61. Travel (3): Himalayan adventures: Bhutan

Note: The main focus of this blog is my thirteen months in Bangladesh. I am moving posts relating to travel (outside Bangladesh) to the end of the blog.

While I knew a little about Nepal and Tibet before I visited, I knew very little about Bhutan. Like Tibet, Bhutan too has been compared to the mythical realm of Shangri-La. In fact, accounts of Bhutan, both past and present, like those of Tibet, are peppered with misconceptions and exaggerations. My first recollection of hearing of Bhutan was in my childhood: I was an avid stamp collector and I can clearly remember the many unusual and beautiful Bhutanese stamps. I also remember that they ranked amongst the more expensive stamps to purchase. This trip to Bhutan is similarly positioned at the top of the travel cost curve. It is not a destination for those in search of ‘value for money’, in the traditional sense. I would have to admit that there was a lot about travelling to Bhutan that didn’t sit well with me. First off, there was the fact that backpacking and independent travel was prohibited. Pre-arranged, guided tours are the only option. I had already faced this restriction in trying to get to Tibet, but at least there it was possible to join a group. And secondly, there was the exorbitant daily, non-negotiable fee for the privilege of travelling in Bhutan. Nevertheless, there were apparently good reasons for these restrictions in terms of environmental and cultural conservation. Thirdly and finally, I was a little distrustful of the glowing rhetoric I found in both official tourist literature and travelogues, all of which painted an extraordinarily rosy picture of Bhutan. Since I was in the neighbourhood, so to speak, I decided that now would be a good time to suspend my cynicism and visit.

About Bhutan

Bhutan is a landlocked, Buddhist kingdom in the Himalayas, wedged between China (Tibet) to the north and India to the South. It is the last of the independent Himalayan kingdoms to survive, though the monarchy has only been in existence since 1907 when the present Wangchuck hereditary monarchy came to power. The current, fifth king and his father before him are widely respected and revered. Until the 1970s, the country was closed to foreigners: until the 1960s the country had no electricity, paved roads, cars, telephones or postal service. It allowed access to television and the Internet only in 1999. In March 2008 Bhutan became a two-party parliamentary democracy, with both parties firmly pro-monarchy. After centuries of isolation, it has tried to allow in some aspects of the outside world, while fiercely protecting its ancient traditions. This is one of the reasons why tourism is restricted to what is considered a more sustainable ‘high-value, low-impact’ model.

Like other countries in the region, Bhutan is a relatively impoverished one. GNI PPP, per capita for 2009 was $5300 – the figure for Bangladesh was $1580. (See post 8, for explanation.) Bhutan, though ranked lower than Tibet, is in the same ‘medium development group’, whereas both Nepal and Bangladesh are in the ‘low development group’. (See post 30 for clarification.) While economic well-being is considered important, Bhutan has developed its own unique, much-talked about development vision through its political philosophy of Gross National Happiness (GNH). This vision was championed by the present king’s father, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who was educated in India and Britain (and incidentally had four wives – all sisters). The idea behind GNH is to try to balance material development, spiritual advancement and harmony with nature. The four pillars underpinning the philosophy are sustainable socioeconomic development; conservation and sustainable use of the environment; preservation and promotion of culture; and good governance. The concept is operationalised through policy and planning documents and the development of a GNH Index.

Bhutan’s philosophy of peace and harmony however is not intended for those of Nepalese origin living in southern Bhutan. In the 1980s, the former King embarked on emphasising the majority Buddhist culture of the Dzongka-speaking ruling elite of western Bhutan. Citizenship was redefined to exclude all those who could not prove Bhutanese parentage on both sides. Tax receipts were required from all Hindus of Nepali origin for 1958, the year Bhutanese citizenship was first defined. Laws were passed in relation to compulsory national dress and other rules of public etiquette. This resulted in political strife and resentment among the country’s ethnic Nepalese Hindu minority. In the 1990s, over 107,000 people fled violence in Bhutan and were accommodated in UNHCR refugee camps in Nepal. Bhutan disputes these numbers, but has held its ground and refused to allow any refugees to return to their homes. In 2008, four bombs in Bhutan were widely suspected to be the work of Nepal-based Maoists, who had previously threatened to disrupt elections. Today, a large proportion of those Bhutanese refugees that fled to Nepal have been resettled in third countries.

