My Travels in Bhutan

My first Bhutan trip, a veritable 6 day appetiser, left me yearning for much more: to explore outside the tourist circuit, to find out if Bhutan measures up to its reputation as the last Shangri La, to gain a better understanding of the unique metric known as Gross National Happiness (GNH) and to witness, first-hand, as this enchanting country transcends into one of the world’s newest democracies. Well, as luck would have it, I was able to return for a month and had to loosen my belt as I moved from appetisers to the main course.

This adventure started by checking into my Druk Air flight in Bangkok. I had interesting flight companions: the Bhutanese soccer team returning from a game in Japan as well as the then Minister for Economic Affairs (also Acting Minister for Foreign Affairs) popping his head into economy class and giving us all a wave (subsequently I met him for a chat and a cuppa).

Suddenly a big “Ah” went through the cabin because to enter Bhutanese airspace feels like witnessing another world. First, the plane cruised at the height of the Himalayan peaks. To my left I passed Cho Oyu, Mount Everest and Makalu. It seemed that each emerged from a web of frosted snow, simultaneously allowing views of more distant peaks. Eventually I witnessed  the gradual descent through narrow green valleys  into Paro’s small airport. Walking to the terminal, I was greeted by a poster of the charismatic royal couple and of course by my host Karma who escorted me to Bhutan’s charming capital city Thimphu.

My home in Thimphu was an apartment in the Semthuen Complex in Upper Motithang, next to the ministerial compound and a 100 Nu (approx 2 dollars) taxi ride from downtown. After settling in  I quickly discovered that I was in a good neighbourhood because above me were the mansions of the four queens and sister wives of the adored fourth king. And indeed, at least one of them, as well as the fourth king, and even the present young king, drove past me several times. They were easily recognisable. I did have the good fortune to make contact with the PM of Bhutan and several other ministers.

I could hardly wait to head downtown to see Thimphu again. I immediately noticed some changes from my previous trip, such as increased traffic (more car registrations – I was informed), plastic bottles and loads of rubbish by the way side. To counteract traffic pollution, the government attempted to impose Car-Free Tuesdays. However, the population was not very enthusiastic with the drop-off in productivity which ensued. In fact, by the time I left Bhutan, that law was modified to merely one Car-Free day per month.

Once more  I fell captive to the city’s charm and hint of exuberance despite encountering Bhutanese complaining about their mood being dampened by a liquidity crunch that has reduced loans targeted for entrepreneurial ventures. In fact, I sensed quite a drop in morale due to lay offs, increased corruption and inflation. Best to look for a good cup of coffee to discuss and ponder all these developments. I scoured the dining/cafe scene (note: Bhutan is not known for its variety of cuisine) and discovered a great coffee shop for snacks, ambience and socialising – aptly named Cafe Ambient – located on Norzin Lam, the main street. The owner said to me: “the world comes to us”.  And she was spot on!  Foreign workers, tourists and Bhutanese, they all drop in. In Thimphu there seemed to be no better place to read up on all those economical developments. But I also enjoyed a cuppa at the excellent (albeit a little out-of-the-way) Palden Roastery  on Phendy Lam, run by a lovely Bhutanese/Korean couple with big plans to open a Korean restaurant. I reckon that would be a wonderful addition to the choices currently available.

As far as hotels go, although tour operators tend to include them as part of the overall package offered, you may want to consider making a request of your own.  If so, I recommend the following: the upmarket Taj Tashi; the Amankora Resort (although perhaps a tad steep for most pockets) and the central Druk Hotel right on the Clock Tower Square with pretty rooms recently renovated. Returning to matters of the stomach, I did find one spot where my appetite was well-satisfied:  the Seasons Pizzeria on Phenday Lam, which offers decent Pasta and Pizza. Since my last visit, the number of shopping outlets has increased, especially with the addition of western style supermarkets such as 8 Eleven on Chorten Lam and My Mart in the new City Mall in Chubachu. My Mart also offers a cafeteria and an upstairs Pizzeria aptly named “Upstairs”.

