Some brides-to-be dream of walking down the aisle in a white dress, but not Randi Lass. For years she had dreamed of visiting Bhutan, and when she and her fiancé, Patrick Reyes, decided to make the trip, Randi had an idea. Why not make the experience even more memorable by celebrating their wedding in Bhutan? With Patrick's enthusiastic agreement, Randi contacted Myths and Mountains to see if it would be possible to arrange a traditional Bhutanese wedding celebration during a READ Global program in November 2011. The answer was a resounding yes.
The wedding was held at a 350-year-old farmhouse owned by the family of one of Myths and Mountains' Bhutanese partners. In a Bhutanese wedding, the man comes to the woman, so Randi was picked up early in the morning and brought to the farmhouse, where the hosts helped her dress in a kira, the traditional women's garment. The wedding guests, who included Myths and Mountains President Toni Neubauer, fellow trip participants, staff from Myths' Bhutanese partner companies, and relatives of the farmhouse owners, arrived later in a procession with the groom, who was wearing the traditional men's garment known as a gho. After traditional celebrations in the courtyard, the actual marriage ceremony was held in a special prayer room, with lamas conducting the rites in the ancient formal manner. Afterward there was traditional entertainment and lunch at the farmhouse.
Sangay Wangchuk, the general manager of our Bhutan office, is full of useful insights for visitors to his country. Here are his thoughts and advice for anyone traveling to Bhutan.
Bhutanese time is not like Western time. When watches first came to Bhutan, the gadget was more jewelry than timepiece. Even today the Bhutanese relationship with time is an issue. For a Bhutanese it is always acceptable when someone walks in late. In fact, the Bhutanese joke that "Bhutan Standard Time" should really be called "Bhutan Stretchable Time." People working in tourism are trying their best to be punctual, but it is always wise to be aware of the country's stretchable time.
Responsible travelers are more appreciated than misguidedly generous ones. The Bhutanese treat tourists as guests and would lay down their lives to protect them. Yet this custom can become diluted over time unless tourists take care to act responsibly. Being a responsible tourist is not difficult. Small acts and thoughts can help preserve Bhutanese culture. For example, it is wise not to flaunt wealth by giving items or money publicly. It is always better to have travelers as guests rather than as walking - albeit compassionate - banks.
Gross National Happiness is at the core of Bhutanese development. Gross National Happiness is the development philosophy coined by the fourth King of Bhutan, H.M. Jigme Singye Wangchuck, in the 1980s. To create happiness one must first create a good environment. Creating a good environment requires good policies that create equal socioeconomic opportunities and safeguard citizens' cultural heritage and rights. Finally, it means taking good care of our natural heritage and using it sustainably. That's Gross National Happiness in a nutshell.
Personal relationships are more important than money. For most Bhutanese interpersonal connections are more important than money. Using the power of money to get things done in Bhutan is the wrong idea. People are willing to offer services to travelers because they are guests of the country. There is no expectation of remuneration attached.
An open, inquiring mind is key to understanding Bhutan. Bhutan is still an unexplored destination. There are many new discoveries in this small kingdom, and you need to ask questions to explore it. Bhutanese guides tend to be quite reticient and generally do not volunteer answers unbidden, but this is simply a matter of culture. If you have a question, please ask, and your guides will always do their best to answer.
With the gradual easing of political tensions in Myanmar, the southeast Asian nation is experiencing increased tourism, leading to new challenges for the country's tourism and hospitality infrastructure. "With the change in attitude of the government, there's a pent-up demand that's been released," says Myths and Mountains President Toni Neubauer. "This is a country that is going to change absolutely, and rapidly."
Due to its political isolation, Myanmar has maintained a variety of cultures and traditions essentially free from outside influence. The country's cultural and natural diversity are strong draws for travelers, as are its impressive archaeological sites such as Bagan.
"Culturally, Myanmar is one of the richest countries in southeast Asia. It's the fourth-largest country in the region and has lots of resources, including gems and oil. It has a varying topography, stretching from the coast to the Himalayan foothills," Neubauer says. "It's also a country that has two Wednesdays, a currency that's based on the number nine, and where people kiss by rubbing noses."
With so much to offer, the tourism industry in Myanmar is sure to develop at a rapid pace now that political tensions have eased somewhat, although it's impossible to predict whether the country will continue along the road toward greater global integration, or whether the government will ultimately revert back to its isolationist tendencies.
One thing is certain, however: Travelers are flocking to Myanmar these days, so anyone who wants to see the country before it changes should visit soon. But with the country's infrastructure so stretched, it's important to allow extra time to make arrangements. Neubauer advises travelers to plan well in advance in order to ensure that they can experience everything that this amazing country has to offer. Contact Myths and Mountains for more information.
Myths and Mountains founder and president Toni Neubauer has once again been named Condé Nast Traveler's Top Travel Specialist for Nepal - an honor that recognizes Neubauer as not only the premiere travel specialist for the country of Nepal, but as one of the top travel professionals in the world.
"When you love a country and work hard to share this love with travelers to Nepal and the local people in the country, recognition by an organization as important as Condé Nast is extraordinarily meaningful," Neubauer says.
Neubauer has spent much of the last 27 years traveling all over Nepal, speaks the language, and has handled everything from documentaries to weddings. Her experiences inspired her to found Rural Education and Development, or READ Global, in Nepal in 1991 as the nonprofit arm of Myths and Mountains. Now an independent 501c3 organization based in San Francisco, READ builds Community Library Resource Centers, seeds local businesses to fully sustain and support the centers, and links them with organizations providing literacy, health/HIV, microcredit, women's empowerment, and other needed services in rural communities across Nepal, Bhutan, and India. The organization has built approximately 50 centers in Nepal, serving more than a million people.
Condé Nast Traveler's annual Top Travel Specialists Collection recognizes the 133 most prolific travel specialists and booking agents in the business today, as judged by the editors of Condé Nast Traveler magazine. The 133 travel specialists are each recognized for their field of specialization, whether it be wine tours in France, cultural tours in Nepal, or rafting trips on the great rivers of the world. The feature can be found online (www.cntraveler.com/travel-tips/travel-specialists) and in the December 2011 print edition of the magazine. The Top Travel Specialists Collection is spearheaded by Condé Nast Traveler's Director of Consumer News and Digital Community, Wendy Perrin.
A few months ago, our vice president, Allie Almario, headed over to Asia to do some research and development and check out some of the newest hotel properties there. Here, she shares some notes from her trip, as well as some tips for travelers visiting the region.
If you are going to spend 15 hours in a plane hurtling over the vast Pacific Ocean from San Francisco to Hong Kong, I highly recommend doing it in Business Class if you can. I'm not usually an elitist, but when Cathay Pacific puts me on standby for a complimentary business class upgrade, I'm not going to say no. And I'm not going to lie - it was very, very nice.
Once in Asia, my trip was a whirlwind combination of early-morning wake-up calls, incessant jet lag, nonstop hotel inspections, and cramming in quick visits to some of Hong Kong and Thailand's highlights.
It was my first time in Hong Kong, and the first thing that struck me was how vertical a city it is. Much of my time was spent going up and down a lot of elevators as I hopped around the city. I lucked out with perfect weather - perfect blue skies and no humidity, typical for November and December.