Ten days in Bhutan
By jimmy@section411.com
By Jimmy Sawczuk
Published · 37 min. read

They tell you that the landing is a doozy. They tell you that the task of landing an Airbus A319 on a small airstrip in the middle of the Himalayas is so difficult that only a handful of pilots in the world can do it. They tell you that even in this world of modern air travel, where a commercial airliner is able to perform all but the last thirty seconds of the landing all on its own, that landing at this particular airstrip is so challenging that the pilots are in control for the last quarter hour of the flight.

I had watched YouTube videos of the approach and landing beforehand, and I thought I knew what to expect. In most of the videos, the plane appeared to make a sharp left turn at about 500 feet off the ground before landing a few seconds later. I said before that only a handful of pilots in the world are qualified to make this landing, and obviously they are skilled and well-practiced because they make this approach two or three times a week. But it’s pretty abnormal for a commercial airliner to perform a turn that drastic that late in the approach; park outside almost any airport in the United States or abroad and you’ll see a long line of jets coming in on a straight approach for each of the runways. Approaches are designed like this intentionally: they’re safer, more fuel efficient, and just generally simpler to execute.

But sometimes, and in some places, like Paro, Bhutan, the straight and simple approach just isn’t possible. And going into that landing I thought I knew what I was getting into for that last 30 seconds in the air. But it’s not just the last 30 seconds that are exciting. I shouldn’t have been surprised by this, but I was: the entire approach, from 33,000 feet down to the ground (a balmy 7,333 feet in Paro) is just as exciting as the final touchdown. Weaving through mountain ranges and valleys, over crystal clear rivers and idyllic settlements, you even pass by a house perched on a mountain ridge at about eye level with the plane (imagine living there and seeing jets fly by your window like that every day). And when you finally land, you realize that you didn’t even notice the crazy left turn. The whole experience sort of blends together in an unforgettable fashion.

That’s how I felt about my trip to Bhutan as a whole. It never felt like a series of moments, but instead an interconnected and unforgettable experience. And so while the following are only snapshots of my time there, they’re not the only moments that mattered, but some of the stories and the experiences I remember most vividly.

I had the opportunity to visit Bhutan because a married couple I know who used to live in Columbia now live and work in Bhutan. We were good friends before they left about a year ago, but I didn’t know them for a very long time and so when they left for Bhutan I didn’t expect to see them very often, if ever again.

Visitors to Bhutan (with the exception of Indian and Bangladeshi nationals) are required to have a visa before they’re allowed to enter. Getting a visa isn’t impossible, but you can’t buy airline tickets on their national carrier until you have a visa and you can’t get a visa until you know what flight you’ll be on, so it’s a little confusing. And besides the difficulty, it’s not cheap: normally a tourist visa is $250 a day. On the plus side, your visa typically includes lodging, food, and a tour guide to show you around the country, so it’s not a rip-off at all. But even with most of your in-country expenses included, you still have to pay for airfare to get to the other side of the world, and so getting to Bhutan isn’t an easy or cheap endeavor. But my friends are residents there (not tourists), so they get to invite two people to visit them every year without their visitors having to pay the tourist visa fee, and they generously offered me one of those guest visas.

I jumped on the opportunity pretty quickly, somewhat out of character. I do like to travel, but I’m normally the “plan a vacation months in advance” guy, not the “hop in the car and start driving and see where you end up” guy, but for this trip I just sort of jumped in (at least by my standards). As I started making preparations, I was blessed by nothing less than steadfast support from my family, my work and my friends around here, both financially and by offering advice, encouragement and well wishes. If you’re reading this post, you’re probably one of them, and so before I go any further, from the bottom of my heart: thank you. This trip wouldn’t have been possible without you.

I was scheduled to depart the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, and I knew that last week was going to be pretty hectic with all the holiday traveling in addition to the last minute preparations. As Thanksgiving week approached, I was looking forward to being in Bhutan but was anxious about the logistics of all the stuff that would have to get done before getting on a plane on December 2nd. And then a week before I was supposed to leave, my sister’s father-in-law passed away unexpectedly. I felt awful that I’d be leaving for two weeks while the rest of my family grieved, I felt unprepared because the time at home wasn’t exactly recharging, and I felt guilty because what gives me the right to feel like I’m owed a recharging?

