The difference an hour makes

Dhaka to Paro.

All too soon it was time to leave Bagerhat and head back to Dhaka. This time our mode of transport would be by train and would take no less than ten hours which would be a similar time to taking the boat and nearly twice as long as driving along an unfinished highway. This was largely because the train more or less headed away from Dhaka for quite a while before making a turn towards the capital. As expected the train was delayed by ninety minutes but most of this time was filled by waves of locals taking selfies with us. It is fair to say that the Bangladeshis are wonderfully welcoming and friendly as a whole. There obviously isn’t a huge tourist industry geared up for westerners and as with many countries in similar positions the people tend to be very relaxed and genuine as opposed to trying to make a quick buck. Ironically when the train arrived we squeezed through the crowded platform and got settled into our first class carriage! It’s not as fancy as it sounds but it did make a whole day sat on a train reasonably comfortable. Well, except for one young guy who stood on the platform staring at us though the window with a creepy grin. We all thought this was hilarious, took some photos and began to settle down once he disappeared. Then out of nowhere the very same guy was standing in the isle of the carriage staring at us with the same creepy grin, straight out of a horror movie. Not sure how to react we nervously laughed off the situation until the gentlemen disappeared once again. The rest of the day passed by uneventful. There was some excitement when we passed another train with people sat up on the roof and a good curry was on offer for lunch. Arriving in Dhaka around 8pm, we had a bit of time for a feed and a few beers before getting up for our next journey the following morning.

Typical of this trip, our plane was delayed by a good ninety minutes but at least there was a half decent excuse this time. We were waiting for a flight from Dhaka to Paro in the Kingdom of Bhutan which sits on the northern border of Bangladesh, but not quite as there is a narrow strip of India in between. Anyhow Bhutan is a little known country with a big reputation amongst the travelling community. Although not exactly on the top of my list for destinations to visit, the dates worked and I was nonetheless intrigued to see what all the fuss is about. Firstly, getting there isn’t easy. Paro is not the capital city of Bhutan but it does have a strip of land flat enough and accessible for a half decent sized plane to land and take off and so for this reason alone, the one and only International airport is here. Even so, it is one of the top ten most dangerous airports in the world and I don’t mean number 9 or 10, I mean mid table, depending which website you read! It is so dangerous that only around 18 pilots are qualified to land and un-land passenger aircraft at the airport. Why? Because it sits over 2000 meters up in the Himalayas and as the pilot lines up for the runway during the decent they have to make a last minute turn around a mountain before getting the runway in sight. The plane then glides in towards the runway and suddenly drops as it has to make a fast decent on the final approach. Taking off is similar with the plane rolling from left to right as it meanders through the mountain tops. All very spectacular. It also means that aircraft can only land and take off in good weather and only during the day for the simple fact that they must have a visual of the runway and I’m assuming the mountain tops. What all this means for a visitor is that there are only two national airlines in Bhutan that are able to ferry international passengers. Getting to Bhutan means transiting through India, Bangladesh, Nepal or Thailand and flights aren’t scheduled every day and as you may have worked out, even the scheduled ones are subject to delays and cancelations. So getting there can look a little daunting and pricy and sure enough we were delayed because the outbound plane was grounded until low cloud had lifted in Paro. February is generally fair and clear but it still made me a little nervous about my five hour connection flying through India when leaving Bhutan a few days later.

The flight only took an hour but the difference in landscape was phenomenal. Bangladesh must be one of the flattest countries on the planet which made the contrast as we flew towards the worlds largest mountain range even more impressive. Looking out the window there didn’t appear to be any gradual increase from flat to hills to mountains. The ground simply went straight up with peaks several thousand meters high rising from nowhere and that is all we would see for the next week. Touching down in Paro, we stepped off the plane in warm, glorious sunshine with snow capped peaks in the background. I didn’t know what to expect with the weather. Being February in the Himalayas I was expecting it to be Baltic but apparently not. Cold by night yes but during the day it was really quite pleasant and it looked as though it hadn’t rained for months which would make sense as it’s trekking season in this part of the world and it’s summer that usually sees a huge amount of rain. Upon walking into one of the most pleasant airports I have ever been to I promptly changed a crisp $100 note into local currency, strolled through immigration and met our local guide outside. This takes me to one of Bhutan’s other great conundrums when thinking of paying a visit.

It costs $200/day to visit Bhutan. $250/day if you want to visit during peak season to see the famous flowers in bloom throughout the valleys. Your poor traveller can get around the whole of South East Asia for the price of a day in Bhutan. Your rich traveller isn’t interested because there’s no beach or flashy five star hotels and your die hard traveller will go if they have to but reluctantly, because they want to travel independently and not part of a group. You cannot just rock up in Bhutan and go where you like independently. All this means that Bhutan is bloody lovely and peaceful, every where. So what’s with the payment? It is essentially a visa fee but it covers all your travel, accommodation, food, guides, entrance permits and fees to sites. I was there for five days and I had to work hard to spend, nay, drink $100. Drinking 8% local beer every night alongside some tasty local whisky, I still had plenty of cash to tip the guides and buy a hot chocolate at the airport when waiting to leave. So once you’ve arrived and got in, the rest is a doddle which is my kinda travelling. As discussed it limits it’s appeal to the traveler and tourist which ironically makes it so appealing. The visa fee is rooted in the countries philosophy of maintaining it’s culture and a happy population of 800,000 people. They have a Gross National Happiness Index (no joke) which they claim to be more important than GDP. This all sits alongside a strong commitment to preserving the environment. So strong that they refuse to build an airport in a prime location because a few dozen endangered black necked cranes visit the area every year. Power lines are even buried for the sake of the cranes. Controlling tourism essentially helps to protect their heritage and environment instead of selling out like so many countries have done which I think is fantastic. Yet Indian citizens can visit for free and there is a billion of them which is a large door to leave open and can never be closed because Bhutan basically imports everything from India. I do have one issue.

The funny thing is that any other country in the world which requires tourists to be guided or escorted as a condition of entry is seen as authoritarian and nasty. Bhutan doesn’t carry this rep and rightly so, but there is very little happening in the way of development in Bhutan. They appear to have all the essentials (wifi, iPhones and the like!), they appeared happy and it certainly didn’t look poor but not rich either. Cars face a 70% tax and I’m assuming if you work in tourism your income is dictated by the government as per the tourist fees. The countries other main income is from hydroelectric power which they sell to India. Other than that, farming is all there is left to do and that is largely done by hand in terraced fields. I simply can’t make my mind up. I love the place, I love the philosophy of it all and in my eyes more countries should be moving to protect their heritage and environment. But are the local population being held back? Looking back to Dhaka, Bangladesh has a fast growing economy where everything is go go go, people get richer, people get poorer and the divide grows. There was no apparent divide throughout Bhutan, no rush, no worries I sense. And put simply, I know where I’d rather be.

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