Karma and I shared lots of laughs during our travels together. One fine day we drove west and visited the extra-ordinary Haa Valley with amazing views and a monastery devoted to the Buddha of Longevity. The Haa Valley is a new addition to the Bhutanese tourist circuit; it only opened up to travellers in 2002  and therefore offers few amenities. To eat a decent meal we had to proceed to Paro. En route we drove up to the Chelela Pass (almost 4000 m high) and marveled at the view of Jumolhari, one of the highest mountains of Bhutan. We made new friends among the female yaks (warning: with the male species,one must be more careful – they could attack).

Another wondrous excursion brought me to Tango Monastery, which is located 14 km  to the north of Thimphu near Cheri Mountain and involves a bit of a hike. Tango is a center for Buddhist studies as well as the home of a very-young-body-with-an-old-soul, re-incarnated lama:  His Holiness Gyalse Tenzin Rabgye. It was an honour to spend a few moments alone with him in his prayer hall and receive a great blessing with his magic dagger.

Driving back to Thimphu Karma insisted on showing me the astrology school, but a better option was to finally witness a Sunday archery game and to receive a rousing cheer when I attempted to join in the fun.

One of the main purposes of this trip was to explore the East of Bhutan; I had already seen Tiger’s Nest, Punakha and Phuentsholing during my first trip. My final week was spent sitting many hours in the car heading to Samdrup Jongkhar, the Bhutanese border town with Assam/India. We travelled on the East – West highway, often referred to as the Lateral Road. At 20-30 km per hour and with time for overnight stops and sightseeing the drive typically takes 4 days. For the most part  we drove on curvy and often dirt roads (some of them positioned over high passes) which didn’t seem to be a problem at all for our very competent driver Gyembo.

As we left Thimphu we had to forgo the finer (and foreign) food and cappucinos as the ambience took on a very rural tone. The reward was that with the clear November skies we enjoyed amazing views of the Bhutanese and Chinese Himalayas range and further East the high peaks of Arunachal Pradesh, a northeastern Indian state.

Our first stop was Trongsa (2100m) in central Bhutan and the comfortable Yangkhil Resort. The famous Trongsa Tzong (Chokhor Raptentse, built in 1644) is the ancestral home of the Wangchuk Royal Family. This tzong is actually quite special in so far as it controlled east-west trade for many centuries. How? Well, the only road between West and East Bhutan passed right through the tzong’s courtyard.and if the ruler decided to shut the gate,  the country became divided into two parts. Such power! In the surrounding hills, we visited a watch tower which, in former days, used to keep the area safe from enemies and now serves as a museum.

Between Trongsa and Trashigang in eastern Bhutan we passed great rural views, valleys filled with spirit stories (Bhutanese are indeed superstitious), forests, rural land with hazelnut and other plantations, the picturesque valleys of Bumthang with monasteries and interesting wall paintings (phallic symbols depicted here). There is an interesting story behind these phallus murals, and seeing them again so colourful in Bumthang  brings back memories of my first visit in the land. During my brief stay at  the fertility temple in Punakha I learned that this Chimi Lhakhang is dedicated to Drukpa Kunley, a tantric Buddhist saint known for his rather unconventional approach to religion via sexual acts which were supposed to bring special blessings. He himself took that quite seriously and my guide had told me then that it is rumored that he shared this particular path to enlightenment with more than 5000 women. No wonder then, that the temple is now a pilgrimage site for fertility requests. However, phallus symbols on Bhutanese houses also stand for seeking harmony in families.

Back to the present trip and the tzong of Mongar where we witnessed a pre-festival dancing ritual .Another highlight was Trashigang (1070 m elevation), situated on the east side of the valley above the Drangme Chhu  River just south of where it joins the Gamri River. Spectacular views were on display. The town exudes a certain charm, as well, but a true beauty is the little intimate tzong. Trashigang is often promoted as the Jewel of the East. However, accommodations and food didn’t look too appealing to me in town, but we were very fortunate to spot, a few km onwards, a new and very classy resort which had just opened its doors: the incredible Lingkhar Lodge and what a find for rooms and service.

