Bhutan: The Last Authentic Place on Earth

The mystical mountain idyll has made it one of the world's most coveted destinations. But when everyone wants a piece of paradise, can paradise stay intact?

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Bharat Sikka for TIME

Paro Taktsang, known as the Tiger's Nest, is an ancient Buddhist temple perched 10,200 ft. above Bhutan's Paro Valley

So in 1974, K4 slapped a minimum tariff on visiting foreigners. Depending on the season, it’s now $200 to $250 per person per day, covering room, board and local transportation; surcharges and taxes take the minimum closer to $300. K4 introduced other laws designed to insulate Bhutanese culture from unseemly foreign influences. TV was banned; the national dress was made compulsory and the Bhutanese language, Dzongkha, obligatory. All buildings, new or old, had to conform to traditional architectural style.

To K4, cultural preservation, as well as environmental conservation, was as important as economic growth. “It was the only way to save what it means to be Bhutanese,” says Kado Tshering, who was K4’s bodyguard and now runs a travel agency. “If he hadn’t been so careful, we’d have been lost.”

Slowly, the allure of the “real Shangri-la” (damn, I did it again!) began to grow. To cater to well-heeled tourists, boutique hotels started appearing, none swanker than the Amankora, part of the Aman Resorts chain, which arrived in Bhutan in 2004. Amankora is a minichain unto itself: five lodges sprinkled around the country, each providing luxury without overt opulence. By 2008, when K4’s reforms gave Bhutan its first democratic government, the annual number of tourist arrivals had hit 28,000, up from fewer than 300 in 1974.

Low Impact, High Volume
Bhutanese democracy is the gift of a King, not the reward of a revolution. (K4 abdicated in favor of his son Jigme Khesar Namgyel, who has mostly ornamental powers; today the retired K4 goes mountain biking and steers clear of the press.) But elected rulers have different compulsions than monarchs. Their re-election prospects demand quick results, and the quickest way to deliver is to goose the economy and produce employment. There’s pressure, too, to cope with another of K4’s legacies: greatly increased access to education in the 1980s has produced a generation of university graduates who have no desire to return to their parents’ farmsteads and instead require city jobs.

For Prime Minister Thinley, the solution was obvious: open the tourist tap. Arrivals soared to almost 65,000 in 2011 and are projected to touch 100,000 this year. Thinley doesn’t worry that the spurt in foreign arrivals will endanger the King’s preservation efforts. The tariff will remain, keeping out the backpacking hordes. Instead, Thinley hopes to attract wealthy, eco-conscious travelers who will spend big bucks for environmentally friendly adventuringtrekking, bird watching, kayakingin Bhutan’s mountains, valleys and rivers. “We’re evolving from low-volume, high-value tourism to low-impact, high-value tourism,” he says.

Thinley hopes to manage the flow so that visitors arrive all year round, not just in the spring and fall, and to distribute them across the country. That hasn’t happened yet. When my wife and I flew from Delhi to Bhutan’s only international airport in midsummer, the Drukair flight was practically empty, and there were few tourists in most of the towns we visited.

“They Had Special Powers”
Not that we were complaining. The three-hour trek up the narrow, sometimes precarious path to the Paro Taktsang, the temple complex known as the Tiger’s Nest, would be much less fun if we had to keep stopping to allow more-agile tourists to pass. We share the mountain only with a family of visiting Chinese, who are even slower.

The Tiger’s Nest is named after the mythical beast that carried the Guru Rinpoche, who brought Vajrayana Buddhism to Bhutan, to the mountaintop caves. Those who don’t bring their own flying jungle cats can take a pony ride nearly to the top, but we decide that would be cheating. Our bravado is rewarded with breathtaking views splashed with color: of the green Paro Valley, onto whose black rock the Tiger’s Nest is grafted; the ocher and orange of monks’ robes; the gold leaf of the statues of the Guru Rinpoche; and the endless lines of red, white, blue and yellow prayer flags strung from rocks and trees. Afterward, our knees and ankles are in pain, but it’s nothing an herbal hot-stone bath at the Amankora can’t cure.

