Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Unique to Bhutan: the tourists

I was a chilip, a foreigner, in Bhutan for 9 weeks. Apart from a limited number of aid workers, volunteers and consultants, chilips in Bhutan are mostly tourists over 45, coming for 1-3 weeks from the US, Europe or Japan with an upper-middle class background. Another distinctive group of tourists are Indians who are called simply Indians, not chilips, and they are exempted from the $200 a day tourist fee and they usually stay for a shorter period of time. I heard from waiters and tourist guides that most Indians want better value for their money than other nationalities.

Tourists and locals at Paro Tsechu festival
Bhutan welcomed around 40,000 tourists last year (for a population of 700,000) which is not a lot as the country follows the rule of 'low volume, high value' tourism when charging visitors the minimum daily fee. This however includes everything from accommodation to transport, from food to the tourist guide. In this way, Bhutan has decided not to follow the example of other Asian countries which have become favorite destinations for backpackers and young people wanting to chill out - such as Israelis visiting Nepal right after their compulsory military service. This strict policy of course filters out tourists and most chilips of younger age whom I met were not tourists, but temporary workers or volunteers, and I didn't see any foreign children during my stay.

It is not uncommon among chilips to wear local traditional clothes, the gho or the kira, especially kira for women as this outfit doesn't differ so much from Western clothing. The gho for men is a different story and you don't see too many foreigners wearing them. It is hard to put on and for the first time you feel a bit uncomfortable as you are basically wearing a skirt that could easily make your favorite underwear go public when sitting untrained. However, after some time you get used to it and it actually feels great. I really liked wearing it.

Even if disguised in local dress, it is easy to spot the tourists in the streets of Thimphu. Most of them have grey hair and glasses walking slowly in pairs or small groups in trekking boots when admiring their environment. They almost always carry big cameras with them and men tend to have gigantic camera lens that may be interpreted by some as the Western version of the phallus cult of Bhutan. They are rarely seen without their local tourist guide who shows them what to see, where to eat, and what to buy. Occasionally, you can see 'abandoned' tourists with no guide wandering around and they look like excited children who have just run away from home to have some adventure in the neighborhood with no parental supervision.

Should you want to visit Bhutan, hurry up. I heard rumors of the government going to increase the daily fee to $250 soon.

Chilips watching Bhutan's strange animal, the takin
The takin, Bhutan's national animal, is watching strange Chilips
Big brother is watching, too.
At Paro Tsechu
At Punakha Dzong
Guide and his guided at Chimi Lhakhang

and a Thai lady at the King's birthday celebration in Thimphu

1 comment:

  1. Very nice post. This made me laugh: "Occasionally, you can see 'abandoned' tourists with no guide wandering around and they look like excited children who have just run away from home " :)