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Bhutan: an ancient kingdom on a cautious path to modernity

Story and photos by Paul Hilts

As the Royal Bhutan Airlines flight from Bangkok to Bhutan started its long, winding descent into Paro, I began to feel like a passenger on James Hilton’s doomed aircraft that eventually crashed into the mountains of the mythical, lost kingdom of Shangri-La.

From 30,000 feet the Airbus begins twisting its way down through narrow, Himalayan canyons and valleys. A huge gust of wind suddenly jerks the plane toward the looming cliffs as passengers scream. Thousands of feet below, I can see a valley floor where I hope the airport must be. Then, as we descend further, the plane banks to the left and way down there is another valley, then a third, and then a fourth. How long can this go on?

At last, the plane lands and I wonder if I’ll ever see my homeland again.



As we wait to collect our luggage at Paro International Airport, I notice a large number of bubble-wrapped, roughly 20-by-24-inch framed art pieces circling around and around on the luggage carousel. They have an address and VIP stickers affixed to them: “To Her Royal Majesty Ashi Tshering Pem Wangchuck,” one of the former king’s four wives. We have truly entered another world.

The name Bhutan conjures all sorts of mythical impressions, some based on fact and others on fiction: a fantastic Himalayan kingdom, populated by friendly and happy people, living an idyllic life, cut off from the polluting effects of the world around them. It’s true in Bhutan that Gross National Happiness (GNH) is prized over Gross National Product (GNP). Smoking is illegal, and National Dress (the gho for men and kira for women) is required in most public situations. There are no traffic lights in the country (yet). The number of tourists is strictly controlled by the government to foster sustainable development that will protect the environment and the culture.




Still, the kingdom is experiencing growing pains that contradict many of the fanciful images held by outsiders.

Bhutan is a very small country, which helped first to isolate itself from the outside world, and then to open up to the outside world at its own pace and on its own terms. It is bordered by Tibet-China on the north and the Indian states of Sikkim and Assam on its other three sides. And while its culture and people are Tibetan, it has always had closer political and economic ties with its neighbor to the south, India. But things are changing, rapidly.

In 2005 King Jigme Singye Wangchuck (the fourth Wangchuck since 1907 to occupy the throne) announced that the country would move to democracy with elections scheduled for March 2008. In the meantime the people needed an education on this new system. A mock election was held in fall 2007 to give the people a little practice, and voters were asked during exit polls what they thought of the new program. More than 70 percent said they didn’t particularly care for it and thought the king should continue running the country. The king responded by saying that was not a possibility and that the people would have to get used to the new democratic program.

A few months later he announced he was abdicating his throne because he had other things to do in life. He was not going to be dragged, screaming, from the royal palace like his counterpart in Nepal, King Gyanendra. His first son, 28-year-old Jigme Khesar Wangchuck is due to be crowned sometime this summer ” as soon as the National Stadium in the capital of Thimphu is renovated and the main road from Paro (where the country’s only airport is located) to Thimphu is widened, so visiting dignitaries don’t have to worry (as much) about being run off the road by huge Indian lorries.

Bhutan has fiercely guarded its culture and heritage. After seeing the results of laissez-faire tourism in nearby Nepal, the country chose a different course in the hope of maintaining its cultural identity. Small numbers of tourists were first allowed into the country in 1974. Last year just more than 7,000 people visited the kingdom on tourist visas. The pace of change is slow, but inexorable. And the question remains whether Bhutan will be able to preserve its identity while becoming part of the interconnected 21st-century global economy.

While the fees charged to foreign visitors are high, the country is one of the poorest in the world, with one-third of the population living below the United Nations poverty level. The average annual income was just $1,410 in 2006, according to a World Bank survey. Eighty percent of the Bhutanese people are subsistence farmers with no idea what a global market is. Hydroelectric production is the country’s largest income producer, but 75 percent of the that electricity is exported to India and nearly 40 percent of the rural, isolated Bhutanese people have no electricity.

Our visit began in Paro, a town that reminded me of Crested Butte ” one, big main street with lots of funky side streets and shops. The huge Paro Dzong, a fort built in the 1640s, hovered over the town like a giant, white sentinel.

The National Museum of Bhutan sits just up the hill from the Dzong and is well worth a visit. It houses an incredible collection of antique thangkas, highly stylized Buddhist paintings, dating back to the 17th century. The building itself was part of the ancient fortifications and boasts a spectacular view of the Paro valley.

The road from Paro snakes its way through the mountains to Thimphu and is currently being rebuilt for this summer’s coronation. Armies of Indian workers toil 12 hours a day and live in makeshift shelters along the side of the construction zone. We asked our guide Chadoe (pronounced like “shadow”) if only Indians worked on the road crews, since we didn’t see any Bhutanese.

“The government has contracted with Indian construction companies because they have the expertise and are cheaper. These people make only $2 per day, but it is more than they would make in India. Bhutanese companies are not as experienced and they charge much more because the Bhutanese do not like to do this kind of work.”

We could see why. Almost everything was done by hand, though there were heavy-duty graders, diggers and dump trucks on the job. One group would hack big rocks into smaller rocks for road base, while another band would crush small rocks into pebbles for paving. Then there were lines of workers carrying baskets of road-base material on their heads and dumping them, in a scene that echoed old black-and-white movies of ancient Egypt and the building of the great pyramids.

Living conditions were almost incomprehensible. In one area, some industrious workers had unraveled 42-gallon oil cans and used them as siding on their huts. Water was hauled from the nearby river.