The Bhutanese people believe that, as a small country, it is imperative that they protect their sovereignty and security. This includes being on guard against any influx of people from adjacent populations. They point to the example of neighbouring Sikkim, a Himalayan Buddhist kingdom until 1975. Due to a huge influx of Nepalese, the original people of Sikkim became a minority in their own country. Eventually, they were voted out of power and Sikkim was annexed by India. Other Himalayan Buddhist states have suffered similarly distressing fates e.g. Tibet and Laddakh.

Bhutan is just less than half the size of Ireland at 14,812 sq. miles (38,364 sq. km.), and has a population of 708,500, the majority of whom (c. 60%) live in rural areas. Its topography has been described as a staircase, starting in the foothills in the south of the country at 150m (492ft), and rising through the central highlands to the snow capped peaks of the Himalayas, at 7000m (22,966ft). The rugged terrain is therefore mostly mountainous, with fertile high valleys carved by numerous south-flowing rivers that eventually join the Brahmaputra in India. These rivers are the setting for the large hydroelectric projects that generate hydro-electricity for sale to India, accounting for almost half the country’s gross national product. Like other countries in the Himalayas, Bhutan is susceptible to natural disasters, particularly flooding and landslides associated with glacial lake outbursts. These lakes, said to number approximately 3000 in Bhutan, have been rapidly forming over the past number of decades in the wake of retreating glaciers in the Himalayas. The associated flash floods, resulting in what the Bhutanese term ‘silent tsunamis’, are likely to increase in intensity with the impacts of climate change, despite Bhutan’s 0% contribution to global CO2 emissions. The Bhutanese are attempting to mitigate the impacts of glacial lake outbursts: you can view the results of one such project, funded by the Global Environment Facility, on YouTube. Such adaptation is critical because these outbursts, in addition to flooding from recurring monsoons and possible river dam bursts, place much of Bhutan’s farmland, human settlements and hydropower plants at serious risk.  Bhutan is also at risk of earthquakes since it sits on an active seismic zone. As well as lives, these earthquakes have destroyed many of Bhutan’s dzongs (fortified monasteries) and historical records. While I was planning this trip, I read reports in Bangladesh of a 6.1 magnitude earthquake in east Bhutan. The tremors were felt as far away as Tibet in the north and Bangladesh in the south. Another environmental threat is that posed annually by forest fires, and with 60-70% of Bhutan covered in forest, the potential for damage is enormous.

Bhutan has a rich Buddhist artistic heritage and is well-represented in the canons of Himalayan art. This artistic heritage extends beyond painting and sculpture to traditional ritual dances, known as cham, usually performed by monks at festivals to illustrate and impart Buddhist teachings. These masked and costumed cham dances are also performed in Tibet, Sikkim, Dharamsala and Laddakh, all centres of Tibetan Buddhist practice. The Bhutanese have strong cultural, historical, geographical, ethnic and religious connections with Tibet. However, whereas the Galupka school of Tibetan Buddhism dominates in Tibet, the Drukpa sect of Tibetan Buddhism is the dominant school in Bhutan. (There are four main traditions of Tibetan Buddhism.) The Dalai Lama has no jurisdiction here: instead the chief abbot of the Drukpa school – the Je Khenpo – is the religious authority. The origin of the Drukpa sect in Bhutan is linked, through legend, with the name for the country in the Bhutanese national language Dzongka, ‘Druk Yul’, which means ‘The Land of the Thunder Dragon’.

A former Queen of Bhutan, Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk, one of the four sisters married to the fourth and previous King, recounts the legend in her book Treasures of the Thunder Dragon: A Portrait of Bhutan (2006):

…… when the great Tibetan saint Tsangpa Gyare Yeshe Dorji (AD 1161-1211) was consecrating a new monastery in Tibet, he heard thunder which he believed to be the voice of a dragon (druk), loudly proclaiming the great truths of the Buddha’s teachings. He named the monastery ‘Druk’, and the religious sect he founded ‘Drukpa Kargyupa’. When this school of Mahayana Buddhism became Bhutan’s state religion in the seventeenth century, the country was named Druk Yul, or the Land of the Thunder Dragon.

