When 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.
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.
Authorities 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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
(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.)