For the last few years I've been making frequent expeditions to the wonderful Himalayan country of Bhutan. Sometimes to run photography workshops and tours, others purely to work on my own photographic projects. For anyone considering embarking upon their own Bhutan photography tour, or putting together a Bhutan tour plan, I thought it might be helpful to write about my experiences there. More specifically, my very first trip to the country.
It was early 2013 and I was looking around for a new photography project to get my teeth into alongside my work documenting the nomadic peoples of Kashmir. I had this idea of photographing another region of the Himalayas, to see how two culturally and geographically distant groups of people had adapted to life on the same mountain range. A friend suggested I check out Bhutan, and although I didn't really know anything about the country, slowly plans for a trip began to germinate.
Despite great curiosity, for some reason I chose not to do any research before my journey. It was like I wanted my destination to keep hold of all its mysteries right up until the very last minute; a way of renewing my faith in the unknown and retaining a sense of adventure in this age of instantaneous knowledge and globalized culture. The next thing I knew I was boarding a flight to Bhutan with just a couple of changes of clothing, a bag full of camera gear, and a tremendous sense of excitement.
As the plane broke through the clouds, I was afforded my first glimpse of the eastern Himalayas. It felt like I'd reached a destination I'd been traveling toward all my life. A place I'd always desired to visit, but never knew existed. It's such a cliche, but I really did feel like I'd arrived in some kind of Shangri-La.
This impression only grew stronger as I came out of the airport. It seemed like I'd stepped 200 years back in time. I was awestruck. Yet it wasn't so much that I was overwhelmed by a feeling of exotic unfamiliarity. On the contrary, what I experienced was much stranger than that: it was like a home-coming!
I checked into my hotel and immediately went and sat out on the balcony to take in the view. I stayed there for a long time, trying to reassure myself that the place was real.
On that first day I met Namgyal Dorji, a Bhutan tour guide and now my very good friend. I guess Namgyal must be used to it by now, but progress was slow that day, as I constantly stopped to look around: struck by the beauty of both the people and the environment. At the start I didn't even take photographs, just observed. But when I finally did pull out my camera to shoot my first image, it turned out to be one of my best from the trip. In fact it still ranks among my favourite and most sold print today.
That first night I couldn't sleep due to excitement. My head was filled with places and people. So many ideas for photographs. I woke biting at the leash even before sunrise, and headed out to explore the area around my hotel and. Trekking up into the nearby hills, I shot another favorite image.
My mind whirred with thoughts. But I shot both with and without thinking. Impulsively. Every day was so stimulating. And long: I rose early and went to bed late, wanting to make the most of my precious time in the Himalayan kingdom.
I traveled to Thimpu and Punakha, where I was lucky enough to witness amazing colorful festivals: a true feast for my gluttonous lens. I met so many amazing people, from the very young to the very old; from monks to laymen. All became friends. I spoke with them about their lives and their country. I felt I had so much to learn.
Since that first amazing trip, I now return to Bhutan several times a year: traveling far and wide, but always with more to discover. Sometimes I go to shoot my own photography work, other times in order to lead Bhutan photography tours, or to research a Bhutan tour itinerary. In fact Bhutan was the location for my very first travel photography workshop: a hugely fulfilling experience that I now repeat at regular intervals.
With so much to do in just a short space of time, my Bhutan trips are always action-packed and intense. And I've been lucky to witness such an array of fascinating cultural events and to visit so many incredible places. Yet I can say without hesitation that what I most value from my travels in the country is simply spending time with the wonderful Bhutanese people.
Of course, for first-time visitors to Bhutan, there are essential sights you'll want to visit, and activities you'll want to do. But I've deliberately not gone into such specific details here because I really want to stress the fact that - no matter where you go, and no matter what you do - if you travel in Bhutan you will meet the Bhutanese people, and this experience alone is worth the trip.
Incase you want to join in for the upcoming Bhutan Photography Tour in October 2017 or March 2018. Pls join in as we will be journeying through timeless villages and ancient monasteries tucked away in the picturesque mountains. Expect to camp near the most beautiful locations and inhale pristine air. Fresh organic food will be served throughout the tour. Each evening, we’ll get to share our images for the day and spend some time getting constructive feedback. Of course, this will be accompanied by Bhutanese wine around a campfire to end our day of fun and adventure. To me, the best way to learn photography is when you are having fun!