Michael Marquand is a freelance photographer based in NYC specializing in travel, culture, food, people, and interiors. In early 2015, he was offered the opportunity of a lifetime to work with MyBhutan, traveling to lesser known areas of the South Asian country that few tourists have seen. By sharing his images and experiences, Michael hopes to encourage others to visit this beautiful country, still relatively unexplored by even the most seasoned travelers.
Given that Bhutan is considered to be a more off-the-beaten-path destination, were there challenges to traveling there?
There were; it wasn’t always easy to get around. There is very little infrastructure for travel in the country – you can’t just rent a car or hop on a bus and find places to stay along the way like you can in most Asian countries. Driving from place to place takes some planning as there are road blocks for construction that are sometimes only open for an hour or two each day, and the dirt roads are largely winding and cliff-side. Because the country is so mountainous, it can take a very long time to get to where you want to go. Internet is also harder to come by than in most of the world and cell phone service is sporadic at best. Fortunately, we had at least two Bhutanese guides or drivers with us at any given time. We also had the benefit of traveling with a journalist who had been to Bhutan before and she how things worked, and how to navigate certain areas. Even with those benefits, a trip in Bhutan is hard to plan ahead for and equally hard to figure out as you go. It’s a country that doesn’t run with the efficiency of the rest of the world. That’s part of its charm, though, and people almost everywhere bend over backwards to help us out.
Your portraits of local Bhutanese are absolutely stunning. What was it like photographing the people there as compared to other countries you’ve visited?
Photographing people in Bhutan was a pleasure. In most places I’ve visited, when I point a camera at someone they react in a distinct way, either by hiding their face, or smiling and posing for the camera, or sometimes looking a bit uncomfortable. For whatever reason, when I photographed people in Bhutan, they would just look at the camera the same way they would have looked at me without my equipment. As a result, the portraits I took there felt more honest. I had experienced this dynamic only once before while traveling in India, which borders Bhutan. Maybe it’s something about the culture in that part of the world; I don’t know. It definitely made my job very easy.
Did you need to ask for permission or signal to the subjects to get their approval before taking their photo?
It depended on the situation. If I was right in front of them, I would ask. More often, I would start by photographing people from a certain distance and then move in closer depending on their reaction (which was almost always friendly).
Were there any specific portrait sessions that felt particularly meaningful for you?
The experience of shooting Merak was probably my favorite. It’s a small, snow-covered Yak herding village in the mountains that we had to hike into. The people wore handmade clothes of wool, leather and Yak fur. Kids were often outside playing archery or huddled around a fire all in the middle of the vast mountain landscape. I was able to walk right up to people in Merak and photograph them. If I went into someone’s yard to take a picture of their child or one of the animals, I would inevitably be invited into their home. There was no tension around entering private spaces.
The hot springs of Gasa was another favorite. We visited the Gasa Dzong at the top of the mountain in the afternoon and stayed the night in an empty government guest house near the hot springs. The man in charge wore Beavis and Butthead pajama bottoms and when I asked him about them, he didn’t understand what I was talking about. It just felt like one of those odd travel moments where you realize how different cultures influence each other in ways that no one can fully comprehend. Later that night, I found myself drinking a Druk – a Bhutanese beer – in the hot springs in between a heavyset woman breastfeeding her child and a young monk performing a really deep guttural chant. It seemed like such an absurd place for me to be, in an ironic, hilarious way, and because it was the very beginning of my trip, it felt like a particularly stark contrast to my life in New York.
The next morning, I got up at sunrise and wandered around the baths. It felt strange – too intimate – to be photographing people then, while they were mostly undressed. In the United States, people certainly would have been offended. Once I started shooting, though, I got very little reaction – if people reacted at all, it was completely friendly. Maybe their perspective on body image is different, or maybe it was just because the hot springs are such a part of their everyday life. The morning light gave the baths and the steam a certain mood and softness, and the people had a casualness about them that made them feel like part of the environment.
Can you tell us about this image that you took at the Dochula Druk Wangyel Festival?
The Dochula Druk Wangyel festival is an annual event that celebrates Bhutan’s 2003 military victory against Indian Insurgent forces. It involves a lot of costume and dance, and people come from all over central Bhutan to participate. It takes place at Dochula pass which is a religious site with 108 Chortens, Buddhist monuments used for prayer and meditation.. The Chortens sit on a hillside next to a small forested park covered in Bhuddhist prayer flags. Opposite the park is another hillside with panoramic views of the forest surrounding Dochula.
What did it feel like to be completely off the grid and one of only a few tourists in remote Eastern Districts of the country? How did the locals react to seeing you and your camera?
The Eastern Districts are the least-traveled parts of Bhutan. We would often stay in farm houses if there were no hotels around which gave us a really interesting first-hand look into the culture. In many of the places we visited, the locals would often look at us with an intense curiosity. They were studying me just as much as I was studying them. Even though I was the one with the camera, the subject/artist dynamic was sort of removed and it felt like more of a conversation.
Tell us about your experience with food on the trip. What is Bhutanese cuisine like? Were you able to maintain your vegetarian diet?
Bhutan is a Buddhist country so being vegetarian is relatively easy, though Bhutanese do eat meat. Generally, if you go to a restaurant or have a meal in someone’s home, there will be four or five dishes and one of them will be meat-based.
For the most part, the food was delicious. It feels like a cross between Indian and Chinese food, though in truth, it’s quite different from both. It’s often spicy, with lots of rice and vegetables that vary depending on the region. Red rice is common (and flavorful), as are datsi (chilli peppers with cheese) and momo (Tibetan dumplings). The best advice I can share is to avoid eating at hotels and tourist-centered places; the food is prepared very blandly because that’s what they think Westerners like. The best meals I ate were in farm houses and small restaurants mostly frequented by locals.
What would you tell someone who is interested in planning a trip to Bhutan? What’s the best way to get started?
I’d say that you have to sign up for some sort of tour if you want to travel outside of Thimphu and Paro; unfortunately, it’s just too impossible right now to navigate on your own. MyBhutan, the company I was shooting for, is trying to solve that problem by helping people plan trips more efficiently. They are creating an online portal where people can see everything Bhutan has to offer and create a travel wishlist for themselves that different tour guides and companies can bid on. It’s a way of customizing your trip and ensuring that you can get to where you want to do, and see what you want to see. It’s a big undertaking but I believe they’ll be live within a month; and then I really recommend you check them – and Bhutan – out!