Bhutan: the price of paradise

Weekend Read: the tiny Himalayan country, which long ago decided to limit tourism, has decided it’s time to welcome more visitors. Will this pristine kingdom change forever?

 

I don’t know who wrote the signs along the road that goes from Bhutan’s international airport, at Paro, to Thimphu, the tiny capital, but like almost everything in this remote Himalayan kingdom they are distinctly memorable.

“Don’t be a gama in the land of lama,” the most original one instructs. Translation: Don’t drive crazily in the land of Buddha. Other road-safety rhyming couplets include “Drive slow to avoid grave below,” “Faster spells disaster” and “On the bend go slow friend.”

Paro Airport has one big and thoroughly stirring arrival route – through the Himalayas, with bonus views of Everest – one small airstrip in a breathtakingly gorgeous valley, and one small baggage carousel.

The population of Bhutan is about 700,000, and the best road is that between the airport and Thimphu, 50km away. It’s one of very few that is surfaced and the only one that appears to have clearly designated lanes. Hence the road signs, which are there to warn locals to slow down on a near-irresistible stretch of fast going in a country where elsewhere it takes hours to travel a few score kilometres.

My driver, Tschering Wangchuk, who is meticulous everywhere else he drives over the next 10 days of my time in Bhutan, speeds along the tarmacked surface to Thimphu that first day with undisguised glee. He is briefly being a gama in the land of lama, and no signs are going to deter him from a rare opportunity to nudge the speedometer upwards.

High value, low volume

I have a driver and a guide because that’s the rule for international tourists. This has been the policy since 1974, when Bhutan first opened to foreign tourists with a “high value, low volume” ethos. It was probably the only country actively seeking low numbers of visitors, albeit high-spending ones.

Its visas are inexpensive, and Bhutan does not limit the number it issues, but it does impose a daily tariff. This fixes the cost of travel for international tourists and so keeps visitor numbers low.

In high season the tariff is $250 (€230) a day and in low season $200 (€185), with supplements for travelling with fewer than two other visitors. The tariff covers your guide, driver, accommodation and meals.

In 1974, 287 tourists visited. By 2008 that number had risen to 27,000 international tourists and 12,000 regional ones (which is to say people from India, Bangladesh and the Maldives, who do not have to pay the daily tariff) .

On any scale, those figures are minuscule. In 2014 Ireland received 7.3 million tourists, a figure the industry is continuously trying to increase. Attracting more tourists has long been seen as good for an economy, including our own, but Bhutan has always aimed for something radically different.

The Bhutan I arrive in in December is not very different from what those first tourists in 1974 would have experienced. True, wifi is almost everywhere, but the distinctive square houses are still built in the traditional way, and there are no advertisements, international franchises or western clothing chains to be seen. Many people still wear national dress, some of it woven by hand, and the landscape remains pristine. There is no McDonald’s, Starbucks, KFC or Subway.

Bhutan has a royal family, and the monarch, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, is called the dragon king. The kingdom is known as the Land of the Thunder Dragon or, sometimes, after the Tibetan paradise in James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon, as the Last Shangri-La.

The royal family is revered and respected, if singular. The fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who ruled between 1972 and 2006, has four wives, all sisters, whom he married on the same day. I see the four sisters’ beautiful hand-woven wedding kiras in the textile museum in Thimphu.

Also on display there is a “raven crown”. The raven is the national bird, and a startlingly realistic raven’s head is embroidered into every king’s crown. The one at the museum is the original crown, conceived more as a “magical battle helmet than a symbol of royalty”, according to the text beside it, in a line that could have come straight from one of the Grimms’ fairy tales.

The fifth king says that Jetsun Pema, whom he married in 2011, when he was 31 and his bride was 21, will be his only wife.

Their striking wedding photograph, showing them in yellow traditional royal dress, seems to be on the wall of every public space, with blown-up versions near many temples and in many town centres. Last November they announced that their first child, a son, will be born in February – and Bhutan rejoiced for a day and a night.

