Brooklyn, New York-based photographer Michael Marquand traveled to the far corners of the east to visit the remote villages of Southern Bhutan while on assignment for MyBhutan, a specialized guided tour company. MyBhutan strives to make traveling to Bhutan easier for foreigners while providing access to the remote mountains and less traveled districts. Michael had the privilege to work for the bespoke travel operation in 2015, shooting the eastern districts of Bhutan, and a few years later they invited him back to utilize his photojournalistic expertise to showcase the southern districts.
It was an ideal assignment for me. I like shooting people and food and culture and nature and this project included all of the above.
Tucked between China and India, this tiny Himalayan kingdom has built a reputation as a remarkable destination. The client commissioned Michael to show a different side of Bhutan by capturing content from areas that most people — including those who have been to Bhutan — were entirely unfamiliar with. Michael documented areas that had more Hindu religious influences (as opposed to Buddhist), as well as indigenous people that had their own specific set of ceremonies, traditions, and religious practices native to the region.
The road trip to the different districts lasted about two and a half weeks. Some areas were incredibly remote with only small groups of indigenous villages. While they did pass through some cities in the south that were a bit more populated, there were no westerners, only locals. Michael traveled with other Bhutanese people who lived in Thimphu (Bhutan’s largest city) and knew how to navigate the country well.
There were logistical challenges in terms of traveling from place to place and getting the photos they needed in the allotted time frame. The remote parts of Bhutan have very little infrastructure which made exploring a difficult task. It required some planning as there were roadblocks for construction (that are sometimes only open for an hour or two each day), and winding dirt roads that wrap around the steep cliff sides.
Because the country is so mountainous, it can take a very long time to get to where you want to go.
While in a very remote area, Michael and his travel companions met and photographed whomever they encountered along their journey. They even asked the local villagers if they could stay for a night or pay them for a meal if they needed to eat. As it turns out, this is a common practice in Bhutan and an aspect of the trip that always stuck with Michael as a representation of how open and welcoming Bhutanese people are.
Unfortunately, there were things on Michael’s shot list he had to cross off as it wasn’t feasible to capture everything within the short timeframe. On the upside, this gave him more flexibility when finding interesting content and he was able to explore the area at a pace that was truer to the Bhutanese way of life.
Occasionally, there would be a festival or a ceremony to photograph at a specific time, but aside from that it was a lot of driving and walking around, stopping whenever he discovered something worth capturing.
Michael’s favorite part of the trip was visiting Phrumzor village in the Black Mountains – a tiny collection of farmhouses surrounded by stunning mountain landscapes in every direction. The people there were indigenous to the region and had their own unique traditions. Michael had the rare opportunity to meet and photograph the last known (female) shaman in Bhutan as she was blessing a home.
Known for its soaring mountains, traditional monasteries, and lush forests, the beauty, and intrigue of the Bhutanese culture was the ideal complement to Michael’s body of work that includes a strong focus on travel, people, culture, and food.
Photographer: Michael Marquand