When asked how they liked working in Bhutan, one worker replied, “Even though it is a little colder than we are used to in Bengal, the work is good and the pay is good.” I guess it’s just a matter of perspective.

The capitol at Thimphu sits at some 6,000 feet above sea level, has a population of more than 90,000 and still not one traffic light. But the population has more than doubled in the past four years as farmers from the most remote areas come to the city in search of better work and more money. Other things are changing as well.

Until 1999 there was no television allowed; even today, MTV and professional wrestling are not among the 50-plus channels available. Traditional dress is still required of all men, but more and more young people eschew it, including one young man I saw with moussed hair, blue jeans and a Kurt Cobain T-shirt. There have also been reports of drug use and even a few pickpockets working the city square near shops frequented by tourists.

And then there are the dogs ” thousands of them. In a country of just less than 700,000 people, there are estimated to be more than 52,000 dogs, according to a 2005 study, including more than 20,000 strays. Trying to sterilize all of those animals is an almost impossible task for the country’s 22 trained vets, and cultural taboos prevent mass roundups and exterminations. The dogs are not unlike sacred cows in India; they run in packs and the Bhutanese explain their usefulness by saying they, “Drive off evil spirits.” I will say that they did drive off a pack of late-night Karaoke singers from the street below our Thimphu hotel window one night.

A February 2008 report in The Bhutan Daily indicated that attempts at sterilization have been attempted since 1991 but with “no visible reduction in the stray population so far.”

The story goes on to say, “The reason these campaigns fell short, say experts from Vets Beyond Borders (VBB), an Australian-based, nonprofit organization, which trains local veterinary staff and aims to address the overpopulation of street dogs, was the country’s failure to continue the program on a regular basis. ‘The programs have been very sporadic and uncoordinated,’ said Dr. Ian H Douglas, the veterinary director of VBB.”

And so the problem persists and grows.

The upcoming elections offer another huge challenge for the country. So far, two parties have emerged. One uses the catchy slogan, “Walk The Talk,” and the other is running on the platform “Justice, Democracy and Small Government.”

In the country’s first debate, people were disappointed that the candidates only complimented each other and weren’t clear about their platforms and positions. It turns out that both are foreign-educated and work together in the current government administration. But in the provinces there is a little Western-style electioneering going on and that doesn’t mesh well with Buddhist concepts of compassion for your fellow man.

The March 1 edition of Kuensel, another national daily paper, reported, “The Election Commission of Bhutan has canceled the nomination of Garab Dorji, the People’s Democratic Party’s candidate for Gelephu Constituency, on the grounds that he had carried out activities with the aim of creating sectarian and regional discord, and ill will among different communities for political gain.” Compare that with primary elections in the United States, where such discord happens three or four times per day.

We continued on to Punakha for the annual festival commemorating a 17th-century battle with the invading Tibetans, who had shown up at the huge Dzong to steal a religious relic. At the festival I was scanning around through the viewfinder of my camera and came across three monks amusing themselves with a nice-looking Canon digital SLR. I went over and struck up a conversation with the young Bhutanese owner, dressed in his traditional gho.

He told me he was working on a book called “The Faces Of Bhutan.”

“I saw you on the flight from Bangkok, the other day,” he said. I remembered him bouncing around the front of the plane, from one side to the other, with his camera, checking out the views as we approached Paro airport. He was like a little kid with a new toy.

“What were you doing in Bangkok?” I asked.

“I was checking proofs for my book. It will be printed there soon, so I had to go and check the color. It is just a small book, though,” he said.

We introduced ourselves but I had a hard time pronouncing his name so he showed me his Press ID that was draped on a cord around his neck. It mentioned JOMO Publications on the top with his name and photo below.

“Ugyen,” I stammered. He helped correct me and we chatted about his camera and book project.

One afternoon at the Punakha Festival I watched as a Bhutanese family sat outside the great dzong, on a gorgeous spring day, eating their picnic lunch. They were munching away on a couple of bags of potato chips.

Several years ago the government began encouraging the planting of potatoes, which grow well in Bhutan. Production increased to the point where the Bhutanese began exporting the surplus to India. The Indians liked the quality and price of the Bhutanese potatoes so much that Pepsico India Holdings, which produces Lays Potato Chips in south Asia, began buying up their product to make chips. Some of those chips were then exported back to Bhutan, where the Bhutanese liked them so much that concerns arose about obesity and high blood pressure.

Then there was the problem of disposing of the foil potato-chip bags in a country where littering is practically unknown. Back at the festival I watched in amazement as the picnicking family simply threw the empty potato-chip bags up into the air, acting as if the winds would blow them away into the heavens like so many words printed on a prayer flag.

A few days after the festival I was downloading photos onto our laptop and came across the one of our photographer friend, “Ugyen.” I began to blow it up in an attempt to read the full name on the press ID.

The ID became larger and larger with the help of the magnifying tool and soon I could make out the entire name: Ugyen Wangchuck. Wangchuck…the royal family’s name? I did a quick Google search and there it was, on Wikipedia.

(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jigyel_Ugyen_Wangchuck)

Prince Jigyel Ugyen Wangchuck (born July 16, 1984) is the presumptive heir to the throne of Bhutan. He is the second son of King Jigme Singye Wangchuck and Queen Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, and became the next in line following the abdication of his father on Dec. 14, 2006, and the accession of his brother Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck.

Bhutan is still a kind of magic kingdom, I thought, but things are changing fast.