Holidaying in times of coronavirus: On last flight to Bhutan, we were greeted with masks, hand sanitisers

Avantika Chopra
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As we began our drive to the capital of Bhutan, I noticed deserted and empty streets. From restaurants, local eateries to tourist spots, almost everything around us was shut. (Express photo: Avantika Chopra)

"They are not letting me board the flight," read a text from my friend Nadia Shaheen, who was to take a flight to Bhutan from Kolkata.

My sister Taarini Chopra and I had just landed in Bhutan and were waiting for our third travel partner to join us when Bhutan confirmed its first Coronavirus case. In a Facebook post, Prime Minister Lotay Tshering informed about the 76-year-old American, who had contracted the disease and was admitted to the hospital after testing positive for COVID-19.  The American had traveled to various places in India before entering the hermit kingdom.

"There is news of a lockdown in Bhutan. They are planning to ban tourists from entering the country," informed Tenzin Rangdrel, our 30-year-old driver as he put his face mask on. We pulled up ours too.

Coming from a country with over 50 positive coronavirus cases, a lockdown, that too for two weeks over one patient contracting the infection, seemed a tad bit extreme. However, Bhutan seemed way more prompt and prepared as compared to India.

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From shopkeepers to tourist guides, almost everyone in Bhutan wore face masks to prevent contracting coronavirus. (Express photo: Avantika Chopra)

From the moment our flight started to descend, we were handed declaration forms asking us to fill details about our health and recent travel. Moreover, upon landing, not only did we undergo a medical examination but were also made to sterilise our hands with hand-sanitisers as we exited the airport.

"I am at the boarding gate and the flight is expected to take off any moment. They have stopped everyone except Bhutanese. I don't think I will be allowed to fly," read another text from Shaheen. It was also an indication to carry on our five-day trip without her.

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Most shops on the streets of Paro, Bhutan remained shut amid the coronavirus scare in the country. (Express photo: Avantika Chopra)

"I think our flight was the last one that allowed tourists in Bhutan," my sister said as she signaled the driver to start the vehicle. "It will just be the two of us. Please take us to Thimpu," she said as we headed to the same place where the virus was detected.

As we began our drive to the capital of Bhutan, I noticed deserted and empty streets. From restaurants, local eateries to tourist spots, almost everything around us was shut. "Is it usually this empty?" I inquired. "No. People have shut their shops due to the coronavirus scare. Many tourists have also canceled. My parents too told me to stock up as the government plans to stop imports from India and China," Rangdrel responded.

As we continued our journey, I noticed how almost everyone was wearing a mask; something I have seldom noticed in Delhi.

As we arrived at our hotel, we were greeted by people wearing the traditional Bhutanese dress, but with protective masks on their faces -- a trend I noticed throughout the trip. From cab drivers, shopkeepers, to tourist guides, everyone we met was seen wearing face masks. Many even refused to click pictures of us as they feared contracting the disease from "tourists".

While the detection of the first coronavirus case caused teething problems on our way to Bhutan, the lockdown did not spoil the rest of our stay. Starting our tour from Thimpu, we visited the Simply Bhutan museum, where a very welcoming host offered us the traditional rice wine as she went on to explain the history of Bhutan.

The tour ended with the traditional dance, which interestingly was carried out by performers wearing masks. "If only India was this particular," exclaimed my sister as we watched the performance.

However, we couldn't visit the Dzong and Heritage Museum in Thimpu as they were shut due to the virus scare. The library and local market and even the cafes wore a deserted look and masked monks were seen along the roadside as the paranoia surrounding coronavirus gripped the Himalayan nation.

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Staff at Bhutan airport remained extremely cautious. Most wore face masks and regularly used hand sanitiser after interacting with the passengers. (Express photo: Avantika Chopra)

Our second day started with a visit to Punakha Dzong -- a Buddhist temple in Bhutan. Before entering the temple, our driver asked us to sanitise our hands and avoid interacting with "foreigners". even as the guide went about explaining the historical significance of the temple, we could gauge he was clearly struggling to talk while wearing a mask. For pictures, selfies came in handy as people were skeptical about coming in contact with tourists.

On the third day, the news that the contacts of the American tourist tested negative brought some respite as we noticed more shops and cafes had opened and the Takin National park and the Buddha Dordenma welcomed tourists.

By the fourth day of our trip, the situation started normalising in Bhutan. While people continued to wear masks, they were seen interacting with others. As planned, we set off for the Tiger Nest trek in Paro.

Unlike the rest of Bhutan, this was the only spot where I was able to see tourists from all parts of the world freely interacting with each other. However, like always our driver warned us to stay away from "foreigners".

Situated at 10,240 feet, we completed the 5 km trek to Paro Taktsang in 2.5 hours even as we struggled to breathe wearing the masks.

With just one confirmed case in the country, Bhutan had shut down its airport for two weeks. Our flight to Delhi, which was scheduled to depart on March 10, was also jeopardised. However, the airlines later made adjustments and we were able to leave the country the same day.

While sanitisers and face masks seemed like a necessity in Bhutan, such did not seem to be the case at the Delhi international airport. On our arrival, we were asked to fill forms similar to the ones we submitted in Bhutan.

However, the staff at the airport did not seem to be as concerned and conscious as the ones in Bhutan. I spotted many of them without any protective gear casually talking to the incoming tourists. Moreover, the screening too seemed relaxed when I compared to the one we underwent in Bhutan.