Drukair Flight 121, shortly after landing

This is officially the first picture I took in Bhutan, shortly after landing on December 5, 2014. A lot of other passengers were taking pictures of the plane as they got off, and I’m nothing if not a follower.

So when I woke up at 5:30 AM on Tuesday, December 2, and saw an e-mail on my phone that my first flight (Columbia, SC to Dulles) had been cancelled, I was starting to wonder about whether or not the trip was going to work out at all. But amazingly, after getting rescheduled to fly through Atlanta, everything else went incredibly according to plan and put me at ease. For about the next day I was on a plane, from Columbia to Atlanta to Tokyo to Bangkok. After a two night layover in Bangkok, I landed in Paro, Bhutan on Friday morning, December 5.


This is my hosts’ home city of Thimphu. The farmland in the foreground and the city in the background highlight the rapidly changing and evolving society of Bhutan. You might also notice the statue of Buddha on the mountain ridge in the background, which stands 130 feet tall and can be seen from just about anywhere in the city, so it’s useful for orienting yourself.

Let me back up a little bit. While Bhutan’s culture goes back centuries, the country as we know it today is very young. Until the late 19th century, Bhutan lacked central leadership and was basically a collection of constantly feuding provinces. These wars eventually came to a head and one man, Ugyen Wangchuck, was able to gain enough power to unite Bhutan under his rule. He was officially coronated as King in 1907 by the leading monks and other religious leaders and became the first King of Bhutan. During his reign Bhutan was almost completely isolated from the rest of the world, and his successor was happy to inherit that same foreign policy. But the third King, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, saw the Maoist China beginning to become a force in the modern world and decided that Bhutan could no longer hide away from the world. He led Bhutan to join the United Nations in 1971.

But it was the fourth King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, still very much celebrated in Bhutan, who really brought the country into the 20th century and now the 21st. He continued to forge a strong relationship with India, reformed the government into a constitutional monarchy, launched a national airline with international flights, and finally, in 1999, allowed TV and Internet to reach Bhutan. He abdicated the throne to his son in 2006, and his son Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck is the fifth and current King of Bhutan.

My hosts – who I’ll call Jim and Pam – live in the city of Thimphu, which is the capital as well as the most populated and modern city in Bhutan. The day after I arrived we decided to hike to a monastery overlooking the Thimphu valley called Talakha. Thimphu is slightly higher than Paro, at about 7,950 feet, but the monastery was still higher at about 10,200 feet, so we’d have a bit of a climb ahead of us. After packing up some snacks and filling our water bottles, we drove to a building near the outskirts of Thimphu, but because of the city’s size and shape we were only about a mile from the city center. We parked the car and started hiking.

Talakha from a distance

Even though we started hiking around 2 PM, time was a factor because we expected the climb to take at least an hour and a half, and we wanted to be done before the sun set. It was winter in Bhutan too, and while the temperature during the day was pleasant it got chilly in the evenings, not to mention that climbing over tough terrain isn’t easy or much fun in the dark. And because Thimphu is in a valley surrounded on all sides by mountains, the sunset was effectively a half hour to an hour early unless you were on the higher slopes, giving us less time to work with to get back down.

There was a trail at first, but that sort of came and went as we ascended and we often wondered whether or not we were going the right way. Navigating to a monastery on the top of a mountain sounds easy: just keep going up, right? But I learned the best path is often not the most direct one, and sometimes that leads you to climb up an adjacent slope before strafing over to the slope you want to be on. We eventually found a pipeline that we were pretty confident would lead us in the right direction: monks in the monastery need running water too, and it was a pretty reasonable guess that this was the pipeline that carried that water. We managed to keep up with the pipeline as it intersected a barbed wire fence that we had to shimmy under, but eventually it lost us and went into some inaccessible terrain.

We had been hiking about 30 minutes when we saw a chicken. It meandered across the path in front of us, as chickens do, and its casual body language suggested it was close to home. There are a lot of animals in Thimphu: stray dogs, cats, cows, even some goats here and there. But this was the first chicken I had seen, and what’s more, there was a structure in the distance that looked like a chicken coop.

