Daring to resist the powerful forces of globalisation, the tiny, isolated nation of Bhutan is trying hard to preserve its unique culture and modest charms.
"Yes, change is quite a certain thing. Nothing can stand without change. We _ you and me _ are both Buddhists and should know this truth well."
Thuji Dorji Nadik, acting managing director of the Tourism Council of Bhutan, was replying to an enquiry about what effect the recent boom in tourism has had on his country. His answer initially stunned me. But he is right, of course; nothing on Earth can escape change. I was misguided to expect that the sacred land of Bhutan would somehow prove an exception to this rule.
The people of this secluded kingdom, long shielded from the excesses of the outside world by the natural barrier created by the eastern Himalayas, nurture a strong belief in Mahayana Buddhism and have seamlessly incorporated spirituality into their way of life, their devoutness only equalled by the reverence they display towards their king.
Built in the 12th century, Changangkha Lhakhang is the oldest temple in Thimphu. Besides housing Chenrizi, an 11-headed, thousand-armed manifestation of Avolokitesawara, a bodhisattva who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas, the temple is regularly visited by families with babies. Parents of new-borns make a pilgrimage to this holy place to seek a name for their offspring. If the child should fall ill, his/her parents will return to perform a ceremony thought to hasten the healing process. Although modern medicine is practised in Bhutan, many of its people still have a strong belief in cures obtainable through prayer.
Bhutan first opened its doors to the world nearly four decades ago and has since been attempting to develop its infrastructure while proceeding at a cautious rate calculated to ensure that traditions and long-held social values do not get swept away. While most countries measure their degree of economic development by reference to the size of their GDP (gross domestic product), Bhutan's rulers have coined the term "Gross National Happiness" as they try to create the conditions for public satisfaction, pointing out that one's level of happiness is a better indicator than GDP of one's quality of life.
Bhutan took a momentous step in 2008 when this hundred-year-old absolute monarchy made the transition to parliamentary democracy. It became quite a hot destination after news spread about the impending coronation of the handsome young successor to the throne, King Jigme Namgyel Wangchuk, in the same year. Tourists began to flood in, expecting to find a destination frozen in time, unadulterated by the trapping of modern-day life.
But even first-time visitors like me can see that the country is changing. This is particularly noticeable in the capital, Thimphu, where construction sites are mushrooming. Urban sprawl now claims both sides of the highway leading there from the airport, obscuring much of the rural landscape and even occupying steep slopes on the outskirts of the town. Foreign workers as well as tourists can be spotted on almost every street corner. Mobile phones and satellite TV have arrived. Like elsewhere in Asia, the kids and teenagers prefer Western-style attire to traditional garb. Numerous cars, belonging to both tourists and local people, clog the town's narrow streets.
However, the pace of change here seems to be far slower than it is in other parts of the continent. There is still no such thing as rush hour in Thimphu, the only capital city in the world not to be equipped with traffic lights.
Everything here changes at its own rhythm; not too fast and always with proper controls. Although high-ranking Bhutanese officials often travel overseas _ a few revealing that they love shopping in Bangkok _ they do not want their country's identity to be submerged by bland international norms. All new buildings are required to be painted and decorated in the local style, Bhutanese art being particularly evident on the window-frames. Films from Hollywood and Europe are not screened in cinemas here, but the locals seem to enjoy the Bollywood-influenced romances, melodramas and song-and-dance routines produced by the country's nascent domestic movie industry.
To protect Bhutan's limited resources, tourist-screening measures are applied to limit the number of visitors, selecting only those who can afford to pay for the opportunity to view this precious gem.
"We don't want Bhutan to be like Khao San Road," Thuji Dorji Nadik explained.
Bhutan tries hard to maintain things that should be preserved for posterity, particularly its unique art and culture. Most of its population have modest means, living simply, devoting themselves to their families and the practice of a devout form of Buddhism.
Everyone I met seems to realise that globalisation and all the upheaval it will bring are waiting just around the corner, but nobody is willing to allow that thought to influence their daily lives too much.
Norzin Lam is Thimphu’s main thoroughfare and is lined with hotels, shopping complexes and hotels. There are a number of general shops whose owners lock themselves inside small offices, dealing with their customers via a small serving hatch. Although Thimphu is undergoing massive realestate development and the number of cars on its roads is steadily increasing, the capital still does not have even a single set of traffic lights.
