Bhutan and the thing about luck
Here we are – at the airport of Paro, the only international airport of Bhutan. After a short hour flight from Kathmandu, we made it here. The Kingdom which is surrounded by Himalayas mountain chains. We said “Kusuzangpo” to the Mount Everest through the airplane window, and pick up our enormous bags of equipment checked at Paro’s airport afterwards.
Here I am, in the country of monks, to be here is not an easy matter – Bhutan has a strict visa policy. But people in Bhutan are supposed to be very happy, maybe even the happiest in the world. “The Pursuit of Happiness” is even anchored in the Bhutanese Constitution. The “Gross National Happiness” is Bhutan’s response to the economic growth, something our European West has seems to be chasing after for already quite a while. And we will probably continue to do so until our tense struggle will be punished with misfortune or routine. Our team is therefore trying to get away from this routine for a while, as we travel Bhutan. And the country is serious about its policies. They have a “Ministry of Happiness and Hospitality”.
Something I had also seen in my guidebooks were the gorgeous and colorful landscapes of this dwarf land, and they look even more magical when you finally see them with your own eyes. I am still amazed, thinking about the landing in Paro. We flew over dense mountain and forest chains and then finally the pilot steers his aircraft safely to the landing runway, which is barely two kilometers long. There are shimmering yellow rice terraces and a landscape that reminds me of a Swiss mountain village, except for the typical colorful Asian houses. Paros Airport is considered one of the most dangerous on earth. Only a handful of pilots are allowed to land and take off. So by now, the biggest obstacle is taken. I was lucky, you might say.
My first impression of Bhutanese people at the airport is already a good one. At the passport control, instead of annoying questions, they hand me an already stamped postcards for free. And even the usually tough security people are kind of cute. They smiled at us while sparsely checking our luggage. “What about smoking?” I ask as an experienced smalltalker. The lovely-looking Bhutanese, who looks like a samurai in his maroon colored robe explains “Smoking is not allowed here.” “I heard that,” I reply, the guide book in the left hand, the impure in the Buddhist faith hand. The typical style of a tourist. I should have known. The unarmed airport security guy wants to know whether I have cigarettes on me. “Oh”, I declare casually, “only three or four” – the remains of the box, which I just got before we left Nepal. A few seconds later I sign a paper and pay a few Ngultrum, a custom for precisely counted cigarettes.”Now you’ve got your license to smoke.” I grin. And he does the same.
When we exit the airport, our tour guide Tobgay is already waiting for us. The cuddly giant in a traditional Bhutanese robe, which looks a bit like a colorful striped bathrobe, will guide us through the country within the next ten days. There he is, eating Bhutan’s national dish, the incredibly spicy “Chili Cheese”, as if it were Swiss chocolate. Even for breakfast. But Tobgay’s hard shell has an even softer inside. He has embodied the principle of hospitality. There is no desire the Bhutanese Obelix could not master. And sure, there is – as always in tourism – a calculation behind it: Those who want to travel Bhutan, have to dig deep into their wallets. The government is pursuing a very specific visa policy. “The entry is only possible as a tourist or as a guest of the government”, clarifies the German Foreign Office. To ensure the country’s “High Value, Low Impact Tourism”, you can only stay in hotels and there is a personal guide traveling with you at all times, preventing the country from being overwhelmed by mass tourism. Right now I am sitting in the office of Tshering Dhendup, Tobgay’s boss. He is treating his guests like he’s treating his King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck. You can find his pictures hanging on the walls of almost every building.
“The government had written on to their orange-yellow flag, to bring sustained growth to the country”, explains the delicate man in his mid-fifties. He wears a maroon robe just as Tobgay. “Good governance, environmental protection, the preservation of the Bhutanese-Buddhists mind and the right of happiness – these are the ways to secure prosperity and growth”, says Dhendup. Therefore Bhutan doesn’t seal off from tourism any longer to offer the poor country a lucrative source of income. But the kingdom opens its gates only slightly. “We don’t want mass tourism and backpackers in Bhutan”, says Dhendup. Backpackers are impossible to control. And what kind of backpacker is able to afford a Tobgay? “The classic “tourist” is older than thirty and is visiting Bhutan for hiking, trekking and for wellness treatments”, says Tobgay. And to admire the numerous huge temples, monasteries and fortresses, which are witnesses of the Buddhist tradition and the long struggle for independence. Sixty percent of people earn their Ngultrum through agriculture and cattle breeding. Around 7,000 US dollars a year are available to the average Bhutanese. Poverty and luck, on the first thought, it doesn’t sound like a match to me. I had been sceptical before our trip. My policy science studies transformed me to a statistic nerd. So I had a close look to the “World Happiness Report”. Every year, since 2012, the UN elicits in which of the 156 countries the happiest people live. And if you’re looking at the roughly 170-page report of the United Nations (UN) for Tobgay and its approximately 700 000 compatriots, you have to scroll a while. Bhutan ended up on 79th place in 2014. Germany takes place 45. A Ministry of Happiness, but in being happy only Midfield – how does that work?
Perhaps because the Bhutan consider happiness as a result of fairly mechanical causal chain. “Since Bhutan is still a very young democracy, we have been fortunate enough to peek at other countries, especially Western countries”, told me Dhendup. And everything that could stop a person from being happy – the government tries to eliminate preventively. Smoke? It’s a harm to the health, you don’t necessarily have to be a doctor to know that. And someone who’s is sick, is unhappy. This is how they argue in Bhutan. “Our king is good to us,” says the tourism entrepreneur. “He is a king of the people”. In Bhutan, medical care is free, just like education. “Nobody needs to live on the streets here, no hunger”, says Dhendup. This is what Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay is taking care of. The choice of religion is free, though three quarters of the population are Buddhist. But also the 20 percent Hindu, Muslim and Christian minorities are free to worship their gods. The woman is considered head of the family, the daughter the first heiress. Alice Schwarzer would feel really comfortable here; the term “emancipation” doesn’t need to be explained to anyone in Bhutan. Filming with drones is prohibited in the “Kingdom of the Dragon”. In the heights of over 5000 meters of the impressive mountain chains strewn with beautiful nature not even locals are allowed wander. “This is not conducive to nature”, so Dhendup. About 60 percent of Bhutan, which is as large as Switzerland, roughly consists of trees and other vegetation. It is a green land. Plastic bags are banned in the Himalayan kingdom since 2008. “As the first country in the world”, says Dhendup, and seems clearly proud.
And yet, the facade seems to crumble, at a market in Thimphu, capital of Bhutan. A lady with a headscarf and deep wrinkles in her face puts my chili powder in – yes – a plastic bag. She chews a betel nut which is rolled into a leaf spread with slaked lime. Her teeth stain blood-red. Tobgay also chews these things. Europeans smoke cigarettes. Bhutanese chew on their betel nuts with limestone. The slaked lime dopes. Healthy looks a little different. Also, free medical care does not seem to help.
In Paro, the city where all the tourists arrive, the streets are new, the air pure and the sidewalks clean. But ride after ride, Bhutan shows its other face. On our way to Bumthang in the east, the road reveals a unique landscape, reminding me of the Swiss Alps. Here, however, the idyll of natural cleanliness and spiritual purity gets a first crack. And this one becomes bigger from day to day.
The mountain pass from west to north leads along roads we would call “moguls”. Certainly, nothing extraordinary for such countries. Some money from the tourists would probably be good for the development of the infrastructure. But it’s the only connecting road – we have no choice. The expansion of the several hundreds of kilometers has already begun, but the work is going very slow.
Tobgay estimates that it will take another ten years to move forward smoothly. Where there is no money, there are no functioning roads. Bumthang also reveals a streetscape that most likely shows what Bhutan is really like. The waste one sees on the roadside. To me it has always been incomprehensible why people don’t understand that pollution not only harms nature but at the end of the causal chain also harms each individual. In Nepal, where we were filming before, this was even more striking. Mothers would bathe their children and do the dishes in the same river where you find burned bodies and empty Coke cans. Are they shoveling their own grave? It sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Certainly that may be European snobbishness. You might say: Well, those people have no money, little education and they don’t know what they are doing. This might be the case. After all, Bhutan is trying to draw attention to environmental protection with appropriate signs.
The Kingdom wants to open up to the increasing tourism without losing its cultural image. Looking behind that facade it shows that it may not always be possible to avoid all sorts of damage. Traveling and filming in Bhutan means entering a permanent compromise out of respect towards the Kingdom’s customs and traditions. The guide you are obliged to take knows how to prevent you from getting your camera out while the monks just go about their prayers. He also draws attention to remove your cap or take off your shoes when you forget to do so. He calls you back if you walk on the wrong side again. You can easily get confused with directions in these countries. Sure, right – hand traffic, that’s something you understand at some point, but around every religious artifact – and these wonderful pieces are everywhere – one has to walk or turn in a specific direction. This direction is: ‘Always clockwise!’ – following the pure direction.
What remains from Bhutan for me are the powerful impressions of a single state, monks, the monastery and fortresses which make it a colorful paradise for nature lovers. The plane will bring us from Paro to Nepal tomorrow morning. The launch on the narrow airport is supposed to be less risky. I won’t need as much luck this time.
Log Jay Gay Bhutan and namaste Nepal.
Thanks to iTravel who organized this trip for us and to my team Linda, Marcel and Lennart for those incredible weeks.
Text by Marcel Schlegel
Photos by Linda Ambrosius, Lennart Lahrs, Marcel Schlegel, Marko Roth