As we got closer, the rest of the farm took shape. It was a humble farm, probably shared by two or three families. They definitely had some chickens, and it looked like there was a pasture that cows could roam around in too. And there were people there: a mother and a few girls, eyeing us intently as we got closer. I had brought some Christmas candy from the US and we had brought some with us, so we offered them a few pieces. As soon as we did this, their eyes lit up, their faces melted into smiles, and they took the candy graciously and without suspicion. It was a common trait I noticed among the Bhutanese people: they have no problem openly staring at you with a casually hostile expression, but as soon as you smile at them, they smile back. In other words: they’re not suspicious, they’re just curious. One of the ladies on the farm even offered us some apples in return (organically grown, I’m sure).

But the craziest thing about this little homestead was how disconnected it felt from Thimphu, even though it must have been less than three miles away from the city. Sort of like America in the old West, except that rather than a small town at the city center it was a teeming metropolis of 79,000 people. It’s unreasonable to assume people here had never seen the city, or even that they didn’t go down regularly. But it was interesting to see that instead of trying to make it in the city, they opted for the simpler, old-fashioned life.

After saying our goodbyes, we left the farm and found our way to a well-hidden service road. We followed that up for a while before finding another trail that led us the rest of the way up to Talakha. The view from up there was spectacular:

Thimphu from the Talakha monastery

The flags in the foreground are Buddhist prayer flags, and they’re literally all over Bhutan. I don’t know much about what they mean except that white flags are used when someone dies.

At the top, we exchanged some more of our candy for some hot tea (naja, which was pretty tasty) and butter tea (souja, not as tasty) as well as some cookies. One of the monks asked me where I was from (I guess he assumed I wasn’t Bhutanese), and I told him I was from the northern United States, so even though the temperature was beginning to drop, I was used to it.

On the way back down, we walked through that same homestead again. We had offered the last of our candy to the young monks in the monastery, so we didn’t have any more to give to the kids we met earlier. But we gave them a friendly wave and they seemed pretty happy with that. We did end up cutting it a little close with the time, to the point where I was using my cell phone as a flashlight for the last five minutes or so. But it added some adventure to the descent, and spending some of that extra time at the monastery was worth the last few minutes of hiking in the dark.

Throughout my stay in Bhutan, Jim and Pam were welcoming and exceedingly hospitable. I had my own bedroom which contained a generous care package the day I arrived, as well as three incredibly thick blankets and a space heater (despite the cold, this was overkill: it took one night before I got rid of one of the blankets, and five nights before I got rid of the space heater too. Northeast Ohioans didn’t make it this far without being warm-blooded). We ate some authentic Bhutanese food, but nothing spicy enough to cause permanent damage to the lining of my digestive tract. Their house helper made cinnamon bread that would have had people lining up for miles outside any brunch restaurant in the States. Our schedule was full, but not overly so, and left enough time for keeping in touch with home and just relaxing.

But our other friend – who I’ll call Kelly – got an even more epic welcome: within three hours of arriving in country, she literally met the Queen of Bhutan. I got to meet her too, of course, but with the advantage of having had a couple days in the country to get settled.

Like Jim and Pam, I had gotten to know Kelly from her time in South Carolina, but she now lives and works in India and had a significantly shorter (and direct) flight to join us in Bhutan. She arrived on Monday morning, December 8, along with a large number of tourists who were shuffling from the airport terminal to a tiny army of buses. We were back in Paro to pick her up from the airport, and it happens that the most recognizable landmark in Bhutan is close to Paro, so we were headed there after she joined us.

Our destination was the Taktsang monastery, which is one of the holiest and most sacred sites in all of Bhutan. It’s said that the founder of Buddhism in Bhutan flew from Tibet to Taktsang on the back of a tigress and there defeated a resident demon. It’s further believed that in another life, that same spirit built the monastery and spent a not-insignificant amount of time meditating there. I present all of that without comment, except to say that because of that legend, the Bhutanese believe this place contains great power and significance.

The monastery itself looks pretty much unapproachable from the valley: Paro lies somewhere around 7,300 feet, while the monastery is about 3,000 feet higher. But unlike Talakha, there’s no sign of a remotely climbable slope anywhere nearby; it’s basically on a cliff. Look closely at the middle cliff, about three-quarters of the way up:

Taktsang from the valley floor

We climbed the mountain to the left and then sort of cut across the cleft to the monastery.

