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

I have a promise to break. Like any self-respecting writer visiting Bhutan, I solemnly swore on a stack of travelogues to avoid clichd references to Shangri-la, the mountain paradise of James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon. So sue me: Bhutan, a nation of 700,000 souls in the lap of the Himalayas, is the closest thing to Shangri-la I’ve ever seen.

In a week of traveling through Bhutan, my wife and I have trekked up 10,200 ft. to an ancient Buddhist temple complex perched on the side of a mountain; we’ve shot arrows from a bamboo bow on the lawns of a monastery before an audience of novice monks (they giggled as I missed the target every time); we’ve had a bath in a tub heated by red-hot stones and infused with mysteriously reinvigorating herbs; and we’ve shared dinner with a reincarnated lama.

Bharat Sikka for TIME

And it hasn’t once felt as if we’re in some Himalayan equivalent of Colonial Williamsburg. To Bhutanese, these are everyday activities (with the possible exception of the herb-infused bath, which was a bit luxe). Bhutanese regard as normal what most others would consider magical: the forests of fir, pine and cedar draped over mountains wreathed in clouds; the hundreds of miles of nature trails, rising from deep valleys past meadows of grazing yaks and into the shadow of the high peaks; the stunning beauty of the Trongsa Dzong, a 17th century fortress overlooking a gorge on the Mangde River; and possibly the finest chanterelle mushrooms on the planet. Over and over again, as we struggle for words to describe what our eyes are seeing, Nima Dorji, our guide, smiles indulgently. “Nice, no?” he asks. Nice, yes.

It takes an outsidera Singaporean who lives in Thimphu, Bhutan’s capitalto capture most tourists’ impression of the country. “This is the last authentic place on earth,” says Siok Sian Pek Dorji, who runs the Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy. “Nothing is canned. If you see a group of men with bows and arrows, they’re not playing archers for some tourist show. They’re doing it because it’s a part of their Bhutanese identity, and they love it.”

(PHOTOSTravels Through Bhutan)

Authenticity is a rare and valuable commodity, and people will travel far to find it. But the authentic Bhutanese identity is under threat from several sides, starting with a surge in tourism: the construction sector is booming, helped by easy credit. A ban on television was lifted in 1999; you can see satellite dishes in tiny hamlets across the country. Teens at the Ser Khor karaoke bar in Thimphu can warble the latest Bollywood tunes with as much verve as they do Bhutanese pop songs. Plugged into the world via smart phones and Internet cafs, they’re adopting a global look and attitude: artfully distressed jeans, spiky hairstyles and an addiction to social media. Outside Wangdichholing Palace in Bumthang, the monastery-filled district that is the spiritual heart of this deeply religious country, the novice monk laying out his cloak to dry in the field is wearing a T-shirt with a picture of Lucy Liu.

Bharat Sikka for TIME

“Our world is changing very, very fast,” says Mynak Tulku, the reincarnated monk. “What the rest of you saw in 50 years, we’ve seen in just 10. So of course, some people are bound to feel shaken up.”

Anxiety over the end of Bhutan’s innocence coincides with yet another modern innovation that is transforming the country: democracy. In 2008, Bhutan elected its first government. The event was marked by polite speeches and an absence of the rancor we’re used to in the U.S. Now the administration of Prime Minister Jigmi Yoser Thinley must figure out how to balance the demands of democracy with saving Shangri-la.

The Dragon King
Though it’s wedged between Asia’s biggest countries, China and India, Bhutan has a strong cultural identity of its own. The majority of the population follow Vajrayana Buddhism; the Dalai Lama, of neighboring Tibet, is respected, but Bhutanese heed their own set of spiritual guides. The national cuisine, which relies heavily on chilies and cheese, is distinct from others in the region. Bhutanese traditional dressespecially the gho, a man’s knee-length robe with distinctive cuffsand language are substantially different from their Tibetan roots. Even the architectural style, characterized by intricately paned windows and doors, is rarely seen outside Bhutan.

For the best part of four decades, this singular culture was protected by the sheer will of an enlightened monarch: Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the Druk Gyalpo (Dragon King). Most Bhutanese refer to him simply as K4 — for he’s the fourth in a line that goes back to the beginning of the last century. To me, he’ll always be Jigme, the most popular boy in St. Joseph’s College in Darjeeling, India, where we both went to school.

Only 16 when he ascended to the throne in 1972 — I was in first grade then and knew him mainly as goalkeeper of the senior soccer team — K4 inherited an impoverished nation with few resources beyond jaw-dropping natural beauty. (The landscapes made little impact on me when I went to Thimphu for K4’s coronation, but then, first-graders aren’t overly impressed with picture-postcard vistas.) Bhutan’s only serious means of revenue was tourism, but as he looked west to his country’s neighbor Nepal, K4 saw a cautionary tale. The larger Himalayan kingdom was overrun with backpackers and hippies, many of them drawn by Nepal’s abundant supply of wild marijuana. These low-budget tourists were perhaps doing more harm than good to Nepal’s economy.

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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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