Visiting Bhutan for SANOG XXIII
Wow. What an incredible journey! My first business trip of 2014 was so much more than that. I left Denver on Friday morning, 10 January 2014. 21 hours later, on what was there a very late Saturday night, I arrived in Bangkok, Thailand. In between was a direct Denver to Tokyo flight on the new United Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner, a quick (65min) stop at Narita INt’l Airport, and a second ANA flight into BKK. After a too short stop at the airport Novotel for a couple calls, a shower, some email, and a few hours sleep; I was on my way back across the street to find Bhutan Airlines and my flight into Paro.
At this point my head was already spinning. My first time in Asia! The sunset coming into Narita was amazing, as was the mid-January heat of a Bangkok night (especially dressed as I was for a winter trip to the Himalayas). What time was it at home? What time was it there? How about where I’m going? And where I’ll be after that??? Figuring out when to reschedule meetings with folks in the U.S. and E.U. provided plenty of mental gymnastics. Probably harder than stringing all these flight and hotel reservations together in the first place…
The clock said 09:45 Sunday 12 January 2014 when I landed in the Kingdom of Bhutan – almost exactly 48 hours from when I left home, although I had luckily only experienced about 35 hours of travel. The approach into Paro Int’l Airport is an experience in it’s own right. Apparently there are only 9 pilots on the planet licensed to make the landing! Winding an Airbus A320 through the Himalayan valleys can’t be an easy feat – although the folks in the cockpit sure made it seem so. The ride was smooth as everyone on the plane, especially me and the other children, craned our necks to see frost coated trees below and ABOVE us on the ridge lines. Occasional small enclaves of large houses and beautifully terraced rice fields signaled that this pristine land was, indeed, inhabited.
Touching down on a small runway in large mountains should have been scarier I guess, but I was excited, and overwhelmed. Almost as soon as we had left Calcutta (a 40 minute on-plane layover interrupting the early morning flight) a sense of awe, wonder, and joy took me. Once on the ground, the terminal’s architecture looked right at home among the pure majesty of the surrounding mountains. A quick stroll across the tarmac and an easy passage through immigration and customs had me out the back in no time. Signs warning of the illegality of both smoking cigarets and buying antiques the only distraction from traditional dress, decor, and design.
A sign marked “SANOG Delegates” indicated my driver, and after waiting for two more international arrivals on the plane behind me, we were off. My next real “experience” of the trip was riding on the wrong side of a car driving on the wrong side of the narrow mountain roads. OK, the left side – but it sure seemed wrong to me at first! Especially passing slower vehicles, with oncoming traffic, rockslides, dogs, cattle, and workers building or repairing the road while we drove on it; every car ride included at least a touch of excitement.
An hour or so later we had arrived! My greeting at Terma Linca Resort blew my mind (as if it wasn’t already blown). A white scarf was placed over each of our shoulders in turn, before our bags were whisked off and we were guided into the lobby. There we were greeted with a fantastic cup of “welcome tea” and a relaxing sit in a beautiful space filled with traditional and traditionally inspired items and design. What a great change of pace. I was no longer in a rush to get anywhere. The three of us chatted for a bit while check-in was handled for us. After a while, our tea was done and we were shown to our rooms. Wow! I walked into an emense space, beautifully appointed, with a massive window overlooking one of the rivers that provides power and revenue for this immaculate kingdom.
Once I’d settled in, the phone rang. Would I care to join the others for lunch in the city? Of course! We drove into Thimphu and joined several other delegates to eat a delicious meal with a fabulous view. My only complaint is that they toned the spice down a bit too much for us visitors. =)
Dinner was discussed but after a few hours of work in my room, exhaustion set in. A quick bite of room service kept my stomach from complaining about hitting the sack about 21:00 or so (local time). Rising with the sun Monday morning gave me time to catch up on email, grab breakfast with some folks who were quickly becoming new friends, take some pictures, and freshen up my slides (I added a couple of the pictures I had taken that morning).
After lunch the conference started, and I was blown away again. All the conference speakers were great, but I expected that, and one still stood out. I can honestly say that Hon’ble Secretary Dasho Kinley Dorji is one of very few senior government officials I’ve ever heard speak about the Internet and Information Technology at length without cringing at least once. In fact, his views were downright refreshing! The whole idea of Gross National Happiness is a fantastic cornerstone to their entire governmental approach, which is awesome!
A fantastic local dinner, this time with plenty of chiles, capped a truly wonderful working day. The next was just as great. I made a note to set my alarm a bit earlier so that I could get out and capture the sunrise. Simply stunning. Such a delicate beauty. I hope the pictures I took can provide some glimmer of what I got to experience that morning. Then a shower, breakfast, and a full day of conference, including three trips to the stage myself as well as a great lunch and even more new relationships started. Since Tuesday is Bhutahn’s “dry day” and no alcohol is served, the social event and dinner were moved to Wednesday. This made the night perfect for the whiskey BoF! While I didn’t get too deep into the spirits, I did eat my share (at least) of Momos – and they were delicious! A fantastic evening of camaraderie and conversation was had by all.
