Happy Together

Tradition meets modernity in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. Story and Photography by Kate Siber

After four days in the hills, Thimpu, the capital city with a population of 50,000, seemed like a buzzing metropolis. Its main thoroughfare of handicraft stores and general shops seem to successfully sell the exact same things: bottles of Fanta, bags of Lay’s, plastic trinkets, and leather shoes. The heart of the town is the spectacular dzong, where the nation’s assembly meets. The city is one of the few places in the country where one can watch a movie in a grand theater or go out to a half-dozen discos. Overall, though, Thimpu is extraordinarily mellow. It is often noted that it’s the only capital in the world with no stoplights. Instead, the centers of rotaries are filled with colorful, long-stemmed blooms, or a traffic cop whose directions seem to be a mix of air-traffic control signals and an imaginative, ballet-like dance.

Thimpu, however small, is still the center of Bhutan’s fragile fledgling economy, which is the pivotal factor in the country’s path toward sustainable development. The tourism industry, which employs a large percentage of the population, seems to promise a favorable source of income for the country. In 2005, visitors brought more than $18 million into Bhutan, which has a miniscule GDP of $840 million. But many worry that tourism, paired with unchecked modernization, could threaten Bhutan’s unique culture—and with it, the experience of a remote, untouched cranny that tourists seek there.

The government’s solution of low-volume, high-yield tourism, enforced by a daily $200 tariff and required guides, has helped limit visitors while maintaining economic benefits. In order to disperse the impacts, the Department of Tourism has started to promote other seasons and develop new attractions. In addition to new community-based treks, outfitters are offering mountain biking and rafting trips.

After a night carousing in the Thimpu bars, we made the twisting eight-hour drive to central Bhutan. Long, looping drives are integral to any trip to Bhutan, as the roads are seldom wider than one-and-a-half lanes and, according to a believable rumor, have an average of 17 curves per kilometer. Speeds upward of 30 miles per hour are virtually unheard of. On our way, we navigated around cows and yaks in the middle of the road, and glimpsed daily life in the tiny villages, terraced rice paddies, and orchards that punctuate the steep forests. Inside the car, Chencho and Phuntsho reminisced about their old flames as we listened to their collections of Eminem, Shakira, and Guns N’ Roses.

We visited a farmhouse that once belonged to a queen’s servant. One room was entirely occupied by an elaborate shrine, and the woman of the house said her family of four happily survived on a two-burner gas range, a carpet for eating, one mattress and a mess of blankets.

And while Westerners worry about the potential loss of cultural values and natural resources, for the Bhutanese people, the march toward the future provides some very tangible benefits. In the late ’50s, Bhutan’s entire school system consisted of 11 schools and fewer than 500 children. Today, access to education and health care is widespread. In 1960, the life expectancy of the average Bhutanese was about 38 years; today, it is about 66.

Before leaving central Bhutan and making our way back to Paro, we spent a morning at the Jakar dzong watching the tsechu. The dance was central to my experience of the traditional side of Bhutan, but like many travelers, I discovered some of the most beautiful parts of the country in accidental details. I loved how the big trucks that throttle and choke down the skinny, winding, one-and-a-half lane highways are decorated in tinsel, decals, colorful pictures of animals, sequins, and painted exclamations of “Good luck!” I loved sitting down in a restaurant in Paro next to monks reading the paper, smoking cigarettes, and idly chatting like the happy, old men one sees in town squares in virtually every country in the world. I loved lying in my tent in the mountains during my trek, listening to the voices of my guides, cook, and horsemen rise into eerie Himalayan melodies before they drifted off to sleep. I loved rambling through the Punakha dzong’s temple and hearing the dull, sobering, reverberating thumps of my socked feet as I treaded the ancient floorboards.

On my last night in the country, Chencho and I drove the twisting, dust-choked road back to Paro. While he fixed a flat tire, I visited the Paro dzong one last time. As I crossed the bridge, festooned with prayer flags, and climbed the stone pathway up and up, I passed curious schoolgirls and boys and admired the immense medieval structure, imposing against the cloudless twilight.

The dzong guard almost didn’t let me in without a guide, but then he flashed a smile and looked the other way. I was all alone in the empty stone courtyard, but I could hear the murmuring of monks, the fluttering of robes and pigeons’ wings, and the quiet footsteps in the hallways. Down a couple dozen steep steps, another courtyard looked out over the few lights of Paro, the bends in the river, and terraced rice paddies. A teenage monk followed me. I looked right, he went left; I looked left, he went right. Two older monks entered and he went skittering away, giggling.

As I was about to leave, I heard, “Psst! Miss! Miss!” from one corner. A young monk beckoned. Through minimal English and sign language, he intimated that I was to make a donation. He tied a red string blessed by the Paro lama around my neck as his two companions chortled into their long-robed arms. He then motioned for me to enter the temple via a passageway. Inside, three dozen teenage monks sat chanting over Sanskrit scriptures, until they saw me.

First one, then three, then a dozen, then most all of them stopped to look at me, to watch me pass as I ambled the ancient creaking floorboards. Some smiled shyly, others beamed up at me with grins, and some brave ones waved me over to them, laughing and staring.

“Where are you from?” asked one.

“Where do you live?” asked another. They became braver as I answered.

“You’ve beauty!” said one.

“You’ve beautiful!” said another as the three dozen of them giggled, eyes twinkling, in my direction. After I waved goodbye, I walked out, pulled my shoes on, and dawdled in the breezy courtyard, as a lemon-wedge moon rose over the wall. I knew the monks’ expressions were no come-ons, but simple, lovely expressions of curiosity. They may have never seen a Westerner my age, 26, alone.

On my flight out of Paro the next day, while I watched immaculate forests spread beneath us, I wondered how Bhutan might look in five years, whether its strong Buddhist traditions could survive the encroaching Western consumerism, and whether this concept of Gross National Happiness could sustainably see the country into the 21st century. I thought of one afternoon Chencho and I spent hiking to two tiny temples tucked high in the hills outside of Paro. On the way back down, I asked him what he would change about his life.

"Nothing,” he said.

“Nothing?” I asked, incredulously. “You’re perfectly happy?” Everyone wants to change something.

“Yes, perfectly happy.”

“That’s hard to believe.”

“I wouldn’t change a thing. I’m perfectly happy,” he said simply. I wasn’t convinced.

Along the narrow path, we watched schoolboys on their way home, while bent old women carrying loads of rice stalks nodded as we passed. As I watched the afternoon light wane over the lime-green rice paddies, crawling the hills until overtaken by a salad bowl of pines, rhododendrons, and ferns, I thought I began to understand at least one indomitable thread of the spirit of Bhutan’s people. And at that particular moment, I began to believe him.

Previous Page 1 2 3

TrackBack URL for this entry:

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

« Happy Together