Story and photos by James Trottier & Liza Linklater
*Title taken from a sign in a police guardpost in Trongsa in Central Bhutan, the phrase could well be applied to travel both into and within Bhutan – the Land of the Thunder Dragon.
In the Himalayas, bordered to the north by Tibet, to the west by the former kingdom of Sikkim (now absorbed into India) and to the east by the Indian state of Arunachal Pradash lies mysterious and enchanting Bhutan, kingdom of serendipity, where the King has decreed that GNH (Gross National Happiness) is more important than GNP, where Buddhist rite and ritual permeate every facet of daily life, where large white religious/secular fortresses (dzongs) and Buddhist monasteries dominate every town and where the national sports of archery and darts are pursued in village greens by citizens wearing traditional national dress (resembling in the sunshine of a cheery October day medieval English archers). While only males normally pursue the national sport of archery, there is an exception. Bhutan has a women’s archery team that competes in the Olympic Games.
In June 2002, just as Brazil and Germany were preparing to battle it out for international football supremacy at the World Cup, another less epic battle was unfolding in Bhutan’s capital Thimphu between Bhutan and Montserrat, ranked respectively 202nd and 203rd by FIFA – football’s governing body. The two lowest ranked and most recent members of FIFA played their own game in the shadows of the Himalayas, more for the love of the game than anything else – happy and proud to be part of the global football community.
Bhutan joined FIFA in 2000, shortly after the country had begun Internet transmissions and television broadcasts one day apart in 1999 as part of a measured, very controlled emergence of Bhutan to the outside world. Bhutan still only has very limited local broadcasting – a couple of hours a day – delivered by the Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS) and it resembles a cross between early CBC and public access television; typical was an earnest discussion one night with a panel and studio audience – all dressed in traditional clothing – on the relative merits of Bhutanese and Indian cement production, a topical subject as it happens, as cement is a major export to India. Nor was there fierce competition to win one of the few spots on air, reading the news. (The culture of celebrity has been mercifully slow to arrive in Bhutan. Even distinguished artists do not sign their work.) One of the first newsreaders was Richin Chioden “whose deep brown eyes and ruddy, windblown cheeks suggest a younger and more Mongolian Diane Sawyer”, according to The New York Times.
Actually, television broadcasting had been preceded by satellite dishes bringing in programming from India and elsewhere for affluent Bhutanese and up-market hotels (in a Thimphu hotel bar we had a choice between a women’s beach volleyball tournament on one station and a National Geographic special on the Canadian Arctic on the other) and video; therefore the advent of public broadcasting did not come as a complete shock to the Bhutanese. Nor has it profoundly changed life to date. This is partly due to the fact that the overwhelming proportion of the population is rural and very many do not yet electricity, never mind television.
Despite the common Bhutanese expression “What to do?”, the Bhutanese are making a determined and noble effort to come to grips with globalization on their own terms. Under the benevolent stewardship of Bhutan’s esteemed fourth king, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, Bhutan is attempting to gradually expose its people to the global community while sheltering them from global shock. He is assisted in doing so by the Tshogdu (the National Assembly), made up of elected representatives from Bhutan’s 20 dzongkhags(districts), monks elected by regional monk bodies and senior civil servants. They meet twice a year and, on an ad hoc basis, as the need arises. They pass legislation by majority vote. On the initiative of the third king, the legislature by a two-thirds vote could replace the King.
As of September 2002, Bhutan has six embassies in the world – four bilateral (Thailand, India, Bangladesh, Kuwait) and two multilateral (UN Missions in New York and Geneva). It has diplomatic relations with 19 countries. It does not have formal diplomatic relations with either China or the United States. Canada has a small Canadian Cooperation Office run by a long-time and respected Canadian resident of Bhutan, Nancy Strickland, who manages the Canada Fund and also acts as the Field Coordinator for the University of New Brunswick which has been closely involved in the education system in Bhutan for many years. Actually, teachers from Canada – sent by the World University Service of Canada (WUSC) – have played a pivotal role in the Bhutanese educational system. Bhutan’s only college -Sherubtse College in Eastern Bhutan – was founded by a Canadian Jesuit, Father Mackay, in the late 1960s, who also assisted in establishing secular schools.