Under construction on a mountain outside the town, overlooking the southern approaches to Thimphu, is Buddha Dordenma. When completed, this 51.5-metre-tall structure will be among the biggest Buddha statues in the world. Hollow inside, the gigantic figure will eventually house 100,000 small replicas of itself.
If your time in Bhutan is very limited, a visit to the Folk Heritage Museum in Thimphu may give you a clearer picture of how most people in Bhutan live. The chief exhibit there is a restored, three-storey, traditional rammed-earth and timber farmhouse, which dates back to the mid-19th century. The ground floor was used as a cattle pen and to store agricultural tools. Space on the first floor was typically shared by a kitchen and the household granary. The top floor has bedrooms, a Buddhist altar and a toilet. In a traditional setting, Bhutanese wash themselves in outdoor bathrooms equipped with bathtubs; stones are heated over a fire and put into the tub to warm the water.
Many residents of Thimphu make daily visits to the National Memorial Chorten to make ritual circumambulations around this Tibetan-style stupa and say prayers. One big difference between Buddhists in Thailand and Bhutan is that the latter pray and make wishes for other people, never for themselves. It was built in 1974 in memory of the country’s third monarch, King Jigme Dorji Wangchuk, who is revered as ‘‘the father of modern Bhutan’’. During his reign (1952-72), Bhutan went through an important period of reformation. This far-sighted ruler commissioned the building of schools and hospitals, significantly improved the road network and reorganised the judicial system.
If you ever get to Bhutan, this is one place you shouldn’t miss. Dubbed ‘‘the fortress of the glorious religion’’, Trashi Chhoe Dzong is a Thimphu landmark. The original structure was built in 1641 and extensive renovations were carried out in 1965 on the orders of King Jigme Dorji Wangchuk. Located north of the city on the west bank of the Wang Chhu River, this large dzong (fortress) once housed the original National Assembly and now accommodates the secretariat, the throne room and offices of the king and the ministries of home affairs and finance. Trashi Chhoe Dzong is used as a summer residence by the dratshang (chief abbot) and it is also the venue for dances during the annual Tsechu Festival. It comprises two distinct areas, an administrative section and a monastic quarter, which are separated by a vast courtyard. Tourists can visit the monastic zone, but are not allowed to enter any of the buildings. But looking at this splendid example of architecture from the outside is exciting enough. Its walls are whitewashed and practically every other centimetre of surface area is beautified by carvings or paintings in the typical Bhutanese style.
Although a Western-style education system was introduced in the 1960s and the national literacy rate is steadily rising, poverty and the difficulty of getting access to schools in rural areas remain obstacles to education, particularly for girls. One way for girls from poor families to obtain an education is to join a nunnery. This photo is of a convent in Thimphu called Zilukha. Here one can see nuns busy studying the teachings of the Buddha, praying, meditating or even making colourful ritual
This beast with its goat-like head atop a bovine body is called a takin (Budorcas taxicolor ). Legend has it that this, the national animal of Bhutan, was created by Drupa Kunley, a great Buddhist yogi. It is found only in Bhutan and mountainous areas of neighbouring countries. Once thought to be a relative of the musk ox, due to a similarity in features, DNA studies have since shown it to be more closely related to the sheep. The takin can grow to a height of 107cm (measured at the shoulder) and can weigh up to 350kg. With its short legs, it can move quickly and easily over steep slopes.
Thimphu’s Centenary Market is a vibrant, colourful place, especially on the weekends when many people come to shop for vegetables. Unlike meat and utensils, which are generally imported, most vegetables available in Bhutan are locally grown. On the first floor of this double-deck marketplace, you will find chemical-free vegetables, as well as different kinds of herbs, which are used for making scent. Just across the river, you will find another bazaar, this one selling a variety of handicrafts and souvenirs, everything from wooden masks to brass figurines. It seems to be the best place in town to shop for such things.
Bhutan is not open to mass tourism. Tourists are required to buy tour packages from an authorised travel agents and to spend the equivalent of $200 (6,000 baht, approximately) daily via these packages.
The unit of currency is the ngultrum, which is equal in value to the Indian rupee. There are currency-exchange services at the airport and at local banks. Bank opening hours are from 9am to 3pm.
Druk Air, Bhutan’s national carrier, is the only airline operating in and out of the country. There is a daily service between Bangkok and Paro, where Bhutan’s only international airport is located. Visit www.drukair.com
About the author
- Writer: Peerawat Jariyasombat
Position: Travel Reporter