Voices of Bhutan
Why Yangphel?
Find a Trek or Tour
Customize a Trip
Virtual Tours
Interactive Map
eMail Postcard
Traveler Info
Questions & Answers
Contact Yangphel
Site Map & Credits
Articles and Submissions
from the Land of the Thunder Dragon and Beyond
 Articles > Travel

Heaven & Earth by James Truman

Arriving in Bhutan for the first time can give a person a bad case of the Shangri-las. The dirty monsoon heat of New Delhi quickly becomes a stifled memory, a brief stopover in Kathmandu the staging post for the heart-stopping flight east across the Himalayas. Everest, enveloped by clouds this afternoon, cedes to a hundred-mile chain of monumental, lethal snow cones with the legendary names of Gauri Shankar, Lhotse, Kanchenjunga, and, to the east, Jannu, known to its visitors as the Peak of Terror (and successfully climbed for the first time only this year). Then the plane begins its descent, and the darkly wooded crests and ridges of the Himalayan foothills mark our crossing into Bhutan.

• Marijuana grows wild, and voluminously, throughout the country. But, miraculously, there is no drug trade in Bhutan—nor, from what I can discover, even a single pothead. Only the pig farmers harvest the accidental crop, to fatten their animals. They've discovered that it gives pigs an insatiable appetite.

• The painted penises are an unashamed petition to the fertility god, and not just for the Bhutanese. In recent years women from all over the world have been coming to Bhutan in hopes of receiving Kunley's fertility assistance.

Think Buddhist Bhutan is an otherworldly aerie in the clouds? Not quite... James Truman discovers that spirituality, in this land of dzongs, divine madmen, and Gross National Happiness, comes with a healthy dollop of carnality

Arriving in Bhutan for the first time can give a person a bad case of the Shangri-las. The dirty monsoon heat of New Delhi quickly becomes a stifled memory, a brief stopover in Kathmandu the staging post for the heart-stopping flight east across the Himalayas. Everest, enveloped by clouds this afternoon, cedes to a hundred-mile chain of monumental, lethal snow cones with the legendary names of Gauri Shankar, Lhotse, Kanchenjunga, and, to the east, Jannu, known to its visitors as the Peak of Terror (and successfully climbed for the first time only this year). Then the plane begins its descent, and the darkly wooded crests and ridges of the Himalayan foothills mark our crossing into Bhutan. The approach to the Paro airport is notoriously dicey; only a handful of pilots are certified to attempt it. A series of hard banks and looping figure eights puts us alongside a cliff face, and suddenly we're a wing's length from Bhutan's most famous site, the monastery of Taktshang Goemba, held in miraculous suspension halfway up the rock wall. One final bank and we just clear the chimney of a house beneath us, then bounce to the ground, roaring to a halt a few yards shy of the runway's end. Out in the cool afternoon air, we're still somewhere between earth and sky. Billowing mists cascade down the hillsides toward the valley floor, while funnels of smoke spiral up to meet them—the sacred offerings of alder wood and juniper that burn constantly, scenting the air. The impression is magical, the invitation compelling. Here, it seems, is a place to rest one's head in the clouds.

The drive into the town of Paro takes us along a narrow country road lined with willow trees; beyond lie meadows and rice fields and clusters of farmhouses in the traditional Bhutanese style, handsome and baronial with their white-plastered walls and timbered beams. Pedestrians thread the roadway, all of them in some manner of national dress. And in one form or another, everyone does wear a dress. We pass farmers sporting the gho—the male costume of a patterned smock worn with knee-high socks—and monks on afternoon recess in the traditional Tibetan Buddhist robes of saffron and burgundy. Packs of schoolgirls seem to be competing for who can wear the most colorful kira, the kimonolike dress that for women fulfills every duty, from farmwork to fashion statement. We see a group of girls being hauled into the back of a police truck. Have they gone too far? Not at all. With so few crimes to solve, the police fill their days with other things, such as ferrying children to and from school.