Bhutan is as big as Switzerland, with a population of only 600,000. While this figure is now accepted as accurate and is based on an official census, confusion stems from the fact that when Bhutan applied for membership in the UN in 1971, there had never been a census and the population was estimated and rounded off at one million. Based on subsequent population growth figures, that figure mushroomed in intervening years to as high as 1.5 million.
Bhutan’s tourism policy illustrates the cautious approach of Bhutan’s leaders. Alarmed by the mass tourism that have swamped Nepal and the former Himalayan kingdom of Sikkim, Bhutan’s King has deliberately and drastically limited the number of tourists through an extraordinarily high tariff which can be as much as (US) $230 per day per person which includes accommodation, food, transport in Bhutan, guide and driver. As a result, tourists are limited to approximately 6000 per year and most come in the best weather periods of September/October or March/April/May. This allows Bhutan to earn high tourist dollars with a limited number of high-end tourists. The largest numbers are from Japan, United States and Germany. When we flew out, the woman beside us was reading the New England Journal of Medicine; she was typical of the traveller Bhutan is aiming at. During two weeks in Bhutan, we did not see a single backpacker, quite unique in our experience in Asia. (One of the few exceptions to the high tariff is if one is lucky enough to be employed there or invited by a resident of Bhutan; each foreign resident is allowed to invite five people a year.)
Vehicles are stopped regularly at roadblocks throughout Bhutan (with relatively few motorised roads this is less labour intensive than it might at first appear) and passes must be produced at such stops. Similarly passes are required to gain access to temples, shrines and other buildings. The local travel agent normally makes all these arrangements as part of the tariff mentioned above; even if it were technically possible, this would be very time-consuming and complicated for foreign travellers to arrange on their own.
All this is done in the interest of protecting one of the most fascinating, charming and authentically intact indigenous cultures in the world.
Our own journey started from Bangkok with Druk (Dragon) Air, the only carrier flying into Bhutan’s one airport at Paro which operates by visual flight rules. Druk Air’s fleet consists of two BAE 146-100 four-jet engine, 72- seat British aircraft, flying into Bhutan from Bangkok and Delhi. The engineer – keeping the fleet in the air – is Canadian. Our plane landed to refuel in Calcutta in order to have enough fuel to return in the event that bad weather precluded landing in Paro. On the outward journey, the plane carries a minimum amount of fuel in order to lessen the weight on lift-off; both passengers and carry-on luggage are also weighed at Paro before boarding!
Tickets for the flight to Bhutan are only provided once the airline has confirmation from a travel agent in Bhutan that the traveller has paid the full tourist tariff in advance. Similarly visas are only authorised once the agent has provided this confirmation and then are issued on arrival in Bhutan.
The flight is one hour from Calcutta so try to get seat A (rows 11 to 14) on the left side of the plane on the way to Bhutan and seat F (same rows) on the right side leaving Paro. That way you will have views of the Himalayas. The airport architecture in Paro is in the style of a dzong, the fortress-like structures in Bhutanese towns that are the seats of secular and religious authority. Soon after we arrived at the airport, the lights went out and we changed money by candlelight.
Driving from the airport on the high road into the town of Paro, we looked down on farmers harvesting rice, saw red chillies covering the roofs of houses, passed Indian road crews sweltering while tarring the highway, and slowed down for truckloads of Indian soldiers. India and Bhutan have a defence agreement; Indian troops train and patrol throughout the country. Indian road builders also build and maintain the roads.
It would be impossible to overstate the importance of Buddhism in Bhutan. Buddhism is everywhere and Bhutan is the only country in the world where the Tantric form of Mahayana Buddhism is the official state religion. Fluttering prayer flags and maroon-robed monks are a common sight while white-walled monasteries and prayer wheels dominate the landscape. Religion and secular authority are intimately intertwined; this relationship is built right into the architecture, with secular and religious authority sharing large white-washed fortress-like structures (dzongs) in each town.
The only way to get across Bhutan is to follow the main road from the airport through the capital Thimphu (at 20,000 people by far the largest town in the country) and then east, often crawling along the sides of mountains. Travel by motor vehicle is very slow due to the mountainous terrain and poor conditions of much of the road, some of it virtually obliterated by landslides. By one count, there are 17 curves per kilometre.
