Finding Balance in Bhutan
What I remember most fondly about the week Bama and I spent in Bhutan last October is the untainted mountain air, cool autumn nights, an overriding sense of peace and tranquility. And of course, who could forget that heart-pumping arrival?
On the final approach into Paro International Airport, as steep, wooded hillsides hove into view, the passengers aboard Druk Air Flight KB541 from Singapore peer out the windows with a mix of excitement and trepidation. Only a handful of pilots are qualified to fly in and out of here in the sober light of day – all must possess nerves of steel, relying solely on visuals to bank the plane several times and avoid colliding with the rugged, unforgiving terrain around Paro, one of the few valleys in Bhutan that are wide and flat enough to land a plane in. As the minutes pass, the forests grow alarmingly close; it feels as though we are about to skim the treetops. I hear the wheels of the Airbus A319 descend from their compartments. There’s no turning back now. We sink lower and lower, gliding above a tapestry of pastel-gold paddy fields ripe for harvest and clusters of half-timbered farmhouses. Down below, the pale-green Paro Chhu flows past with water so pure we can practically see the well-worn stones at the bottom. Then the pilots deftly execute a final turn before landing square on the runway. It is an exhilarating, edge-of-your-seat experience – the perfect introduction to this fabled Buddhist kingdom.
We spill out onto the tarmac in wide-eyed wonder, reaching for our cameras and phones to capture the moment of arrival. Paro’s terminal building and the control tower are done up in traditional Bhutanese style: whitewashed with colorful timber accents, decorative trefoil windows, and intricately painted cornices. I breathe in the crisp Himalayan air and look up the valley toward a procession of jagged peaks, their blue-washed pinnacles an almost mystical presence in the warm October sunshine. And the smell! Not the nauseating fumes of kerosene-based jet fuel but something far more natural. Paro is the only airport I’ve ever been to where the apron is scented with the comforting aroma of pine, carried down on the wind from the thick forests cloaking the mountain slopes on either side. Once we’ve completed immigration formalities and picked up our bags, Bama and I are welcomed by Kinga, the same burly, bespectacled guide who accompanied fellow blogger Kelly at Compass & Camera back in 2012, alongside our affable driver, Phuntsho.
Inside the minivan, a miniature wooden phallus dangles from the rearview mirror to ward off evil. It’s all too easy to paint Bhutan as the last Shangri-La, a clichéd Himalayan paradise – remote, isolated, a place where time has stood still. That might have been true a couple of decades ago, but the Bhutan of today is plugged firmly into the digital world. Yes, the Bhutanese still wear the traditional attire of their ancestors – the voluminous gho for men, knee-length robes with a sort of pocket so large it can hold books, even a cat or a baby, and the kira, an often beautifully patterned long dress, for women – but we see plenty of gho- and kira-clad residents in downtown Thimphu checking their devices, or sporting tiny white earphones as they walk briskly across a wooden bridge spanning the Wang Chhu. Social media is as popular here as just about anywhere else. Nor has Bhutan missed out on the worldwide phenomenon known as the Korean Wave; the local affection for K-pop and Korean dramas is such that six boy and girl groups were flown in from Seoul to perform to screaming crowds at Thimphu’s 25,000-seat Changlimithang Stadium a year before our arrival. On this particular Sunday afternoon, the artificial grass pitch is empty; at the archery range next door, we find a group of men practicing the national sport using fiberglass compound bows – the kind often seen in international sporting competitions.
Bhutan walks a delicate balance between preserving its cultural traditions and embracing some of the more desirable traits of contemporary life. Decades of limited contact with the outside world have given the landlocked Himalayan kingdom one major advantage: the ability to step back and learn from the past mistakes of its neighbors. For better or worse, independent travel isn’t possible here, and those who come at peak season are charged an all-inclusive daily fee of US$250. The upside is that more than a quarter of that fee directly contributes to the welfare of ordinary citizens, funding education and healthcare as well as environmental conservation.
There’s little in the way of manufacturing or mining, and more than half of the 750,000-strong population is dependent on agriculture. The biggest export is hydroelectric power, chiefly to India, although projects do not involve conventional dams that would flood valuable farmland and local villages. Instead, the hydropower plants have been designed on a smaller scale, with engineers drilling tunnels through the solid rock for minimal disturbance to the ecosystem. The royal government’s commitment to protecting biodiversity is also commendable: as much as 72.5% of the kingdom is under forest cover, and the Constitution stipulates that at least 60% of its land area must remain that way. As it stands, Bhutan is the only carbon-negative country in the world.
Much of this is explained to us in detail on the hour-long drive from the airport to Thimphu, with two stops at the temple of Tachogang Lhakhang – where a 15th-century iron-chain suspension bridge festooned with prayer flags stretches over the Paro Chhu – and the ice-cold river’s confluence with the Wang Chhu. En route to the capital, Kinga seems both baffled and surprised when we politely turn down his proposal of going to a Western restaurant for lunch. “Are you sure?” He asks, head and shoulders swiveled toward us from the passenger seat. But Bama and I are adamant about trying the local cuisine. In the end, we share our first meal in Bhutan with Kinga and Phuntsho at an inconspicuous hole-in-the-wall. Nothing is glammed up for an international clientele, there are no unnecessary garnishes or foamy pretensions, and the food is served in more than 10 small melamine bowls and plates to create a hearty, satisfying feast.
