Land of the Dragon: Druk Air the national airline, Druk beer (as stated on the bottle “1100 super strong”) the national beer. Druk means “thunder dragon” in Bhutanese.
Bhutan is changing quickly. Until the 1950’s there was no formal education offered outside of monasteries and no electricity in the country. Now, that is changing under a new democratic government and a benevolent (as well as revered) monarchy. On a break from the big city of Bangalore, India, I was lucky enough to have a couple of weeks to explore this wonderful place. It is like no other country that I have visited.
Bhutan is first and foremost a religious country. They have their own brand of Buddhism that is closely allied with that of Tibet. While western ways are seeping in, the traditions are still very strong in all segments of the population. Because of this dedication, the country is trying very hard to keep their culture and traditions intact.
Before arriving in Bhutan (you must fly in on Druk Air, the national airline) you also must have a guide and a visa arranged ahead of time. Bhutan has a minimum cost per tourist of about $250 per day. This fee includes a guide, basic hotel accommodations, as well as meals. If you choose to upgrade your hotel or to join a trek that requires more support, the cost per day will go up. This tourism concept by the government is unique. The idea is to encourage the high value, low impact tourism that comes from wealthier and more educated foreigners. They feel that these tourists will be less likely to have a negative cultural impact that the backpackers that crowd into the nearby areas of Sikkim, Nepal, and Tibet. In addition, by requiring a guide to accompany each group they not only provide jobs to local people but the guide acts as a cultural ambassador who not only explains the Bhutanese culture but who makes sure that tourists are respectful of the culture. The hope is that the culture and environment will better preserved for the future.
I got a chance join a fantastic 7 day trek that went close to the base of Mt.. Cholmolhari an unclimbed 24,000 ft peak. Our trek with a great group of people and a great guide, experienced warm sunny days, rain, snow, and a few pretty chilly nights. We reached an altitude high point of 16,050 and came close to the maximum endurance of my legs and lungs.
Bhutan has incredible forests, beautiful rice fields, Temple, forts, monasteries, mountains over 24,000 feet as well as jungles. Wolves, snow lepards, tigers, and elephants but it is not a paradise. The per capita GDP is about the same as Bolivia and only a little higher than India but it seems MUCH wealthier. After scratching my head for two weeks about why that is, my conclusion also explains the contentment of the citizens. I think that Bhutan has almost no corruption. While people assured me that there is corruption in Bhutan, I stand by my conclusion. Bhutan has very few of the typical earmarks of the wealthy like big fancy cars and houses, there are some, but you get a strong sense of community there that does not exist in other countries where the balance of affluence and power is askew. Corruption in developing countries is the biggest and the most ignored hurdle that LDC’s face.
Most of us have heard about Bhutan and its focus on “gross national happiness”(GNH). Before going there, I thought of it as more of a slogan aimed at creating interest for tourists. I know now though that the country and its leadership are very serious about this concept. In 2006 the king felt that the people would be happier under a democracy and he abdicated his position clearing the way for a new constitution and the first elections that were held in 2008. It seems that the GNH focus forms a lot of the policies that are falling in place in the country from strict environmental policies governing natural resources, a national ban on the sale of tobacco, and even a national pedestrian day where city and town centers are closed to auto traffic across the country every Tuesday. Cell phones have only been in place since 2003 and Bhutan was the last country in the world to have a TV network.
In other parts of the world, a lot of us would chafe at these policies because we see them as impacting personal freedom. But in Bhutan it seems that the government is trying very hard to allow the maximum amount of freedom but placing even a higher value on culture and community. It will be very interesting to see how these policies play out in the future. Yes it is expensive and hard to get to but if you have the chance, go to this wonderful place before it changes!