The route we took up the mountain was well-traveled by both people and horses, so unlike the hike to Talakha, there was a wide, clearly defined trail as well as several scores of hikers all going to the same place. But just because we knew where we were going didn’t mean it was easier hiking, and whatever gains we made in following a clear trail didn’t change the fact that it was a steep slope up rocky terrain. But as we ascended, the views of the valley below and the approaching monastery became more spectacular, eventually culminating with this gorgeous shot across the gap:


This picture became my first post to Instagram, and a friend suggested that because this picture was so epic, I should “drop the mic” after this post and never post anything again. Probably good advice: less than two weeks later, I was already posting pictures of food. What have I become?

After that picture stop, we descended down to a bridge which would take us across the gap between the two cliffs to the monastery. In between the two cliffs was a waterfall, at least a couple hundred feet high, sprinkling water between prayer flags strung between the cliffs. Jim had to make a phone call and hung back a little bit, so the rest of us headed towards the other side of the bridge which led to the monastery. As we stepped off the bridge and toward a set of stairs that would take us up to the monastery, a man in a military uniform came down the stairs toward us and said, “you need to stop, the Queen is coming.”

I took off my hat and stood there, rooted to the spot, with my hands behind my back, sort of intimidated by her security detail that advanced down the stairs. I’m not sure what she made of me. She was dressed in a bright pink kira, the traditional and classy outfit for Bhutanese women, and I was wearing a T-shirt and beat-up blue jeans. But she (and her mother) greeted us warmly, asked us where we were from, and told us to enjoy our stay in Bhutan. At the time, I guessed she was in her early 30s, but she’ll actually be 25 this June. Some perspective: she’s currently 24 and is ruling the entire country; when I was 24, I was in charge of a fantasy football league.

We watched her and her detail pass us and walk back across the bridge and up the far side back towards the ground, where she ran into Jim. Jim had a longer conversation with her and her mom (in the native Dzongkha), and after parting, her and her traveling party inched along, taking time to talk to each traveling party she ran into. Because her group was moving so slowly, I figured at some point we’d run into her again on the way down, but they must have found horses somewhere because we didn’t see them on the return journey.

How close can you get to the President of the United States without realizing he’s there? A mile? Five miles? I think we were within 100 to 150 feet before we knew the Queen was at Taktsang that day. There is something incredibly charming about a country where, on any given day, on any given visit, you have a chance of running into royalty.

Bhutan is a third world country, both connotatively and denotatively. The term “third world” comes from the Cold War: countries in the NATO sphere of influence (the US, the UK, Germany, France, etc.) were the first world, countries in the Soviet bloc were the second world (the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, etc.), and everyone else was lumped into the third world. In other words, in the Cold War, countries were either “us”, “them”, or “who?”. Bhutan totally sat out the first 20+ years of the Cold War, and apart from joining the UN in 1971 didn’t do anything of note on the world stage.

But the term today is mostly known by its connotations; “tribal”, “rural”, and “poor” are three of them. Bhutan certainly meets those criteria too, although it’s easy to forget this sometimes, especially in the city, because the country attracts international tourists and the urban population has modernized fairly quickly. But you can pretty much sum up those characteristics into a statement that describes Bhutan: it’s not an easy life.

I knew all these things going in, and yet I was caught off guard by the roads. It’s not like I was assuming the roads would be perfect; in truth, I hadn’t given them a lot of thought. I’ve been in other (first world) countries before, and while the roads are certainly different (in some countries, including Bhutan, you drive on the left for some strange reason), they’re mostly okay, and in some cases better than the ones in the States. And for the first few days, driving around the cities of Paro and Thimphu, we definitely hit our share of bad roads, but there was little traffic and we were moving slowly anyway.

But on Wednesday, December 10, the four of us hopped in a borrowed Mahindra Bolero (which looks sort of like a Land Rover) and set out for the smaller city of Punakha, east of Thimphu and about 3,000 feet lower, meaning we’d have some warmer weather for a couple days. I was looking forward to being at a lower altitude and going out for a run, as well as seeing a new side of Bhutan that I was told was different than anything I’d seen yet.

