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?
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.
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.