Friday, January 1, 2010

Bhutan - Into The Wild Blue

"I want to see the horizon and not see a single building standing tall"
Cowboy Take Me Away, Dixie Chicks

That was the tune in my head as I prepared for my departure to Bhutan, Land of the Thunder Dragon (also sometimes called the last Shangri-La or the Lost Kingdom). And upon my arrival, I was not disappointed.

The horizon was filled with tall prayer flags fluttering in the wind, the silhouettes of blue pine forests, the mid-Himalayan mountain range, and low traditional Bhutanese houses. The air was crisp and clean, the sky an intense blue with bright sunshine. I stepped outside the small Paro airport with its single airstrip to meet my Bhutanese guide. My adventure had begun.

I first heard about Bhutan more than ten years ago in a South Asia politics class taught by Dr Walter Andersen, the then-Chief of the State Department's South Asia Division, Office of Analysis for Near East and South Asia. He raved about Bhutan, how pristine and beautiful it was, and how it was (in his opinion at that time) the most fascinating country in South Asia. Throughout the years thereafter, I'd met a handful of lucky people who had travelled to Bhutan and consistently told me the same things - pristine, beautiful, untouched by modernity.

I wanted to take a relaxing, year-end solo trip and a friend who had recently visited Bhutan put me in touch with a great little tour agency who arranged everything for me.

Bhutan is everything everyone said it would be, and struggling to keep it that way without compromising modernity and growth for its people. Deeply spiritual (indeed, superstitious) - the Bhutanese believe in lucky symbols, religious offerings on rock crevices and hillside roads, prayer flags in windy junctions to spread blessings, prayer wheels powered by natural springs from the mountains, and attached with bells that chime with each full turn. The spring water that spins the prayer wheel becomes naturally sanctified, and have founts where the thirsty traveller can drink from. These are everywhere - from the main highway that links Bhutan from east to west, as well as little villages you can only reach by foot.

Since the 1970s, Bhutan's former King (affectionately called "K4" by the Bhutanese) conceptualised a definition for quality of life beyond mere economic indicators like gross national product. He created the term "gross national happiness", which is the theoretical premise for Bhutan's national economic and development plan, where economic and spiritual development occur hand-in-hand. The four basic principles of GNH are:

- sustainable development
- preservation and promotion of cultural values
- conservation of the natural environment
- establishment of good governance

The last King has tried to put this theory to good effect in the economic planning and development of the country thus far, focusing efforts on developing hydro-electric power instead of energy-consuming and carbon-emitting industrial endeavours for example. There are also legal limitations put in place for felling trees and collecting firewood for the cold Himalayan winter nights to protect the beautiful blue pine and conifer forests of Bhutan. He also instituted the end of absolute monarchy - calling for democratic elections in 2008 to better prepare the Bhutanese for independent thinking.

In theory, it all sounds really good. Yet, the running of a country is never that straightforward. Alongside the wild and natural beauty of the valleys and mountains are the lives of some 600,000 Bhutanese citizens who are trying to cope with the 21st century - from the pressures of tourism to the transition to a democratic system.

There is a difficult balance to be maintained.

In the most recent 2009 National Day address, the current King of Bhutan (the oldest son of te previous King, who abdicated in 2008) placed a high emphasis on education by bestowing honourary medals on teachers from various parts of Bhutan. Education is important, yet it will change the economic landscape of Bhutan. As more Bhutanese children become literate, graduate with certificates from high school and university - subsistence farming will diminish at an even faster rate, exacerbating Bhutan's growing dependency on Indian imports of rice and wheat.

Bhutan's burgeoning urban's population within the next decade will also add pressure in the job market to expand and absorb these fresh graduates. At the moment, there doesn't seem to be a severe brain drain in Bhutan. Many Bhutanese are educated overseas (Australia, America, various parts of Europe) and return home to help grow and sustain their country's development according to the GNH principles. With increasing numbers of young graduates from agricultural families entering the job market, will there be enough job creation to keep them gainfully employed and happy? And who will keep growing the beloved chillies for Bhutanese ema datsi? Perhaps that burden will eventually fall fully on the shoulders of the Indian farmers just across the border.

Then there is the question of tourism: to open or not to open?

Bhutan's tourism policy is misunderstood by many (including myself). The tourist visa is not, in fact, restricted to a quota. Or not anymore anyway. What is prohibitive is the high cost of the minimum daily rate, which can range anywhere from USD200 - 240 depending on how many travel in a group. Add to this the relatively expensive Druk Air flight (USD850 for a 3 hour flight from Bangkok to Paro!), and Bhutan's tourism rates naturally filter out the backpackers and budget-trip seekers. Having said that, the daily minimum rate does include everything - a driver, a private car or van, a guide, all room and board, and entrance fees to various museums and monuments. The rate is also the same if you trek, accompanied by an entourage of baggage-carrying ponies, cooks, and general help to pitch the sleeping and dining (even toilet!) tents to greet you before you arrive at the designated resting point.

There is an on-going debate about how to increase tourism numbers in Bhutan, from the existing 20,000+ visitors a year to possibly 50,000. One of the solutions raised is the reduction of the daily rate, which many tour operators fear will lead to the "Nepalisation" of the lost Shangri-La. Instead of being the pristine and protected kingdom it now is - it will become just another stopover on the Himalayan backpacker trail.

While lowering the daily tourism rate seems like the easy and obvious solution - it doesn't really address other bottle-neck issues, namely logistics and transportation. In my informal chats with various guides and tour operators I met in bars in Thimphu and Paro, they mainly pointed the finger of blame at the limited number of flights by Druk Air. They could only sell as many tour packages as they could get seats. Even if Bhutan did attract 50,000 visitors - how would Druk Air and the little Paro airport cope?

Another discussion thread is the possible opening of a second airport in the middle of Bhutan, in Bumthang valley. This would really help build inroads for tourists seeking to venture into east Bhutan (no pun intended!), building up the tourism industry there without forcing tourists to endure a rough 3-day drive on narrow mountain switchbacks if they wanted a travel option that is off the usual Paro-Punakha-Bumthang track.

Personally, I don't mind paying the daily rate. I understand why it has to be that way, and does keep the country exclusive to the tourist who wants to be a visitor without being harassed by souvenir-sellers, or cat-called at by the locals. In fact, the one thing that did really strike me about Bhutan was how genuine, sincere and friendly everyone was. It sounds like the sort of stereotype one always says about Bhutan, but I guess there's no smoke without fire! People are curious but not gawking, always ready to smile and chat with you the moment you greet them, the children are coy but friendly, and best of all - nobody seems to want anything from you. Not money for taking photos of a little kid, not tips for good service, all of which can make you doubt the sincerity behind the gesture when you're travelling.

Finally, I think I only truly appreciated the beauty, serenity and simplicity of Bhutan after I left. It was a rude shock to fly into the gleaming and bustling new international airport in Bangkok, and be surrounded by duty-free shops that sell everything from exclusive hand-made Italian silk ties to high-end toiletry products - all of which seemed irrelevant in Bhutan.

My mind's eye still saw the fluttering prayer flags in the wind, heard the bells of the prayer wheels chiming, and I was happy.