Travel Weekly Editor in Chief Arnie Weissmann recently traveled to the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. His fifth and final dispatch follows. Click to read his first, second, third and fourth dispatches.
A Bhutanese who has contributed greatly to the betterment of his nation is given the title “dasho,” similar to a knighthood. On my trip to Bhutan, I was fortunate enough to meet a number of dashos, two of whom happened to be brothers.
The first, Paljor Dorji (familiarly known as “Dasho Benji”) is a man of unusual presence, candor and charm. The son of the first prime minister of Bhutan, he served in various diplomatic positions and as an advisor to the current king’s father.
Today he is an active environmentalist and conservationist in a nation which has sustainability in its DNA (and, in its constitution: 60% of the land must remain covered by forest).
Bhutan is home to several endangered animals, including the snow leopard and tiger, and Dasho Benji created Bhutan’s first non-governmental organization, the Royal Society for the Protection of Nature. He was also instrumental in creating a reserve for black cranes. (View a slideshow from Arnie's visit to Bhutan by clicking here or on the photos
Always a controversial figure (he refers to himself as a former “court jester”), he remains outspoken as the country engages with the globalized world following centuries of relative isolation.
On the day I met him, Dasho Benji was quoted on the front page of national newspapers, clashing with the prime minister over the building of a road that would cut through a nature reserve and tiger habitat.
He told me that, contrary to what some of his critics have suggested, he always puts the interests of the Bhutanese people first.
He believes, however, that sometimes the citizens' long-term interest lies in preserving as much of Bhutan's unique natural environment as possible, even if it conflicts with developmental growth opportunities that would appear to be in the people’s immediate interests.
His brother and fellow dasho, Tobgye Dorji, also spent much of his life in diplomatic service, but is now a hotelier.
His former family home in Paro, on a hillside overlooking the town and across the valley from an ancient fortress (dzong), had been built by a feudal lord centuries ago. Dasho Tobgye and his wife, Genzing, have converted it into Hotel Gangtey Palace.
At destinations around the world, local hoteliers often adopt one property as their unofficial headquarters, where they can meet after hours and exchange stories, information, complaints and gossip. In Paro, the Gangtey Palace is such a place, and that evening I sat in its bar with Dasho Tobgye, Genzing and three other hoteliers.
One was the GM of the Zhiwa Ling Hotel, where I was staying, and the other two worked for Nak-Sel Hotel and Spa, a boutique property in Ngoba Village, in the mountains outside of town.
It became evident during the evening that the Gangtey Palace became Paro’s hotelier headquarters in large measure because of the grace, warmth and good humor of Tobgye and Genzing. I recently wrote
about a shrine room in a suite at the 6-year-old Zhiwa Ling Hotel, and some locals think it was inspired by a shrine in the Gangtey Palace. The latter is such a classic example of Bhutanese religious art that it has toured museums throughout Europe.
After meeting Dasho Tobgye, it occurred to me that diplomats and hoteliers have a great deal in common. Both require a special blend of problem-solving skills and grace under pressure.
Dasho Tobgye, it appears, has focused the same talents that made him a respected diplomat into his second career. As a hotelier, he once again appears happily cast into a position where he can play an ambassadorial role on behalf of Bhutan.
Many Bhutanese helped shape and color the nine days I was in the country, and provided valuable information that has appeared both in the dispatches I’ve posted and in the lengthy story that will appear next week.
They’re not mentioned in any of these articles, but I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge a few who were particularly helpful. From the Tourism Council of Bhutan, I would like to thank Chhimmy Pem, head of the marketing and promotion division, and Thuji Dorji Nadik, director of plans and programs.
For invaluable advice before departing, an entertaining and informative evening in Paro and assistance with fact-checking after I returned, I’d like to acknowledge tour operator Lotay Rinchen of Bridge to Bhutan.
And for another entertaining and informative evening, this time in Thimpu, I’d like to thank Drukair CEO Tandin Jamso; Yangphel Adventure Travel’s managing director Karma Lotey; and the UK’s honorary consul to Bhutan, Michael Rutland.