Zebra crossings

The only daily publication in Bhutan is Kuensel, an English-language paper of between eight and 12 pages. One day in December it carries a press release from the Royal Bhutan Police about the recently introduced zebra crossings in Thimphu – reputed to be the only capital city without traffic lights.

The press release explains how pedestrians and motorists should behave at the zebra crossings: pedestrians have been lingering on their phones at some crossings, and motorists have failed to stop at others. “We feel saddened to hear about such inconveniences,” it says, “but it is apparently happening because this is a new initiative. As time passes by, we expect people to be more aware about how to cross the Zebra Crossing.” I cannot think of another capital city where such instructions would be needed in a national paper.

After its four-decade experiment in moderating the number of tourists visiting the country, Bhutan is undergoing a change that some fear may result in more tourism and damage the country’s so-far-unspoilt culture.

In 2006 the fourth king, who had initiated the “high value, low volume” tourism policy, abdicated in favour of his eldest son and declared that he wanted Bhutan to make the transition from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy with a multiparty democracy. This was a highly unusual step in the absence of public pressure, lobbying or unrest, and one for which he was much admired.

Bhutan held its first general election in 2008. Since then the monarchy has had an essentially symbolic role. Also since then there has been much discussion within the government about developing tourism. In 2009 the “high value, low volume” policy was changed to “high value, low impact”. The government now has a target for attracting international tourists – it hopes to see 100,000 a year.

By 2014 the number had reached 65,480. It’s still a low figure, but it had more than doubled in only six years. The question nobody can answer is: how much will Bhutan change as a result of developing its tourism industry?

During my stay the word that comes to my mind every day is “pristine”. There is no other word to describe a country whose natural landscape has been so carefully conserved and is so consistently beautiful.

Tourist trail

Bhutan is like most countries in having specific destinations on its so-called tourist trail. Here they include the impossibly photogenic Tiger’s Nest or Taktsang Palphug monastery, the country’s most sacred site, which is built into the side of a mountain that tourists and monks hike to daily from Paro.

But Bhutan is different in that the entire country is a destination in itself. The built and natural environments remain so astonishingly unspoiled by development that pretty much anywhere in the country will reward you equally.

Bhutan’s heritage is also unspoiled. For example, many people still wear national dress every day. Men wear a gho, which is a kind of woollen belted kimono; women wear a kira, a long wrap-around skirt, with a short jacket; and many children wear miniature versions. Paro and Thimphu have almost as many little fabric shops selling the makings of ghos and kiras as they have shops selling hand weavings and prayer wheels to tourists.

Dawa Penjor is the director of Bhutan Media Foundation, and, like many others, he wears national dress. “For a small country like us, identity is very important, and our national dress is part of that identity,” he says. “Our identity is our weapon. We don’t have an army.”

Penjor doesn’t say so, but Bhutan doesn’t have an army because it would be all but pointless. A population of 700,000 is never going to be a credible threat to its neighbours, such as India, with its 1.3 billion people, or China, with its 1.4 billion. This makes it all the more impressive that a country that is about half the size of Ireland has never been colonised.

India is the behemoth at Bhutan’s southern border, supplying it with such necessities as cars, lorries, food – the Bhutanese eat meat but do not kill the animals themselves – road-widening equipment and pretty much everything else that is needed to keep the country running. As the father of a guest-house owner in Jakar tells me one evening, “We are dependent on India for everything from a pin to an elephant.”

In return Bhutan supplies India with much-needed hydro electricity, gives its citizens free access to the country, and pegs its currency, the ngultrum, to the rupee. The currencies are interchangeable here; sometimes I am given change in rupees.

Native forest

At COP21, the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris last month, it was revealed that its tree cover means Bhutan absorbs more than three times as much carbon dioxide as its population produces. More than 70 per cent of Bhutan remains under native forest – although it looks more like 90 per cent. Driving for days through the most pristine – that word again – of forests is an experience I’m unlikely to have again.

