middle Ages to the 21st century without suffering the loss of its glorious culture.

The following are photos I took, trying to capture of some of these changes—an outsider peering into this magical world .

First, power lines and cell phone tower contrasting with the ancient practice of prayer flags.


cell phone tower

 Apple T-shirts at the Paro Festival.  In a country where wearing the national dress is required in most situations, so seeing western clothes is a novelty.

Apple T shirts

Cell phones.  Cell phones.  Cell phones.  We saw them everywhere.






We didn’t see many  motorcycles,  but we saw lots of trucks and even experienced a Bhutanese traffic jam high in the Himalaya Mountains.  I got a kick out of the man wearing his Gho, the national dress for men, getting on his motorcycle. My sense is that both motor cycles and traffic jams are rare.



traffic jam

Join me next week for more from Bhutan.


For more about GeoEx Tours, go to their web site.  Click here.    For two terrific  blog posts on Wanderlust, the GeoEx blog, written by Colin Christy who joined us on the trip, Click Here.   

Post Author
Susan J. Smith
Susan's career includes writing for newspapers, lots of community work and a wonderful family life. Now she is enjoying traveling, photography and writing for DesignDestinations and Grand Rapids Magazine. She welcomes you on her journey and appreciates your comments.


  1. posted by
    Ann Sevenson
    Apr 27, 2015 Reply

    Susan—-thanks for taking me on such a unique adventure—-look forward to
    next week’s installment!

  2. posted by
    Sherri Wood
    Apr 27, 2015 Reply

    Susan — it’s wonderful to read your thoughtful words on this most interesting part of the globe. It was indeed a mashup of traditional and modern as we traversed through the mountains.

    • posted by
      Susan J. Smith
      Apr 27, 2015 Reply

      Sherri I really enjoyed getting to know you on this trip. We had a most memorable experience. I loved sharing it with you. sjs

  3. posted by
    Judy Bereza
    Apr 27, 2015 Reply

    I have been anxiously awaiting the Bhutan blogs. The photos are beautiful and insightful- I already know more about Bhutan than I ever did before. I’m looking forward to future I stallments!

    • posted by
      Susan J. Smith
      Apr 27, 2015 Reply

      Thanks Judy. I appreciate your comments.

  4. posted by
    Apr 28, 2015 Reply

    Hi Susan, what stands out most to me in your “first installment” is the sharp contrast of old and new, especially the cell phones everywhere. And I love the colors…the fabrics, the prayer flags, etc. almost symbolizing “happiness”. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

    • posted by
      Susan J. Smith
      Apr 30, 2015 Reply

      You are welcome and your impression is the same as mine. Bhutan is in a huge state of transition. Going to be challenging for them to hang on to their traditions and culture. Beautiful place to visit. I feel very fortunate to have gone there.

  5. posted by
    Michelle Slikkers
    Apr 28, 2015 Reply

    Susan, what an incredible experience! Thank you for sharing your adventures with us. I would not be surprised if National Geographic gave you a call; your blog is top notch, excellent photo journalism. We are so lucky to have a friend who shares these incredible experiences. Like Annie, I cannot wait for the next installment.

  6. posted by
    Apr 28, 2015 Reply

    I am astonished at your pictures of all the cell phone users. If they are this prevalent in such a secluded country, I guess they really have taken over the world!! It makes you wonder what all the useers are talking about? Your pictures are wonderful!

  7. posted by
    Susan J. Smith
    Apr 30, 2015 Reply

    Thank you. Glad you enjoyed.

  8. posted by
    Faces of Bhutan | DesignDestinations
    May 4, 2015 Reply

    […] We went  into the Bumthang Valley  where we saw very few signs of modern times except the cell phones.  (To see cell phone pictures, take a look at last week’s blog post). Click here.   […]

  9. posted by
    JoAnne Tompkins
    May 4, 2015 Reply

    Though I shared the journey with you, you captured contrasts and aspects of the culture I had missed. You have a wonderful eye for those moments and places that reveal so much about a land in transition. I am so grateful to have shared it with you and to have these insightful and beautiful posts to deepen my appreciation of our incredible trip!

    • posted by
      Susan J. Smith
      May 4, 2015 Reply

      Thank you, JoAnne,
      I’m sure you saw different things than I did. We each come to a journey with our own perspectives. I thoroughly enjoyed sharing the trip with you too and look forward to staying in touch.

  10. posted by
    Bhutan: Religion around every bend in the road or river | DesignDestinations
    May 18, 2015 Reply

    […] first two blogs have been Bhutan: Splendid Isolation and Faces of Bhutan.  Enjoy!  I traveled with […]

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