Many Bhutanese make this trip before they can walk, usually on their parents’ backs. They believe that the first question asked of them in the afterlife is, “Have you visited the Tiger’s Nest?” (This trek is the second thing I’ve done to ease my path in the hereafter: in Bumthang, I cleansed my sins by walking three times around the inner sanctum of the Tamshing Lhakhang temple while wearing the 50-lb. chain-link jacket of a 16th century saint.)

Bhutan’s Kings, especially K4, are regular visitors at the temple complex. Built in the 17th century, it defies both gravity and civil engineering as it juts out from the sheer rock face. The country’s pre-eminent tourist destination was once the exclusive preserve of holy men, who have been traveling here since the 8th century to meditate in the mountains. The cave walls still bear faint remnants of early paintings of figures and scenes from Buddhist texts.

As we ascend the mountain, the structure seems at first to be carved from the rock face itself. Two lookout points offer better views, and it becomes clear that the people of the valley had to haul the building materials up the steep incline to build the magnificent thing.

How did prehelicopter Bhutanese do it? I ask an old man who has been meditating at the monastery for 40 years. “They had special powers,” he says. He shakes his head when I ask his name, as if such mundane matters have no place here. He stoops forward, as if his posture has adapted to constant climbing, and his gray eyes hint at wisdom acquired from long contemplation. I ought to be asking him the meaning of life.

Instead, I summon another quotidian question. How do today’s Bhutanese, with no special powers, manage to install long strings of prayer flags between mountains, across impossible chasms? He mimes the action of an archer pulling back an arrow on his bow. Of course. A traditional technique for a timeless need. In Shangri-la, there’s no more-authentic solution.

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45 comments
RatanDas
RatanDas

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Peggy M. Goldman
Peggy M. Goldman

Thank you

for sharing your in-depth experience in Bhutan. It’s wonderful you had the

chance to explore this country in its pristine, authentic state, though it seems,

from the article, that the government has taken steps to ensure that the

Bhutanese culture remains fairly intact, at least for now. As a tour operator, we have been offering high-value tours

to Bhutan for several years, and frequently receive inquiries about the

country from our customers. Travelers want to see

this country’s unspoiled beauty and authenticity.

Peggy Goldman

President, Friendly Planet Travel

http://blog.friendlyplanet.com

FriendlyPlanet.com

@FriendlyPlanet

Peggy M. Goldman
Peggy M. Goldman

Thank you for sharing your in-depth experience in Bhutan. It’s wonderful you had the chance to explore this country in its pristine, authentic state, though it seems, from the article, that the government has taken steps to ensure that the Bhutanese culture remains fairly intact, at least for now. As a tour operator, we have been offering high-value tours to Bhutan for several years, and frequently receive inquiries about the country from our customers. Travelers want to see this country’s unspoiled beauty and authenticity.

Peggy Goldman

President, Friendly Planet Travel

http://blog.friendlyplanet.com

FriendlyPlanet.com

@FriendlyPlanet

JohnWehrheim
JohnWehrheim

Dear Starryriflyk, 

You are correct. I am the author of “BHUTAN: Hidden Lands of Happiness” and the writer/producer of the PBS film “BHUTAN: Taking the Middle Path to Happiness”. I agree that we should not obsess over historic events; nor should we intentionally distort history for political gain—to make the “other” entirely evil while portraying ourselves as pure truth and light. I was quite hesitant to reply given the emotional responses to my initial comment--concerned that I might continue to stoke the passionate fires that polarize our views and actions and distort history into propaganda.  Propaganda always makes conflict worse—feeds the flames of  karmic reaction. 

Understanding history without emotion, without passion without judgment is essential to reduce suffering for all beings. Both Hindus and Buddhists know this intrinsically. This is the law of Karma.  I know this is much easier said than done and that the brutality on both sides created emotional wounds that are difficult to heal without time and intentional practice. Yet we must study history not simply to know how to behave, or how to succeed, but to know who we are and understand the interconnectedness of all life—that we are all One. In my book [as well as my initial comment…] I wrote that there is fault on both sides. Both sides must let go of their “stories”, their propaganda, to come to an understanding.  This incident deeply wounded all Bhutanese and threatened the sovereignty of the nation. 