Even in two weeks we only had time to go from the west to the centre of the country; we had to leave the most remote region – the east – for another occasion. Along the way we encountered herdsmen leading large herds of domesticated yaks and large troops of wild monkeys. Adults and children waved, smiled and nodded at us. Once we left the capital, Thimphu, we saw few foreigners.
We also had ample opportunity to appreciate the spectacular and very varied beauty of the countryside with mountains covered by huge trees – reminiscent of British Colombia – a side effect of Bhutan’s isolation, the heavy rainfall which means that forests can be found up to altitudes of 4500 metres and government policy. By law 60 % of country must remain forested and one estimate puts current forested areas at 72% of the land area. Exports of timber and firewood to India have been significantly reduced; these are now tightly controlled due to concerns about maintaining the forests. Forests play an important part in the lives of the Bhutanese, not only as a source of timber for building and fuel, but as a place for rituals and a source of local culture.
The only alternative to driving is to trek. However, apart from the fact that trekkers can cover only limited distances, they must travel in groups of at least 10 with guides and porters and are not allowed to go the top of mountains (except for a brief period between 1983 and 1994) which are considered to be sacred. Travellers with vehicles can travel alone apart from the omnipresent guide and driver.
Towns are few and far between. Their dzongs and monasteries – many built in the 16th century in a movement reminiscent of medieval Europe – bring home the degree to which Bhutan has an alternative history and culture (sometimes we felt like wanderers from another planet) that evolved independently from the cultures that dominate the contemporary world. The degree to which Bhutan has been able to preserve its culture to the present day is what sets it apart in the modern world.
The dzong in Trongsa in central Bhutan is reputed to be the finest such structure in Bhutan. It is a huge stone structure with several buildings, medieval-looking corridors and courtyards, in one of which a child monk was polishing religious accessories while a cat sprawled beside him in the bright sunshine. At another 400-year-old monastery, the Gangte Goemba on a ridge overlooking a valley, child monks were studying English in the courtyard, while dogs lay sprawled around in the sunshine. The child monks are under the authority of the Kudang (the Disciplinarian).
The vast majority of the population is farmers, with 85% involved in subsistence agriculture. Only 7.8% of the land is used for farming. Most of the farmers raise cattle or yaks. Eighty percent of the population lives at least an hour on foot from a road; 50% live at least a day away. However, despite this, Bhutan has made great strides in providing both health care and education to its populations. The Government provides free health care for all citizens and half of the population now has access to clean water. Virtually all children are immunized, iodine deficiency has disappeared and life expectancy has gone from 47.4 years in 1984 to 66 years – the highest in South Asia. Fifty years ago, education was confined to monastic schools and reached only a tiny minority. Now 72% of primary school age children are in school and the Government is aiming for 95% attendance. English has been the medium of instruction since 1961 with Dzongkha, the national language taught as a second language.
The people have strong handsome faces with high cheekbones, dark, almond-shaped eyes and shy smiles. Men have bowl haircuts and women also have short hair. The men wear knee-length tunics (called a gho, it resembles the Tibetan thuba) in a variety of colours and plaids with large six-inch cuffs at the wrists; these are worn with knee socks (imported in large quantities from the New York garment district by a new class of Bhutanese entrepreneurs). When worn in black with white cuffs, the wearer resembles a New England Pilgrim Father. Women’s tunics (kiras) reach down to their ankles. Traditional dress is compulsory in government offices, religious buildings, schools and formal occasions and is very strongly encouraged in other circumstances.
Bhutan is not without crime and other social ills. Middle class parents in the capital Thimphu talk about their video-obsessed children. Since the 1980s there has been an increase in the longstanding tension – driven in part by the Government’s concern about preserving Bhutanese identity – between the ethnic Buddhist Sharchops majority and the Hindu Nepalese minority, largely located in the south, resulting in an exodus of tens of thousands from the Nepalese minority to Nepal. Although the exodus largely stopped in 1993, many of these people remain in camps in Nepal. International efforts continue to deal with the problem. Bhutan’s ancient and modern history has also got its fair share of political intrigue and conflict, often linked to developments in Tibet.
