Author Lisa Napoli On The Perils And Pleasures Of Bhutan

bhutanWhen a midlife crisis hit Lisa Napoli in the wake of turning 40, she needed a break from L.A. and her job as a reporter for the public radio program “Marketplace.” A chance encounter with a good looking guy led her to a volunteer opportunity at Kuzoo FM in Bhutan, the tiny Buddhist kingdom in the Himalayas, famous for measuring its citizens’ well being by the Gross National Happiness metric.

The result is her acclaimed travel memoir, “Radio Shangri-La: What I Discovered on my Accidental Journey to the Happiest Kingdom on Earth,” which chronicles her adventures at Kuzoo FM and around this enticing but remote little country. The book offers an interesting peek into this poorly understood but vibrant culture while following Napoli’s quest to find meaning and wisdom in her own life.

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Tourists weren’t allowed into Bhutan until the ’70s and the country had no airport until 1984. Even today, it’s difficult and expensive to get there, which is exactly why it’s considered by some to be a Himalayan paradise with an intact Buddhist culture that hasn’t yet been overrun by tourists. We talked to Napoli, who is now working on a biography about the late Mrs. Joan Kroc, about her experiences in Bhutan, tips for prospective visitors and why Bhutan is worth the hassle and expense.

lisa napolis in bhutanAuthorities in Bhutan were considering lowering the daily minimum travelers have to spend, which might have opened up the floodgates for a lot more Western tourists, right?

The tourist tax is there to keep a huge volume or tourists out. The least you can pay is $250 per day and you have to book through a tour operator. But tour operators lose $65 of that $250 in tax to the government. So they have to pay the hotel, the guides and the transportation off of the $185 that goes to them.

A lot of people want to skirt that visa by volunteering or doing something else but Bhutan doesn’t care about that. They make their money from the tourist tax. It’s the second highest revenue generator for them, behind hydroelectric power.

So when the government started talking about lowering the daily rate the tour guides freaked out because they have a hard time arranging the tours for the $185 a day they get. Only 27,000 outsiders got their butts into Bhutan last year so the tour operators were not happy about the idea of taking the tourist visa away or lowering the rate.

Does Bhutan cap the number of tourist visas it issues each year?

No. There’s a misperception from 25 years ago that only a certain number are let in each year. When they opened the gates to let tourists in, they were worried that everyone would want to come but that wasn’t the case. McKinsey Consulting told them they could get 100,000 tourists a year but they can’t do that because there’s nowhere they could put 100,000 tourists in Bhutan.

And what does that $250 a day buy in Bhutan these days?

You don’t get to specify exactly where you want to go or where you’ll stay. You can specify how you’d like to focus the trip, trekking or culture or whatever but you don’t set the exact itinerary per se. Unless you go the super high-end route and stay at the Amankora, which is a $1,000 per night hotel.

tigers nest monastery bhutanSo let’s say my wife and I had two weeks to visit Bhutan, how would we do it?

You’d probably want to go through India or Bangkok. Bangkok’s airport is nicer, it’s fabulous. Druk Air, the only airline that flies into Bhutan also just started service from Singapore as well. The flight from Bangkok runs every day through Dhaka or Calcutta. You fly into Paro airport, which is one of the world’s most dangerous and beautiful airports.

If you have two weeks, you’d spend a few days in Paro seeing the beautiful sacred Tiger’s Nest Monastery. That’s the sacred monastery that’s the birthplace of Buddhism in Bhutan. That’s a beautiful place. After that, it depends on what you want to see. There’s no Disneyfication of Bhutan yet but where you go depends on your threshold for tolerating really crummy roads and your interest in being on the trekking circuit instead of in a car.

Will the $250 per day cover all my expenses? What kind of hotel can I get for that lower end package?

It’s going to get you an OK hotel. They’ve been working to upgrade all the hotels but it’s still variant. But the $250 a day will cover everything except the stuff you’ll buy and your drinks and alcohol. But it’s awkward for a lot of people because you have to wire the money to the tour operator up front.

Most tour operators, other than the very big expensive ones, involve wiring money to some strange place. The plane ticket alone from Bangkok to Paro is $800 round trip.

What sort of Americans visit Bhutan?

