Bhutan: the price of par­adise

Week­end Read: the tiny Hi­malayan coun­try, which long ago de­cided to limit tourism, has de­cided it’s time to wel­come more vis­i­tors. Will this pris­tine king­dom change for­ever?

Bhutan Times - - Editorial - By Rosita Boland

Idon’t know who wrote the signs along the road that goes from Bhutan’s in­ter­na­tional air­port, at Paro, to Thim­phu, the tiny cap­i­tal, but like al­most ev­ery­thing in this re­mote Hi­malayan king­dom they are dis­tinctly mem­o­rable.

“Don’t be a gama in the land of lama,” the most orig­i­nal one in­structs. Trans­la­tion: Don’t drive crazily in the land of Bud­dha. Other road-safety rhyming cou­plets in­clude “Drive slow to avoid grave below,” “Faster spells disas­ter” and “On the bend go slow friend.”

Paro Air­port has one big and thor­oughly stir­ring ar­rival route – through the Hi­malayas, with bonus views of Everest – one small airstrip in a breath­tak­ingly gor­geous val­ley, and one small bag­gage carousel.

The pop­u­la­tion of Bhutan is about 700,000, and the best road is that be­tween the air­port and Thim­phu, 50km away. It’s one of very few that is sur­faced and the only one that ap­pears to have clearly des­ig­nated lanes. Hence the road signs, which are there to warn lo­cals to slow down on a near-ir­re­sistible stretch of fast go­ing in a coun­try where else­where it takes hours to travel a few score kilo­me­tres.

My driver, Tscher­ing Wangchuk, who is metic­u­lous ev­ery­where else he drives over the next 10 days of my time in Bhutan, speeds along the tar­ma­cked sur­face to Thim­phu that first day with undis­guised glee. He is briefly be­ing a gama in the land of lama, and no signs are go­ing to de­ter him from a rare op­por­tu­nity to nudge the speedome­ter up­wards.

High value, low vol­ume

I have a driver and a guide be­cause that’s the rule for in­ter­na­tional tourists. This has been the pol­icy since 1974, when Bhutan first opened to for­eign tourists with a “high value, low vol­ume” ethos. It was prob­a­bly the only coun­try ac­tively seek­ing low num­bers of vis­i­tors, al­beit high-spend­ing ones.

Its visas are in­ex­pen­sive, and Bhutan does not limit the num­ber it is­sues, but it does im­pose a daily tar­iff. This fixes the cost of travel for in­ter­na­tional tourists and so keeps vis­i­tor num­bers low.

In high sea­son the tar­iff is $250 (€230) a day and in low sea­son $200 (€185), with sup­ple­ments for trav­el­ling with fewer than two other vis­i­tors. The tar­iff cov­ers your guide, driver, ac­com­mo­da­tion and meals.

In 1974, 287 tourists vis­ited. By 2008 that num­ber had risen to 27,000 in­ter­na­tional tourists and 12,000 re­gional ones (which is to say peo­ple fromIn­dia, Bangladesh and the Mal­dives, who do not have to pay the daily tar­iff) .

On any scale, those fig­ures are mi­nus­cule. In 2014 Ire­land re­ceived 7.3 mil­lion tourists, a fig­ure the in­dus­try is con­tin­u­ously try­ing to in­crease. At­tract­ing more tourists has long been seen as good for an econ­omy, in­clud­ing our own, but Bhutan has al­ways aimed for some­thing rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent.

The Bhutan I ar­rive in in De­cem­ber is not very dif­fer­ent from what those first tourists in 1974 would have ex­pe­ri­enced. True, wifi is al­most ev­ery­where, but the dis­tinc­tive square houses are still built in the tra­di­tional way, and there are no ad­ver­tise­ments, in­ter­na­tional fran­chises or western cloth­ing chains to be seen. Many peo­ple still wear na­tional dress, some of it wo­ven by hand, and the land­scape re­mains pris­tine. There is no McDon­ald’s, Star­bucks, KFC or Sub­way.

Bhutan has a royal fam­ily, and the monarch, Jigme Kh­e­sar Nam­gyel Wangchuck, is called the dragon king. The king­dom is known as the Land of the Thun­der Dragon or, some­times, af­ter the Ti­betan par­adise in James Hil­ton’s novel Lost Hori­zon, as the Last Shangri-La.

The royal fam­ily is revered and re­spected, if sin­gu­lar. The fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who ruled be­tween 1972 and 2006, has four wives, all sis­ters, whom he mar­ried on the same day. I see the four sis­ters’ beau­ti­ful hand-wo­ven wed­ding ki­ras in the tex­tile mu­seum in Thim­phu.

Also on dis­play there is a “raven crown”. The raven is the na­tional bird, and a star­tlingly re­al­is­tic raven’s head is embroidered into ev­ery king’s crown. The one at the mu­seum is the orig­i­nal crown, con­ceived more as a “mag­i­cal bat­tle hel­met than a sym­bol of roy­alty”, ac­cord­ing to the text be­side it, in a line that could have come straight from one of the Grimms’ fairy tales.

The fifth king says that Jet­sun Pema, whom he mar­ried in 2011, when he was 31 and his bride was 21, will be his only wife.

Their strik­ing wed­ding pho­to­graph, show­ing them in yel­low tra­di­tional royal dress, seems to be on the wall of ev­ery pub­lic space, with blown-up ver­sions near many tem­ples and in many town cen­tres. Last Novem­ber they an­nounced that their first child, a son, will be born in Fe­bru­ary – and Bhutan re­joiced for a day and a night.

Ze­bra cross­ings

The only daily pub­li­ca­tion in Bhutan is Kuensel, an English-lan­guage pa­per of be­tween eight and 12 pages. One day in De­cem­ber it car­ries a press re­lease from the Royal Bhutan Po­lice about the re­cently in­tro­duced ze­bra cross­ings in Thim­phu – re­puted to be the only cap­i­tal city with­out traf­fic lights.

The press re­lease ex­plains how pedes­tri­ans and mo­torists should be­have at the ze­bra cross­ings: pedes­tri­ans have been lin­ger­ing on their phones at some cross­ings, and mo­torists have failed to stop at oth­ers.

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