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Teen Study in Thimphu, Bhutan

Two 15-year-olds on a DIY High School Semester

Owen and Archie hiking to Paro Taktsang (elev 3,120m) in Bhutan.
Our first hike was to Paro Taktsang (elevation 3,120 meters) in Bhutan's wet season, and we wore school uniforms. We later returned to tackle the hike a second time in the winter.

Meditating at Paro Taktsang, Bhutan.
Meditating at Paro Taktsang.

As a 14-year-old, I started dreaming of spending some serious time in Bhutan. As a dual American/Australian citizen living in the metropolis of Sydney, I had a strong urge to get out of the rat race and experience this remote Himalayan Kingdom. I started my research earnestly and quickly learned that there are no such "programs" for young people. Not wanting to wait until I was at university or beyond and excited by the chance to go somewhere off the beaten path, there was no deterring me. Instead, I crafted my experience and threw myself in at the deep end: a semester-long stay at a welcoming Bhutanese boarding school willing to take me on. It was a genuine life-changing adventure of growth and maturity that immersed me into Bhutanese culture without the aid of a group leader or established program. I was ready for the challenge, and my parents thankfully agreed.

After a year of working and saving money, completing endless paperwork, and persuading both the Australian Department of Education and Bhutanese Immigration Officials that my idea was, in fact, a good one, I finally had a student visa in hand as an unaccompanied minor. This unprecedented permit would allow me to study at ELC High School in Thimphu alongside Bhutanese classmates from July to December 2023. Along with my equally resilient and adventurous classmate Archie, who allowed himself to get roped into this scheme, we flew alone, at age 15, to The Land of the Thunder Dragon.

After a breathtaking but hairy descent into the world's most dangerous airport, our arrival was met with much fanfare — ELC had never had two Australian teenagers on their doorstep. We were greeted with white sashes, warm smiles, and handshakes throughout the school. Classes weren't that different from what we knew in Sydney. The language of instruction at ELC is English. The standard Math, Sciences, History, Geography, and English classes were nicely balanced with Buddhism, Dzongkha, Bhutanese Culture, Well-Being, Meditation, and volunteer opportunities in the school kitchen and helping in younger classes. We were also given free weekly periods to read, do homework, and update our social media (Insta: @archieowenbhutan1). Our 10th grade class was small (15 students) and friendly, with engaging teachers. The school uniform was a cotton "Gho," a traditional robe we wore over our street clothes.

The welcoming Class 10 of ELC High School in uniform.
The welcoming Class 10 of ELC High School.

Apple harvesting at a remote organic orchard near Paro.
Apple harvesting at a remote organic orchard near Paro. This was one of many boarding school outings.

Owen and Archie observing Thimphu Dromchoe at Tashichoe Dzong in their traditional Gho robes.
Observing Thimphu Dromchoe at Tashichoe Dzong, an impressive fortress that began construction in 1216! We wore our traditional "Gho."

As ELC is perched on a mountainside just a 15-minute walk from downtown Thimphu, we were free to explore the safe capital, go on local hikes, play sports, and spend time with the school's conscientious and sentient rescue dogs, who took their role as guardians very seriously. Every time we headed up into the hills to a local temple, they knowingly tagged along to watch over us. In return, we snuck them into our dorm room on those cold Himalayan nights. Our wise Wellbeing teacher, Sir Tim, educated at Harvard and Stanford, also served as our mentor on tap, checking in with us daily, guiding us in meditation, and accompanying us on some unforgettable outings.

With our inspirational mentor and friend, Sir Tim.
With our inspirational mentor and friend, Sir Tim.

Owen and Archie are exploring Thimphu.
Archie and I are exploring Thimphu.

Meeting local teens in the town of Trongsa. They were full of questions!
Meeting local teens in the town of Trongsa. They were full of questions!

Owen and Archie standing with Lopen Tshewang, their Vice Principal and cultural expert.
With Lopen Tshewang, our Vice Principal and our amazing cultural expert!

At Trongsa Dzong with our beloved and respected principal, Madam Deki Choden, sipping Nga ja, a sweet tea.
Archie and I at Trongsa Dzong with our beloved and respected principal, Madam Deki Choden, sipping Nga ja, a delicious sweet tea.

The view from Trongsa Dzong, a 400-year-old fortress, overlooks Central Bhutan's narrow valleys.
The view from Trongsa Dzong, a 400-year-old fortress, overlooks Central Bhutan's narrow valleys.