Mostly wealthy travelers. But it’s a different sort of wealthy traveler than you might find in, say a 5-star resort somewhere. A lot of the people who go have been almost everywhere else in the world and they want to go someone where not a lot of tourists go. Then you have people who are interested in Buddhism or people who are interested in hardcore trekking.

You also run into Japanese tourists and Indian tourists because Indian tourists don’t have to pay the tourist tax minimum.

So Bhutan isn’t cheap and it’s not easy to get to. What’s the upside of making the effort?

If you want to see a place that looks nothing like anywhere you’ve ever been before and see it before it’s developed, you’ve got to go. If you want to see the Himalayas in its pure state, without endless tour buses, you have to see it. I’ve been in super remote villages there were the people have never seen a white person before. Most people under 35 speak some English, they’re taught English in school.

I’ve been six times now and my experience has been different from normal tourists because I wasn’t staying in hotels. But for someone with a sense of adventure, there’s nothing like it.

From reading the book, it sounded like you weren’t very fond of the food in Bhutan though.

From my perspective, the food was terrible. But if you stay in hotels, your experience will be different because they’ll cater more to foreign visitors in how they cook. I had an authentic Bhutan experience. I was a guest in people’s homes who weren’t used to visitors.

So were you forced to eat some really nasty stuff?

I just learned not to eat. I carried food with me or ate before I left the house and tried to be polite. The food is difficult because it’s red-hot chili peppers stewed with processed cheese served under red rice. I don’t eat processed cheese under any circumstance in this country.

What you have to remember if you go to Bhutan is that people aren’t used to Western tourists. That’s one reason why my book is very unpopular in Bhutan because I talk about the place in a way that they’re not used to. If you want the resort experience, it’s not the place to go.

Why don’t they like the book?

I get some nasty mail. I get mail from people who read the book and are dying to go to Bhutan but can’t afford it. I get mail from people who are reading the book who are going there and people who were there already and think I don’t understand Bhutan, and ‘how dare I write that book.’ And then I get mail from people who don’t like that I refer to it as the happiest place on earth since they kicked out these Nepalese refugees.

himalayas bhutanWhat advice do you have for people who want to visit Bhutan but don’t want to take the tour?

There is no mechanism for volunteerism there; most people like me just luck into it. There’s a small need for certified teachers but interaction with the outside world there is relatively new. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to help people get visas there and I just can’t do it. But that’s what’s charming about Bhutan.

So people should just look for a tour company?

The high-end one is Geo Expeditions in New York. There’s Yangphel Adventure Travel, that’s a big one, and there’s Champaca Journeys, among many others.

Should people base themselves in Thimpu, the capital, on a trip to Bhutan?

No. You want to get out and see the country and nature. It’s too big to just do day trips though. For example, the first READ Global built library in the country is 250 miles from Thimpu and it takes 13 hours to get there.

When did you take your first trip to Bhutan?

2007. In the book, I chronicle three trips to Bhutan but I’ve been there six times over the last five years.

Hopefully your publisher is paying for that?

Nope. I got an advance for the book. I didn’t go intending to write a book. I was burnt out on my world and I had this opportunity because I’d just sold an apartment so I had some cash. So I took the time off work and went to work for free (in Bhutan) at my own expense. But I was so dazzled, I had to go back and see it again.

So I went back for two more weeks and volunteered again. Then we sold the book in March 2008 and I went back to Bhutan and got a visa for two months and then went back again six months later and then went back again right before my book came out and spent time in the eastern part of the country.

You worked for NPR and then quit your job eventually after visiting Bhutan, is that right?

I was working for a National Public Radio show called “Marketplace.” I quit once I got my advance because I just couldn’t do that job any more. I was done so I quit in 2008. I was fortunate that my agent sold the book for enough money that I didn’t have to have a job for that period of time and recently I’ve been working part time at a public radio affiliate in Los Angeles.

But I have an uneasy relationship with the news business and don’t really like being part of it, so I contribute arts segments to make a living. My intention was to leave L.A. but I fell in love.

kids in bhutan monksWith a guy from Bhutan?

No. I fell in love with a man from Ethiopia who lives here in L.A. He asked me to moderate a panel at the library here, that’s how I met him.

You wrote in the book that you were suffering from a midlife crisis. Did going to Bhutan change your life?

