Fran Bak never read “Eat, Pray, Love.”
But when her husband passed away in 2018, Bak set off on a not-unlike-Elizabeth-Gilbert spiritual journey that would take her through Bali and India, and end with her being the only tourist given permission to enter the kingdom of Bhutan since the advent of the pandemic.
Mourning brought Bak, now 70, through a range of spiritual practices. During a six-month stint in Bali, Bak stayed next door to a cafe where gong meditation, a practice where different kinds of metal gongs are used as a form of sound therapy, was going on. Initially skeptical, she fell for the practice and then began doing it herself.
“I literally woke up one day and said, I’m taking the gongs to Bhutan,” Bak said.
Bak wasn’t sure what to expect when she first arrived in the Land of the Thunder Dragon in late 2019. She was assigned a driver, Gambo, and a tour guide, Tashi.
At first, Bak thought her two Bhutanese companions were too quiet. They thought she and her gongs were too loud. But on a visit to Gambo’s native village of Nabji, in central Bhutan, Bak became ill and the villagers helped care for her. A deep bond was formed. Now, she said, the villagers call her lah or sister.
By the end of her trip, Bak says, she, Gambo, and Tashi were “becoming a family.” Together, they visited 18 of Bhutan’s 20 districts. After she left the country in February 2019, they remained in touch via phone calls and WhatsApp.
It wasn’t only the Bhutanese people who won her over. Bak fell in love with Bhutan’s dramatic countryside, which she calls “a dreamscape,” she said.
Bak is far from the only person to find serenity in Bhutan. In the 1970s, as it began opening up to tourism, the Himalayan kingdom established the “Gross National Happiness Index.”
“Bhutan is a gift of perfect offerings,” Bak says from the apartment in Thimpu where she will be spending the next few weeks before heading on the road to do gong workshops in rural villages.
The tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan vaccinates 90% of its population, becoming a beacon of hope for a region struggling with Covid.
However, getting to Bhutan would require jumping through a series of hurdles. Bak had to deal with multiple canceled or rerouted flights, a series of airport personnel who didn’t know which paperwork she would need, and a battery of Covid tests, then spend 21 days in a hotel quarantine where she only left her suite to take more Covid tests.
Still, Bak believes all the trouble was worth it.
“It wasn’t until I got here that I realized I was making history. I was not expecting to get messages from people welcoming me and thanking me for coming to the country. It brings me to my knees,” she said.
Local media featured Bak’s arrival in Bhutan the way they might have covered a visiting dignitary in the pre-Covid times.
After she got permission to come back to Bhutan in 2021, Bak was required to spend three weeks quarantining upon arrival. Though she’s the only tourist in the country, there are existing quarantine policies and facilities because medical personnel has been coming into the country.
A representative for the Bhutanese government confirms that the tourism department offered to cover the cost of Bak’s quarantine, but she chose to pay for it herself. Bak describes the decision as “my way to show solidarity.”
Despite the logistics and challenges of being the only tourist in town, Bak never considered doing anything other than returning to the country she loved.
“My dream started in Bhutan,” she says, “and it never ended.”