The Last Shangri-La
Bhutan, March 2014
by Metty Pellicer
As my Drukair flight took off from Paro, Bhutan, one of the most dangerous airport in the world, I made sure I was seated for the best view of the Himalayas en route. The take-off was the most exciting ever. I leaned with all the pitch and turn that the plane took to avoid the mountains that hemmed the narrow and short but deep runway. It barely avoided the sloping rooftops of the traditionally built houses with their intricately carved wooden eaves and rafters, small arched windows, and colorfully painted frontages of auspicious Buddhist symbols; dragons, elephants, monkeys, beribboned and hairy phalluses and swastika images. It tilted severely left then as we seemed headed to strike the side of the mountain it tilted right then left again like we're sashaying, then as it advanced to a solid wall of pine and fir-covered forest the plane lifted and cleared the top of the ridge into the clouds and open sky. The ice-peaked Himalayas glistened above the clouds and flying over Kathmandu, the familiar silhouette of Mt.Everest came into view. The vast Himalayan range provided the scenery until we crossed into India. Breathtaking!
I arrived in the capital Thimpu, a day after the whole world celebrated International Day of Happiness on March 20. The UN General Assembly established the event in 2012, inspired by Bhutan’s philosophy of measuring the nation’s development progress in terms of GNH, gross national happiness, instead of GDP, gross domestic product. I was intrigued to see for myself if this tiny Buddhist Himalayan kingdom, the Land of the Thunder Dragon, sandwiched between China and India, was for real. I became curious after accidentally coming across articles about the country during my 2011 research of Southeast Asia, in preparation for traveling in the region. Its crown prince, Jigme Wangchuck, charmed the whole county during his visit to Thailand in 2006, to celebrate King Bhumibol’s 60th anniversary on the throne. The youngest among twenty-five royal guests, he was dubbed Prince Charming and all the young women swooned and fantasized meeting him. After the visit travel to Bhutan from Thailand became very popular. He had the same effect when he went to Japan in 2011, in spite of being accompanied by his new bride. Tourism from Japan surged. From there on each article I came across became more delicious than the last. In 2007, he sold his BMW at auction to raise funds to start a radio station for youth, Kuzoo FM. He was educated in Massachusetts and England. He got married to a Bhutanese commoner in 2011 in an elaborate ceremony that went on for days. They were in love and lived together before tying the knot and he proclaimed, unlike his father who has four wives, all sisters, that he will only have this one wife. Polygamy is legal in Bhutan, as polyandry, though it’s becoming rare due to the expense of supporting each spouse equally. Women and men in many ways are equal in this medieval feudal society which began modernizing only in the mid-fifties. Men and women work together in the fields, in road work, in construction. Both can receive education. In the fifties during the construction of Bhutan’s first road, foreign labor was prohibited. Each household was required to provide a worker, regardless of sex to build the nation’s highway. Nowadays labor is contracted from Nepal or India and governed by strictly enforced temporary work permits.
The story of Bhutan is the story of the Wangchuck dynasty, which consolidated power in the first king in 1907. The landlocked kingdom was isolated to the world until the reign of the third king in the fifties. He was educated abroad and started the change from a feudal society to a modern one. He got rid of serfdom and slavery, built roads, hospitals and schools. He died of a heart attack and the fourth king took over at a tender age of seventeen. The fourth king moved towards democratization, introduced the philosophy of GNH to guide the country’s development and promoted tourism. He allowed TV in 1999 and the internet and telephones. He did not want a repeat of his experience of suddenly having to rule without preparation, and so he abdicated in favor of his son in 2008, which stunned the nation. The fifth king, the former Prince Charming, will preside over the transition from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy, and oversee the democratization transformation.