Yeah, I wrote a whole book about it. It completely changed my perspective on things. I tried to get people to think about media and the impact of how we perceive ourselves and the world and materialism, all the themes I wrote about in the book.

A lot of people go off to travel when they’re having a midlife crisis. Is Bhutan a good place for people to discover themselves or make some big change in their lives?

You can find enlightenment on the subway. Your perspective can change anywhere. If you look at my book it’s about my perspective shifting because of this radically different place I went to, but that can happen for anyone anywhere. Not everyone can go to Bhutan and have the same experience I did there.

The whole lesson for me in returning to L.A. is trying to figure out how to get as comfortable as possible here and making myself feel the same way I felt when I was in Bhutan.

[Photos courtesy of Lisa Napoli, Goran, Thomas Wanhoff, Jonathan Choe, Shrimpo1967, sprklg, jmhullot, and BabaSteve on Flickr]

(NOTE: An earlier version of this interview mentioned a library in Bhutan. Lisa Napoli stated that it was the first library built by READ Global in Bhutan, not the first library built in Bhutan.)

Photo Of The Day: Festival At Wangdue Phodrang

This Photo of the Day titled “Tsechu- Festival at Wangdue Phodrang” comes from Gadling Flickr pool member arunchs who tells us:

“It is a season of festivities in Bhutan, and we had a chance to visit two of them in different places while we are here.

The celebrations usually happen in the courtyards of fortresses called dzongs. But this festival at Wangdue Phodrang was organized in an open space, since the fortress was destroyed in a fire few months ago.

This image shows monks performing cham dances during the festivals. These dances are traditional rituals of Vajrayana Buddism. The highly structured dances contain different purposes, such as warding off evil, imparting messages on Buddhist priniciples, etc.”

Upload your best shots to the Gadling Group Pool on Flickr. Several times a week we choose our favorite images from the pool as Photos of the Day.

Tips for getting featured: include the camera you used along with any other equipment or processing software that might help other photographers know more about your image. Also, captions mean a lot.

Photo Of The Day: Find The Odd One Out

She’s pretty obvious. Striped shirt. Green pants. A stance that says, “Hey! Pay attention to me!”

This classic scene of monks outside a temple in Paro, Bhutan, is interrupted by the presence of a small, sassy little girl. Captured by Bangalore-based Flickr user Arun Bhat, the image is a powerful reminder of the modernity that is slowly seeping into Bhutan, a geopolitically isolated Central Asian nation surrounded by Nepal, Bangladesh and India.

Do you have travel photos that juxtapose tradition and change? Upload your shots to the Gadling Flickr Pool and your image could be selected as our Photo of the Day.

Sick Of The Heat? 40 Places Where You Can Cool Off

glacier national park Most people look for warm places to visit. I look for cold ones. I live near Washington, D.C., and by mid-July, I’ve had it with the suffocating heat and humidity. I’ve taken escape-the-heat trips almost every summer over the last five years to places like Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Quebec, Maine and the Pacific Northwest.

The lower the temperature the better as far as I’m concerned, especially this summer, which has been one of the hottest in American history. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, more than 40,000 daily heat records had been obliterated by the Fourth of July. Take a look at the USA Today weather map and you’ll see a sea of depressing deep red all over the country.

If you’re looking to escape the heat, check out these possibilities (with high and low temperatures for July 25 listed) for some immediate relief. And if you know someone like me who sweats like a pig and is always carping about the heat, forward them this list!North America

Cape Breton, Nova Scotia- 71/64- Cape Breton is one of my favorite summer escapes. It has stunning natural beauty, great beaches, whale watching and traditional Celtic music and dances every night of the week in the summer.

Rangeley, Maine- 76/54- The tourist hordes flock to the Maine coast each summer, but if sitting in huge traffic jams and paying $300 a night for a motel room doesn’t appeal to you, try this classic lakefront resort town, which is just 2.5 hours north of Portland, Maine.

Lunenburg, Nova Scotia- 70/59- This enchanting waterfront town has a terrific old town that is a UNESCO World Heritage Sight. With its treasure trove of historic homes and B & B’s, you’d think it would be mobbed with tourists in the summer, but I was there a few years ago in August and it was blissfully quiet.