Meanwhile, through an open window I detect a pungent, dimly familiar smell and glance out at what looks like a giant marijuana bush. My hunch is correct. Marijuana grows wild, and voluminously, throughout the country. But, miraculously, there is no drug trade in Bhutan—nor, from what I can discover, even a single pothead. Only the pig farmers harvest the accidental crop, to fatten their animals. They've discovered that it gives pigs an insatiable appetite.
Paro itself is a broad main street of shops and tiny bars, with a town square that doubles as a parking lot. Most of the merchants sell exactly the same things at exactly the same prices. The Wal-Mart philosophy has yet to arrive in Bhutan. Shopping here is based not on bargains or convenience but on long-standing relationships between families and shopkeepers. There is no agony of loyalty: You shop according to friendship.

We stop on the other side of town, at our first hotel. Tourism in Bhutan is so recent—it began only in 1974, after the coronation of the present king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck—that there is no consensus about how visitors should be architecturally acclimated. Our hotel, the Kyichu Resort, is built in a fanciful Alpine Modern style; our rooms, though perfectly clean and comfortable, are wedges in a concrete octagon.

Our traveling party numbers four: my friend Sebastian Beckwith, an epicurean tea merchant and old Bhutan hand; Sonam, our driver, who has recently left the monastic life to become a soldier ("less hard," he explains); and Karma Lotey, our tour organizer and guide (www.yangphel.com) . There are generally two kinds of trips available to visitors: the trekking tour and the cultural tour. I'd opted for the latter, with a few days of trekking thrown in. Over dinner at a tiny restaurant in Paro, the Sonam Trophel, where we are the only customers, Karma goes over the itinerary. I was warned about Bhutanese food before leaving New York; Ruth Reichl, the editor of Gourmet, assured me that it was well known to be the world's worst cuisine. In fact, she was investigating a story that the king was negotiating with some chefs in Bangkok to invent a few national dishes less off-putting to visitors. Our dinner, which will turn out to be the best of the trip, is an appetizing multicourse affair of fried beef dumplings, chicken soup, a vegetable casserole, deep-fried chicken, and the popular ema datse, hot peppers stewed with cubes of cheese. Pungent and sour, it is an acquired taste, and there are many opportunities to acquire it: It is the national custom to eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

During Karma's briefing, it becomes clear that being a travel guide in Bhutan is no ordinary task. The usual particulars of history—of great leaders and commemorated dates and authenticated happenings—are in short supply, either lost or unrecorded. And what is known doesn't make for light reading. Buddhism's arrival in Bhutan in the eighth century unleashed a thousand years of bloody conflict between rival schools and sects, interrupted only by pitched battles with warmongering lamas invading from Tibet. In the seventeenth century, a layer of civil government was added to the theocracy, plunging the country into nearly two hundred years of civil war. The appearance of the British in India led to another hundred years of skirmishes, squabbles, and uneasy truces. So while Bhutan's survival as the world's last Buddhist kingdom has an aura of grace to it, the visitor has to give up the idea that it's because the people are New Age peaceniks.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Bhutanese prefer to relate their history through folklore and legends. In this version, the country's founding story occurs in the middle of the eighth century, when a reincarnate Buddha, Guru Rinpoche, unified both Bhutan and Tibet under Buddhism, first subduing the local animistic deities and then, in an enlightened example of missionary work, installing them as protectors of the new religion. Thus was born the fascinating interplay of historic and prehistoric traditions that still defines this country's (and Tibet's) religious practices. In one of Guru Rinpoche's most celebrated feats, he rode a winged tigress over the mountains of central Bhutan to alight on a cliff ledge outside Paro. This is the site of Taktshang Goemba, the monastery we saw from the plane the day before. It seems like a promising place to begin, so the next day we set off for the long hike up.

Today is a public holiday, "The Day of Rain," marking the end of the monsoon season. Though the sky is a hard, brilliant blue, Karma assures me that it will rain before nightfall. As we apply ourselves to the upward trek, groups of schoolgirls wearing the traditional full-length kira come barreling past us, shyly amused by the lead-footed foreigners. The heavy traffic, Karma explains, is the result of the country's being in a special period of mourning, occasioned by the recent death of the Royal Grandmother, the wife of the present king's grandfather. In a few weeks, her body will be carried in procession across the country for cremation; until then, according to Buddhist belief, prayers and pilgrimages will still have a beneficial effect on determining her next earthly incarnation.

