As I walked down the steps, the beat of the of the music was loud, the smoke & smell of burning juniper was thick & heady and I felt as though I was in another world. And I was. I was in the Kingdom of Bhutan, & the music was not buddhist mantras but the black-eyed peas & lil’ wayne. I was in a Bhutanese disco. How i got here i’m not really sure…..
Where in the world is Bhutan? And why would anyone want to come here? Well, you are about to find out…… Bhutan is in the Himalayas, landlocked between those 2 industrial giants: India & China. Bhutan lived in self imposed isolation until the early 1960’s and only allowed tourism in the 1970’s. One of the first things you notice about Bhutan, particularly if you have arrived from some other developing nation, is just how quiet it is. No honking horns, no motorbikes, no touts. The second thing you notice is how naturally beautiful it is. The hills are green, the rivers are devoid of trash, and with the exception of the tattered prayer flags, nearly everything looks, well, clean. And no one is trying to sell me anything. I know immediately I am going to love this place: The kingdom of the Thunder dragon.
In order to appreciate Bhutan you must have at least a basic understanding of 2 things: Buddhism & Gross National Happiness.
Buddhism is not just an abstract philosophy, it is a way of life here. Buddhism is an atheistic religion. Buddha is not a God to whom you pray. Buddhists believe that we all have the capability within ourselves to become divine. Bhutan follows the Mahayana school of Buddhism, which, unlike Theravada Buddhism, emphasizes compassion & liberation of all living things, not just liberation of the individual. There is no killing allowed in Bhutan. No fishing. No hunting. No slaughterhouses. All meat is imported from India. (I know, ice, right?) The Mahyana teachings of compassion, permeates life in Bhutan. People really do seem happier here. Perhaps, it’s because unlike many of us in the west, they want what they have and are not black holes of consumption. This makes them content, and if people are content, people are happy.
Buddhism in Bhutan is steeped in mythology & fantastic stories filled with lamas, rimpoches, bodisattvas, prayer wheels, and flags, mandalas, flying tigers & one divine madman. It’s best not to be too concerned with historical facts & just allow your imagination to go along for the ride. Sort of like becoming immersed in Harry Potters world & believing that trains really can leave from ½ tracks.
On a visit to a nunnery I saw Buddhism in action. In an open square, outside the temple, an elderly nun chased 2 young boys as they squealed in mock fright. She proudly told me, with a toothless grin, that she was 79 years old. Inside the temple women & children sat on a wooden floor, in the shadow of a large prayer wheel, laughing & eating lunch. In the main temple, a large statue of Buddha anchored the room. Pillows were strewn haphazardly around the room, incense was burning, musical instruments were lying about, American pop music played from a tinny radio as a few women chanted from ancient holy texts. In one corner a group of nuns were involved in an animated conversation, some wore maroon robes and had shaved heads others were in “casual”clothes, I noticed one in particular was wearing a T-shirt with “Dolce & Gabbana” bedazzled on the front. This was a lively & fun place,albeit incongruent, filled with joy and spirit and normalcy of everyday life.
Now for a little modern history (stay with me, people, it’s interesting, I swear) When China invaded & seized control of Tibet in 1949, It became obvious that Bhutan could not survive the modern world in isolation. Up until 1961 Bhutan had no currency, no healthcare system, no roads, and no schools. The King knew Bhutan had to enter the modern world, and began an impressive systematic approach that would preserve Bhutan’s cultural identity & and also allow it to become economically self-reliant. (49% of revenue comes from selling hydroelectric power to India). In 50 years Bhutan has accomplished what many countries could not do in hundreds of years.
Gross National Happiness. GNH does not simply measure smiles, it is explicit criteria of measuring development & progress in terms of society’s greater good. Bhutan believes compassion is more valuable than capitalism & measures wellbeing along side productivity. This concept is summed up as GNH. In 2005 the beloved king announced he would abdicate the throne in favor of his son, the crown prince, and establish the country’s first ever constitution in order to help move the country from an absolute monarchy to an democratic constitutional monarchy in 2008. The king is quoted “Monarchy is not the best form of government because a King is chosen by birth & not by merit”.
