I’ve been back from Bhutan four weeks, but work on the two books has kept me for writing about my adventures there. Now the first book is sent off for layout, I’m awarding myself a day off to get other matters a bit more up-to-date before turning my attention to the second book….
Four weeks after returning from this magnificent, dream-like country, the ache to immediately go back is slowly fading, but I’d still return at the drop of a hat, and fully intend to one day. Bhutan looks magnificent in photos, and everyone whose been say how wonderful it is, but what makes the country so very, very precious is something far more subtle, and harder to explain than just wonderful scenery. Sure it’s very beautiful, but frankly a number of other places around the world are equally scenic. No, it’s not the landscape that made the deepest impression, but the culture and, best of all, the people themselves.
It’s no longer quite true to say that Bhutan lives in a vacuum cut off from the modern world. A few years ago, the former (fourth) king allowed cellphones and the Internet into the Kingdom, and allowed cable TV (although the choice of channels is vetted to keep out undesirable content such as pornography), and these together have had quite an impact. Also tourist numbers have been rising considerably (something like 40,000 visited last year), and the government is setting about improving the infrastructure for the still larger numbers expected in coming years, including an ambitious ongoing project to widen the national ‘highway’ (which is little more than a one-track, often unsurfaced lane in many places). Yep, Bhutan is changing, and arriving at Paro airport wasn’t quite the stepping-out-of-a-time-machine experience I was half expecting. Bhutan’s most treasurable rewards only come through learning and discovering the country over time, and only as the experiences mounted did we realise just how extraordinary the achievement of this small nation and its people really is.
Bhutan is quite unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been, and probably unique in the world. Where else would the king’s ‘palace’ be a humble, one-story structure that looked more like a holiday villa. The head of the country even walks the few minutes from his house to work each day at his office across from Thimbu’s magnificent white-and-golden brown Dzong (one of a chain of similar, breathtaking structures across the country, each of which is a combined monastery, fortress and local administration center). In fact, the day we arrived the King wasn’t home, but was in the southwest of the country on a walking tour visiting the occupants of tiny villages down there and learning their ideas and thoughts. Whereas in most other countries politicians and heads of state (have to) ride in cavalcades with armed guards, in Bhutan they go with a few staff, or even walk on foot. We heard of an amazing trip across the country by the health minister a year or two ago – he apparently crossed the country on foot! It’s hard not to feel the utmost admiration and envy for a country in the 21st century which gets its priorities so utterly right.
It’s now official, for me at least: it’s not the Taiwanese, and not even the Iranians who are the world’s friendliest people, but the Bhutanese. Perhaps ‘friendly’ is not quite the right word. There’s a purity, a simplicity and an extraordinary lack of greed and worldliness that seems to emanate from the people we met; many also have a calm, seemingly slightly cool demeanor that probably comes from their deep Buddhist faith. There’s a wonderful sense of what I can only describe as quiet pride in their attitude, and it took a little time to get beyond that and understand the people we met and got to know, but beneath the lack of show and ceremony, they are quite the most charming and lovely people I’ve ever had the privilege to know.
We made a really close bond with both our guide, Karma and driver, Tshering, through whom we learnt an amazing amount about the culture and the people. At the beginning of the trip, I felt a little bewildered by all the surfaced roads, all the cellphones, the many cars on the roads, and the mod cons in the hotels we stayed at. Within a few days, however, the real value of this amazing country’s uncompromising policies (it’s illegal for locals to smoke cigarettes, for instance) became clear.
By the end of our far-too-short 13-day trip, I was feeling almost sick at the thought of returning to the ‘real’ world.
The utterly untouched landscapes of the other-worldly Antarctica, which I visited this time last year battered into me just how much we’ve already ruined the astonishing natural beauty of our world. Bhutan is its cultural equivalent. Is there another place on this earth where the people are as selfless, trustworthy, simple and just so ‘good’?
I very much doubt it.
Many more photos from the trip can be found at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/29712358@N04/sets/72157626256360490/