The capital city is free of traffic lights. There’s only one international airport in the entire country. It’s more than 10 times the size of Yellowstone National Park, yet receives just 300,000 annual visitors; behold the Kingdom of Bhutan.
A mystery to many, this landlocked country is relatively new to the world of tourism. With a monarchy that prioritizes the preservation of culture and environment over financial gain, Bhutan only began accepting tourists in the 1970s. Even decades later, the country remains unspoiled by modernization. Having traveled to all 7 continents, English/STEAM teacher Janet Matthews was drawn to the enigmatic land.
“I was looking to find out more about how this country differed from the life I know,” Janet explained.
With Bhutan promising an experience like no other she’d had before, she opted to travel with Global Exploration for Educators Organization, or GEEO, a nonprofit organization that helps teachers travel and bring their experiences into the classroom. As this would be her 10th trip with the nonprofit, she looked forward to the enrichment that would come with traveling with a group of educators.
“When teachers have the opportunity to share what they do in their classrooms, everyone learns from it,” she said of the group dynamic on GEEO trips. Though the teachers on each trip varied in the subjects they taught, they all shared the goal of wanting to encourage global citizenship in their classrooms. “As much as you learn from the country, you learn so much from your fellow travelers,” said Janet.
Before she knew it, the school year had wrapped up and she was on a flight to Asia.
While tourists may experience culture shock in any Asian country, there are still universal experiences people tend to share with one another, no matter how many thousands of miles separate them. Sure, someone from Seoul will have had a vastly different experience than someone from Seattle, but they likely still share interest in music, television, and more recently, social media. This is where Bhutan differs the most; TVs may have been mainstream in many countries by the 1950’s, but Bhutan didn’t join the club until the 1990’s. They were also the last country on earth to get internet.
Driven by “high value, low impact” tourism goals, Janet was met with ethereal scenery as her plane descended between the Himalayan peaks into Paro. In the city, golden langur monkeys adorned the trees, living amidst the locals as a squirrel would in US cities. Horses and cows walked the street alongside humans out for their daily errands, both parties unfazed. Janet marveled at the level of respect animals and the environment in general were treated with.
Their tour leader, a born and raised Bhutanese man, explained the impact that their sustainable practices had on their empathy for the environment around them. As locals grow and reap their own food, the concept of a Walmart that has any item readily available is alien, and the idea of a zoo is unthinkable. In fact, wheat is not planted until the black cranes have settled in to roost for the winter, as the farmers won’t infringe on the cranes’ habitat. During one walk through town, Janet witnessed a neighborhood cow help himself to goods at a fruitstand. To her surprise, little effort was made to shoo him.
On day 3 of the tour, the group stayed overnight in a traditional Bhutanese farmhouse. “That’s what I really love about GEEO trips; they really try to provide an authentic experience of each culture,” she said of the homestay. “While it didn’t come with a fancy lounge or pillow chocolates, it provided a genuine glimpse into the lifestyle. What it lacked in amenities, it made up for in memories.”
Janet couldn’t help but rattle off a myriad of positive qualities when asked about the Bhutanese people she interacted with. “The people are so genuine, gracious, and proud.” And they have a lot to be proud for; while a number of countries are currently pledging to become carbon neutral in the coming decades, Bhutan has already achieved this. In fact; it’s the world’s first carbon negative country.
Only an hour drive from Manhattan, Janet’s hometown of White Plains, NY wields all the modern conveniences of any American suburb. Carbon output is high, food is imported from thousands of miles away, and many people are dependent on technology for entertainment. For many of her students, this life is the only one they know. As Bhutan is an especially unique place and only receives around 12,000 American visitors annually, Janet made it her mission to return home with the intention of broadening her students’ knowledge of what life can look like.
“You don’t know what you don’t know,” Janet says of exposure, believing in the importance of experiencing other cultures to become global citizens. Her philosophy isn’t confined to her classroom; she also speaks to the importance of travel with her colleagues.
“I would encourage teachers to just go. The world is changing so rapidly and to see something so well preserved like Bhutan was beyond my imagination.”
Dozens of countries later, Janet has yet to grow tired of traveling, and hopes to show others how impactful it can be.
Travel the world affordably, earn professional development credit, and bring diverse global perspectives into your classroom with GEEO. Global Exploration for Educators Organization (GEEO) is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization founded in 2007 that runs travel programs designed and discounted for teachers.
With GEEO, educators earn professional development credit and optional graduate credit while seeing the world. The programs are 5 to 23 days in length. GEEO also provides teachers with educational materials and the structure to help them bring their experiences into the classroom. The trips are open to all nationalities of pre-K-12 and university educators, administrators, retired educators, as well as educators’ guests. The deposit is $350 for each program and then the final payment is due 60 days before departure.
In 2024, GEEO is offering programs in over 63 countries on 6 continents. Detailed information about each trip, including itineraries, costs, travel dates, and more can be found at geeo.org, click here. The registration dates are flexible, but space is limited and many programs will be full well before the deadline. You can see a list of programs here. If you prefer to browse via a search engine, you can search the catalog here. GEEO also partners with universities, national resource centers, professional associations, and other groups to offer private programs. To learn more, visit GEEO’s website, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or reach out seven days a week, toll-free at 1-877-600-0105 between 9M and 9PM ET.
Christina Gjelsten is the Communications Coordinator for GEEO. Growing up with a last name that was often preceded by hesitation and a look of confusion when read aloud, she has an inherent curiosity to learn about other cultures outside of her American upbringing, in pursuit to be unfazed by differences like uncommon names. Having now traveled to Mexico, Ecuador, Norway, and Portugal, she is a proponent for global citizenship and hopes to reach as many educators as possible.