Inside Bhutan time is healing this wound and as time passes we can observe the great strength and resiliency of Bhutan’s leadership and people—a mixed nation speaking 24 languages and more than 100 dialects of Tibeto-Burman and Indo-Aryan: Ngalops, Lhotshampas, Sharshops, Khengpa, Mangdeps, Kurteps, Bumtaps, Tibetans etc.  Most Lhotshampas did not leave Bhutan and now make up a large percentage of the population of this democratic, multi-party, constitutional monarchy. Lhotshampas turn out to vote and have democratic control of their communities.  Yet to see Bhutan’s future we must look to the youth.   The majority of Bhutan’s population was born after the southern calamity, have no first hand memory and little emotional scarring from the crisis.  The Bhutanese are rapidly becoming a well-educated and sophisticated people. Most Bhutanese under 30 speak their local dialect as well as Nepali, Dzongkha and English.  Intermarriage is common and racial/religious prejudice is not “cool”.  Through this natural course the Fourth King’s goal of one nation, one culture and one people will be achieved through love, marriage and children.  We can only hope and pray that the settlement of those refugees now being relocated around the world will heal their emotional wounds through a similar course of love as they become Americans, Europeans and Australians. 

Yes, mental illness and suicide are rising globally and within Bhutan as well.  We are all living in a time of great change, stress and confusion. The escape from Kali Yuga can only be found in those Hidden Lands of Happiness within...  

PS: Don't forget Buddha was a Nepali Hindu!

Starryriflyk
Starryriflyk

Who is responsible for the very high rate of mental problem "anxiety" "depression" "adjustment disorder" and even "sucide" in Bhutanese that have been relocated to 3rd countries. 

JohnWehrheim
JohnWehrheim

This conflict is extremely complex with enough fault and blame on both sides to go around. Without the perspective of the recent geopolitical history of the region the problem is difficult to understand. By 1975 Nepalese made up over 75 per cent of Sikkim’s population, vastly outnumbering the Kingdom’s original Lepcha and Tibetan stock. When Sikkim’s Nepali majority began violent demonstrations for democracy, India used this as an excuse to stage a brief, ruthless invasion, forcing the abdication of Sikkim’s Buddhist king. India then passed an act of Parliament that annexed Sikkim, making it an Indian state. Bhutan was now the last Buddhist kingdom, the final bastion of a culture in a state of siege; and the Bhutanese government was in shock, painfully aware of its vulnerability.

By the 1980s millions of Nepalese lived just across Bhutan’s border in north and east India and a strong separatist movement called the Gorkhaland National Liberation Front began a campaign of violence and terror to press its demands against India, which had used the presence of Nepalese to stage its takeover of Sikkim. In southern Bhutan, the predominantly Hindu Nepalese community grew rapidly, comprising approximately 25 per cent of the Kingdom’s population. In addition to the availability of good land, the Nepalese, called the Lhotshampas, or southern Bhutanese, were further attracted by the Royal Government’s free health care, free education and minimal taxes.

The violence of the Gorkhaland Liberation Front movement panicked Bhutan’s dominant Drukpa Buddhist government—the Ngalops. The government overreacted--conducting a census aimed to flush out illegal immigrants. The government also instituted national policies of dress, architecture, language and culture, meant to mold a single Bhutanese identity and bring rapprochement between Hindu and Buddhist citizens. Called the “One Nation, One People” policy, this foolish and misguided effort backfired and by 1990 some of the southerners rebelled, accusing the government of cultural discrimination, repression and the illegal eviction of bona fide citizens.

Both sides were guilty of bloodshed and abuse. Nepali radicals based in India used this opportunity to provoke communal violence and hatred inside Bhutan. They organized demonstrations and assaulted people and property—often targeting uncooperative Lhotshampas who would not join the Gorkhaland movement. Schools and health facilities were closed and all development programs came to a halt as the mobs targeted government buildings. Feeding the fire of fear and hatred, some Bhutanese officials reacted with brutality and greed, attacking the innocent, revoking the citizenship of some legitimate Lhotshampas Bhutanese and grabbing their land.

As usually in a situation like this the innocent suffered the wrath of both sides. Most Lhotshampas Bhutanese were industrious farmers wanting nothing more than to live in peace. Terrorized and confused, approximately eighty thousand fled for refugee camps in Nepal, some voluntarily, some driven by the Gorkhaland terrorists, others through forced exile by Bhutanese officials. They left despite King Jigme Singye Wangchuck’s grants of special favor for the Lhotshampas and repeated journeys to the south to plead personally with his people not to leave their country. The majority of the Lhotshampa population remained in Bhutan.