So, What does GNH mean for ordinary Bhutanese? Everyone has access to free healthcare, free education, everyone has enough to eat, shelter & clothing. If your house burns down, the govt rebuilds it. Is your town sit perched high upon a hill in danger of being wiped out by a landslide? The govt builds a new town & pays to relocate all the businesses. If you score well enough to go to university, the govt will pay for you to go. All ministers in the govt got their jobs based on merit not cronyism, & if you are able to test well enough to go to university, the govt pays. Want to go to graduate school? No problem, the govt pays for Bhutanese citizens to go abroad to places like Oxford & Stanford to get masters degrees & use that knowledge to better Bhutan.
It will be interesting to see how Bhutan deals with the insidious tentacles of the internet, mobile phones & television. Mobile phones arrived in 2004. TV came earlier, in 1999, as did the internet, but with WiFi introduced a few years ago, Facebook is now part of the social furniture. I saw a young boy herding cows talking on his cell phone. It’s difficult to not be paternalistic and say “noooooooooo’ please don’t allow this modern creep, you don’t need starbucks or Mcdonalds or all the other crap we in the west idolize” But democracy is messy and those kids in the disco, they do not want to wear the traditional dress of bhutan, ghos & kiras, but instead opt for western athletic wear & Armani Exchange. They are not content to work on farms like their parents & appear to want all the trappings of the west. Like I said democracy is messy.
Conservation: Nearly 70% of all of Bhutan’s land is set aside for preservation. Electric lines are strategically placed so that they do not interfere with the black-necked cranes annual migration from Tibet. Bhutanese people are proud of their country’s natural beauty and aim to keep it that way. (Unlike the people of Nepal who throw trash out bus windows & treat their country like one big garbage dump.)
The sale of cigarettes in Bhutan is forbidden in Bhutan as is smoking. There are big fines & going to jail is not unheard of. But try & tell that to the girls in the bathroom at the disco……
Bhutan is often called the last Shangri-la, and it does feel utopian in some ways, but it is far from perfect. There are many problems, one of which is the expulsion of the Nepali speaking people of the south. In 1988, Bhutan conducted its first census. The census takers were not trained well, resulting in some, uh, issues. Categories ranged from “Genuine Bhutanese” to “Non-nationals: Migrants and Illegal Settlers” & the designation was often arbitrary. In some cases members of the same family have been, and still are, placed in different categories. The government also attempted to enforce the Bhutanese national dress and language code at the same time. This did not sit well. Many Nepali speaking people of Bhutanese origin were forced into exile into refugee camps on the Nepalese border. It remains in dispute however, how many of these people are actually Bhutanese. In the early 1990’s the camps had about 5000 people which swelled to over 100,000 in just a few years. As the entire population of Bhutan is around 700,000 it’s unlikely that all refugees are Bhutanese. Most “refugees’ are likely poor Nepalis trying to gain aid with refugee status.
Tourism in Bhutan. Tourists were not allowed in Bhutan until 1974. Bhutan did not want its beloved kingdom to turn into the backpacker hell of its neighbor, Nepal. So with careful planning it set up rules for tourism. High cost, low impact tourism has been the answer. In order to visit Bhutan you MUST go through a government approved tourism agency. The fees are steep: $200 per day per person with an additional $40 per day for solo travelers like me. (the fees are increasing to $250 per day in 2012) All funds need to be paid in advance. so, what does your money get you? A knowledgable guide, a car & driver, all accommodation and food & admission to museums & Dzongs. There is ONE airline serving Bhutan and one airport. It’s a pretty good value when you think of it. But, it can be a bit stifling if you are used to traveling independently. I am not allowed to carry my bags, the car door is always opened for me, food simply arrives, in short, all my needs are anticipated & met. Cheerfully.
Accommodation is more up market than I am used to, and after my cockroach infested room in Nepal it is a welcome change. For example, this was my experience my first night at Rema resort in paro and every single place was just as nice & comfortable.
