While Bhutan’s version of modernisation is bringing it many benefits and its idealism is welcome in a world of so much cynicism, the country of course is far from perfect. The issue of national identity can be vexing and has led to a mass exodus from the country of people from Nepal. The concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH) has not entirely prevented modernisation from having detrimental effects on its culture.
Bhutanese are now able to view a large number of Indian tv programs, whose content is as inane as ours in Australia And it drives a distorted vision of what to do with newfound wealth. The check-in counter for the flight to Paro from Bangkok was crammed with people laden with all sorts of electronic consumer toys. Contact with the modern world is more likely to produce lots of Kaths and Kims, rather than those more intent on exploring the deeper boundaries of personal and social wellbeing.
The main street of Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, now has a drop in centre for drug addicts and more generally the government is battling to come to grips with the full social implications of modernisation, even given its guiding principles. Hopefully though, the Bhutanese will succeed in keeping much of what is special about them, while they continue on the journey of modernisation. The best thing is to check it out for yourself, sooner rather than later, just in case a bit of the magic is lost.
The Lonely Planet Guide to Bhutan is very useful and up-to-date and provided some useful information for this blog.
Most of the great walks in Bhutan lead to, or past, several monasteries. There is a beautiful half day loop through the Phobjikha Valley, winter home of the black-necked crane, to the Gangtey Monastery.
Bhutan’s version of Buddhism is very mystical, shrouded in legendary figures with magical powers. One of the most famous saints is the Divine Madman(1455-1529) who used outrageous behaviour to challenge people’s conceptions and to try and get across the teachings of the Buddha.
His sexual exploits were famous and included the wives of his hosts and supporters as he travelled around the country. The phalluses decorating many houses are supposedly modelled on his and represent both a symbol of fertility and ward off evil spirits. It’s hard not to love a country which includes such a character in its pantheon of saints.
Similar to the Irish Catholic tradition, in the era of large families, it was considered economic and politic for at least one son to enter the priesthood. Even today, the trainee monks can start very young, though this tradition will inevitably disappear.
There is the perception that travel to Bhutan is expensive. The government levies a minimum fee of $US250 (from 2012) per visitor per day. However, this fee includes accommodation, transport within the country, food and a guide. So in value for money terms it’s certainly reasonable. The accommodation and food is about a basic Travelodge standard, though for an additional cost can be upgraded – all the way up to Aman resorts whose daily charge is about equal to the country’s per capita GDP.
But Bhutan is best experienced more simply, through treks and camping in the mountains, taking time to breathe some of the world’s purest air, enjoy the vistas and above all, the people. Our last adventure was trekking to a camp site at an altitude of 12,000 feet above Paro. It yielded a view of the Bhutanese Himalayan range, which while not Everest, does have peaks up to 21,000 feet.
And a great view into the Paro valley down below. This is where the main airport is and the winding approach through the valley makes for a spectacular landing.
A landing in a very special place. One you should try for yourself. It may be one of the happiest experiences of your life.
Click for The Happy Kingdom Part 1