JohnWehrheim
JohnWehrheim

Yes, some Nepalis were forcibly relocated [both Bhutanese citizens and illegal Nepali immigrants...], many citizens left voluntarily, most were terrified and confused and exploited by both sides of the conflict--innocent victims of greed and politics.  There is fault and blame enough to go around. One must understand the region's geopolitical history, the Nepali/Gorkhaland  violence and terror in Sikkim, the loss of that country and culture as a sovereign nation to India's forcible annexation.  This takeover of Sikkim occurred prior to the trouble in Bhutan and this Gorkhaland National Liberation Front terror was spreading through Bengal and across Bhutan's border.  This threat to Bhutan's sovereignty and culture terrified the Bhutanese Ngalops and caused many officials to overreact.  Of course some Bhutanese were also motivated by greed and prejudice--this was an opportunity for unscrupulous Ngalops rip off  valuable Lhotshampa property in the south. The Fourth King did everything in his power to control the situation and reverse the exodus of legitimate Lhotshampa citizens.  The King announce that he would abdicate if he could not reconcile the issues and bring back the Lhotshampa Bhutanese.  And when it finally became clear that his efforts had failed and the Lhotshampas would not return the Fourth King abdicated. The situaltion in the refugees camps was corrupt and hopeless--run by "professional" refugees and aid workers.  Unfortunately, many of these "professionals" were too heavily invested and dependent on the problem to want to solve it reasonable and peacefully--the "crisis" was the source of their power and income. It's a very very complicated and sad story--and all too typical.  Innocents suffer at the hands of the corrupt and greedy on all sides... KuzuNamasteLa

Vijay Menon
Vijay Menon

Shucks, the bickering in the comments kind of ruined the happy sappy afterglow of reading the article. But come to think of it, the author was a little too gushy and one sided. So the bickering in fact helped add perspective.

Sachi Mohanty
Sachi Mohanty

...

What's not to like about a nation that has a town called 'Paro.'

...

Rishav Sharma
Rishav Sharma

bhutan, the land of gross national happiness, the only country that sends a quarter of its citizens as refugees and the world just stays ignorant.

Starryriflyk
Starryriflyk

They want to make it so authentic that they kick out all Nepalese descendants who have been living there for decades. It is living in century when human right did not exist and only anarchy was reality.

As for reality of Bhutan, the writer missed to tell that its one of country where people go shopping in Thailand and go to Nepal to play casino. They love Indian foods and smuggle cigarettes and favourite drink is vodka orange. 

Prithvi Shiv
Prithvi Shiv

Beautiful beautiful place. Untainted, unpolluted and pristine. The night sky in Paro is the best I've seen anywhere; close to zero light pollution and the sky looked awesome with the sprawling band of the Milky way highlighting the vista spectacularly. The other sights weren't too bad either :)

Saurav J. Thapa
Saurav J. Thapa

Ah another typical love-Bhutan piece that ignores the fact that the autocratic royal rulers of that country (with a paper thin democratic veneer) have engaged in ethnic cleansing against the Nepali-speaking Lhotsampa minority for 30 years.  110,000 Bhutanese have been evicted from their country and languished for two decades in eastern Nepal in UN-run camps till they were resettled in third party Western countries.  Bhutan is a sad, despotic, little North Korea, not paradise!!

joirbelivas
joirbelivas

Bhutan is very nice, and maybe you should also try Myanmar's countryside (Mount Popa, Bassein, the road to Ngwe Saung, etc). There are not many places like that to visit anymore, so it's better get hurry before they fade out.

joirbelivas
joirbelivas

Bhutan is very nice, and maybe you should also try Myanmar's countryside (Mount Popa, Bassein, the road to Ngwe Saung, etc). There are not many places like that to visit anymore, so it's better get hurry before they fade out.

joirbelivas
joirbelivas

Bhutan is very nice, and maybe you should also try Myanmar's countryside (Mount Popa, Bassein, the road to Ngwe Saung, etc). There are not many places like that to visit, so it's better get hurry before they fade out...

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