howler monkey eating in a tree


If you are yearning for an unforgettable experience, take a trip to Bhutan!

Posted in: Rainforest Connection Live

You will need a visa issued by that government alone, vaccinations for tetanus, typhoid, hepatitis A, and some malarone for malaria if you travel in the southern part of the country that is tropical and abuts India. There are no embassies or consulates in other countries and the currency – “Ngultrum,” or Nu for short – must be purchased there. You will be in the majestic Himalayan Mountains where the homes are tucked in the mountainside, and everything is located on precipitous, steep, unpaved paths. Paro, one of the large cities, was the site of the conference at the Royal University of Bhutan.

Our trekking guide and driver, Tshetshe and Phulbul, were very talented. They not only spotted birds and mammals for us, but also cooked excellent meals, and even trained the local village hosts how to serve food elegantly at our campsite. Read more below, and plan your own trek!

Bhutan – arrival and the city

The 32nd annual conference of the International Society for Teacher Education (ISfTE) met in Paro, Bhutan, May 21 – 26, 2012, and curiosity attracted a larger-than-usual number of members. Dr. Jacalyn Willis and husband Greg had been to Bhutan to visit an American friend who relocated there 20+ years ago, and they were eager to return. Since they are bird watchers and wild life enthusiasts, a pre-conference nine-day tour was arranged through Snow Leopard, a Bhutanese travel agency. Anna Mazzaro, science educator on Dr. Willis’ staff at Montclair State University, Dr. Helen Earles, former staff member, and Dr. Janet Powney of Scotland joined the tour group. We arrived with sleeping bags, collapsible walking canes, cameras with zoom lenses, powerful binoculars, and an iPad. This team was prepared and enthusiastic! Snow Leopard provided a comfortable 16-seat tour bus, an expert driver named Phulbul, and Tshetshe, an experienced, personable guide who wore the GHO, the traditional male outfit. The five-person team was coddled by Tshetshe and Phulbul, who prepared the meals at every stop and attended to every need, anticipated and expressed! Lodging varied from hotels in the cities of Paro and Thimphu (the capital) with satisfactory amenities, to ecolodges in the rural areas that offered basic necessities quite different from those in developed countries. Here, electricity is not available, plumbing is outside where the water is cold, and the toilets do not flush. Nevertheless, we survived!

Bhutan – on the road…

The birdwatchers were up early each morning, sighting the beautiful and exotic local birds such as the colorful kingfisher. They trekked up and down the paths at quite some distances to spot rare birds and wild life. Most of the group members were undaunted by the treacherous slant of the roads underfoot. As the tour bus traveled over mountainous roads, the team spotted Macaque monkeys and stopped to film and feed them. Speaking of mountainous roads, one would have to be there to appreciate the following description. To the uninitiated, the largely unpaved, rock-filled roads were one-laners that served two-way traffic! The Himalayan Mountains form one side of the roads, and steep, perilous looking drop offs without barriers form the other side!!! When two vehicles approach from opposite sides, it seems like a game of “chicken” until one of them pulls over to provide access to the other. If you are in the vehicle near the steep drop, your heartbeat will ramp up several notches. Phulbul handled these moments skillfully, but this did not lessen the heart-in-the-mouth feeling for some. As if that were not enough, cows walk along these roads and graze in the areas opposite the mountains. Each rural family owns at least one cow, and some have a herd of seven or more. The terraced farm areas are picturesque in their geometric forms where wheat, rice, corn, and other staples are grown. Paddies are abundant since rice is eaten at every meal, and meat is rarely on the menu. Much is accomplished by these farmers, many of whom use yoked oxen to pull ancient wooden plows.

Insects of Bhutan

The Royal Kingdom of Bhutan is a country of approximately 780,000 citizens, ruled by a benevolent king who is the fifth in the order of succession. He was educated in the USA and the influence of this country is evident in his desire to establish a democratic government there. Pictures of the King and queen are displayed everywhere in the country where HAPPINESS is the Gross National Product. Incidentally, the King and queen were married during the same week as William and Kate, but the hoopla of the latter wedding left no broadcast or print media space for the Bhutanese engagement. Eventually, a brief news item referred to this wedding. While the outside world gave it short shrift, the citizenry was ecstatic! The royal family appears to be revered. By-the-way, foreigners are called “Chilips.”

Many changes are evident in modernization projects: road widening, bridge building, hydroelectric power development. In recent years, compulsory education is a factor that has led to widespread growth of literacy among younger people. We visited two, Grades 1 – 6 schools, and were impressed with the small class sizes, abundance of resources, and the teaching of English by every teacher. The school libraries, while not arranged by the Dewey Decimal System, were stocked with current trade books related to the main curriculum subjects. Signs and posters everywhere in and outside the schools were bilingual, and the students understood and spoke English quite well. Members of our group took pictures of the students who were unaccustomed to seeing themselves on video, and their reaction ran the gamut from shy smiles to gasps to diverting eyes to avoid seeing.

Bhutan – School Days

Everyone wears traditional dress – Gho for males; Kira for females. One of the schools is a campus where students and teachers are domiciled because some students live as much as a one-way, five-hour drive from the school, making commuting impossible. It was remarkable to watch the students who walk to school navigate the dangerous roads. No matter how small they are, students know how to cross safely without the need for crossing guards as we have here. People are accustomed to walking great distances. Mostly, the autos are small models by Toyota, Nissan, Hyundai, and Chevrolet not sold in the USA.

Bhutan – Villages

Our tour group had a special guest named Flat Stanley. Like Dora the Explorer, Flat Stanley travels widely in order to teach geography and social studies to elementary school students. Flat Stanley was sent on this trip by Matthew Saxton, a student in Pam Whitmires first grade class in Charlotte, NC. He arrived with Dr. Earles who flew to Bhutan from Newark, NJ with connecting flights in Zurich, Switzerland and Bangkok, Thailand. One picture shows his arrival in Bhutan on Druk Airlines. Flat Stanley met the principal of the school in Gomphu and a Bhutanese woman wearing traditional dress. He returned to New Jersey through Frankfort, Germany before going home to Charlotte. His experiences were videotaped and emailed to his teacher. The class learned a great deal about this journey across three continents.

by Dr. Helen Earles