One more pass road and it was all down hill from there – and suddenly the clean mountain air was mixing with a strip pf grey pollution in the huge valley beyond the almighty Brahmaputra in Assam. India was on our door step and it felt like we were about to be ripped out of our paradise and its trustworthy people. Following one last night in Samdrup Jongkhar, I was saddened with the thought of leaving, although this time it came with assurances from my new friends and my own conviction that I would be  back.  I can hardly wait for that dessert course!

Afterthought…

As I am now digesting the lessons I learned so far from my time spent in that country, I am pondering the question: is Bhutan a Shangri-la? A few years ago, National Geographic posted a documentary depicting Bhutan as the world’s last Shangri La. It was largely based on the country’s incredible display of nature in such forms as alpine highlands, glacial walls and misty forests. It portrayed Bhutan as a “Living Eden where respect for life, in all its incarnations, endures like the land itself……”

Discerning western tourists, who shell out a set tariff (250 to 290 US Dollars per night), are drawn to Bhutan’s compelling brand of parochialism. So, naturally, they fear that if the pace of “progress” accelerates, what has attracted them could inevitably be jeopardised. Some perhaps have already had their fill of greed, stress, western-brand competition, etc. so they trek to Bhutan just to revel in the country’s amazing nature, spiritual foundation and the admirable culture of its people. Sometimes they idolise Bhutan and merely take with them what they want to take. Sadly, few have the opportunity to substantively study Bhutan.

In 2012 Reuters conducted a study which states that whilst Bhutan charms, it is not a Shangri La. How did Reuters draw that conclusion? Well, Reuters found the economy struggling, with shanty towns emerging in urban centers, packs of wild dogs roaming freely and beggars loitering on street corners. Reuters added that ”Bhutan spends far more on imports than it earns, banks are cracking down on cheap credit after a recent debt-driven spending boom, and youth employment has surged to more than 10 percent as teenagers abandon farming for urban life.”

Should any of this come as a surprise?  I suggest not, since many countries today are burdened by the combination of excessive debt, economic uncertainty and the pains/evils associated with fast-paced development. In any event, during my recent stay in the country, I sought the views of Bhutanese – on the question: Is Bhutan the last Shangri La? – and the consensus seems to be that western Bhutan and Thimphu are no Shangri La. Too many people have money and wealth on their minds. And problems with alcohol and corruption are burgeoning.

Yet still, I found that eastern Bhutan with its truly unspoiled valleys is in a certain way a Shangri La exemplified by rural ambience, as well as a very settling sense of remoteness, raw beauty and country spirit. For hours, sometimes a whole day, virtually no one else is on the road; just thick forests accompany the journey. There are few signs of westernisation or excessive consumption in those villages and towns; instead, prayer flags, colourful monasteries and the occasional friendly rural inhabitant add tremendous value to whatever time can be spent there.

Of course, touring for a few days in a way shields me from getting into the nitty gritty such as understanding that Bhutanese farmers and rural folk , especially the subsistence farmers, often depend on their family members working in urban areas. Thus, above noted drop in economic prospects does have a significant effect in the villages as well. But overall I can truly report that  there is no other place like East Bhutan. Bhutan  may have some problems – like every other nation – but in my opinion, one can definitely experience some aspects of a Shangri La if you spend enough time, tour as much of the region as possible and last but not least plan thoroughly in advance to enhance the odds of making your  travel dream come true. Keep in mind that the Shangri La of James Houston’s 1933 epic, Lost Horizon, was fictional  (and Sikkim as well as the Hunza of northern Pakistan also lay claim to this  title) – much of what Bhutan still has to offer, especially in regard to nature and culture, is the real deal!

Before I conclude here, I must not forget that another major goal of my journey to Bhutan called for a more in-depth examination of the Kingdom’s unique metric known as the Gross National Happiness (“GNH”) Index.  I could think of no one better to explain it than the Secretary in charge, Dasho Karma Tshiteem. Fortunately, I scored an invitation for that purpose (plus tea and biscuits) and trekked to the Tashichho Tzong, the seat of Bhutan’s government, where Dasho Karma graciously took time from his busy schedule to meet with me.

