It was the grandmother of the current King who met the legendary entrepreneur from Pittsburgh named Burt Todd at Oxford in the forties, and invited him as the first US guest to Bhutan many moons ago. Mr. Todd created what became a stamp empire for the country, odd and glorious first-issues that people who never imagined going to the Himalayas sought out with glee. Today the empire is still intriguing, and more dimensional, with DVD stamps, and, as my friend Lisa Sonne found out on a recent trip to the Kingdom, personalized ones. She writes about it in National Geographic’s Traveller Blog:
In Bhutan, the Himalayan “Kingdom of Happiness,” even going to the post office offers an opportunity for self-expression. At the post office in Bhutan’s capital Thimphu (which may be the only world capital to boast no traffic signals), while a larger-than-life poster of the king looks on, you can have your own image added to a set of official stamps. Or, if you don’t want your face to be postmarked in ports around the world, you can choose from an attractive array of botanical and historic stamps.
As getting my mug on a stamp cost no more than regular stamps, I chose to pose with my wonderful driver and guide from tour operator Bridges to Bhutan. The men–Karma and Tshering (whose name translates as “long life and prosperity”)–were dressed in their national costumes, part of this new democracy’s efforts to preserve traditions while creatively engaging in the 21st century.
Stamps made, if I wanted to write my letters in luxury, Karma and Tshering were prepared to take me to nearby Taj Tashi, part of an upscale Indian collection of global resorts and palaces. Or we could drive to Paro, where the Uma Paro Resort offers healthy pampering with soothing in-suite massages in their forest villas, and where Hotel Zhiwa Ling‘s artistic comforts are part of the first Bhutanese-owned high-end retreat.
My creativity surged as I scribbled “Wish you were here!” on postcards featuring beautiful Buddhist temples and waterfalls. And there was a lot to write home about–Bhutan’s royal family, the enticing experiment of GNH (“Gross National Happiness”) to balance the Gross National Product, seeing the “newest democracy on the planet” in action, the kindness of the people, the giant phallic symbols painted on homes, and the great aesthetics of the old Dzong monastery/fortresses posed at vantage points, inviting climbers to ascend.
If you time it right, you can also pen some superlatives about the colorful tshechus, the annual religious festivals, before affixing your newly created 5, 10, and 15 ngultums stamps on your envelope. Postcards sent, head to an outdoor hot-stone bath with blessed stones to fix the body and envelope yourself in serenity.