Bhutan: a dream come true

Bhutan is a country famous for being one of the happiest countries in the world, but for a country to measure its kind of GDP by a happiness index, there certainly is something magical going on.

Guðny, me and Togga

Bhutan was my 220th country, depending on how you count, but one I’ve been longing to go to, and perhaps I was saving the best for last. Its population is only 750,000, a kingdom nestled in the Himalayas between China and eastern India, and 75% of Bhutanese people are Buddhist. Those kinds of statistics already create such an unknown, a magical fairytale place only Tibet could challenge, but since I’ve never been to Tibet either, I didn’t know what to expect.

one of our most rewarding hikes to the Tiger´s Nest

Getting into Bhutan isn’t hard, but it isn’t cheap either. With the daily rate per tourist set at $200-250 per day, you have do dish out a thousand dollars for a short visit. The set up was reminiscent of North Korea, not in a negative way, but in the sense that our tour guide was with us nearly 24/7, driving and guiding us the whole time without any real free time or ability to roam independently. The difference was that he was trying to show us his best hospitality, not control our thoughts or experience, and we loved Phurba.

The Tiger´s Nest Monastery, aka Paro Taktsang

We visited multiple temples, monasteries and dzongs (forts and palaces), while staying in hotels filled with Indian tourists until we got to homestay in Punakha with a local family. We had some issues taking out and exchanging money, since a country rich in happiness doesn’t take a lot of visa or debit cards. Few people had much to do with dollars or euros so buying ngultrum (which I still cant pronounce) wasn’t easy, and they were always mixed up with Inidan rupees since they’re equivalent in value.

river rafting with Phurba

The highlight of the week was river rafting down the Mochu river, under an old iron bridge and the rice fields in Punakha valley. Bonding with our guide Phurba and partying with his friends was a perfect complement to having a professional host and well-trained hiking leader, and overlapping at Tiger’s Nest with a Backroads trip was a funny contrast to the kind of travel we were all experiencing, but in oh such different ways. I look forward to going back to Bhutan and trying yet another way, perhaps a horse back ride to Tibet. Apparently the locals do it regularily!

Arctic Adventures

It’s amazing to think about the far-reaching effects of the tourism industry in Iceland. We’re a tiny country, 103, and only 306,000 people, but this year, around a half a million tourists came and scoured every corner of this country, seeing more in 1 week than most Icelanders see in a lifetime of living here. You notice this on Laugavegur, Reykjavik’s main street where everyother person passes you speaking a different language, and also on highway 1, the ringroad around Iceland littered in rental cars and some serious campervans shipped over with Smyril’s car ferry from Europe.

Working with Ishestar riding tours and also at the Radisson Hotel in Reykjavik, I get a sneak peek into the lives and plans of some of these tourists, fulfilling life-time dreams of traveling in Iceland, riding horses over snow-topped mountains, icecaving in glaciers, and photographing active volcanoes. There’s a tour company called Arctic Adventures that specializes in all the most extreme types of sport tourism, including snowmobiling, 4x4ing, river rafting and white water kayaking. I went with some river guides and Arctic Adventure staff from Drumboddstadir down a class 2 river, experiencing Iceland as totally adrenaline-filled tourist and enjoying the feeling of taking a vacation in Iceland.

they use old American school buses to transport kayakers and kayaks to the top of the river

I was with Frikki, a doctor who river guides in the summer but also happens to be the chairman of the Reykjavik Hunting Association, so we were on our way to the east for the reindeer hunting trip. He knew all the staff at Drumbo, and we kayaked until nightfall, pulling our kayaks and canoe out of the water well after 10pm. We stopped in one gorge to do some cliff jumping, 5m into the glacial river in our dry suits that didn’t keep us so dry but did bob us like stuffed scarecrows back to the surface immediately. That night we ate chicken masala and tapped into a bottomless keg, exchanged shoulder massages and then went into the sauna together where swimming suits are banned. I discreetly wrapped myself in a towel, but tried very hard to remain casual as 3 naked men posed like Troy all around me.

The next day we drove north to Skagafjordur, where a glacier river called Jokulsa has a west and east arm both great for kayaking and river rafting. We joined a tourist group and took 2 rafts down the class 4 east river, and drifted through the intimidating rapids with names like the Green Room, which was more of a 4+class rapid. We made it through the 3 drops and boiling currents without flipping, but watched in horror as the second boat tipped on the first waterfall and everyone got sucked under and dragged out. Paddles went flying and the safety kayaks had to rescue all the stranded souls, but eventually we were all in good enough spirit to go cliffjumping again.

kayaking is a pretty colourful riversport

We stayed at the staff house again, grilled a few hamburgers, and crashed on the couch. The staff there were from Canada, England, Nepal, France and Guatemala, creating an international hostel vibe in this remodeled barn in the middle of farm country. We were a few kilometers away from Varmahlíð, and stopped at the natural hot pot Fossalaug on our way north. We continued roadtripping our way East, driving out from Skagafirdi to Akureyri through Olafsjordur and Hofsos, stopping in at Frikki’s uncle’s farm to have the best smoked arctic char I’ve ever tasted. We were invited in for coffee and cake, and got to peek into the private life of farming. We also visited his aunt, glimpsing into her arts and crafts life out of a remodeled warehouse where she harvests down feathers from eider ducks and turns them into the clothes as soft as clouds.

To get to Iceland and go on your own Arctic Adventure, its pretty easy to find cheap flights here.