Saturday, October 15, 2011

10 Things You May NOT Know About Bhutan...

The Tiger's Nest (Paro Taktsang Monastery)
Paro, Bhutan - 2009
Named "Druk Yul" or "Land of the Thunder Dragon" by its people, the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan has been referred to in the West as the "last Shangri-La". Bhutan's former King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, achieved fame (and much good will) as a ruler who valued his subjects' "Gross Domestic Happiness" over his country's "Gross Domestic Product".  His comments immediately spawned a world-wide debate on the economics of happiness and how it could be measured. It also fed the idealized view we have of Bhutan as an unspoiled haven, isolated from the modern world, and steeped in Buddhist spiritual values.

Rock Painting on Sacred Ledge - part of film "Travellers and Magicians"
en route between Bumthang and Thimpu, Bhutan - 2009
Punakha Dzong
Punakha, Bhutan - 2009
Bhutan is beautiful.  It is peaceful.  Its king is beloved. Bhutan is also full of contradictions, where progressive policies are superimposed on very old cultural values.  But to me, all this contributes to the country's allure. I find the place quite fascinating.

So I put together my own personal list of the 10 Things You May NOT Know About Bhutan:

1) Bhutan opened its doors to tourists in 1974. Learning from the experience of their neighbors (in particular, Nepal), Bhutan's seeks to develop "high revenue, low-impact" tourism. All tourists are required to arrange their travels through an authorized tour operator on a pre-packaged, pre-paid guided tour for which the government stipulates a minimum daily rate of $250 per person (as of 2011).

2) The Bhutanese government lifted its ban on television and the internet in 1999.

3) Bhutan has the highest original rainforest cover of any nation in the world. In addition, it is the only country in the world to be constitutionally required to maintain at least 60% of its forests for eternity.

4) Only since 2007 has Bhutan has had any autonomy in directing its own foreign policy. 
Bhutan's first monarch, King Ugyen Wangchuck, was crowned in 1907. In 1910, Bhutan and Britain entered into a treaty stipulating that in exchange for British non-interference in Bhutanese domestic matters, Bhutan would cede control of its foreign policy to the British government. When India gained its independence from Britain in 1947, this agreement continued with India directing all foreign policy. In 2007, this treaty was re-negotiated, but India and Bhutan continue to be closely tied - politically and economically.

5) Bhutan is the only country in the world where the sale of tobacco is illegal.  Plastic bags are also banned. However, the production of alcoholic products is one of its largest industries.

6) Until the 1960's, Bhutan had no roads, cars, telephones or mail service.

7) Bhutan has a population of 700,000 of which one third is under the age of 14.

8) In 2008, the first of 60,000 Bhutanese refugees arrived in the United States.  Prior to 2008, the Bhutanese community in the US was estimated at 150, living in areas surrounding Washington DC, San Francisco, Atlanta and New York City. 

Amid concern that the growing Lhotsampa ("People of the South") population (mostly ethnic Nepalese, who had for the most part retained their own religion, language and culture), would overshadow the Druk culture, the Bhutanese government enacted a series of policies in the 1980's referred to as "Bhutanization". These policies were aimed at perserving the Druk language, religion and culture. A dress code was imposed. Nepali (language) and Nepalese books were prohibited in schools. Where previously there was relatively little conflict between the groups, dissatisfaction among the Lhotsampa grew and they began to organize politically. Conflict ensued. The Bhutanese government issued new citizenship requirements and eventually tens of thousands of Lhotsampa fled the country. By 2007 there were over 100,000 Bhutanese refugees living in camps in eastern Nepal.  Unable to permanently settle in Nepal and unable to return to Bhutan, they lived in limbo. For 16 years, the governments of Nepal and Bhutan made no progress in reaching an agreement.  The two countries publicly vowed to continue talks, but in the end, welcomed third party intervention in the form of resettlement.

9) Mountain climbing is not allowed. The tallest mountain in Bhutan is Gangkhar Puensum, and it is the tallest mountain in the world that has not been summited.

10) The capital of Bhutan, Thimphu, does not have even a single traffic light. When one was put in, there were so many complaints that it was soon removed.

Punakha Dzong
Punakha, Bhutan - 2009
Chendebji Chorten
en route between Trongsa and Punaka, Bhutan - 2009
Chortens on Dorchu La Pass (10,000 feet)
between Paro and Punakha, Bhutan - 2009
For those of you curious about Bhutan, perhaps these photographs will whet your appetite to plan a visit soon. And perhaps my list of the "10 Things You May Not Know About Bhutan" will give you an inking of the complexity and contradictions inherent in any place we might be tempted to call "Shangri-La".


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