My ‘tour’ in Bhutan: highlights

For me, when I travel, it is the unscripted moments that often produce the most memorable experiences. On this occasion, my journey was very much a scripted one. There was very little room for the wandering and discovery that usually accompanies more independent, freer forms of travel. Nevertheless, there were many memorable experiences. I am presenting a day-by-day account of my trip as a series of highlights,  as follows.

Day 1: Kathmandu, 1400m (4600ft) to Paro, 2300m (7546ft), staying at the Tandinling Resort (now the Bhutan Metta Resort)

  • The spectacular flight from Kathmandu to Paro on Druk Air, the national airline of Bhutan and the only airline allowed to fly in or out of the country. (There are only two planes in the national fleet!)
  • Descending towards Paro’s tiny, picturesque airport, perilously close to hills and houses.
  • Stepping off the plane and feeling, for a moment, that I had landed on the set of a fairytale kingdom.
  • Walking into the almost empty terminal, a building that reflects the bold colour and carved wood detail of Bhutanese architecture and design.
  • Being met by men and women wearing the compulsory medieval, traditional dress: the gho and the kira, respectively. (My guide Tenzin and driver Wangcho were waiting for me, both in ghos and knee-high socks.)
  • Walking through the quiet streets of Paro and marvelling at the ornate, wooden facades of shops which hid dark, old-fashioned interiors. Almost all of the shops had similar style signs. I was steered towards a few larger, brightly-lit souvenir shops.

Day 2: Paro (2300m, 7546ft) to Punakha (1300m, 4265ft), staying at the Singye Lodge

  • The uphill climb on roads that twisted and turned through conifer covered mountains to reach Dochu La mountain pass at 3050m (10,006ft).
  • Stopping to walk between the beautiful Druk Wangyel (Great Victory) Chortens that mark the pass. There are 109 chortens (or stupas) in all. (I later read that these chortens are a memorial to those Bhutanese soldiers who lost their lives in the 2003 defeat of Indian separatist rebels, who had been using the country as a base for incursions into north India – see below.)
  • The journey downhill to the welcomely warmer Punakha Valley through pristine, terraced, rural landscapes, along yet more winding roads.
  • Walking in the hills above Punakha Valley, with views of the rivers and the great dzong (monastic fortress) below, and meeting friendly farmers and children along the route.
  • Admiring the traditional houses: like in Tibet, here too houses are colourfully decorated, many with carved, painted wooden detail. Like in Nepal, the lower storeys of farmhouses are used for housing livestock and storing wood and grain.
  • Feeling more than a little prudish after the initial shock I felt on first seeing large penises painted on the white, part-timbered walls of houses. (I later discovered that these are a legacy of one of Bhutan’s best-loved saints, Drukpa Kinlay (1455-1529), known as the Divine Madman, who arrived in Bhutan as part of a wave of migration from Tibet. According to Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk’s book (referred to above):

‘He spread his teachings through his unorthodox and often shocking behaviour using songs and poems, earthy jokes and his legendary sexual prowess, to draw attention to true Buddhist spiritual values. Bhutanese culture is both deeply spiritual and robustly earthly, and the wooden phalluses that you see hanging from the eaves of many Bhutanese houses as well as the flying penises painted near front doors are a typical expression of the latter.’

  • Wondering about the other motifs I saw painted on walls e.g. tigers, devils and vomiting weasels. (I read later that the latter are in fact mongooses, vomiting jewels. They are always carried by Vaishravana, the Guardian of the North, or the God of Wealth.)
  • Visiting the spectacular, though eerily quiet, Punakha Dzong set at the confluence of the Pho and Mo Rivers. The original dzong (monastic fortress) was built in 1637 but suffered damage from at least four catastrophic fires and an earthquake, as well as from floods. It was fully restored after the fire in 1987. Punakha dzong was the seat of government until 1955, when the capital was moved to Thimphu, though the central monastic body continues to reside here in winter. There is much of artistic interest in the exquisitely detailed and colourful architecture, statuary, murals and wall hangings. The dzong is reached via a quaint cantilever bridge.
  • Recognising some of the figures and images in the dzong from my time in Tibet. Unversed in the finer points of Buddhism, to me there seems to be much similarity between the Tibetan and Bhutanese pantheons of gods, spirits and demons. For example, in both places the historical figure Guru Rinpoche (see below), of whom there is a large gold statue in Punakha dzong, is revered, as is the compassionate Chenrezig, the Green and White Taras, the multiple-armed Samvara, and many more. In each place I saw images of the four harmonious friends, the wheel of life, various mandalas and other similar motifs. Here too, these colourful murals yield magical and fantastical stories. As in Tibet, in Bhutan too Tibetan Buddhism was preceded by the animist Bon religion. I have read that there are isolated pockets in Bhutan where the Bon religion, with its shamanistic practices, still lives on.
  • Relaxing and enjoying a beer on the tiny, tiled outdoor terrace at my hotel, taking in the lovely sweeping views over the Punakha Valley.

