Friday, July 12, 2013

Shang-ri-La Shuffle

I've got writer's block regarding that enlightenment blog I mentioned yesterday, so I'm ignoring it for now.  Maybe it needs to be written in the order it happened, and while I'd like to keep all of my writing about Nepal together, you can't argue with the Muse.  So let's go to Bhutan instead.
Quite possibly the smallest commercial flight I'll ever be on, and it wasn't even half full.
If you've never heard of Bhutan, you're not the only one.  It's kept a fairly low profile, with only a handful of flights into the country, and just a single border crossing by land.  They charge $250 per day to visit, and all these combine to limit the number of tourists that make it there.  And they like it that way.  It's not that they don't want outsiders to come to Bhutan, but...well, Bhutan is a marvel in this modern world, a country that apparently cares more about the well-being of its citizens than the bottom line, a policy they call Gross Domestic Happiness, or GNH.
There were three major motivations behind me going to Bhutan, and this GNH was one of them. My guide, the lovely Sree, is one of two lady guides currently in the field and has been involved in conferences about GNH.  She explained that the four pillars of it were:
1. to preseve and promote national culture.
2. to preserve the environment.
3. sustainability.
4. good governance.
The ruins of Drukgyel Dzong, watching the way to Tibet
If Tibet was "paradise lost," then Bhutan is the Shang-ri-La I hoped to find.  Ironically, I have a feeling that if Tibet's history hadn't converged with China's (how's that for diplomacy?) it might be on the path that Bhutan is on.  After all, Tibet has a lot in common with Bhutan.  Bhutan practices Tibetan Buddhism, shares a border with them, and is nestled up in the Himalayas.  As far as good governance goes, I can't imagine anyone better qualified than the current Dalai Lama.  Unfortunately, that's not the way the cards played out, so we'll never know.

On the last day of my tour, the Counting Crows' cover of "Big Yellow Taxi" came up on our driver's playlist, just as we were coming up to the Dochula Pass.  Bhutan actually seems to have figured out what they had before it could be lost, through some combination of luck and the strategic move of throwing in their lot with India around the 1950's (the vision of their leaders no doubt played a part in that, as well).  Besides limiting the number of tourists that cross the border, GNH plays out in ways such as choosing to move towards organic, locally grown fruits and vegetables (rather than importing from India) and making the national dress - kira for women and gho for men - a sort of uniform in a lot of places, such as schools and museums (which is, admittedly, one of the less popular aspects of GNH for the younger generation, who would prefer to run around in t-shirts and jeans...and we thought it was bad in high school when we had to wear collared shirts and at the very least colored jeans on band trips!)

Even in Bhutan, where things seem to be going fairly well, GNH isn't a panacea.  While Sree, a divorced mother of two, considers herself to be one of the luckiest people in the world, our driver pointed out that there is a huge gap between the rich and poor.  While health care is available to all, it's not as simple as walking into a clinic and being treated; bureaucracy must be given its due.  Bhutan is the last kingdom in the Himalayas, and their royal family seems to be liked well enough, but politics is full of self-serving hypocrites wherever it may be found.

However, the fact that the ideal is there, that they're working on it, says a lot to me.  As does the fact that they're not hypocritical about it.  The first day I was in Bhutan, as we were driving out to the ruined fortress, Drukgyel Dzong, we passed a lot of of workers, widening the roads.  They were Indians, which is not so unusual, considering the fact that India is the other country which shares a border with Bhutan, but I lived in the Middle East for two years, and seeing Indian workers always makes my breath catch, because they tend to be given a really shitty deal.  So I asked Sree about them, why the government was outsourcing.  The answer is usually cheap labor, but she explained that they were more experienced in road work than Bhutanese laborers; they do a better job.  And as we continued to drive, I was amazed by the numbers of Indian children and wives I saw.  Again, normally these workers spend long periods of time without their families, because their host country will not sponsor visas for their dependents.

But then, Bhutan is not a normal country.  If you want to experience it for yourself, I have to recommend Adventure Planet Travel.  They did an awesome job organizing my tour and finding a guide to suit me (I think I mentioned that there aren't that many lady guides working in Bhutan).  Anyways, check them out.


  1. I enjoyed reading your analysis and experience about Bhutan...cheers

    1. Thanks, Ugyen! I hope I got everything right :)

  2. Hiya! This is a great little post! I was wondering if you could help me. I'm desperate to get to Bhutan and will be travelling on my own so the cost will be $250 + $40 surcharge/day... did you find you had many more expenses past this?
    How long did it take from deciding you were going to Bhutan to actually getting the itinary and visa sorted? I've got less than a month to do it!
    Where did you fly into Paro from and how much was the cost of your Druk Air flight?

    I'd be SO grateful if you could email me back, and any other gems of advice you have for Bhutan!