Give Bhutan a break

I have been trying to get a reader’s letter, titled “Bhutan Arrangements ‘Challenging’” (Oct. ’05, pg. 31), out of my mind, but I can’t. Bhutan, the country complained about, is my favorite place in the world, and I feel it was unfairly maligned by the traveler.

First of all, to allow only four days to see a country seems a bit short. Especially since flying into Bhutan entails landing between mountains, and anything short of a beautifully blue sky is going to mean no flying. On my trip, 13 years ago, we lost a day going due to rain.

Our group, too, stayed at the Druk Hotel with its marvelous location in “downtown” Thimphu, and the only problem I had with it was that the stay was too brief; I would have loved more time to shop, have a massage, mosey around town and visit the Swiss bakery. I can’t comprehend complaining about a hotel room’s mattress in a country where many people sleep on mats.

The airline problem (confirmed seats were lost) was the fault of Druk Air, not Etho Metho Tours & Treks. On my way to Bhutan, in Los Angeles I was told that Cathay Pacific had never heard of me; I was not in their computer. They made no offer to upgrade me when I furnished all my documentation. Instead, they put me in a seat that is normally never assigned, and there I was stuck for the long flight to Hong Kong. I did not blame my tour company; it was the airline’s goofup. I certainly never got any refund from Cathay, only what I felt was a sarcastic letter when I complained upon my return home.

I’m sorry the above-mentioned reader lost an afternoon trying to get his ticket straightened out, but it was not the fault of Etho Metho, which now has been punished by losing the business of Creative Travel in India, which means that the driver and guide who the reader says had “good job performance” have lost work, which is not easy to come by in Bhutan.

My tour was booked for the Olathang Hotel in Paro also, but our rooms had gone to the Italian film crew shooting “The Little Buddha” and we ended up at Pemling Villas, a delightful place and much more “Bhutanese” than the Olathang, which we visited for a drink.

A lack of knowledge of the country plays a part in dissatisfaction. Why would someone expect a TV (to watch what?) and a phone on a 4-day visit? One chair — no one can sit on a bed? A lack of shower curtains is often standard throughout the world where there is a central drain in the floor. A leaky toilet and a broken toilet seat could have been mentioned to the owners, but just how much time was spent in this room?

Of four tours I have taken, free bottled water was available only on one. I would point out that buying water is one way to interact with the people of the country.

I admit that the food in Bhutan is not anywhere near gourmet, but I would assume it is difficult to get ingredients. They serve visitors what they think we like to eat: juice, cereal, toast. . . . Bhutanese do not eat that kind of food. Would most guests prefer hot red peppers and yak meat?

I hope the reader was able to see the breathtaking beauty of Bhutan, which needs more than four days and more than visits to only the two cities of Thimphu and Paro to be appreciated. If you spend two days in New York and two days in Boston, have you seen America?

And I hope he had opportunities to spend time with the truly sweet, intelligent and kind Bhutanese people. An appreciation of them is worth a trip there in itself. They are completely cut off from the world as we know it, and they have a completely different culture, yet they are able to maintain a knowledge of things outside their country. How many Americans can say that?

For anyone planning to visit Bhutan, I suggest reading “Beyond the Sky and the Earth” by Jamie Zeppa (2000, Penguin Group. ISBN 1573228154) and “So Close to Heaven” by Barbara Crossette (1996, Knopf. ISBN 0679743634).

New York, NY