Days 3 & 4: Punakha (1300m, 4265ft) to Gangtey (3000m, 9843ft), staying at the Dewachen Hotel

  • Wandering amongst people and produce at the early morning market in Punakha, my first time seeing any gathering of people in Bhutan.
  • Visiting the 17th century Wangduephodrang Dzong (monastic fortress) that dramatically straddles the crest of a ridge above the Punatsang River. Admiring the proliferation of colour and carved detail in the architecture, and musing over yet more magnificent murals.
  • Soaking up the medieval-like atmosphere in the little village of Wangduephodrang.
  • Zigzagging uphill on roads through thick forests, singing along to a catchy song that Wangchu told me is a Buddhist blessing for a safe journey.
  • Stopping in Nobding for lunch and briefly meeting two development workers. Wishing I could have chatted to them for longer to get some realistic perspectives on life in Bhutan. They were working on a rural development project (REAP) funded by the WFP (World Food Programme). They told me that an Irish man had directed the WFP programme here for years but has since moved to Delhi.
  • Surmounting a lofty mountain pass to reach the broad, high altitude, glacial Phobjikha valley, enclosed by the Black Mountains that rise to heights above 5000m (16,404ft). Black-necked cranes migrate here in winter from the Tibetan plateau and Laddakh, attracted by the marshy land of the valley floor.
  • Getting away from my guide for a bit and strolling around the quaint, quiet little village of Gangtey that sits on a hill overlooking the picturesque valley.
  • Visiting Gangtey Gompa (Gangtey Monastery). Established in 1613, this is one of Bhutan’s two seats of the Nyingmapa school of Tibetan Buddhism (see above). It is comprised of a central temple, surrounded by monks’ single-storey cell accommodation. It was completely restored between 2002 and 2008 and is consequently immaculate in every detail.
  • Hiking for five hours or so in the hills surrounding the Phobjikha valley through peaceful rolling countryside. Seeing the occasional small chorten and ‘groves’ of fluttering white prayer flags attached to tall standing sticks; walking through meadows and past farmhouses with piles of freshly cut wood stacked outside; stopping to listen to fast-flowing water in a clear river that washed over gold-coloured stones; seeing my first yaks in Bhutan; noticing that none of the houses I have seen in this region have the wall paintings that I had seen earlier in the trip.
  • Staying in the Dewachen Hotel, with its lovely views and welcoming wood-burning stoves, though wishing I had fellow travellers with whom to dine and share stories.

Days 5: Gangtey (3000m, 9843ft) to Thimpu (2400m, 7874ft), staying at the Jomolhari Hotel

  • Winding our way through lovely scenery from Gangtey to Thimpu, the capital city.
  • Visiting the picturesquely situated National Memorial Chorten, consecrated in 1974 as a memorial to peace and to the memory of the third king, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck (the ‘father of modern Bhutan’).
  • Looking around Thimpu: it’s not the busiest of capital cities but it has banks, hotels, shops and roundabout pavilions, from where policemen direct traffic with smooth arm movements. The seat of government is in Thimpu, the royal family live here and a number of international development agencies have offices here.
  • Visiting Tashichho Dzong just as it was getting dark (unfortunately). Like all dzongs (monastic fortresses) in Bhutan, this one too has administrative as well as religious functions. It is the seat of Bhutan’s government, and houses the offices of the king. (The Royal family live 4km north of the dzong in Dechencholing Palace.) The original dzong at this site was built in 1641, but, like the other dzongs I have visited, was damaged by fires and an earthquake and has been extensively restored. The public are only allowed to visit the interior at certain times in winter.