Ascending through pine forests, we emerge in a clearing to find a teahouse and a group of German hikers, our first sighting of fellow tourists. The trek to Taktshang Goemba is the obligatory first-day warm-up for hiking tours, acclimating visitors to both the rugged climbs and the airless nine-thousand-foot elevation. After this, they'll be off the map for ten or fourteen days, in the highlands where (many Bhutanese believe) yeti still prowl. Together, we grit our teeth and sip cups of butter tea, the national beverage made of meat stock and yak butter. (It tastes much as you would expect.)
A short climb puts us on a lookout shelf directly across from the monastery, which is closed to foreigners. But the miracle is fully apparent from across the gorge. Guru Rinpoche's arrival by flying tigress may sound like a story, but the human feat of building a monastery into the face of a sheer cliff couldn't have happened without it.

So the story resonates with a kind of fulfilled truth. And since open-fire cooking and continuously burning butter lamps ensure that monasteries are vulnerable to regular devastation (this one last burned down in 1998), the toil of reconstruction marries story and fact in perpetuity, keeping both alive.
We turn around and make a leisurely descent, stopping to chat with a middle-aged man who is sweeping the path with a homemade twig brush. I am intrigued that someone would spend his holiday engaged in this particularly useless task. He explains to us that he is accumulating merit. With both their present lifetime and many thousand forthcoming reincarnations to worry about, the Bhutanese devote themselves to accumulating merit—and thereby erasing bad karma—with the ardor of pilgrims. While I'm mulling this over, another man joins our party, jabbering in an excited approximation of English. He is returning from the monastery and is joyously, wholeheartedly, astoundingly drunk. I notice that Karma and Sonam treat both men—the do-gooder and the good-for-nothing—with equal graciousness and respect. There's a practical aspect to this: In a small country of large, related families, ripples of conflict make big waves. But one also begins to see that a Buddhist culture holds pride and shame, piety and earthliness, as something other than polar opposites. Just as we reach the end of our trek, the perfect blue sky clouds over, and to Karma's unsurprised satisfaction, it begins to pour.

From its mountainous border with Tibet to the north, Bhutan slowly descends south and east in a series of forested ridges and lush valleys. All travel is a labor-intensive procession of heaving ascents and plunging, twisting downhills. The public buses making the cross-country trek earned the nickname of Vomit Comets from the first generation of visitors, and as the name has stuck, so have tourists taken to the more commodious means of minibuses and SUVs. Our small group climbs into a black Toyota for the two-hour hop to Thimphu. A tiny village until the 1960s, when the present king's father decreed it the new capital, Thimphu is now an almost-bustling town of fifty thousand, with a raggedy commercial main street of government offices, traditional shops, and new mini-malls. A kind of Beverly Hills is taking shape in the slopes above it—an enclave of guarded driveways and smart, Western-style apartment buildings. But the core of the town is its dzong, the magnificently medieval fortress that, reflecting Bhutan's power-sharing arrangements, houses the separate offices of the king, top government ministers, and the Central Monk Body, the Bhutanese Vatican. Surrounding it, rather incongruously, is Bhutan's only golf course.