What really strikes me know, looking back, is just how relaxed and happy my whole time in Bhutan was. Although I was just as busy working and networking as I am at any conference, somehow the pace seemed slower, the days longer, and everything easier. The solid, if not perfect, Internet connectivity both on my phone (thanks to a Bhutan Telecom provided SIM card) and in the hotel room helped a bunch. Everything is better when I get to chat with my family and friends back home. The exceptional hospitality provided by Bhutan Telecom was surely another huge piece of it – I always knew where to be, how I was getting there, what to do when there, and truly never wanted for anything. There was something more though. Something beyond simple comfort and mundane pleasures. Some deep peace that seems to course through that beautiful land high in the mountains.
I was lucky enough to get an even closer encounter with that peace, that source of happiness, on Wednesday. Quite by accident I wound up invited on a trek to Taktsang Palphug Monastery, better known as the Tiger’s Nest. There was some concern over my lack of proper footwear (I only packed two pairs of dress shoes for the entire trip – a symptom of my compulsion against checked baggage) and the fact that I was invited to meet with the Prime Minister of Bhutan, Tshering Tobgay that afternoon (not a meeting one should arrive sweaty and/or late for), but I decided the risk was worth it and set off just after 9am local time.
The driver got four of us to the trailhead on the far side of Paro right about 11:00 and we set out on foot. Concerned about my meeting with the Prime Minister (it was mentioned that tourists usually take 2.5 hours each way for this 900+ meter elevation climb) and wanting to keep my own pace, I soon left the others behind. Stopping only to snap (many) pictures, and once for a quick snack, I reached the entrance to the monastery just after 12:30. I’m told this is about the time it takes most locals, but from what I saw they also carry many more offerings than I did. Entrance to the Tiger’s Nest itself is understandably fairly tightly controlled and at first the police guarding it did not want to let me in. I was not with my entire party, and worse, the monastery takes a lunch break from 13:00-14:00 – during which no visitors are allowed inside…
So I did exactly what you would have done of course. I let the officers know that I would much prefer a quick trip inside the temple by myself, to waiting and being late to dinner with their Prime Minister. After some quick deliberations, they decided to let me in! By far, my most successful name drop ever. =) I visited the various shrines and balconies respectfully but briskly, removing my shoes and leaving offerings of cash since I didn’t bring any food other than the Cliff bar I had already consumed on the hike. I kept one dollar to give the boy who had graciously offered me a juice box on the way up and then disappeared. [Luckily I did find him later and he seemed quite pleased with my payment.]
When I emerged from the Tiger’s Nest at 13:00 sharp, my hiking companions were just arriving. I collected my camera, as no photography is allowed inside the monastery. They have lockers for your phone, camera, walking stick, and other prohibited paraphernalia. We all chatted about the hike, the view, and the rules of the monastery. Shortly I was heading back down on my own (they waited until 14:00 to enter the amazing monastery themselves).
I played with a bit of macro photography on the hike down, there were some very cool cairns all along the trail. Back at the trail-head there were many long tables covered in beads, bells, bowls, and more. Noting the earlier warnings not to buy antiques I found a new but handmade looking turquoise ring for Meagan and a set of black and white counting beads for myself. The total? Exactly how much US cash I pulled out of my pocket, funny coincidence that – but still a great bargain! I was quickly rushed into the waiting Toyota Hilux and spirited away, back towards Terma Linca and my once-in-a-lifetime meeting with the Hon’ble Prime Minister of Bhutan.
With just enough time for a lightning fast shower and wardrobe change, I hurried back to the meeting room where about a dozen of my fellow hand chosen international delegates were gathering for the pre-dinner meeting. As it turned out, the Hon’ble Prime Minister was weighlayed in earlier meetings. We international delegates had a nice tea together instead, before being whisked off to dinner.
Adding even more surrealism, our small group of Internet technologist were driven into Thimphu and then escorted to the head table of a massive dinner for all SANOG XXIII attendees! There must have been 200 people seated when we walked in and took our place of honor. It was one of the most humbling moments of my life.
As soon as we were all seated, we were again asked to rise and were shuffled into a dark, elegant bar deeper in the exquisite hotel where the dinner was being held. Our drinks arrived and then so did the Prime Minister. What an amazingly down to earth and pragmatic individual! He was accompanied by his childhood friend and closest adviser. We all sat and chatted about Bhutan, the Internet, and Governance, for around a half hour, maybe forty minutes.
After drinks, dinner was shared. A great buffet of excellent traditional Bhutanese food – and Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay was seated directly across from me! Wow. What a day. I still have a hard time believing that it all happened to me, and not in some story or a dream…
Thursday had me packing and heading to the airport, then off for one night in Bangkok before heading back up and out to Japan to meet Meagan for a weekend in Tokyo… but that’s another story.
Here’s a few of my favorite pictures from the trip: