They came to learn, but I learned from them

WHEN my five Bhutanese guests rushed to the shore to enjoy a brief one-hour frolic in the blue waters of Lakawon Island Resort, I asked the only female in the group, “Aren’t you going to change into a swimsuit?”

She was in a short, sleeveless dress and was in a hurry to go down to the water. She replied, “I don’t have a swimsuit. I don’t know how to swim.”

Oh, how stupid of me not to remember! Bhutan, the tiny kingdom nestled in the mountains, doesn’t have a beach! In fact it is her first trip to the sea.

As a Filipino, I grew up in the Philippines taking for granted the thousands of islands in our country and their beaches. We think nothing much of our diverse and rich marine life until someone not Filipino raves about them.

Negros Island has its mountain range and when I pointed this out to my guests when we were travelling across the mainland, and told them that the tallest peak in Central Visayas is Mount Kanlaon, I am sure the Bhutanese were rolling their eyes figuratively. Mountain living from 150 to 7,500 meters above sea level gives them the right to scoff at my boast.

For a small, landlocked country with an area of 38,394 square kilometers on the southern slope of the Eastern Himalayas, bordered by China to the north, and India to the south, east and west, the country has these: parts of three global biodiversity hotspots, 60 eco-regions, 330 Important Bird Areas, 53 Important Plant Areas, and a large number of wetlands including 29 Ramsar sites compared to the Philippines’ six.

There are about 52 lakes in this country with at least 24 higher than 3,000 metres above sea level and maybe about eight unexplored High Altitude Wetlands.

In fact, Bhutan has recorded some 2,674 glacial lakes. High Altitude Wetlands are the main source of freshwater there. Hot springs must be a dime a dozen in Bhutan and these are popular among its inhabitants just like our Mambukal Mountain Resort is to us for its therapeutic benefits.

Conservation of biodiversity is taken seriously in Bhutan. For the Bhutanese, nature gives them sustenance, tradition and spiritual well-being. If tourists visit the country, they are required to pay $250 for every day of their stay. Every day! But these include hotel accommodation, full board meals, transportation, and guide. The fee also includes a governmental charge ($70) for the environment. Why is the fee so high? The answer is “High Value, Low Volume.” This way, tourism is both revenue-earning and low carbon footprint.

Bhutan’s government program to preserve their natural resources does not mean that biodiversity has no threats. The country still has to deal with problems such as forest fires, over-extraction of timber and fuel wood, overgrazing of livestock, wildlife poaching, unsustainable agricultural practices, pollution, invasive species, human-wildlife conflict, climate change, population, and poverty. Sounds familiar?

There must be something there in the mountains to keep these people happy. Known to be the happiest country on earth, their riches can be found in nature and their innate pride for their culture. Did you know that the Bhutanese wear clothes made out of their traditional fabrics? These are fabrics that are hand-woven and clothing made from them is worn as everyday wear. The result may be expensive cloth but this practice keeps that part of their culture alive and the artisans happy.

I am impressed by how this little kingdom takes care of its people and the environment. Now, I know that electricity is free for the Bhutanese. As an exporter of electric power to India, Bhutan can afford to distribute the remaining 30 percent to its people. This way, the use of fuel wood is minimized, thus, saving Bhutan’s forests. Bravo!

My guests, who are employees of the National Biodiversity Centre under the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests of Bhutan, were impressed, in turn, with our organic farming practices, specifically, integrated farming.

A visit to the Peñalosa Farm in Victorias City was a demonstration of the province’s leadership in organic farming made possible even with just 9,000 square meters of land. Bhutan’s major crops are rice and maize; cultivated crops include cash crops such as apple, orange and cardamom which are exported, wheat, barley, and vegetables the most important of which are chili and potato.

Chili, by the way, isn’t cooked as a spice but as a vegetable. The emadatsi is a popular Bhutanese dish made of chilies and cheese. This I got to try if I go there.

Travelling to Bhutan can seem daunting on both the traveler and his pocket. One has to fly to Bhutan from Bangkok, Singapore or selected Indian cities.

Yet, according to a Korean friend of mine, who worked for the South Korean government and was sent to Bhutan as her country’s representative, going there was worth the trip.

Bhutan is truly a beautiful nation. A visit there to enjoy its lush forests and native plants is in my bucket list. Who knows, I might just meet a Bhutanese botanist.
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