My hope in Thimphu is to meet some of the royal family, who enjoy the nation-defining popularity once shared by the British Windsors. This seems especially notable since the king has four wives, all of them sisters, and has had children with each (a fact the Bhutanese don't find nearly as fascinating as foreigners do). But the situation has been complicated by the Royal Grandmother's death, and negotiations for our visit seem to have stalled.
And then, after lunch, we receive a summons: We will be allowed to pay our respects to the Royal Grandmother. We pile into the SUV and take off past the dzong and the foreign ministry and head out of town. Soldiers line the road as we turn into a private driveway that leads past the royal palace and uphill to a clearing where two brightly colored marquee tents flutter in the gathering wind and rain. We're led toward them and sit on benches surrounded by obediently silent schoolchildren. An attendant offers us tea or coffee; when I decline, she looks quietly furious and tells me I must have a cup. A few moments later, an older woman wearing Western makeup—the first I've seen—approaches, proffering a newly opened pack of Benson & Hedges. Not wanting to make the same mistake twice, I take one, and we sit together smoking, watching the misty squalls roll down the hillside toward us, bemused spectators at some washed-out Felliniesque pageant. From the nervous chatter around us, I slowly deduce that I am actually sharing a smoke with royalty—this is the king's aunt.
Invisible ice has been broken, for we are quickly led back to the SUV and escorted up the hill to a modest bungalow that once served as the Royal Grandmother's meditation retreat and is now the scene of her lying in state. Billowing clouds of incense and the gravelly sound of Buddhist chanting fire the air with a voluptuous solemnity. A dozen or so monks, some of them mere children, are wearily intoning the sutras of death and rebirth; they've been here for weeks, barely sleeping, and they will remain for several weeks more until the funeral procession heads east. In Buddhist culture—and one where, until recently, the life expectancy was in the low forties—death is held as an opportunity as much as an ending, the necessary bridge between lifetimes. For the Bhutanese, the Royal Grandmother also served as a bridge between generations, and their mourning is freighted with history. Her husband was the second king in the royal lineage that, beginning in 1907, brought an end to the centuries of civil war, skirmishes with Tibet, and struggles with the British colonizers to the south. A delightful fictionalized memoir of this period, The Hero with a Thousand Eyes, tells the story of the second king's court: With its unfathomable intrigues, capricious punishments, and outrageous entitlements, it could be the story of any feudal, medieval kingdom. Except this one occurred in the era of Roosevelt and Churchill. Indeed, it wasn't until the ascension of the third king in 1952 that serfdom was formally abolished in Bhutan.
The handsome woman who greets us, dressed in a dark kira of mourning, is introduced as Ashi Dechen, the daughter of the third king and the sister of the current king. She leads us into an airy sitting room furnished in an Anglo-Indian style, and over the droning and cymbal-clattering sounds of the monks outside, we share tea and marble cake. Hearing my English accent, she reminisces about her and her brother's schooling in southern England. I struggle to picture the dislocation of a Himalayan prince and princess leaving the closed kingdom of Bhutan for 1970s Britain, with its tabloid press and Socialist politics and abrasive pop culture. But our conversation stays within royal protocol, with an occasional detour to discuss meditation practices and religious beliefs. At one point, I mention our difficulty in getting permission to enter some of the more sequestered monasteries. She nods her head sympathetically. From that moment on, as if by magical decree, every door in Bhutan opens to us.

The following morning we leave Thimphu for the next valley east, climbing higher this time through mists and pine forests on roads still wrecked from the monsoon rains. Bears, tigers, wolves, and antelope live freely in an environment that the government fiercely protects, for reasons of superstition as well as ecology. As we drive through the clouds to the pass at the ridge's peak, a chorten, or shrine, divides the road. Surrounding it, as far as the eye can see, tall masts of prayer flags bow and flutter in the cold misty air, a sight that manages to be both godforsaken and godly at the same time. In a country that still assigns deities to most actions and places, who would not anchor his or her prayers to the top of the world?
From the peak we cruise down through hairpin bends to the lush valley of Punakha. Sonam, whom I've come to regard as a reincarnated New York cabbie, honks and jousts with oncoming trucks decorated like carnival floats and roars past the wheezing, overstuffed public buses. A burst of sunshine suddenly colors the rice fields in yellow and viridian, and I see that we are now in a subtropical zone where orange trees and banana plants supplement the ubiquitous apple orchards, the backbone of a lively export trade to India. On the roofs of the white farmhouses, bright red peppers are drying in the autumn sun. Punakha was once the capital of Bhutan; in a eureka (or Brasília) moment in the 1960s, the king decided that rather than try to modernize it, he would start again, in Thimphu.

The Punakha Dzong, once the national headquarters, guards one end of the valley, at the confluence of the Pho (Father) and Mo (Mother) rivers. The dramatic location was foretold by Guru Rinpoche, and construction was begun in 1637. How much of the original remains is, like most Bhutanese history, a matter of conjecture. A fire in 1986, followed by a huge flood in 1994, destroyed half of this dzong, including the main hall, and its replacement has just been completed. We walk around it, admiring the lavish wall paintings of deities and demons (which, in Buddhist belief, are closely related if not identical). It's a strange feeling: I wonder if we would hold such reverence for a rebuilt Ponte Vecchio or a repainted Sistine Chapel. The issue of authenticity—and artistic preservation—is a recent one in Bhutan. Historically, paintings have been touched up or painted over as they've faded: The action brings merit and, besides, artistic styles have stayed within a continuum of tradition. (It's also worth remembering that a quintessential form of Buddhist art, the mandala, is a celebration of impermanence.) But with the country's opening to Western eyes, its older treasures have become more valued. And protected: At a similar moment in Nepal's history, its cultural heritage was being scavenged and sold off. So while more visitors are being admitted to Bhutan, the doorways to its greatest art are quietly starting to close.

Our visit to the dzong is a few weeks short of the resident monks' return here for the winter season. A small caretaker staff is in place, along with a herd of dirty-faced initiates who are playing a game that involves throwing rotten fruit at one another. Upstairs in the sleeping quarters, we meet one of the monks. He shows us his dormitory, a tiny room with no beds that usually sleeps four and also serves as a workshop for making drums. His mouth is stained a deep red from chewing betel nuts, a mild, naturally occurring stimulant that rural Bhutanese seem to munch on from morning till night (at first glance, everyone looks like they just went a round with Mike Tyson). He is a lifer, one among the tens of thousands supported by the government. Back in Thimphu, I will get to meet reincarnated lamas—the kind that get us foreigners hot for spiritual fireworks—but it strikes me that the everyday reality of Bhutan's Buddhist state lies here, in a gentle, toothless old monk whose family once found him a reprieve from rural poverty in the local monastery and whose exclusively religious education ensures that he'll never leave. Later, we watch the ragamuffin boys in their evening class being drilled in a chanted prayer. But for differences in language and doctrine, I imagine we could be in any Catholic monastery during the Middle Ages. It comes as a mild relief to walk outside and see the townspeople congregating for Bhutan's other popular religion, the game of soccer. Even the king likes to play: He dares the opposition by keeping goal.

The next day we haul ourselves up and over to the neighboring valley of Bumthang, Guru Rinpoche's first destination in Bhutan and now the revered site of numerous sacred temples and monuments. Preparations are under way for the arrival of the funeral cortege in two weeks, and road crews are out in force. Nevertheless, the main street, a muddy tract bordered by shops and guesthouses, has an untamed Wild West aspect to it; the Bhutanese seem to share with us a romantic inclination for rougher times. In the surrounding hills are the caves where Guru Rinpoche once lived and meditated, and it is to these that the Bhutanese repair for contemplation. Retreats are a crucial part of Bhutanese life—an enforced shift from doing to being. But as life speeds up, the doing naturally predominates. And so, testing the Buddhist belief in human interconnectedness, many Bhutanese no longer make their own retreats; they sponsor monks to do it for them.

At the beginning of our two-day trek the following morning, we climb through wildflower meadows and pine forests to a small temple built into a rock face. The lone resident monk is instructing a visitor in some detail of ritual, and we're invited to attend. As they chant and pray, incense smoke trails through the open screen windows behind us, tracing a passage between the hard blue sky and the hushed forests below. It's easy to fall into a picture of a life in retreat up here; but it's easier to leave, to keep moving. On our way out, we pass the cabin of a man who stayed, now several months into a year's solitude. From inside we hear a low moaning, a sound that haunts me for days; I have no idea if I've eavesdropped on a conversation with the divine or the later stages of a nervous breakdown. Afterwards, I ask a senior monk who's completed the obligatory three-year retreat what I'm to make of this. He shrugs and suggests that the difference between the two is not as significant as I might think.

