In 2015, Michael Keys, Zephyr guide and the husband of Zephyr’s Head of Operations, Kris Keys, journeyed with us on our maiden voyage to Bhutan as a tour guest. Afterward, he wrote a blog post called Don’t Wait – Make the Remarkable Journey and Travel to Bhutan where he provided his perspective and shared his profound experience of befriending a young monk.
Last October, Michael returned to Bhutan and led a group of eager adventurers as our main American guide. We caught up with him recently to see how his return journey measured up.
What were your expectations for returning to Bhutan knowing how quickly Western culture was being adopted there?
When I first visited Bhutan in 2015, I felt like I had stepped back in time! People were walking in traditional dress and carrying things in handmade baskets and bags. Structures and homes looked hundreds of years old. Everything seemed very simple and ancient. Our local guide Sonam told us that Bhutan was changing rapidly, and we had kept in touch the past year via Facebook – Sonam giving me updates – so I was expecting it to be a little different, but not as much as it was, frankly.
What were some of the more surprising changes you encountered?
Sonam was correct – Bhutan is changing rapidly, which is to be expected in this day and age and the country’s exposure to the outside world. Tourism is booming and cities are growing. When I went back this time, one year later, I expected that I would see progress on the roads that had been under construction and that maybe some buildings I saw under construction would be finished. But I was shocked at how many new buildings were finished and how many new hotels and residential buildings there were! There was even rush hour traffic in Thimpu, Bhutan’s capital city.
Last year, on our hike to Tiger’s Nest we saw very few people. This year it was a constant stream of people (although still well worth doing!). On our Druk Trek (sort of the like the Inca Trail of Bhutan) last year, we were the only tourists and saw just a handful of locals on the trail. This year, it was full of groups and we had trekking neighbors the entire time. In fact, everywhere we went there was heavy tourist activity. Despite all the growth (and, for example, seeing all the young monks on their iPhones) it is still an alluring and unique destination.
Would you go back to Bhutan again?
Yes! Again and again. I have become friends with our local guide Sonam and with Karma, our liaison. There is a peace I feel when I am there. I love the people. They are a kind, simple and warm people. I enjoy their real personalities, their openness. They are shy but get to know them and you will find that they are more than willing to talk about their country and the changes taking place. They are proud of their home and they should be.
Thank you, Michael, for sharing your perspective!
Because of all the changes we experienced and growth we saw this year, we are re-working our Bhutan trip and will introduce a new version in the spring of 2018. Previously, our travelers could choose a high-altitude trek OR a cultural immersion with not a lot of physical activity. Our new trip will combine day hikes and unique cultural experiences and will be all hotel-based, which we think may be appealing to more of our travelers. We will also visit Eastern Bhutan, which still gets very few tourists and provides a cultural immersion that is different from the western cities of Bhutan. Of course, we will still visit the cities (and hike to the Tiger’s Nest), as they have lots to offer, too!