Punakha is about 45 miles away from Thimphu by car, but we were expecting the journey to take three hours, so we packed some drinks and snacks for the trip expecting a bit of a drive. Sure enough, we were only a few miles outside Thimphu when we noticed the cars in front of us were slowing, pulling over to the side of the road, then stopping. Initially we tried to get around them, but it became clear pretty quickly that everyone was stopping because we had just run into our first road improvement project of the day.

A quick side story: my worst traffic experience occurred about five years ago while I was driving up to Ohio for Christmas. I started the trip, which normally takes about 10 hours, on a Friday afternoon around 3:30, expecting to be home by about 1:30 AM. On Friday night I made it as far as Statesville, North Carolina before having to pull off the highway and find a hotel for the night because the road ahead of me was closed. On Saturday morning I woke up, showered quickly and hit the road before 7:30, figuring that the worst was over and that there’s no way I wouldn’t be home in time for dinner.

But I hit another standstill traffic jam in Virginia before finally getting to a point near Beckley, West Virginia where we ground to a halt once more. As if they knew what was coming, the other motorists around me shut off their engines and walked around or retrieved supplies from their trunks; we were in this one for the long haul. We were all stuck there for nearly seven hours, and you can’t physically stay in your car for that long, so I got out a couple of times and wandered up and down the line of cars around me. My parents, worried about me making my first trip home after moving south earlier that summer, put me in touch with the West Virginia National Guard, and I started knocking on windows and asking if everyone was okay on their behalf.

This traffic stop in Bhutan was sort of like that: everyone knew what we were in for right away, but here people were even more prepared. Vendors with naja and souja wandered up and down the cars, and concession stands on the side of the road offered fruits, momos and rice. We got out of the Bolero and walked around a bit and got a couple good views of the Thimphu Dzong. I wouldn’t say we enjoyed being stuck there, but it was a nice morning and it wasn’t unpleasant taking a break from the drive, even if it was only a few minutes into it, so we tried to make the most of it.

After about an hour we were on our way again, and drove mostly uphill before hitting the absolutely stunning panorama that is the Dochu La Pass. Situated between Thimphu and Punakha at about 10,300 feet, the pass provides 360 degrees of unparalleled views of the Himalayas. On a clear day, you can see all the way to China, literally. It’s an experience on par with seeing the Grand Canyon in person: words and pictures don’t do it justice.

From Dochu La we were on our way again, only now we’d be heading downhill for most of the rest of the way to Punakha. And it wasn’t much longer, maybe a half hour or so, that we ran into the second roadblock.

Road closing notice

A road closing notice. Notice that the construction areas are open for about a half hour at a time and then closed for two hours.

The road improvement projects, at least from Thimphu to Punakha, are aimed at widening the roads, which would be welcomed, to put it lightly. If you’re going on a trip in the United States that takes longer than a half hour, you’re likely going to travel on a four-lane highway at some point. But in Bhutan the only four-lane road I saw was the Norzin Lam, which is to Bhutan what 5th Avenue is to New York, or Michigan Avenue is to Chicago, except that people stop in the middle of the road occasionally (sometimes to pick up pedestrians, sometimes just for fun) and you have to watch out for stray dogs or cows. The road to Punakha, however, is a very narrow two lanes at best, and is used by everyone, from tiny compact cars to big, flamboyant cargo trucks from India. And so not only are you negotiating with traffic coming in both directions on a claustrophobic road, but you’re doing it on a road with an uphill cliff on one side and a downhill cliff on the other. Even another half lane would be extremely welcome.

On the other hand though, widening the road is no easy task, and it’s not like they can just close one lane at a time to at least keep traffic moving, albeit at a slower rate. Nor can they work in fifteen minute stretches so no one’s waiting very long, or work only at night. So the only option they’re left with is to work in somewhat longer intervals with short traffic breaks and try to let everyone know what the plan is so they can adjust their plans and schedules accordingly. It sort of is what it is, but just because it’s the only option doesn’t mean it’s not frustrating, even to people who live there.

The second traffic stop wasn’t long at all, and we were moving again after about a half hour. But we were only driving for a half hour more when we hit the third traffic stop. This one was easily the most frustrating, because we were at the very front of the line; in other words, we were one of the last cars to not go through. And so because we hit the stop right at the beginning, we were there a full two hours, trying to not get more frustrated as we played games in the car and the sun sank in the sky. It’s not hard to imagine every other motorist on the road feeling similarly by the end of the wait by the end of this third stop, because we had literally spent more time stopped than moving.

As the final traffic stop cleared and we were allowed to go through, everyone on the road was eager to make up the lost time and get to their destinations before dark. Because it was the dry season, dust kicked up from the road and affected our visibility as we careened down the mountainside. And as we approached a blind turn, a truck came screaming up the mountain from the other side. We both screeched to a halt, but we had a long line of cars behind us and he had a long line of cars behind him, so the only thing we could do was try to slide past each other on a road which wasn’t even close to two lanes wide at this point and with cliffs on either side of us. As we edged past him, we made contact and the cars ground together for the length of both cars until, as we got just about clear, we heard the muffled sound of shattering glass.

Jim heard it too, but thought we should just keep going, thinking it was our tail light that had shattered. I was mostly just relieved that we were still upright and on the road and not rolling down the cliff. But the driver of the truck got out and stormed over to our car, told us we broke his side mirror and demanded Jim inspect the damage. Jim didn’t want to get out of the car, and when the truck driver tried to force him to, the conversation escalated.

Then someone got out of the vehicle behind the truck driver to calm things down. The vehicle was a tour bus – one of the tour buses we had seen at the airport two days earlier – and the man who had just gotten out knew Jim. It’s at least partially a testament to how good Jim and Pam are at getting to know people, but also just an example of what a small country Bhutan is. In any case, he was able to calm everyone down, and said the truck driver just wanted us to pay for the mirror, which ended up being the equivalent of about $8. And about 20 minutes after getting back on our way we arrived at our hotel in Punakha.

Things like this rarely occur in first world countries. Four adults embarking on a 45 mile drive in the US wouldn’t merit a bunch of planning, it wouldn’t involve the packing of snacks and drinks for the trip, and you’d likely be at your destination in under an hour. It’s likely that the narrowest road you’d travel on would have two comparably luxurious lanes more than wide enough for an SUV, and if there were more than one or two potholes along the entire route you’d call the roads absolutely miserable.

But in Bhutan, even things that should seemingly be routine are often not, and this drive is just one example. I also saw that dealing with the government had its challenges: it can’t be done online, or often even over the phone, and when you visit the office you better be dressed formally. Later in the week, after returning from Punakha, Pam and Kelly were involved in another minor traffic incident that turned into something more costly because police are often corrupt, if they bother to get involved at all. Amazon.com won’t deliver in Bhutan; if you want something you have to go into a store and find it yourself. And if they don’t have it, you’re pretty much out of luck unless you’re planning on traveling somewhere more developed on your own. Heck, you can’t even get foreign mail except through your employer, which complicates private communication.

I learned that living in Bhutan, by itself, is a full-time job and comes with all the stresses and worries of a full-time job. But since you can’t make a living just living there, you have to have a job on top of that, and so living in Bhutan is like having two full-time jobs, all the time. It’s not an easy life.

Punakha Dzong

The Punakha Dzong, just before sunset.

The good news is that while life isn’t easy, it’s often rewarding, as was the case with our trip to Punakha: it didn’t disappoint. The Punakha Dzong, nestled in between two rushing rivers that merged on one side, was the prettiest I saw during my time in Bhutan. The lower elevation meant warmer temperatures and therefore blooming wildlife, and I really enjoyed a four mile run that started near the Dzong and went out into the countryside and through a small village.

After a nice dinner and a relaxing evening at the hotel, we spent the next morning touring the Dzong and visiting a picturesque Buddhist nunnery before heading back towards Thimphu. The drive back wasn’t without its share of roadblocks, but even knowing how hard it was to get to Punakha and back, it was absolutely worth the effort.

Punakha Dzong

The Punakha Dzong from another angle.

I had chosen December to visit Bhutan because that’s when both Jim and Pam could get the time off work and when I’d be least in the way. But it was sort of a strange time to not be home, because the month of December is usually a really busy and eventful time for me. On one morning, I watched on ESPN Gamecast as the Ohio State Buckeyes absolutely annihilated the Wisconsin Badgers on their way to sneaking into the College Football Playoff. On another morning (my last morning in Bhutan), we Skyped with a friend back home as she recapped a Christmas party that, had the four of us been in Columbia, we would have probably attended.

December in the United States means it’s Christmas season, but in Bhutan, December was passing by with barely a whisper. While it’s not illegal to be a Christian in Bhutan, it’s certainly not the majority, and so there weren’t many Christmas decorations up in the shops in Bhutan. The absence of the Christmas season in Bhutan made it almost disorienting when, a couple days later, I landed physically in Chicago and metaphorically into the Christmas season as a whole. But it was a nice change of pace to learn that we’d be spending at least part of Friday, December 12, looking for a pair of Christmas trees.

I’ve never been super passionate about the Christmas tree itself. It’s not like it’s a critical part of the Christmas story; it’s a western innovation that began over 1,000 years after the birth of Christ and wasn’t made popular until the Victorian era. We’ve always had one, but even when I was a kid I sort of viewed it as a means to an end: put up a Christmas tree, and eventually presents show up under it. Back then, and throughout high school, I would have preferred to put the Christmas tree up on Christmas Eve to minimize the time when the tree wasn’t serving its designed purpose. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve made my peace with the Christmas tree and now I’m one of the converts who enjoys putting it up before December 1. My dad and I have a tradition of waking up on the Friday after Thanksgiving (after all the shoppers have gone shopping), eating breakfast (for me, it’s pie), getting down the tree and setting it up. (My mom joins in later. Her Christmas cheer takes until Black Friday afternoon to appear.)

But I’ve never been faced with not having a tree. So I can understand why Jim and Pam would want one, even if it takes way more effort in Bhutan. The good news is that getting started is fairly easy: you have to apply for and pay for a permit to chop down timber, but since you’re only chopping down literally one timber, the price of the permit is about the equivalent of $0.15. The permit directed us where to get our tree, and it was going up the same road that we took to Dochu La and Punakha, only we’d stop a little short of Dochu La. We initially tried to leave in the late morning, around 11, but got stopped at a traffic stop (go figure) and we decided to wait it out at the house instead of in the car. We had more luck on the second attempt a couple hours later and drove for about a half hour from Thimphu towards Dochu La.

In the Bolero we had a small army: Jim and I were up front, Pam, Kelly and Jim and Pam’s housekeeper were in the back seat, and in the cargo area, showing an incredible amount of gastrointestinal fortitude as we bumped along, was a mutual friend of theirs who was about to have a Christmas tree for the first time. The Bolero hummed with excitement as we climbed, our eyes peeled for signs of Christmas trees. I found myself chuckling as I imagined a sign with a big red arrow and the words: “Christmas Tree Emporium of the Himalayas”.

We got to the farm, and presented our permit to an official sitting in a shed. He pointed us up the mountain and told us to drive for 3 kilometers before cutting down the tree. We drove a little while more before parking the Bolero on the side of a tiny dirt road and getting out.

We were high up in the mountains, and far enough from the main road that it was silent, except for the sounds of the trees rustling in the wind. It was obviously a timber farm, but probably not exactly well known for being a Christmas tree farm. There was one structure, a barn of some sort that might have been used to protect seedlings, but it was abandoned, and apart from three guys walking by along the road we came in on, we were alone. The sun was setting, and being at such a high altitude it was already getting cold.

Jim and Pam’s family friend saw the tree he wanted within five minutes; it was one of the first ones he saw. He and Jim set to work cutting it down and moving it towards the Bolero, while the rest of us looked for another tree. It took us a little longer, but we eventually found one, standing about 10 feet tall in a tandem with a twin tree. As Jim and I worked to cut it down and carry it to the Bolero, everyone else looked for decorations. You can’t just buy Christmas lights and ornaments in Bhutanese stores, and while some of the decorations were imported, most of the decorations were all natural: pine branches for a wreath and filler material for bare spots, and pine cones to decorate the trees. It took us a while to rope the trees to the car, but eventually we managed it and we were on our way back down, cold but triumphant.