Our hike takes us deep into the valley, through alpine meadows and terraced rice paddies. At journey's end, we set up camp beside a large, traditional Bhutanese farmhouse, the home of the local village's chief, a rustic swashbuckler whom everyone addresses in English as Uncle. We're invited into his house for tea, and it's a shock to see that even the more prosperous Bhutanese live without furniture. A whole family will sleep in one room, which is often the kitchen, on floor mats; another large room will hold the family shrine; the rest of the space is used mostly for agricultural storage. Over tea, it becomes apparent that there is a family drama involving Uncle's daughter, a ravishing young woman of twenty-four. Her husband of two years is in America studying, leaving behind a son he's never seen. His most recent letter announced that he was staying on for two more years and couldn't raise the money to make a visit home. What makes the situation especially delicate is that the faithless husband is Karma's younger brother. As Uncle and Karma go at it in Dzongkha, the most common of Bhutan's multitude of languages, I gather enough meaning to work up a typical Western response: outrage against the transgressor, pity for the victim. Yet neither of the parties seems to share my reaction. Later, Karma explains that this is just a cordial negotiation about child support. As in all disputes, it is understood that karmic destiny ultimately plays the cards; individuals do the best they can within a clearly rigged game.
That night after dinner, Uncle commandeers the young women from the village to entertain us around the fire with traditional songs and dances. I had begun the evening by sampling some of the wild marijuana. Uncle, meanwhile, had worked his way through several tumblers of arra, the local moonshine. Together we make an appreciative audience, and the girls perform with gusto, singing in high, keening voices reminiscent of Chinese folk melodies. During one particularly heart-wrenching tune, I ask Karma what the girls are singing about. "This is a very beautiful song about impermanence," he explains. I ask if Bhutanese schoolgirls are much concerned with impermanence. "Almost certainly not," he replies, howling with delight.

The meeting of spirituality and earthliness may be Bhutan's most delicious mystery. Driving across the country, the first thing you notice is the religious apparatus: the shrines and temples and prayer flags. The second is the multitude of houses adorned with colorful drawings of penises—small, medium, and large, but mostly extra large. While these do duty as atavistic symbols of fertility, they also underscore the casualness with which the Bhutanese approach sex. The courting rituals of the young would, in the States, probably qualify as date rape. (The popular teenage practice of night hunting involves boys breaking into their crush's home and pouncing while the family sleeps.) Nevertheless, women hold equal status in marriage, inherit most of the family property, and, as far as I can tell, have no inhibitions about expressing themselves. One day, feeling queasy from the pepper-heavy diet, we go to a country market to look for bananas. The market women find this inexpressibly hilarious. They make numerous suggestions to Karma about where the foreign men should look for their bananas. One says that we'd be better off buying her cabbage. We leave the market empty-handed and red-faced.

The patron saint of Bhutanese mischief is a seventeenth-century lama called Drukpa Kunley, also known as the Divine Madman. Kunley is so popular in Bhutan that the national newspaper publishes an ongoing comic strip devoted to his legend. In the holy-fool tradition, he wandered the land doing battle with demons, carousing freely, and insulting all religious dogma. His crazy-adept verses and sexual antics—exposure to his Flaming Thunderbolt was said to bestow enlightenment—were recently published in English, and they're irresistible reading. One typical segment has him interrupting the devout prayers of prostrating monks with his own litany, which ends:
I bow to philanthropists with self-
seeking motives;
I bow to traders who exchange wisdom
for wealth;
I bow to renunciates who gather
wealth secretly;
I bow to prattlers who never listen;
I bow to tramps who reject a home;
I bow to the bums of insatiate whores.

Kunley's status as a saint holds true to an aspect of Tibetan, or Tantric, Buddhism that embraces sexuality as a gateway to enlightenment. But he may also embody the animistic beliefs that Buddhism overlays. The painted penises are an unashamed petition to the fertility god, and not just for the Bhutanese. In recent years women from all over the world have been coming to Bhutan in hopes of receiving Kunley's fertility assistance.

