Asian Brigadoon

(Greg/Dana) “You’re not bringing the kids there, are you?” our great friend Ruth Sherman asked as she gently warned us about Bhutan when we discussed our draft itinerary with her a few years ago. She had been here but even her first hand experience and soft admonition did not deter us from our plan.

Now, after 23 days moving across this isolated Kingdom, we see the reasoning behind her warning. Bhutan is tough. It can be cold, windy, uncomfortable and treacherously difficult to move around in. The country only measures about 300 km across east to west but it has taken us all of the last three weeks to cover that distance. The roads are rough, steep and slow, carved out of rock and going in places only specially hoofed animals are meant to go. Bhutan is all mountains and boasts the largest number of hairpin switchbacks and spine-tingling sheer drops anywhere we have seen. Looking out the window can make even the calmest of ex-mountaineers shudder.

Maybe these roads are steep and rough and unwelcoming because they are the only roads in the world that can actually take you back in time. Bhutan is a time warp. Bhutanese claim the country wasn’t even on maps 50 years ago. It is a place that is shrouded and protected by the Himalayas and has never been forced to move its people or its culture out of their traditions. It is an Asian Brigadoon.

It is as it was 500 years ago: subsistence farms, multi-generational living, traditional dress and music, strong religion, limited transportation, distinct area dialects and a general satisfaction with life. Bhutan is a subtle but quirky place to visit as these centuries-old traditions come face-to-face with the modern overlays of electricity, tourism and world politics. We loved exploring the country, but the challenges are easy to recognize:

  • Development only began in 1968 when the first drivable road, the post office and the telephone network were built. Television, cell phones and the internet arrived in 2000. The first tourists appeared in 1985 with only 26,000 per year visiting now. The population of 700,000 is spread out in this mountainous country with < 15% in the big three cities (Timphu 80k, Paro 8k and Bumthang 6k). The result is a country least touched by the West that we have yet seen.
  • Dzongka is the national language although much of the country still speaks their local dialect. Classes in school are taught entirely in English with Dzongka taught like a foreign language to many. Similar to Tibetan, Dzongka traditionally is the language of the monks, so it lacks words for modern items. For example, “computer” is “knowledge from electricity” and “radio” is “wind box.” No wonder English words are sprinkled liberally in conversation.
  • Despite its long history, Bhutan has only had 5 kings beginning in 1907. In the 1970’s, the fourth king proactively created a constitutional monarchy and abolished large land holdings (no one can hold more than 30 acres), so even poor people own land, enabling subsistence farming. The same progressive monarch abdicated in 2004 so his son could continue the path of progress while also ceding more power to the elected parliament. The government has extremely tight control on education and health care (both free), development and infrastructure, and the overalll economy. In some ways, this engenders the feel of a planned-economy. Even the construction of houses is tightly regulated to ensure the Bhutanese look!
  • As with many historically-rural countries, Bhutan is facing urban migration challenges. The younger generation is leaving the small, family farms for the lure of the “cities.” They assume there are jobs in the cities but there are not. School leaders see post-graduation employment as their biggest challenge. The government is trying to find economic or political incentives to keep the next generation in their ancestral villages.
  • Sandwiched between the two largest (and arguably most corrupt) countries — China and India — Bhutan is a strategic buffer country. One of the king’s public service posters warns Bhutense that there is no moral tolerance for corruption; fortunately Bhutan has avoided it so far as the small population provides little anonymity for crime. Given their distrust of China, India has invested heavily in Bhtuan, building the Paro airport as well as many of the roads. India is also the largest consumer of Bhutanese agricultural crops. In the north, China has already annexed 6 of Bhutan’s highest mountains…just taken them…presumably for water sources.
  • Buddhism is the national religion and remains a strong influence in people’s lives. Monasteries dot the hillsides beside fluttering prayer flags. Families often send at least one son to be housed and educated in the government-funded monasteries. To us, the compounds have a Peter Pan, Neverland-feel…boys taking care of each other, doing laundry and sometimes goofing around in the prayer halls. Monks are hired to perform pujas (ceremonies) at important events in people’s home alter rooms.
  • Bhutan is still a very superstitious country. For example, some people do not chop down tall trees because they believe that spirits still inhabit the trees. This works well for the government who is trying hard to maintain the forests at 73% of total land.
  • Tourism is the #2 revenue source behind hydroelectric power. Ironically, the visitors coming to appreciate the culture and traditions are also bringing western influences and changing the economy. We snap photos of local people in ghos and kiras/tegos before they change into jeans after work or school.
  • Unlike almost every other culture we have experienced, women inherit the family’s property. Farms are passed down to the oldest daughter (who then cares for the parents), houses are built for the other daughters and the sons are married off to other villages. Of course, modern laws dictate fair inheritance, but social traditions are not yet letting go.
  • The kings have coined the term Gross National Happiness to ensure that the country focuses on other measurements than just economic expansion. Conservation of culture, the environment, distribution of wealth and religion are as important measures as the almighty ngultrum.

Dana and Rinzin by the stove

When we set out to explore lands that might not be the same in 20 years, we had no idea that Bhutan would be our strongest example. Difficult to travel, Bhutan is definitely more for exploring than touring. We are incredibly curious to see how this country will evolve with the inevitable influx of western culture and influence. As one host explained, “we are a small monarchy, so change is very easy.” That can go both ways.

Twitter Digg Delicious Stumbleupon Technorati Facebook

One Response to “Asian Brigadoon”

  1. Interesting — I wonder if happiness and satisfaction through traditional living can be maintained in a shrinking world increasingly desperate for resources. Annexed mountains today … what tomorrow?

    Also: “almighty ngultrum” — ha!