As noted in the Facts section of this site, most visitors become aware of the index’s four pillars: Sustainable Development, Preservation and Promotion of Culture, Conservation of Environment and Good Governance.  But I soon discovered over several cups of tea that there is more involved with its compilation, as well as nuances associated with designing appropriate tools needed to isolate and consistently measure the relative benefit of each. The over arching goal, of course, is to balance body and mind, ideally achieved by practicing disciplines aimed at creating happy lives. Keeping all that in mind, initiatives are then implemented based on attendant policies and programs established as part of 5 year plans.

I was most interested hearing about the tools employed to measure success of this metric. I discovered that the Kingdom’s original tools of measurement were put into motion during 1999 and enhanced during 2006 with key indicators, largely determined by the Center for Bhutanese Studies as it flushed out answers to hundreds of questions spread over various categories such as conventions, living standards, economy, health, education, ecological diversity, good governance, psychological well-being, culture and community, plus (as Dasho Karma particularly stressed) use of time. By this point fascinated, I was keen to understand more about some of these factors and didn’t have to wait long for Dasho’s explanations. For example: how would psychological well-being be enhanced in Bhutan? The answer came quickly: through mandatory meditation exercises in schools designed to familiarise students with the stillness and resulting clarity that focused meditation is said to achieve. Marvellous, isn’t it?

Further, I wanted to learn about “Sustainable Development” which Dasho described more clearly as promoting equitable and socio-economic development, in simpler terms:  managing the gaps between the rich and poor, the urban and the remote. What about Culture? The  aim is for Hollywood and Bollywood not to sweep away the perhaps fragile culture of a small population,  but rather preserve it by instilling a consistency of identity throughout local architecture and dress, whilst also developing tolerance for diversity. Indeed, it is this unique culture that attracts many to journey to Bhutan.

The next issue discussed was “Community”.  In that case, I was enlightened as to the processes employed: understanding humans as social beings, fostering deep and meaningful relationships (especially sound family connections) in the form of fine tuning urban planning and and assisting in community building by sponsoring festivals and programs for social integration. Then came the topic of time use, which Dasho believes can  be introduced by government policies aimed at fostering best practices directed toward ways for people to “work smart”. He considers the public sector as being in a prime position to set examples, such as structuring work hours from 9-5 and avoiding unnecessary meetings which could sometimes be a “waste of time”.

The pillar of “Conservation” was easily explained and something I saw with my own eyes during my travels in Bhutan. No doubt, the nation is doing well here. 70% of its land is forest, subject to and protected by strict protection and management orders. For example, trees must not be cut down for roofing ; rather  alternatives are introduced. To protect towns and villages from glacial lake floods, water management plans are put into place and catchment areas are created. Work with the incredible nature – that is always the motto!  Thus, increased organic farming is introduced: red rice, natural medicine such as Cordyceps, Matsutake and Ginseng. Bhutan adheres to a policy of responsible tourism with aims to increase access to eco-tourism.

Good governance – how has that been achieved? Well, the constitutional reforms assisted in that. Power was given to the people; a National Assembly (Lower House) and National Council (Upper House) were created. Both are elected except 5 positions in the Upper House. The Fourth and Fifth King of Bhutan are often described as thoughtful and modest men. There are no royal private jets here!

I learned that happy lives in Bhutan come about through establishing values (which perhaps don’t change easily), transmitting those values between generations, but also not to ignore meaningful development of a good society. Thus, Bhutanese must not lose sight of their parents, parental behaviour and guidance. Each person in his journey of life in Bhutan must find a happy medium between the knowledge and advice of the elders and his or her own vision of the future. Within this quest everybody would feel supported and has a place and it is hoped that false life choices could be avoided.

Wise words of Dasho….My oh my, was that one of the best teas I had and I gained valuable insights into Bhutan’s idea of Gross National Happiness, which is also one of the factors  inspiring tourists to come and visit.  I bet you, the reader, will join me in wishing Bhutan all the best on its journey towards accomplishment of this unique metric. .

This conversation marked the end of my magnificient journey through a very special Himalayan Kingdom. Sadness and also joy and gratitude are in my heart. Auf Wiedersehen, Bhutan, until next time!