How she was chosen to be the only tourist in Bhutan

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(Granthshala) – Fran Buck never read “Eat, Pray, Love.”

But when her husband of 30 years passed away in 2018, Buck began a non-Elizabeth-Gilbert spiritual journey that would take her though Bali and India, and end with her being the only tourist to enter the kingdom. was allowed to do. Bhutan since the advent of the coronavirus pandemic.
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Grief brought up the now 70-year-old Buck through spiritual practices. During his six-month stint in Bali, Bach stayed next to a cafe where gong meditation – a practice where various types of metal clocks were used as sound therapy – was underway. Initially skeptical, she fell for the practice and then started doing it herself.

“I literally woke up one day and said, I’m taking the alligator to Bhutan,” Buck tells Granthshala Travel.


from visitor to relative

Buck wasn’t sure what to expect when she first arrived in the Land of Thunder Dragon in late 2019. He was assigned through a driver, Gambo, and a tour guide, Tashi. MyBhutan, the tourism company he had chosen to work with.
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At first Bach thought his two Bhutanese companions were too quiet. They thought he – and his alligators – were too strong. But on a visit to Nabji, Gambo’s ancestral village in central Bhutan, Bach becomes ill and the villagers help take care of him. A deep bond was formed. Now, she says, the villagers call her ns, or sister.

By the end of their journey, Buck says, he, Gambo, and Tashi were “becoming a family.” Together they visited 18 out of 20 districts of Bhutan. After she left the country in February 2019, they kept in touch via phone calls and WhatsApp.

It was not only the Bhutanese who conquered it. Buck falls in love with the dramatic countryside of Bhutan, which she calls “a dreamscape”.

Fran Bak on his first visit to Bhutan.

Courtesy Frank Bucky

Bak is far from the only person to find peace in Bhutan. In the 1970s, as it opened for tourism, the Himalayan kingdom “Gross National Happiness Index

A national body is tasked with periodically voting the people of Bhutan on nine “key areas” of happiness – psychological well-being, health, education, good governance, ecology, use of time, community vitality, culture and life. Level.

The government, a constitutional monarchy, must take these factors into account when considering a new law or policy. Banning plastic bags may be fashionable in Western countries, but in 1999 Bhutan banned them all. Tobacco is also illegal, so Bhutan calls itself the world’s first non-smoking country.

“Bhutan is a bounty of exquisite offerings,” Bak says from Thimphu’s apartment, where she will spend the next few weeks before heading on the road to gong workshops in rural villages.

an insider’s idea

Matt DeSantis, co-founder of MyBhutan, is one of the few foreigners who have had the opportunity to live in Bhutan as a long-term expatriate.

A Connecticut native, she met Prince Jigiel Ugyen Wangchuck while they were a student together at the elite Choate Rosemary Hall Prep School and formed a lifelong friendship on the basketball court.

DeSantis wears several hats: his tech company is working to digitize all of Bhutan’s cultural relics and, due to the lack of a US embassy in the kingdom, he serves in the role of “warden”, serving as a US ambassador. The closest thing. He was instrumental in bringing Bak back to Bhutan as a test case for how the country could be reopened.

“In the end, the three parties that had to approve (for his visa) were the Tourism Council, the Immigration Department and the COVID Task Force,” he says.

Although the government has said that visas for tourists can be granted on a case-by-case basis, BAK was the first visa since March 2020 – and so far, the only application.

However, getting to Bhutan would require jumping through a series of obstacles. Bach had to deal with multiple canceled or re-routed flights, a series of airport workers who didn’t know what paperwork they would need, and a battery of COVID tests, then 21 days in a hotel quarantine. Spend where he left off only to take his suit for more Covid tests.

Still, Buck believes all the trouble was worth it.

“It wasn’t until I moved here that I realized I was making history,” she says. “I didn’t expect people to welcome me and thank me for coming to the country. It brings me to my knees.”

Local media portrayed Buck’s arrival in Bhutan as if he would have covered a visiting dignitary in pre-Covid times.

Among those who followed his story was DeSantis. “Frank was a groundbreaker in many ways,” he says, “and a beacon of hope for the tourism industry.”

Fran Bak posing with one of his alligators.

Fran Bak posing with one of his alligators.

Courtesy Frank Bucky

a country beyond covid

Even before the pandemic, visiting Bhutan required little coordination. Under the state’s “High Value Low Impact” policy, travel is prohibitively expensive and is designed to prevent overt tourism.

All travel visas must be issued through a government-approved tour operator company, and a mandatory daily fee of $250 applies to each visitor.

After being allowed to return to Bhutan in 2021, Bak was required to spend three weeks in quarantine upon arrival. Although she is the only tourist in the country, there are existing quarantine policies and facilities as medical personnel are arriving in the country.

A representative of the Bhutanese government confirmed that the tourism department offered to cover the cost of Bak’s quarantine, but chose to pay for it himself. Bach described the decision as “my way of showing solidarity”.

DeSantis used Buck’s visit as a kind of test case for what a fuller reopening of Bhutan might look like.

“Bhutan is really well prepared to bounce back with tourism. Tourism is very important to us and we are doing the right thing,” he says. Although nothing concrete yet, DeSantis says he has heard rumors of a reopening sometime between December 2021 and February 2022.

It helps that the COVID situation in Bhutan is good. Around 90% of adults The vaccination was done in the state till July. This is no small feat in a country where many people live in remote villages without mass transport.

King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck made it a point to travel across the country on horseback and on foot to encourage citizens to get vaccinated. He also called on healthcare workers and volunteers to thank them for their involvement in the vaccine rollout.

Despite the logistics and challenges of being the only tourist in the city, Bach never considered doing anything other than returning to the country he loved.

“My dream began in Bhutan,” she says, “and it never ended.”

Image of Takhtshang Gomba via Adobe Stock.


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