Twillingate, Newfoundland-71/58- You can actually buy a rustic little vacation home for less than it would cost you to rent a similar place in the Hamptons for a week. This is a delightful, end-of-the-world fishing village where you can watch icebergs float by from May-July. Don’t go to the only Chinese restaurant in town though, it might be the worst food I’ve ever had in my life.

zocalo mexico cityMexico City, Mexico- 73/58-(see photo above) Mexico’s capital gets a bad rap, but I love the place. It’s full of interesting neighborhoods, terrific museums, amazing archaeological treasures and the best public square in North America. Best of all, with an altitude of 7411 feet, the climate is moderate all year round.

Alaskan cruise- (Juneau- 66/50)- According to www.priceline.com, you can book a seven-night Alaskan cruise, passing through Anchorage, Hubbard Glacier, Juneau, Skagway, Icy Strait Point, Ketchikan, The Inside Passage, and Vancouver for as little as $499 per person. Summers’s like this one were made for Alaskan cruises.

Glacier National Park, Montana- 71/43-(see top photo) I visited Glacier in late August two summers ago, and they had snow on the famous Going to the Sun road the week before our visit. Be sure to make a trip out to the Polebridge Mercantile, just outside the park to see one of the most off-the-grid settlements in America.

Vancouver, British Columbia- 76/60- Vancouver is one of the greenest, prettiest cities in North America with terrific natural beauty, great food and a Pacific Rim flare. You might encounter rain, but it won’t be scorching hot.

Seattle, Washington- 79/60- Seattle is one of my favorite American cities, and not just because of its temperate climate. Pike Place Market is one of the best of its kind in the country and the city’s stunning geography, islands, and nearby natural splendor make this a can’t miss mid-summer vacation spot. Google Kurt Cobain’s house and you can make a pilgrimage to the house where the punk icon died.

San Francisco, California- 63/52- The Bay Area can be downright cold in the summer, but I don’t mind. SF is easily the country’s most atmospheric city. A mecca for creative types, this is a great city for walkable neighborhoods, great bookstores and every type of ethnic food imaginable.

San Diego- 71/64- For my taste, San Diego has the best climate in the country. It’s relentlessly sunny but so temperate you don’t even need air conditioning. Great beach towns like La Jolla and Del Mar make this region one of my favorite parts of the country.

Grand Canyon National Park- 78/49- You’ll be sharing the awesome vistas at this majestic site with millions of others, but at least you won’t be baking in 100 degree heat.

Banff National Park, Alberta- 72/47- Banff is spectacular. If you’re looking for a mountain retreat with cool weather, fishing, hiking and mountain biking, look no further.

And here are some other ideas outside North America:

Galway, Ireland- 67/53
York, United Kingdom- 73/58
Isle of Skye, Scotland- 60/53
Brugge, Belgium- 77/61
Copenhagen, Denmark- 74/62
Stockholm, Sweden- 76/61
Yaroslavl, Russia- 78/60
Tallinn, Estonia- 76/59
Reykjavik, Iceland- 58/49
Khövsgöl Nuur, Mongolia- 70/39
Thimphu, Bhutan- 77/65
Kathmandu, Nepal- 77/68
Auckland, New Zealand- 62/51
Sydney, Australia- 69/52
Santiago, Chile- 64/35
Easter Island, Chile- 66/62
Bogota, Colombia- 68/49
Machu Picchu, Peru- 70/33
Buenos Aires, Argentina- 60/39
Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay- 56/40
Potosi, Bolivia- 59/30
Quito, Ecuador- 73/51
Mendoza, Argentina- 63/35
Cape Town, South Africa- 70/51
Kruger National Park, South Africa- 68/38
Swakopmund, Namibia- 76/59
South Georgia Island, Antarctica- 34/32

[Photos by Dave Seminara]

Video: Bhutanese Refugees In The US

When people are forced to flee their native countries, they become refugees. This concept seems simple, but it’s not one with which most citizens of the U.S. are familiar. This video on Bhutanese refugees originally ran on The Seattle Channel’s program, City Stream. The video follows in the footsteps of one Bhutanese family that was forced out of Bhutan at gunpoint 18 years ago. The family lived in Nepal in a refugee camp before being welcomed into Seattle. As the number of Bhutanese immigrants is rising in the U.S., this video offers important insight.

The Insurgencies of Bhutan