We stopped at Jim and Pam’s friend’s house to drop off his tree first. We got his tree down and carried it upstairs, and as his wife opened the door to let us in, I will never forget the looks on his kids’ faces. Their excitement, their joy at what we were bringing through the door made me feel almost guilty about my previous attitude towards Christmas trees. Once we got it upright and situated in their living room, his wife brought out some tea and cookies and the Christmas tree veterans spent at least a half hour explaining decorations and basic maintenance techniques as well as the traditions we had in our own families. There were several moments during my time in Bhutan where I had the feeling that I could have just as easily been at someone’s home in South Carolina, and this was one of them: just friends and family sharing food, drink and conversation.

We eventually went home and got our tree up and decorated and it looked really nice. But that was almost secondary; delivering their friend’s tree was just about the highlight of the entire trip. That family will probably always remember their first tree, and it’s humbling to realize that I’ll be a part of that memory forever.

Me holding a Christmas tree to a roof

Don’t worry guys, I got this.

Hopefully I’ve conveyed that the experience of visiting Bhutan was enjoyable and rewarding, and one that I’d absolutely repeat. None of this surprised me: I fully expected to enjoy the trip and I expected that I would get a lot out of it. I came back with more perspective: like on the drive up to Ohio for Christmas, how wide the West Virginia Turnpike feels after driving on a tiny mountain road for 8 hours, or how great a cup of routine Starbucks coffee tastes when you haven’t had fresh coffee in two weeks. I came back with an increased respect for Americans who live overseas to serve people abroad (including our servicemen and women). I came back with a renewed appreciation for the Christmas tree. And I came back gratified that I was able to bring a tiny slice of the holiday season to my friends, old and new, in Bhutan.

If you’re reading this and you’re considering visiting a third world country, I urge you to go, especially if you have friends in that country who are as gracious and welcoming as mine were. The circumstances may be different based on your country of choice, but chances are that you’ll have a great time and your friends will enjoy your visit just as much as you. Before the trip I think I underestimated how much my visiting would help to buoy Jim and Pam’s spirits. I don’t have a big personality, I don’t light up an entire room when I enter, and I think most people think of me as “not unpleasant.” But despite all that, I felt like just being there and telling stories from home and being able to talk about home on more familiar terms was enjoyable and comforting for them, especially because it was around the holiday season. They also told me (and Kelly) that our visits let them see Bhutan through fresh eyes, which I’m sure was nice to do because it reminded them of why they chose to live in Bhutan in the first place. I only say all this because I didn’t do anything special; I just showed up. And so if you have a chance to “just show up” in a country where your friends are living, it’s absolutely worth the effort.

I’ll close with this quick story: one afternoon we had some down time, and to pass the time I was out in Jim and Pam’s driveway shooting hoops with a junior size ball against a beat up basketball hoop attached to the garage. Shooting hoops isn’t a particularly quiet activity, especially in the thin mountain air, and when you shoot hoops as infrequently as I do, you miss a lot, which makes it only noisier. Kids in Bhutan are out of school during the winter because most buildings don’t have central heating, and eventually the noise I was making attracted some kids playing nearby and they came over to the top of the driveway and watched me for a bit (and probably weren’t impressed).

I didn’t notice them at first, but when I did I asked them if they’d like to play. They either couldn’t understand me or were too shy to answer, so I tried using hand signals to invite them to join me. That got the message across, and they – four boys – came down towards the hoop and started taking turns shooting the ball. They’d shoot, and I’d grab the rebound and either dish it out to the next kid or do a putback shot before passing it along. Eventually they started getting greedy with the ball and trying to take more than their fair share of turns, so I had to get crafty with how I passed the ball: fake passes, fake shots, or just holding the ball over one kid’s head so another kid could reach it.

It was then that I realized my childcare strategy was the same on two continents, with about the same level of success. It just goes to show that even in a country as remote as Bhutan, there’s more that unites us than divides us.

I supplemented my recollections for this article with information on Bhutan’s various Wikipedia pages, as well as the 2014 edition of Lonely Planet Bhutan. Thanks to all who reviewed early drafts of this piece! And thanks again to my hosts who facilitated an unforgettable experience as well as a ridiculously long blog post. (That second one might not have been intentional on their part.)