How she was selected as the only tourist in Bhutan

Read Time:5 Minute, 41 Second


(CNN)— Fran Barker has never read “eat, pray, love”.

However, when her husband of 30 years passed away in 2018, Buck embarked on a spiritual journey no different from Elizabeth Gilbert. She will take her across Bali and India and become the only one allowed to enter the kingdom. Ended up with tourists. Since the coronavirus pandemic, Bhutan.

The mourning made the 70-year-old Buck experience a series of spiritual practices. During his six-month work in Bali, Buck lived in a cafe next door, where he practiced gong meditation-a practice that uses different kinds of metal gongs as sound therapy-in progress. Initially skeptical, she fell in love with this practice and then started to do it herself.

“I really woke up one day and said, I’m going to bring the gong to Bhutan,” Buck told CNN Travel.

From visitors to relatives

When Bak first arrived in the Land of Thunder Dragon at the end of 2019, she was not sure what would happen. She was assigned a driver Gambo and a tour guide Tashi and Tashi through the travel company MyBhutan she chose to work for.

At first, Buck thought her two Bhutanese companions were too quiet. They thought she-and her gong-was too loud. But when visiting Nabji, Gambo’s hometown in central Bhutan, Bak fell ill and the villagers helped take care of her. Formed a deep bond.Now, she said, the villagers called her National Service, Or sister.

Buck said that by the end of the trip, she, Gambo and Tashi had “become a family”. Together they visited 18 of the 20 districts in Bhutan. After she left the country in February 2019, they kept in touch with WhatsApp via phone.

It is not just the people of Bhutan who have won her support. Bak fell in love with the dramatic countryside of Bhutan, which she called “fantastic scenery”.

Fran Bak went to Bhutan for the first time.

Fran Bak went to Bhutan for the first time.

Courtesy Frank

Buck is far from the only one who has found peace in Bhutan. In the 1970s, as the tourism industry began to open up, the Himalayas established the “National Happiness Index.”

The task of a national institution is to conduct regular polls on nine “key areas” of the well-being of the Bhutanese people-mental health, health, education, good governance, ecology, time use, community vitality, culture and living standards.

Constitutional monarchy governments must consider these factors when considering new laws or policies. Plastic bag bans may be popular in Western countries, but Bhutan completely banned them in 1999. Tobacco is also illegal, so Bhutan claims to be the first country in the world that does not smoke.

“Bhutan is a perfect gift,” Buck said in his apartment in Thimphu, where she will spend the next few weeks before heading to the countryside to do her homework.

Insider’s View

Matt DeSantis, the co-founder of MyBhutan, is one of the few foreigners who have the opportunity to live in Bhutan for a long time.

He is a native of Connecticut and met Prince Jigyel Ugyen Wangchuck when they were enrolled in the elite Choate Rosemary Hall Preparatory School and established a lifelong friendship on the basketball court.

DeSantis has several roles: his technology company is working to digitize all cultural relics in Bhutan, and since the kingdom does not have a US embassy, ​​he has the role of “guard”, which is the closest to the role of the US ambassador. He played an important role in getting Buck back to Bhutan as a test case of how the country’s reopening proceeded.

He explained: “Finally, the three areas that must be approved (her visa) are the Tourism Commission, the Immigration Department and the Covid Working Group.”

Although the government has stated that it can grant tourist visas based on specific circumstances, Bak is the first visa granted since March 2020-and the only application so far.

However, traveling to Bhutan requires surmounting a series of obstacles. Bak had to deal with multiple cancelled or diverted flights, a series of airport staff who didn’t know what paperwork she needed, and a series of Covid tests, and then spent 21 days in the hotel quarantine area, she only left the suite to accept more Covid test.

Nevertheless, Buck believes that all the trouble is worth it.

“Until I came here, I didn’t realize that I was making history,” she said. “I didn’t expect people to receive news of welcoming me and thanking me for coming to this country. It made me kneel.”

The local media reported the story of Barker’s arrival in Bhutan, just as they might report a visiting politician before the outbreak.

DeSantis is among those who follow her story. “Fran is a pioneer in many ways,” he said, “and a beacon of hope for the tourism industry.”

Fran Bak poses with one of her gongs.

Fran Bak poses with one of her gongs.

Courtesy Frank

Countries beyond Covid

Even before the pandemic, going to Bhutan required considerable coordination. According to the Kingdom’s “high value, low impact” policy, the cost of visits is prohibitively high and aims to prevent over-tourism.

All travel visas must be issued through a government-approved tour operator company, and a mandatory daily tariff of $250 is imposed on each tourist.

After she obtained permission to return to Bhutan in 2021, Barker was asked to go into quarantine for three weeks upon arrival. Although she is the only tourist in the country, since medical personnel have entered the country, there are quarantine policies and facilities.

A representative of the Bhutanese government confirmed that the tourism department was willing to pay for Buck’s quarantine costs, but she chose to pay for it herself. Buck described this decision as “my way of showing solidarity.”

DeSantis used Buck’s visit as a test case to test the full reopening of Bhutan.

“Bhutan is ready to recover through tourism. Tourism is very important to us and we are doing the right thing,” he said. Although there is no specific news yet, DeSantis said he has heard rumors of reopening sometime between December 2021 and February 2022.

The Covid situation in Bhutan is in good condition, which is very helpful. By July, nearly 90% of adults in the kingdom had been vaccinated. In a country where many people live in remote villages without public transportation, this is no small achievement.

King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck traveled the country on horseback and on foot to encourage citizens to be vaccinated. He also met with medical staff and volunteers and thanked them for participating in the promotion of the vaccine.

Despite the logistics and challenges as the only tourist in town, Buck never considered doing anything other than returning to the country she loved.

“My dream started in Bhutan,” she said, “it never ends.”

Taktshang Goemba picture from Adobe Stock.

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