Days 6: Thimpu (2400m, 7874ft) to Paro, 2300m (7546ft), staying again at the Tandinling Resort (now the Bhutan Metta Resort)

  • Spending an enjoyable morning at the School of Traditional Arts and Crafts in Thimpu, watching students practice the time-honoured techniques of Bhutanese weaving, woodcarving, Buddhist art, mask-making and sculpture.
  • Wandering through the nearby Folk Heritage Museum: essentially, a walk through a large, traditional farmhouse. The setting was nice but the ‘museum experience’ was not terribly interesting.
  • Enjoying the journey back to Paro through the scenic, fertile Paro Valley. This valley was carved by the Pa Chu (Paro River), which is fed by glacial waters from Mount Jhomolhari (7,314m, 23,996ft) at the northern end of the valley. Most of Bhutan’s unique red rice comes from terraced fields here.
  • Visiting the collection at the National Museum, housed in the distinctive mid-seventeenth century Ta Dzong, once a watch tower built to protect Paro Dzong, which is directly below.
  • Journeying across the picturesque, covered bridge to reach the aforementioned Paro Dzong, also known as Rinpung Dzong (i.e. fortress of jewels), another fine testament to dzong architecture and Buddhist art in Bhutan. It was built in 1649 on the foundations of an earlier monastery. Having escaped an earthquake that damaged many of Bhutan’s dzongs, Paro Dzong was completely destroyed by a fire in 1907. Now restored, religious activity is accommodated in more than ten temples and shrines here, and it also serves as an administrative centre for the Paro district.
  • Hiking to the spectacularly located Taktsang Monastery. The original monastery was built c. 1692. Following a devastating fire in 1998, it was painstakingly restored in 2005. It sits at 3,120 metres (10,236 ft), about 900 metres (2,953 ft) above the Paro Valley, built into a sheer cliff face. It is reached via an enjoyable and surprisingly easy (considering its location) 2/3-hour hike along a well-marked trail through forests of pine. According to legend, the great Indian saint, Guru Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche, stayed in a meditation cave here in 747 AD, having arrived from Tibet astride a flying tiger. It is he who is credited with bringing Buddhism to Bhutan and his influence is everywhere. [Padmasambhava is also credited with bringing Buddhism to Tibet and is said to have written The Tibetan Book of the Dead – see post 60.] The hike itself, amongst flapping prayer flags, the occasional dramatic chorten and many spinning prayer wheels, some turned by water flowing through little prayer mills straddling streams, was more enjoyable than actually arriving in the confined setting of the monastery, where it was difficult to get a perspective on the space. Only one dark room was open to visitors.
  • Visiting the beautifully situated ruins of Drugyel Dzong (c. 1642) at the head of the Paro Valley. This dzong was gutted by fire in 1951, apparently caused by an unattended butter lamp, and remains a ruin.
  • Finally, catching a brief glimpse of snow-capped Mount Jhomolhari. I had seen it from the plane during arrival, but it was nice to finally see it emerge from clouds  – albeit fleetingly – while on solid ground, and on my final day in Bhutan.


Privileged, but with restricted freedom

It has been a privilege to visit Bhutan. While I certainly enjoyed my time in this insular Himalayan kingdom, some of the niggling reservations I had before I came remain. For me, the experience of being constantly accompanied by a guide was restrictive: at times I felt very confined. On the one occasion that I did leave my hotel alone, my guide caught up with me, concerned at why I had left without him. I would love to have had more freedom, for example to occasionally escape the unimaginative ‘tourist menus’, in the often very quiet hotels I stayed in, to eat and mingle at local restaurants.

Fact or fiction?

I found myself questioning the reliability of the information I was ‘receiving’. All accounts were positive and full of rosy rhetoric (and sometimes difficult to understand). So, for example, when I tried to raise the issue of the Bhutanese refugees in Nepal, conversation was cut short. When we visited the Druk Wangyel Chortens at Dochula (see above), I wasn’t told that this was a memorial to the Bhutanese army’s victory over Indian insurgents hiding in the south of the country. (Neither is this mentioned on the official Bhutanese tourism website.) Part of the joy of travelling for me is to try to gain an understanding of my destination through talking to others, both locals and fellow travellers, and unravelling multiple perspectives on issues and stories that I might have researched a little beforehand. I wanted to experience some of the ‘real Bhutan’ and not the fairy-tale magic kingdom of myth and fiction. Although I knew before I came that this would be a different kind of travel experience, I didn’t expect it to be quite so restrictive. The language barrier was, of course, a further contributory factor.

