BHUTAN: No Problem in Little Tibet…

IMG_0591…once you pony up, that is, and then you’ll be handled and kept, with your own driver and guide, even if there’s only one in your group. You gotta’ hand it to Bhutan, for successfully marketing its brand. After all, how many countries can charge every tourist $250 a day, with the only airline charging overpriced flights, declaring Gross National Happiness the goal of life, and fill those same flights from full to overflowing, even if only turbo-prop baby Fokkers from Nepal? Druk Air flies you back in time…

In the latter half of the last century the previously self-sufficient Himalayan kingdoms saw the writing on the wall: the world is changing, and they need to change with it. Tibet was lost to China forever for no greater crime than simply being there and being itself. Sikkim gave herself over to India, for lack of a better plan. And Nepal opened the door to every Harry, Dick and Tom with a stiffie and a spare dollar for a bottle of Boone’s Farm…

IMG_0596So Bhutan tried to do things differently, opening the door a little, but only to means-tested individuals and groups who could pass the one test that mattered more than any other—money. That translates these days to $250 per day to anybody and everybody who wants the keys to the Kingdom, and they will be given the guided tour accordingly. Bhutan knew it had something good and would not give it up for nothing, if at all…

So how did they all fare? Decades later Nepal still can’t keep the lights on, and is basically a slum suburb to India. And no one considers Sikkim for a Himalayan holiday anymore. But Bhutan is holding its own, culturally intact and with modern amenities, such as free health care, that more than a few visiting Westerners would be jealous of—like me. Forget Tibet. If you want to see the ‘Old Himalayas’, then go to Bhutan. Give them your money instead, since it’s the same price now anyway…

It’s probably too late for Nepal, and likely Sikkim, though maybe Ladakh is a hot item now, so still pending. The Chinese seem to be trying to do the boutique tours with Tibet, but the charge for the excess baggage of political paranoia seems too steep. Is there anything left to see there, anyway? They’ll screw it up, I assure you…

But Bhutan is a fantasy. Bhutan is a fairy tale. Bhutan is a time warp. Bhutan is a brand and a marketing plan, a darn good story conceived by Bollywood and Madison Avenue, and ready to begin filming. Bhutan is Pleasantville, where everyone’s last name is Wangchuk. Or is it the ‘Truman Show’? Every shop has an English-language name and description, regardless of whether the staff really speak English, though they’re working hard at it. After all, how many people in the world speak Dzongka?

IMG_0599Bhutan is all these things and more. Bhutan can be whatever you want it to be. It’s your holiday, and your money after all. Just ask BTC, i.e. Bhutan Tourism Corporation, which basically runs the show since 1974. Bhutan is trying to do something that’s never been done, get tourist bucks without changing the culture, which is impossible, since tourism always changes the culture, so you can only mitigate it. Bhutan reminds me of Yemeni architecture, Laotian people, Japanese dress, and North Korean control…

Temples are the main must-see for me, with scenes right out of Chinese westerns. I couldn’t take photos of the best of them, so I’ll try to put it into words: Imagine 1850’s occupied China, with empires crumbling and opium use booming, dozens of battered faces in tattered clothes huddled together in dimly-lighted hovels to receive the sacrament, only here it’s religion, not opium, dozens of ancient faces numbly chanting and twirling prayer wheels, shooting religion up the main vein and smiling thinly. No, this is not Boutique Buddhism. This is not ‘wellness’…

And is it working, the Bhutanese experiment with controlled tourism? In my Thimphu ‘resort’ I count only three groups, so maybe a dozen people, all told and counted, but this is slow season. And are they all under control? European backpackers are half naked halfway up to Tiger’s Nest, the must-see tourist climb, to much notice by the locals and mock outrage by the Indians. Only Europeans get arrested for wearing too many clothes. But Bhutanese wear traditional garb all the way up to the top of the mountain…

To be continued…

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