The homey dorm-style accommodation is clean and comfortable, with a fantastic view of the Himalayas, the capital, Thimphu, and Buddha Point. The food served each day is healthy and mainly vegetarian but takes some getting used to as it is on the spicy side. Expect rice, potatoes, curries, chicken, vegetables, and chili! Delicious Nga Ja, a sweet tea, and safe, filtered drinking water were available daily. Weekly, the principal, Ms. Deki Choden, kindly invited us into her house for a feast we missed from home: pizza, pasta, peanut butter on toast, fried egg sandwiches, and pastries. Ma'am Deki became our beloved second mother, nurturing yet giving us independence and freedom to grow into young men. She, too, was educated in the US/UK and is a leader in the field of education, but to us, she was our calm, heart-centered leader to whom we could always go day or night. She frequently consulted with us, and we had meaningful input into our stay.


Playing football with young students at Phulingsum Primary School, near Punakha, Bhutan.
Playing football with young students at Phulingsum Primary School, near Punakha.

Owen and Archie at Ama Om's homestay for the weekend, an easy and affordable stay with meals and a riverside hot stone bath!
At Ama Om's homestay for the weekend, an easy and affordable stay with meals and a riverside hot stone bath!

During the semester, we had some fantastic opportunities with our classmates: volunteering as Youth Ambassadors of Change (YACS) at a rural school near Punakha, apple picking in the hills of Paro, breathtaking hikes to Paro Taktsang (Tiger's Nest), a rigorous and accomplished ascent of Mt. Thalakha (4241m, nearly 14,000 feet); a week's journey into the cultural heartland of Bumthang, Trongsa, and Wanguephrodang; performing in a cultural extravaganza with the Royal Family in attendance; white water rafting down the Po Chu River; relaxing stays at a traditional Bhutanese homestay complete with a riverside hot stone bath, and hikes to remote Buddhist Temples where we were always met by the most gracious of monks who welcomed us into their Lahkangs. Amongst all the fun and adventure, we learned to budget our hard-earned spending money, do our laundry, speak elementary Dzongkha, eat chili, get ourselves around the capital and away for weekend excursions, meditate regularly, and be organized with our schoolwork.

At the summit of Talakha Peak with Sir Tim, with the Himalayas in distance, and Gangkhar Puensum, the highest unclimbed peak in the world. It is forbidden to climb it.
At the summit of Talakha Peak (elevation 4241 meters/13,914 feet) with Sir Tim. In the distance are the mighty Himalayas, including Kanchenjunga and Gangkhar Puensum, the highest unclimbed peak in the world. It is forbidden to climb it.

My parents say I left as a boy and returned as a young man.

Assume you are a resilient and adaptable teenager in junior high or high school and ready to try something genuinely different from the well-trodden semester abroad programs. In that case, I recommend this "road less traveled" we have pioneered for you. ELC High School's motto of "EduCARing for Universal Happiness and Wellbeing" will ensure, with passion and compassion, that your stay will be a transformational semester filled with laughter and learning. Yes, it will look impressive on your college applications. Yet, more importantly, it will be a pivotal step on your journey toward adulthood and a life of meaningful exploration.

For More Information

How Do I Go to Bhutan?

Send an initial email to BhutanYACS@gmail.com or a WhatsApp message to +61411738445 with any questions. If desired, you will be sent an application form and have a short interview to see if you and ELC High School are a good match.

Cost and Dates

The semester-long program is $10,500. Everything is included except for flights and travel insurance. They also have a shorter 6-week summer program at $3500, but I suggest doing the semester option: Aug 1 to Dec 15, 2024. Feb 15 to June 30, 2025. Either way, getting a part-time job and helping to pay for this experience will go a long way toward showing your parents that you are ready!

Next Steps?

Once accepted, the school will help you with visa applications, packing lists, and some suggested reading. You will not have to pay the government's daily tourist Bhutan's "Responsible Development Fee" (SDF) of $200 as you will be on a student visa. Then, start looking for flights. You will need to go through Bangkok, Singapore, or Kathmandu. Start packing!

Social Media on Our Bhutan Journey

Follow:

www.facebook.com/elchighschool, which serves as the school's website, so make sure you and your parents join.

Insta:

www.instagram.com/archieowenbhutan1/ to follow our journey.

Watch:  

Interview with Owen and Archie with comments showing the reaction of Bhutanese people

ELC video.

Principal Deki Choden



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Related Topics
Teen Study Abroad
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