We can’t get enough of the national dish, ema datshi – large green chili peppers drenched in a cheesy sauce – which represents a happy medium that pleases us both. I’m a hopeless turophile (living in a country where good-quality cheese is prohibitively expensive), while Bama loves the liberal use of chilies in Bhutanese cooking. It’s immediately obvious how the local fare developed out of necessity, given the emphasis on preserved ingredients made to last through the long, bitterly cold winters. Air-dried beef is cooked with thickly-cut radish and dried red chili to make spicy shakam paa; local spinach or sun-dried turnip leaves are chopped up and boiled in a milk-and-vegetable soup called jaju; fiber-rich red rice is favored for its ability to grow at higher altitudes. We also get our very first taste of suja, tea infused with yak butter and salt.
After lunch, Bama and I wander the stalls of the two-story Centenary Farmer’s Market, the largest in Bhutan. We’re in luck. It’s a Sunday afternoon and the maze-like structure is packed with vendors, so much so I find it difficult to know where to look first. There are shiny heaps of green and red chilies; tiled white counters overflowing with fresh produce, some of it brought from the lowlands of neighboring India; hardened brown and white chhurpi – cubes of yak cheese hung like garlands; not to mention long black sausages and strips of fatty pork; cereals like red and white rice; wild honey from the southern districts; tea leaves; and powdered raw ingredients for incense.
The final stop of the day is Tashhicho Dzong, an imposing riverside fortress-monastery that serves as the spiritual and administrative center of Bhutan. One might pass through without ever realizing it was almost entirely rebuilt between 1962 and 1968, with the exception of three original structures: the shrine-filled Utse, or central tower, a standalone temple known as Lhakhang Sarp, and the sublimely decorated Dukhang (monks’ assembly hall), which may date as far back as the 1870s. Each corner sports a sturdy tower crowned by a three-tiered roof, and the entire citadel dwarfs the humble, low-slung bungalows housing government ministries beside the carpark. Once we step out from the minivan, Kinga drapes a long silk scarf – a kabney – over one shoulder, its natural white color signifying his rank as an ordinary citizen.
We stroll past manicured lawns and well-tended flower beds along the eastern perimeter wall, while Kinga speaks of how the venerated fourth (and former) king of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, transformed the political system from an absolute monarchy into a constitutional one. “We didn’t want democracy,” Kinga says of the top-down decision. The third king began reforms as early as the 1950s, but full democratization was achieved only in 2008 with the creation of a bicameral Parliament, divided into the 25-member nonpartisan National Council – of which five deputies are appointed by the king – and the National Assembly, whose 47 representatives are directly elected by the people.
Outside Tashhicho Dzong, two uniformed guards stand at attention on either side of a monumental flagpole, upon which an enormous Bhutanese flag flutters in the breeze. Kinga explains each of its parts: the mythical Thunder Dragon, Druk, shown diagonally against a background divided into yellow – symbolizing the authority of the king – and orange, denoting Buddhism. It reflects how Buddhist monasticism and secular administration still coexist here, as it has in dzongs across this land for centuries. And yet Bhutan’s fledgling democracy has formalized a separation of the two. In view of the National Assembly building just across the river, I ask Kinga if monks are allowed to run for Parliament. “Oh no,” he replies as a look of shock crosses his face. “Monks have to be apolitical. It’s dangerous to let religion and politics mix. There would be chaos.”
We’ve come 11 days before the second round of Bhutan’s third general election, and living in Indonesia, where unscrupulous politicians willingly stir ethnic tension and play up sectarian divides, where imams in too many neighborhood mosques implore their congregations to vote for certain candidates, I wish more Indonesians possessed the wisdom and good sense found here in Bhutan.
That night, after settling in at Pamtsho Hotel, a cozy family-run inn on the outskirts of town, we meet a local contact for dinner downstairs. Lotay Rinchen is one of two brothers who set up travel outfit Bridge To Bhutan (with whom we booked our tour on Kelly’s recommendation) after a number of years spent working and studying in the US. It’s clear he admires both the current and former king. “If our democracy is a ship, the monarchy is like an anchor,” he says.
Lotay elaborates on how the fourth king hired a committee to draft the 2008 Constitution, with advisors from other countries like the UK and US, before gathering input from Bhutanese people from all walks of life over a two-year period, in a bid to refine the articles so they would reflect the actual needs of citizens. The idea was to implement democracy with a smart set of checks and balances. We learn that the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the chairman of the anti-corruption commission, and the CEO of Druk Holding and Investments – the state-owned company that manages national assets like Druk Air – are all appointed by the king to make sure they remain independent from Parliament. Conversely, the ruling monarch can be dethroned if two-thirds of members in the National Assembly vote to expel him.
We’ve barely spent a day in Bhutan and already there is so much to ponder over. The kingdom might be jealously guarding its rich traditions – as evinced by regulations that all new buildings must incorporate aspects of the vernacular style, and a requirement to wear the gho and kira in schools and government offices – but in other ways it is also modern and strikingly progressive. Whether or not you agree with those moves, the reason is as clear as the ice-cold waters of the Paro Chhu: to ensure Bhutan’s continued survival in an increasingly interconnected world. ◊