However, Bhutan remains a remarkably safe, sane and innocent place by international standards. Walking up a hill one day, we came across a local village gathering on the side of a hill to select a new chief. On a wall in a bank in the town of Wangdue Phodrang, there is a sign which gently advises bank employees and customers that all financial transactions are to be conducted in the bank rather than in the street where hitherto many of them had occurred. When a tie was needed for the one formal event we attended during our visit, this proved impossible to find at any store in the capital Thimphu. The problem was solved when a desk clerk in a hotel (at which we were not staying) offered to lend his own tie; he then went to his home to retrieve this tie still in its plastic wrapping.
With the exception of the royal family, there are no family names for most Bhutanese (except in the south). People generally have two names; these are selected by monks for auspicious meaning or religious significance. Despite the lack of family names, a strong oral history tradition ensures that traditions, customs and family connections are preserved.
There is no dowry system for most Bhutanese and daughters are as welcomed as sons. In fact, in the villages, Bhutan is a matrilineal society with property passed on through daughters. Women can divorce and widows can remarry.
Accommodation for travellers varies widely. In the Phobjikla Valley in Western Bhutan, the only accommodation was in private homes converted into inns. Traditionally, houses – built of whitewashed stone or mud and wood – have animals on the first floor, people on the second with a family shrine, and crops on the third; wooden ladder steps connect the floors. Traditionally, roofs are covered with wooden shingles with large stones to hold them down; corrugated iron is used in newer homes. We stayed at a typical such house without electricity and with heat supplied by a stove in a common area; while we read by flashlight, better-equipped travellers came outfitted with coalminers lights they wore around their foreheads. On the other hand, in the Bumthang valley, in central Bhutan, we stayed at a splendid cottage room – equipped with a roaring fire in a stove, BBC on TV and excellent lights for reading – at a lodge built on the yards of a former royal palace.
One of the delights of Bhutan is the colourful religious festivals – full of dancing, chanting and colourful costumes; Bhutanese textiles are a national treasure. These are held in monastery courtyards. While these festivals are a major tourist attraction, tourism is not the raison d’être of these events which remain rooted in religion and local tradition. Local audiences far outnumber foreigners.
In 1931, the British Political Officer in Sikkim, Colonel Leslie Weir journeyed through Bhutan to present a British award to the present King’s grandfather. He recorded his visit – including attendance at monastery festivals – on film. More than 60 years later his grand-daughter, British actress Joanna Lumley, retraced his steps and filmed many of the same festivities – with similar costumes – in the same locations for a charming documentary called In the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon. We went to many of the same places visited by Lumley’s grandfather in 1931 and found them virtually unchanged from how they were depicted in his film footage so long ago.
In central Bhutan, we were among very few foreigners crowded in with Bhutanese who had poured in from surrounding villages to watch a spectacular festival at the magnificent Jakar Dzong; built in 1667 on a hillside overlooking a valley, this is the largest dzong in Bhutan. One enters the dzong through a long courtyard with a stone staircase at the end. Up the staircase is another courtyard (two-storied high on two sides and three storied on the other) where the performance actually takes place. The performers are a mix of monks (spinning around like whirling dervishes) and villagers, both men and women, among whom some play fools who send up the performers with impunity to the delight of spectators who are crowded around the perimeter of the courtyard, both on the ground floor and in balconies on the upper floors.
As charming as Bhutan is, it is no Shangri-La. However, at the end of the day, Bhutan remains a unique and attractive society trying its best to preserve its traditional ways while absorbing what it needs from the world. When she inaugurated Bhutan’s internet service (“Druknet”) in 1999, the eldest Queen, Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk (the King is married to 4 sisters) announced that mail would be delivered for free for 10 days in an effort to preserve letter writing. She went on to say: “Bhutan’s dream for the internet is that its people will gain access to the whole world without ever having to leave the tranquility of their tiny remote rural villages.”
As the New York Times remarked in 1999 in a review of the charming book about Bhutan by the Canadian writer Jamie Zappa (Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A Journey Into Bhutan), “there are still a few places left in the world so strange and wondrous that a journey there has the power to transform the traveller, even against her will”.
And this is what at the end of the day makes Bhutan so singular and valuable. It’s a society where the authentic local cultures still holds sway and where one can receive an alternative vision of the universe. Long may it be so.