Bhutan is undergoing growing pains. It only debuted in the fifties. It seems to sincerely want to accomplish its lofty goals of democratization, of balancing development and the well-being of its citizens, of preserving its culture while pursuing modernization, and of preserving its environment while harnessing its natural resources. The ruling body has transmitted these ideals into a slick marketing of the Bhutan brand and the philosophy of GNH, but it had adopted contradictory autocratic and repressive methods. To preserve its culture, it purged the ethnic minority of Bhutanese residents of Nepalese origin, who had been in the country since its founding, and which constituted ten percent of its 700,000 population. Initially granted naturalized citizenship in the first Nationality Act of 1958, the law was amended in 1985 and disqualified their status. Subsequently they were stripped of their property, positions in government, and expelled as illegal immigrants. It mandated that the national dress, the Kira for women, and Gho for men should be worn in public places, citizens cannot criticize the monarchy, and though theoretically there is freedom of religion and separation of religion and state, Buddhism is the state religion, and the monastery and government assembly are housed in the same building complex in every state. Buddhism informs the daily life of the people. The monks are consulted in every significant decision, and the religious hold a strong sway in how people think, act, or vote. The fourth king has four sisters for his wives because the monk’s prophesied it would be auspicious. The coronation of the fifth king was on a specific date that was also auspicious. And so on, with elections, travel, marriage, purchase, etc. There is so much superstition and magic and contradiction in the practice of religion. It frowns on killing but many eat meat, except they relegate the slaughtering of animals to Indian and Nepalese butchers. The simplicity and beauty and mysticism that the Buddha preached is lost in the hoi polloi. The remote villages are still difficult to access. There is one East-West artery and radiating roads are skimpy. Travel even on short distances can take up a long time because the mountain terrain is tortuous and often interrupted by landslides. Surplus produce cannot be transported to market except by walking several hours to reach the road. The government has built road-side covered sheds above these valleys so farmers can sell their goods to motorist. There is universal if inadequate health care, free education until the tenth grade, and competitive scholarships can be won for advanced study abroad. During the reign of the fourth king, the last absolute monarch, he distributed land. No one is homeless in Bhutan. Every farmer has a home, the traditional chalet style architecture with sloping hand pressed mud walls and intricate carved wood trims and painted frontage. The villagers erect these homes for each other, a cooperative venture. No one goes hungry. The farmers are self-sufficient. The rare homeless or hungry, exclusively found in the cities, will find their way to the monasteries. There’s hardly any crime, or drug use. Marijuana grows wild, but it is used to feed pigs to increase their weight. Selling tobacco products is illegal and smoking in public is banned. In the cities the widening gap in income and culture is visible. The young generation change into T-shirts and jeans after school or work, and hang out in bars and shops, and watch English, American and Indian TV. They listen to foreign hit songs, surf the internet and use social media. Mobile phones are status symbols. They know about Sex and the City, wear brand apparel, are learning English, and dream of one day going to America or England, and live the life they see on TV and pirated blockbuster movies. When they realize the constraints their government have on their freedom and opportunity, and the gap in their incomes with the developed world they yearn to visit and to be part of, let’s root for them to find the right path, and for the government to be enlightened. Tourism is tightly controlled and limits the numbers by imposing a $250/day tariff and by the limited seats on Drukair. Every tourist must be accompanied by a tour guide and booked by a tour company. Destination and tourist movement is checked at strategic posts. The antiquities are impressive, the legends of the lamas spell-binding, the mountain scenery is majestic, and in early spring the deciduous magnolias and mountain rhododendrons are profuse with bloom, trekking is challenging and perhaps could provide spiritual contemplation, while the terraced hills and farmhouses give a peaceful, settled vibe. The air is fresh and the streets are swept clean. Food is organic and trendy, locally sourced from farm to table, and ema datshi, a chili-cheese dish, which had accompanied my meals throughout had become a favorite. The women are beautiful in their elegant Kira, a full length wrap-around held with jeweled pin at the shoulder and topped by a silk jacket. I did not become a fan of the gentlemen’s Gho, a knee-length woven kimono or bathrobe-like wrap worn with knee high black socks and dress shoes. There are no touts and hotel, restaurant and tour staff are still shy about accepting tips. In another generation there will be no more Shangri-La, but hopefully there will be a young and vibrant nation which truly can balance the traditional with modernization and liberate GNH from artfulness.