An uneasy order

Unusually, for this part of the world, Bhutan appears to be a very orderly place. Traffic rules are observed, rules of etiquette are obeyed (e.g. in relation to compulsory national dress), smoking is illegal (though I have read that a brisk, black-market trade exists) and mountain climbing in the Himalayas is forbidden. Some of these rules are influenced or reinforced by religious beliefs and parables. For example, the Himalayas in Bhutan are regarded as deities, a belief that has its origins in the animist Bon religion that preceded Buddhism. Hence the ban on climbing. There is a story about a demoness who was kicked by Guru Rinpoche’s horse and shattered into a thousand pieces, of which tobacco ash is composed. This story supports the smoking ban. There is no doubt that the environment is pristine but then, again unusually for this part of the world, population density is very low and there is no competition for resources. The pressures that exist in other parts of Asia – for example, in my beloved Bangladesh – just don’t exist here.

Happiness, happiness….

Gross National Happiness is a great concept and it certainly sounds more attractive than Gross Domestic Product or Gross National Product to the ordinary person on the street. (To me, from what I have read, in practice it sounds very similar to my understanding of what ‘sustainable development’ might be.) What is interesting is that Bhutan has prompted a (re)questioning of the current geopolitical and economic status quo and the often dysfunctional relationships that exist between rich and poor countries in the development sphere.

Personally, it got me thinking (again) about the intangible and complex concept of happiness and how it might be ‘measured’ in terms of an index. Down through the years I’ve come across multiple definitions and conceptions of ‘happiness’ and ‘well-being’ (e.g. through the interesting work of psychologist Martin Seligman and others).  A Buddhist monk told me that in Buddhism happiness is defined simply as a ‘deep sense of serenity and fulfilment’.  I tried to pin him down: did this have something to do with ‘meaning’, ‘engagement’, ‘pleasure’, etc. ? But no, he told me that it was internal, a state of mind, that could be brought about by training e.g. through meditation. My own tentative understanding is that each person perceives and experiences happiness or well-being in a unique way. (There is also said to be a genetic component involved.) In other words, the inner conditions for happiness are individual and independent of the external conditions. I have read too that the perception and experience of happiness differs across cultures. Whatever our subjective understanding of happiness, without unhappiness we wouldn’t recognise it. And just as complete happiness is unachievable, so too is complete unhappiness. I like the late Irish novelist John McGahern’s take on happiness and the implied wisdom in not ‘over-thinking’ it. He wrote the following in his novel That They May Face the Rising Sun:

With a rush of feeling he felt that this must be happiness. As soon as the thought came to him, he fought it back, blaming the whiskey. The very idea was as dangerous as presumptive speech: happiness could not be sought or worried into being, or even fully grasped: it should be allowed its own slow pace so that it passes unnoticed, if it ever comes at all.

I will be interested in learning how Bhutan’s gross national happiness index is compiled and how its vision for national happiness will evolve in tandem with the country’s economic and development models. Generally, an economy caters to the psychology of ‘wanting’ (as opposed to the psychology of ‘liking’.) Different brain systems are involved in ‘wanting’ and ‘liking’: the former is associated with insatiability and therefore not altogether always conducive to ‘happiness’.

[Incidentally, there is a TED talk by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman on how our ‘experiencing selves’ and our ‘remembering selves’ perceive happiness differently. It is particularly relevant here because he uses the example of ‘holidays’ to illustrate his points. It raises a lot of interesting questions about experiencing, remembering, reflecting, creating narrative and indeed travel-writing, the latter relying on a balance between the two selves. There is research too that suggests that the anticipation prior to travelling/holidays can often make people happier than the actual travel experience itself. So, while ‘living in the present’ is generally held up as being qualitatively superior, there are those too for whom the very acts of anticipating or remembering are experiences that fill them with authentic happiness. (Mind you, for me, the more time that passes, the more memories become unreliable. By their nature, memories are beyond scrutiny. The mind’s eye is very different to the eyes we use daily to ‘see’. If I try to chase a memory that I see in my mind’s eye it disappears. It’s as if it’s on the sideline of my vision and I can only ‘see’ it when I’m focused on something else. But I’m digressing too much now. )]

Beyond definitions and the rhetoric surrounding the Bhutanese development vision, ‘national happiness’ as a policy requires funding, be that from economic growth or other sources. In this regard Bhutan is dependent on international aid, most of which comes from neighbouring India. There have been times when this dependence has been used for political purposes. I have read, for example, that the military operations in 2003 against Indian separatist groups hiding in the south of the country (as referred to earlier) were influenced by financial pressure brought about by the Indian government.