We make our own pilgrimage to his monastery, Chimi Lhakhang, on our drive back through the Punakha Valley. A brisk half-hour walk through rice fields and up a grassy hill brings us to the white-walled compound that, to my astonishment, also houses a school for young monks. We find the resident lama inside the main temple attending to an altar laden with offering bowls of arra. I ask him about the school and how one goes about teaching holy foolishness. He counters that Kunley's actions were the spontaneous expressions of an enlightened being and cannot be understood or tolerated in an initiate. (In other words, don't try this at home.) Before he can elucidate, our attention is drawn to two young couples who have just arrived carrying newborn infants. Both were apparently conceived after visits to the Kunley shrine, and the parents are now asking the lama to name them. With an unimaginable nonchalance, he strolls over to the altar and retrieves a longbow, a horn-shaped flask, and a large bamboo phallus, and while touching each baby on the side of the head with the latter, announces their names. As we say our good-byes and leave, I realize that I've just witnessed two children being baptized with a dildo.

Traveling through Bhutan, hoping to make sense of its multiple personalities, one is reminded of Charles de Gaulle and his exasperated comment about the impossibility of governing a country with 246 different kinds of cheese. The situation in Bhutan somehow seems worse: nineteen different languages, two competing schools of Buddhism (with growing Hinduism in the south), hundreds of national and regional deities, many with numerous manifestations and conflicting meanings, climate zones ranging from mountain glaciers to tropical valleys to sunbaked plains, and only one main road. The ringmaster of this unruly enterprise begins to assume the aspect of a hero, for visitors as well as for the Bhutanese. His photograph is everywhere, in temples and shops and street-corner bars. The king is now in his thirty-second year on the throne (he landed there at age sixteen), and to him has fallen the epic, camel-through-the-eye-of-a-needle task of bringing Bhutan into the modern world without destroying it. Around him lie only cautionary tales: Tibet, insular and isolationist, occupied by China since 1951; tiny undefended Sikkim, annexed by India in 1975; and laissez-faire Nepal, overdeveloped and overrun by tourists, plundered of its national treasures.

The king's solutions include a push toward economic self-reliance, a preserved—some would say enforced—national identity, and a reduction of his own powers. In 1998, in a largely unpopular move, he handed the daily administration over to a national assembly, which he also invested with the power to vote him out of office in an annual referendum. This isn't quite a democracy—the king chooses the candidates who stand for election to the assembly. But this is supposedly an interim measure before he unveils the fruits of his present labor, which is nothing less than the writing of Bhutan's first constitution.
Adulation of the king is widespread and contagious. It is the national climate. I start to picture him as a kind of Kennedy-Jefferson-Emerson hybrid—a charismatic, God-chosen genius dreaming a new nation into being, equal parts visionary, emperor, and monk. While the four queens live up in the Beverly Hills section of Thimphu, the king lives alone in a modest log cabin that he built himself, and is said to spend his private time in quiet contemplation. The cabin's entrance, at the foot of a hill just outside town, is manned by guards, but petitioners still sometimes congregate in the mornings and the king will hear their grievances. Sadly, he rarely meets foreign journalists. However, Sebastian has used his connections to gain an audience with the king's confidant, the home minister Lyonpo Jigme Thinley, and one bright morning we head down to the capital dzong for our appointment. Compared with the regional dzongs we've visited, this one feels brisk and businesslike. The Central Monk Body occupies one end, the king's offices take up a corner tower, and the top government ministers are housed in the rest. From the middle of the inner courtyard, rising with the mad, voluptuous geometry of a beached galleon, the utse, a three-story structure of private chapels, holds the center.

