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A Place Called Bhutan

How does the country of Bhutan reconcile traditional and religious beliefs with more modern influences?

April 17, 2006

How does the country of Bhutan reconcile traditional and religious beliefs with more modern influences?

An Aussie acquaintance contacted us eager to fill the last two slots of a group traveling to Bhutan. She is an honorary consul to Bhutan, with a long history of friendship and travel there.

She had put together this trip by teaming up her sister’s well established Australian-based foreign travel agency with a new Bhutanese travel agency whose young principals she was eager to help along.

In case you are wondering where Bhutan is located, this Himalayan kingdom is sandwiched below China, to the east of Nepal — and above India. Like Switzerland, it is a small pastoral mountainous country that likes to think of itself as neutral, independent.

Bhutan is comparable to Switzerland in size, much less populated, with even higher elevations — and is rather more exotic. It is about 47,000 square kilometers to Switzerland’s 41,000.

While the Swiss may have a population of seven million or so, Bhutan is nearly empty at about a tenth of that. Switzerland’s highest peak rises to perhaps 4,478 meters, while Bhutan’s soars to about 7,300 meters.

Where in Switzerland, you might only see an open vista at every mountain pass. In more exotic Bhutan, the same mountain view is likely to be dominated by the ubiquitous Buddhist temple fortress or dzong and a multitude of prayer flags.

Bhutan is largely pastoral and agrarian, yet hydroelectric power is one of Bhutan’s largest exports, mostly to the high-demand Indian market.

Could Bhutan be the remote, timeless escape we had been hoping for? In some ways, our trip indeed was something akin to 'Welcome to Bhutan — Please Turn Your Clocks Back 200 Years'.

As we hiked through western Bhutan, we felt that we had returned to a kinder, gentler age. During our hikes and at camp, our Bhutanese guides exhibited unfailing kindness and courtly manners of a bygone age.

Strolling along in the countryside, it was easy to get the impression that people had been living unchanged in this pastoral landscape for generations — farming red rice, herding animals, wearing traditional dress, eating the same foods from the same baskets and cups handed down through the ages.

And yet, at moments people seemed so modern. Between calls on their cell phones, our guides discussed with us all the latest best-selling books, the classics, the Internet, the state of the world, the past — and the future of their country.

Under the auspices of our consul, we were able to sample the extremes of Bhutanese society. On many days, we walked in boot-sucking mud and with donkey dung up to our ankles, paired with rows of leech bites around out boot tops — and took lunch in the fields or the homes of farmers.

On other days, we had to clean up and dress up to meet high government officials. One evening, our group was entertained in a modest 'palace' of one of the four Bhutanese Queens by the kingdom’s Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister and the Minister of Education.

There were the usual stiff formalities. The Prime Minister welcomed 'Australian and American friends'. Soon enough, my husband and I had our brief audience with him.

Given how the U.S. government has been acting on the international stage, I said to him that I was pleasantly surprised to hear him mention 'American' and 'friends' in the same sentence. He smiled warmly.

He and his colleagues proved to be well-educated, well-traveled, cosmopolitan, gregarious — and the most down-to-earth high government officials we ever met in any of dozens of countries we have visited, not to mention at home in Washington.

Not surprisingly, he and the other officials exhibited the same gentle and flawless manners, the humble traditional dress, the curiosity and the kindness as our guides and the several farm families whose homes we had visited.

Another time, another of their colleagues, the Agriculture Minister, welcomed our group to his home. He is the brother of the four sisters, all of whom wed the King and are now the four Queens. These ministers were a self-effacing bunch.

Even the Agricultural Minister could laugh at the oft-told joke about his four queenly sisters — he has 'the ear of the King, ear of the King, ear of the King, ear of the King', which was repeated this night for our benefit by our friend, the Australian consul.

In a world torn by religious strife, it was so refreshing to visit a place where religion is so much discussed, so manifest in daily life, yet so seemingly tolerant of beliefs of others — and even joyful in encountering others.

One day we had climbed a few thousand vertical feet to the sacred Taktsang or Tiger’s Nest temple, which for centuries has clung to a cliff side. On the descent, I stopped at a place with a view of the Nest and the valley — and pulled out my flute.

I played a couple of mystical sounding Japanese pieces. A group of monks descending from the temple stopped to listen. When I finished, they began a chant for us. There were smiles all around at this timeless musical exchange that required no common language.

While Buddhist values seemed to play such a prominent role in daily life, Bhutan's variant of Buddhism, perhaps softened by leavening with the indigenous culture, seemed to be of a more relaxed variety than we were familiar with from our time in Thailand.

Imagine our surprise when we saw a young monk wearing tennis shoes in the inner sanctum of the holy of holies, Tiger’s Nest, where all others present had reverently removed their footwear.

Similarly, imagine our further surprise when a very senior rinpoche, a reincarnate lama, agreed to lecture to our group at, of all places for a monk, the very new and very swank Amankora resort. And then, more surprising, our rinpoche heartily enjoyed a thick steak and red wine.

This was even more amazing when you consider the Buddhist prohibition on killing animals. Once the animal is dead, though, usually slaughtered by local Muslims, the Bhutanese seemed to have no objection to eating meat.

That, like many things in Bhutan, was a curious stew of old and new. For all the tranquil and scenic aspects of our visit, signs of change were everywhere. We saw it daily.

Hiking along in the mountains around what we had thought would be so remote, Gasa a province where it was necessary to travel with pack mules and muleteers — we felt taken aback when we saw a power line and a road going in right along our footpath. That path had been the only way in and out of this region for eons.

For those of us all too used to the comforts of just having to flick a light switch or turn on the ignition in the car, it was an eye-opening reminder of the back-breaking sweat equity required to put in this sort of infrastructure of electricity and roads in a remote region. Who did all heavy lifting?

Time after time, we saw wiry looking Indian men — more sure-footed than pack mules — carrying back-breaking 100-foot steel utility poles. They seemed to trot up the same paths we were struggling on with a mere day pack.

Where the road ended, the utility lines were dumped in huge coils, to be lugged ahead by mule train and humans. Along our way, teams of men and women were digging by hand and blasting holes for the poles. Each day, we witnessed progress — inching forward on the backs of men.

We had come to see wilderness, not progress. For now, though, it was still a visit to another time, from another world. At still remote Gasa, school children sang and danced in honor of our visit. Locals came out to watch, and to get a look at us.

A wonderfully embroidered tent seemed to have been erected to house the goings on in event of rain. At Gasa, our group was welcomed by the province’s last Walking Governor, as he is known.

His was the last province in the kingdom without roads, and so to carry out his duties, he walks constantly about the province. We presented him with a gift of walking shoes, which he very much appreciated. But soon, he won’t be walking any more.

It was clear the whole village was anticipating the coming of the road. How would all this change in the next two years — when roads, electric power and television come to Gasa?

The Bhutanese exhibit a fierce independence, but seem to be surrounded by much bigger, potentially hostile neighbors, eager to relieve them of their resources and way of life. If the neighbors don’t do it first, modernity will inevitably deprive the Bhutanese of their traditional way of life.

I personally take a dim view of the content and corrosiveness of television, as people everywhere seem to want what they see on TV. But who is to deny them what they want?

We felt we were travelers who saw perhaps the waning days of the Bhutan of centuries gone by. Anyone who can afford the $200 a day tariff just for the privilege of visiting the country ought to go right now — before the old Bhutan has slipped totally into the past.