All those deep, dense forests again bring fairy tales to mind. Trees wash across the mountains and valleys like the waves of a green ocean. Depending on the elevation, there are forests of fir, pine, spruce, cedar, cypress, magnolia, oak and laurel. The trees shelter countless species of wildlife, among them the rare snow leopard, common leopards, tigers, yaks, blue sheep, wolves, Himalayan black bears, red pandas and 770 types of bird. The forests of Bhutan are one of the last remaining great areas of biodiversity, and surely deserving of World Heritage status.

The lack of pollution results in crystalline air that gives you the impression of having preternaturally good eyesight, as you can see across vast distances as if you were a kind of human hawk. Lichen, which usually grows elsewhere as a thin fuzz around branches, is an indication of clean air; here, hanks of it hang from every tree at altitude, like unspun skeins of wool.

Then there are the festivals, the temples and the monasteries that permeate every part of Bhutan’s Buddhist life and culture. Prayer flags fly over bridges and between trees. Clusters of white prayer flags, in memory of the dead, stand like herded ghosts on mountainsides. Wherever there is water there will be a tiny building housing a water-powered prayer wheel, which tings every 15 seconds or so. Each monastery or temple is revered for a different reason. Every town of size has a dzong, a complex of buildings housing both a monastery and local government buildings: Buddhism is stitched into every part of life.

Evil spirits

On one of our days in the Ura Valley we drive to the village of Somrang, because my guide has a tip-off that they are holding a tsechu, or annual festival. Festivals in Bhutan, which are big community occasions, are always held for spiritual reasons. This one, I am told, is to drive evil spirits from the village.

I have no idea what to expect and do not understand most of what I see that afternoon, but I am watching something extraordinary. A man in a fearsome black wooden mask and a tattered cloak goes through the village, ringing a bell to signal that the tsechu is about to start in the temple. I stand in a corner as 50 or so people come in, including many children, who sit on the floor. Offerings are made. Monks chant, sing and play long Tibetan horns and the upright drums associated with Buddhist rituals. Before now I have seen them only in museums.

Successions of dancers in masks and wildly colourful costumes whirl like dervishes between the chanting. It is both exhilarating and impenetrable, but I am happy to glimpse a famed part of Bhutanese culture. The chanting and dancing continue at intervals for two more days.

Then there is Bhutan’s philosophy of a gross national happiness index, a concept that the innovative fourth king was behind. According to an explanatory board at the National Museum of Bhutan, in Paro, the philosophy attempts to harmonise economic progress with the spiritual and emotional wellbeing of the people of Bhutan. “The government has implemented the Gross National Happiness policies through strict adherence to equitable and sustainable socio-economic development, preservation and promotion of culture, conservation of environment, and promotion of good governance.”

A sceptical westerner might say that coming up with such an index is a brilliant way to market and brand a country without spending a cent. It is like a dream advertising campaign: who would not want to visit a country that promises happiness?

This is what I thought before visiting the country. I was wrong. The Bhutanese take the index very seriously. It has nothing to do with tourism.

Dawa Penjor says, “It’s not about trying to sell happiness to people who come to visit Bhutan. It’s about us in Bhutan as a people trying to say that our end goal is wellbeing. We are following a path that will provide a certain kind of contentment. It is a very good philosophy.”

I spend most of my time in Bhutan with my guide and driver, Tashi Tschering and Tschering Wangchuk. I ask them what they think of gross national happiness. They each think carefully about their answers. Finally Wangchuk says “We should be happy with what we have and not desire for more.”

Tschering says, “Gross national happiness is about thinking about other people and not about ourselves,” and he cites as an example the monarchy’s promise to retain 60 per cent of Bhutan’s forest cover in perpetuity. “The king wants to conserve our culture, our traditions and our forests for the greater happiness of everyone.”

That happiness comes across, among many other ways, in the keen sense of humour of the stickers in many cars’ back windows.

“After whisky, driving risky,” reads one.