Beyond the fairy tale kingdom?

Despite the rhetoric, to me, Bhutan is a country, like all countries, that has its share of problems. What is unusual is that there seems to be a reluctance to acknowledge any difficulties: I found it very hard to get behind the ‘rosy picture’ scenario. It is true, of course, that all the people I met were working in the tourism sector. I would like to read stories by Bhutanese writers. However, there is little, if any, contemporary Bhutanese literature in English. Historically, Bhutanese literature was confined to the dzong (monastic fortress) and to revered Buddhist scriptures in the Dzongkha language. There was also a rich, though mostly oral, tradition of folk tales. Reporters Without Borders say that media freedom is restricted and that the monarchy in Bhutan ‘makes few allowances for pluralist views’. And while the country is predominantly Buddhist, there are at least four main ethnic groups in Bhutan and seventeen or so languages. I got no idea of how this diversity manifests itself (apart from my understanding of the well-documented refugee crisis referred to earlier).

Glimpses of a rich and vivid culture: a foretaste

While my mode of travelling in Bhutan made for an often frustrating experience, I enjoyed the visit too on many levels. The vivid colour and exquisite detail in Bhutanese traditional arts and architecture will stay with me. I only saw a small part of the country and would love to visit other regions. I would particularly like to attend one of the many colourful religious festivals that I have been reading about and maybe combine such a visit with trekking further north. With the current restrictions on independent travel, the only way I could envisage returning is with a group of friends. I understand why Bhutan would want to foster sustainable tourism, especially when the negative impacts of tourism can often outweigh the benefits. It will be interesting to see how Bhutan manages its future interactions with the outside world.

Destination Himalaya: Nepal, Tibet or Bhutan?

People ask me how I would compare my experiences in Bhutan with those in Nepal and Tibet. This is not something that is easy to do. These three places high in the Himalayas have much in common culturally, as well as being unique and interesting individually. Experiences on each journey captivated me, leaving indelible marks on my memory. Needless to say, there is much diversity too within territorial boundaries. Therefore, I can only draw on my particular, and rather limited, travel experiences. For me, the act of travelling in Nepal (see post 59) was a more enriching and enjoyable experience than that in Bhutan and I would return in a heartbeat. The landscapes and townscapes that I visited and hiked in were more dramatic and vibrant and I felt closer to the Himalayas and to the local people. I also enjoyed the freedom of travelling and meeting fellow travellers. I joined a tour in Tibet (see post 60) and, while not ideal, and very much dependent on the quality (and qualities) of the guide, I didn’t feel as restricted as I did in Bhutan (despite the presence of Chinese soldiers). The Tibetan Plateau is unique, a world apart and stunning. Once we arrived in a town, we were free to do as we pleased, and in the group situation there was always someone to hang out and talk with. The intensity of my experience of Buddhism in Tibet was incomparable. There was more freedom to mingle with locals in the streets and in the crowded monasteries. In Bhutan, with just a guide and driver, I visited some spectacular dzongs but they were always deadly quiet. The architecture was as pristine as the landscape and much felt ‘new’. (Of course most dzongs that I visited had been relatively recently restored.) Ultimately, it is the feeling of ‘being’ in each place that lingers and the quality of that feeling was perhaps a little deeper and a little richer in some places than in others. However, I felt that I would love to return one day to all three countries. Yet, knowing how many places I would like to travel in, I wondered how realistic I was being. To borrow (again) from Robert Frost, “…knowing how way leads on to way/I doubted if I should ever come back.”

To finish, I’m including some photographs from my Bhutan trip below. (Unfortunately, since Cooliris was acquired by Yahoo my lovely photo walls no longer work :(. I have replaced them with links to post-specific web-album slideshows until such time as I can find a better solution.)

Click on image below for PHOTO SLIDESHOW related to this post (314 photographs in all). Enjoy!


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