Rema resort on the banks of the paro river is delightful. The rooms are well appointed cottages nestled in an apple orchard. The walls, floor & ceiling are pine. The beds have comfy mattresses, pristine, crisp white linens, it feels like a high end lodge. The water is hot & the pressure could take your eye out. I walk to the main lodge for dinner through the orchard , the prayer flags strung between the trees, flapping in the breeze. The main lodge is rustic, also all pine, & it smells like a spa. Geranium oil & sandlewood. The owner, kinley is a stunningly beautiful woman who happens to also be warm & friendly as well. I make my way upstairs to the dining room for dinner where windows look out to the valley & the Paro Dzong. Jigme comes to dinner wearing faded jeans & a nike T-shirt. It’s refreshing to see him out of his gho. We have dinner chatting about movies, music, and life in Bhutan. We laugh easily & often. I retire to my charming cabin, and fall asleep to the sound of crickets & the roar of the river.
9 of my 10 days were spent in the car driving along winding roads, visiting small towns & impressive dzongs. The landscape is lush, filled with 5 foot tall ferns & queen annes lace, waterfalls & prayer wheels turned by water dot the roadside. Cows & dogs run loose & seem as content as the people. I drank beer at a microbrewery, played snooker in a local bar, took long walks along the river & up into the mountains, I had a traditional hot stone bath, and became versed in Buddhist lore. It was magical.
There is one other blight in Bhutan: the food. It is abysmal. I mean, really, truly, awful. And I can’t understand for the life of me why. Subsistence farming is way of life here, there is abundant & beautiful produce. But when it gets into the hands of Bhutanese cooks it is massacred. There is absolutely no spices or herbs. Chilies are treated like a vegetable & the national dish is a vile concoction of chilies & cheese. One traveler I met loves it & calls it “nachos on rice” it’s a hot greasy mess. But other than chilies, no seasoning. Vegetables are drowned in butter, virtually everything is swimming in a gloppy cheesy mess. And the meat? Ugh. Can anyone in this country breakdown a chicken? Ok, so I know you don’t kill them, but can you at least learn how to cut it up once it’s dead? I was cutting them slack, because I thought being Buddhist & all, most Bhutanese were vegetarians. But my guide tells me, nope, “we all eat meat” ok, so no excuses people. Here’s how meals work. I go & sit in a largely empty restaurant or hotel dining room. And then food gets delivered. A lot of food. A lot of bad food. There is usually red rice (which is very good, but it’s plain rice) the ubiquitous chilies & cheese, some sort of over cooked pasta in butter, potatoes, green beans & carrots, eggplant if I am lucky, and deep fried meat. Or worse yet, fish. Fish. from India. I repeat. Fish from India. I pick at my food, and try to rearrange it so it looks like I have eaten something. I feel like a bad child. All I eat is potatoes & rice. I am feeling a little carbed out. And I get 3 scheduled meals per day. After being used to eating 1-2 meals per day I am continually stuffed, with potatoes, cheese, chilies & rice. So, c’mon Bhutan get with it. You have great products, if India is sending you meat, ask ‘em to throw in a little curry, maybe some garam masasla, maybe a chef or 2. I dunno, SOMETHING. Oh, and don’t get me started on butter tea. Yep. Butter. Tea. Makes me shiver. Ok, there was my food rant…. It’s over now & I am back to being enchanted.
The last day of my itinerary was spent hiking (yes, hiking) up to Tigers nest. Tigers nest is the most holy place in all of Bhutan, it is where the Guru Rimpoche (the rimpoche responsible for bringing Buddhism to Bhutan) built a temple & monastery in the 1600’s. He arrived on a flying tigress. Yep, a flying tiger. They have them in Bhutan, That’s how magical this place really is. Tigers nest is perched precariously up on the face of a cliff. It is a steep 2 hour climb up, about 1000 meters (roughly 3000 ft for those of you who are metrically challenged) then 500 meters down the rock crevice, cross the river & back up 500 meters. So, it was more than a little stroll. But ever since I saw photos of it several years ago, I knew I had to come & see it for myself. But the added bonus: His majesty was also hiking up to Tigers nest today. Yes, I met the King of Bhutan. He shook my hand, & chatted with me for a few moments. I was awestruck. He is young (31) and handsome and single…. Well, not for long, he’s getting married in October. And he was really friendly & his people LOVE him. And while he had some bodyguards (who carried swords instead of guns) it was all very informal. They seemed more concerned that I would fall off the cliff & kept saying, “ma’am, don’t step back” Ok, so are you getting this? I. met. the. KING. of. Bhutan. Me.
So long Bhutan, I will miss you. You give me hope for humanity.