“Love is like a Chinese mobile – not guaranteed,” goes another.

“If you are married, divorce speed.”

Wangchuk, the driver, laughs at that. “So if you are not married you can drive as fast as you like!”

National sport

Archery is Bhutan’s national sport, and each of its 20 districts has a team. They regularly hold competitions, with finals in Thimphu. The prizes are televisions, mobile phones or fridges. Competitions can go on for days, and every archery ground I see around the country is being used.

I spend part of an afternoon watching a competition in Thimphu. The 11 archers in each team use simple bows and arrows, aiming for a target, 140m away, that I can barely see, let alone make out the markings on. Although I am standing alongside the archers I cannot see arrows’ trajectory from bow to board, as they travel so fast.

After a while I sit halfway down the field and stare straight ahead until, finally, I glimpse the bamboo slivers passing by, high in the air, shooting past like furious little comets.

Despite the astonishing distance, a number of archers hit the target. Every time this happens their team-mates at the opposite end of the field do a shuffling victory dance in front of the board – a kind of Himalayan haka. Bhutanese archery is a mesmerising, almost medieval-looking sport to watch against the backdrop of dramatic mountains.

But although Bhutan is almost ridiculously picturesque it is not a museum, a film set nor a country whose culture or people are fossilised.

My guide, Tashi Tschering, for instance, wears national dress, believes in evil spirits, danced and celebrated in the streets of Paro all night when the impending royal birth was announced, and throughout our time together sucks for hours on rock-hard, machete-cut chunks of smoked yak cheese to try to stop his nicotine pangs now that he has given up cigarettes. He also wears Ray-Bans, carries an iPhone and studied commerce at Chandigarh University, in India.

I ask at one point if he knows anything about Ireland. He admits that he does not.

“U2?” I say.

“You too?” he repeats, puzzled. “You too what?”

“A rock band,” I explain, adding, “Bono?”

He shakes his head.

It seems there are still some places where the band remain unknown – although if you asked most Irish people what they know about Bhutan they would probably shake their heads too.

Undercutting prices

Bhutan has more than 1,700 tour operators – anyone can set themselves up as a tour company. For international tourists the daily tariff is the same no matter which company you choose. On the other side of this transaction, however, it is different.

A story in Kuensel last month referred to the practice of undercutting. Everyone involved in tourism here is meant to get a share of business. But several of the biggest tour companies have built their own hotels; by booking customers into this company-owned accommodation they profit more from each tourist’s daily tariff. And as the companies no longer need to buy accommodation from smaller businesses, these traditional, family-run hotels and guest houses struggle for business even though more tourists than ever are visiting the country.

Until 18 months ago Phobjikha Valley had just one hotel. There are now five, with a sixth large hotel – being built by the tour company I booked with, my guide tells me – under construction. Commercialism is now firmly entwined with tourism in Bhutan.

Dawa Penjor favours retaining the daily tariff to help protect Bhutan’s unique culture from mass tourism. “The media is the most important thing in Bhutan right now,” he says. The kingdom has fewer than 200 journalists, most of them at one of its five radio stations. There are 11 newspapers, but all except Kuensel are weekly and contain little hard news.

As Penjor points out, it’s a potentially exciting and challenging new era for the media in Bhutan. In the past the decisions of the absolute monarchy went unquestioned. Now that the country is a democracy it has an opportunity to step back from its traditional respect for authority and to question ordinary fellow citizens – which is to say elected members of government – about important decisions such as the planned development of tourism.

Are any of the government, for instance, associated with hotels, guest houses or any of the 1,700 tour companies? This would be an obvious conflict of interest, and an association that would clearly profit by the presence of more tourists. If there are links, that important story remains to be written in Bhutan, where investigative journalism does not yet exist.

What is evident is how successful Bhutan has been in its brave experiment to control its tourist numbers: the country remains unspoiled. Its unique culture is intact and authentic: a rare combination in a world of globalisation. Long may it remain so.

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