SPECIAL FEATURE // On Bhutan, land of the thunder dragon

I can say this with certainty: Bhutan is the most fascinating place I’ve ever encountered.

I first heard about Bhutan in my Year 11 Economics class. It was mentioned fleetingly in documentary we were watching in class, but had always stuck in my mind. Bhutan is the world leader in measuring their economy’s success through Gross National Happiness. It makes you feel all warm and fuzzy thinking about that notion. In practical terms, it isn’t measured in smiles (that would be nice though), but uses the concept of happiness as based on a number of criteria – healthcare, education, income, etc. – that give a holistic view of the country, rather than just national income, or production.

Achieving Gross National Happiness is built on a foundation of 4 principles that permeate Bhutan’s society:

  1.  Economic self-reliance
  2.  Preservation of the environment
  3.  Good governance
  4.  Cultural preservation

Bhutan was really late to join the cohort of developing nations, after years and years of a policy of total independence and isolation. As a result, the first public services – hospitals, schools, roads etc – were only built in the 1960s. They’d only heard of cutlery 40 odd years back. They don’t have any traffic lights.

But for a country so behind time-wise, they are leaps and bounds beyond many nations – developed world included – and has undergone radical change at breakneck speed. They watched the entire world grow and develop, and sat back and thought ‘ok, so this is how we do it’. It has amazing electricity and connectivity, and even exports electricity to India, courtesy of hydropower. Nepal could learn a lot from these guys about how to handle power, and the west could learn how to do so sustainably. In fact, it has some amazing sustainability policies, such as a law that 65% of the land is protected forest. They don’t really need to worry about that though because it’s at 70% now, just because.

They also have a unique approach to tourism. To visit the country you have to pay US$250 per day (US$200 in low season), and be accompanied by a tour guide at all points. Aside from the obvious downside (price), this is an interesting model. The price includes almost all costs for the trip – you could go your entire time there without spending anything more. It also means you get a local tour guide, driver and air conditioned car, so you’re travelling in style. As it’s government mandated, the 300+ tour providers essentially offer the same or very similar itineraries so I’m not sure the tour company you pick makes too much of a material difference. The implication of these policies is that you have drastically fewer tourists (which is a relief for everyone!), and therefore much better photos! But it also means the people who visit Bhutan are only those genuinely interested in the country and have a much more meaningful engagement in the culture, and the tourism industry doesn’t follow the exploitative and disingenuous nature that so many countries have gone down.

Bhutanese people are almost all Buddhist, and are kind, proud of their heritage, intelligent and curious. One would think that amongst the younger generations there would be some rebellion against the practical aspects of cultural preservation – for example, wearing the traditional dress which serves almost as a uniform, but I didn’t get a sense of that. They’re much more openminded and proud of their heritage. They can wear what they want most of the time, a lot of them donning Western style clothes, and are similarly sucked into their mobile phones (some things really are universal now). There isn’t a feeling of suppressing their liberties as one would think.

There is a sense of solidarity with and welcoming of Tibetan refugees. As Tibet is integral to Bhutan’s history and the presence of Buddhism, Bhutanese people are sympathetic to a Free Tibet. And it’s no wonder really, the territorial dispute is a little too close to home for them. China is already finding ways of encroaching on Bhutan’s geography by building roads that cross the border.

Their national animal is equally weird and wonderful – the takin. Not only had I never heard of it, but had also never seen anything quite like it. It looks like a bloated/stunted cross between a goat, cow and a moose.

The 100% stand-out of the trip was the stunning hike to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery, which you can check out in the photos below. Bhutan is an incredibly beautiful, and with only a handful of tourists around, it has to be one of my favourite places to photograph.

Bhutan needs to go on your bucketlist.

 

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Want to see more from my trip? Check out:

The Golden Triangle photo series – part 1 in Delhi, part 2 in Jaipur, and part 3 in Agra

On Nepali misadventures: rain, rhinos and rowing // photo diary

On Leh, the adventure capital of the Indian Himalayas

On a spectacular flight into the Himalayas: photos

On beginners’ vipassana meditation in the Himalayas

On Dharamshala and learning yoga in the clouds

On the Dalai Lama, exile in India and Free Tibet

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