We are ushered into a well-appointed second-floor reception room to meet the lyonpo (minister), an elegant middle-aged man of weathered face and martial bearing. My immediate interest was to question him about Gross National Happiness, a core Bhutanese philosophy on which he had spoken widely. Introduced as an idea by the king in the late eighties, Gross National Happiness can first strike cynical Western ears as a dodge—something dreamed up by an international ad agency to cover the bald spots in a threadbare economy. But listening to the lyonpo, I begin to understand GNH—which is essentially the quantifying of progress in measurements both spiritual and material—as the ingenious melding of Buddhist mindfulness with everyday pragmatism. "Our first question about any new program is to ask how it will contribute to Gross National Happiness," he explains, before rattling off the four supporting structures of GNH. The first, to create equal education and health care throughout the country, is already succeeding. Life expectancy has risen from a dismal forty-eight years to more than sixty-three in just fifteen years, and the literacy rate from seventeen percent to forty-eight percent. The second is rigorously enforced green policies that keep twenty-six percent of Bhutan as protected forestland and an agreement with India to build hydroelectric plants in the country's narrow, teeming gorges that promises clean energy and economic deliverance. The third is the forthcoming national constitution, the final step to a multiparty democracy. And the fourth leg in GNH is the promotion and preservation of traditional Bhutanese culture.

It's around the last one that things get a little sticky. Fifteen years ago, the Bhutanese government began expelling tens of thousands of Nepalese immigrants after a census showed that they were becoming a majority of the population. At the same time, the wearing of the gho and the kira, the traditional Bhutanese dress, became mandatory in schools and public offices. On our travels, we see a lot of Bhutanese, especially the young, walking about in Western-style clothes without censure. We also see many Nepalese men, women, and children, but we see them exclusively on the sides of the roads, living in tarpaulin shantytowns, working on road gangs. Their underclass status is unmissable.

The closer one looks, the easier it becomes to see a government presence in many aspects of daily life. At the new video game parlors in Thimphu, inspectors drop by to check that no one is playing games with violent content. Cable TV recently arrived—but only the channels approved by the government. At the end of our journey east, in the beautiful wildlife preserve of the Phobjikha Valley, we spend an evening with the local populace, watching a variety show put on by the district high school. In the first sketch, a group of children ridicule an old farmer for not enrolling in the government's literacy program for adults. The audience laps it up, but I find myself speculating that I could have seen a similar entertainment a few hundred miles north, in China, during Mao's Great Leap Forward.

None of the Bhutanese I talk with seem unduly bothered by this. Their faith in their leaders is at times awe-inspiring, at times scary. "Our hope is that Bhutan will not be unique but will set an example for the rest of the world," the lyonpo had said to me. Implicit in his hope was another: that Bhutan—or at least the government of Bhutan—can set its own terms as it opens to the world. It has already achieved this in the first wave of tourism. All visitors have to go through a government-approved agency and must spend a minimum of two hundred dollars a day. But the economy needs a second wave of tourism. One day, I fall into conversation with an official from the World Bank, which is heavily invested in Bhutan. He paints a less rosy picture than does the Bhutanese government: The hydroelectric deal with India is so in India's favor that Bhutan won't benefit for at least a decade; the much-touted philanthropy of foreign nations is usually less in the actuality than in the announcement; and even the green policies are threatened unless tourism revenues grow significantly.
And so it is that in the bars and restaurants of Thimphu, where Western-style entertainment (and its corollary, Western-style boredom) fill the evening hours, every Bhutanese I meet introduces himself or herself as a travel agent. It becomes a running joke—we estimate that travel agents now outnumber local deities. The nightly conversation turns around Christina Ong, the Hong Kong billionaire who is opening a luxury hotel in Paro, and Amanresorts, the ultraluxe Asian chain that is building six boutique hotels across the country with the idea that guests will spend a couple of nights in each and travel by foot and in a fleet of SUVs between them. Out in the Phobjikha Valley, where black-necked cranes migrate for winter, we had watched the bulldozers lay foundations for one of the Aman hotels, Paro's now-completed Amankora, with beautiful views of a restored temple and an ethereal landscape beyond. This may be a lovely way to see Bhutan, but it could also mark the beginning of the country's transformation into an upscale Dharma Disneyland. Or perhaps that's too easy an assumption. The lesson of every nation's history, and a vital tenet of Tibetan Buddhism, is that thinking you know what comes next is the pinnacle of folly and delusion.





Bhutan Overview
Voices of Bhutan
Culture & Religion
Society & Economy
Arts & Crafts
Photo Gallery
Links & References