We had read a lot about this last of the Himalayan Buddhist kingdoms, where every policy decision is judged for its contribution to the “Gross National Happiness” of the Bhutanese people. Still, we were unprepared to find such a quiet and tranquil…and easygoing…place in the middle of Asia. In many ways, it reminded us of the difference between rural, wooded and tranquil Whidbey Island where we live, in contrast to the bustling Seattle metro area on the mainland.
Bhutan is an ancient land with a very short modern history. The Switzerland-sized country, with a small population of 700,000, has participated in the spread of Buddhism and engaged in centuries of Tibetan influences, as well as Hindu Nepali pressures.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, Bhutan’s location, sandwiched between giant India and China, has defined its world view. After centuries of strife between regional feudal warlords, the Bhutanese established a dynastic monarchy in the early 1900’s. Since then they have been lucky to have had a progression of five enlightened monarchs. The 21st century constitution, which enshrines the “Gross National Happiness” concept and requires the country to remain more than 60% forest, even allows for the impeachment of the king…and requires him to retire at age 65.
Coming into the modern age only in the late 20th century, the country’s monarchs have managed change very carefully. They have been intent on preserving their culture AND bringing their citizens in the modern age at the same time. This has led to charming contrasts where the traditional dress for men and women is still required in almost all public venues, but even the smallest child…and almost all monks..now seem to have smart phones.
This is a country that bans smoking in public and bans the sale of any tobacco products, bans plastic bags, bans all billboards and tightly controls tourism (7,000 tourists last year) to preserve its traditional culture. This all is in stark contrast to Nepal next door which has done the opposite (700,000 tourists last year). Bhutan had no motor roads until the 1960’s and still has no stoplights. It did not allow any tourism until the 1990’s, did not allow television until 1999, and did not allow the internet until the early 2000’s. It became a constitutional monarch with a parliament only in 2008.
Making a trip to Bhutan is not just a matter of jumping on a plane and backpacking around. To obtain a visa you must pay a tour company in advance a minimum of $ 250 per day per person ($ 200 in the winter off season).With that receipt, the government will give you a visa that is limited to the amount of days you have paid for, and even gives the dates of arrival and departure. You also receive a route permit that lists the towns you will visit and the hotels you will stay in on each day. You must be accompanied by a guide and driver who have to register you through each district’s checkpoints with your route permit. In some ways it reminded us of traveling with Intourist in the old USSR, though with more smiles and good humor. The $250 per day actually includes a $ 50 tax for tourism infrastructure, and includes the costs of your guide, your car and driver, your hotel, any trekking gear, and all of your meals. Taking this into consideration, the daily amount is not as outlandish as it first seems. We also paid a daily “small group” surcharge, as we were a group of two.
We did see lots of tour groups, ranging from Seattle-based REI trekking groups to familiar names like Overseas Adventure Travel and Roads Scholar. Interestingly for a country who has had to fend off Chinese expansionism for centuries, Bhutan now hosts numerous Chinese tourists. Our own guide had been studying the Chinese language so he could lead the increasing numbers of Chinese tour groups.