Bhutan May 2011:When people think of Bhutan, idyllic images probably come to mind. Happy, content people, living simple rustic lives in a lush and pristine mountain forest, might describe the images. To a certain extent, this is what I found on my recent 19 day tour. In the land famous for its alternative method of measuring national wealth through its unique concept of Gross National Happiness, there is much to be happy about.
As in the idyllic images, I found Bhutan to be one of the cleanest places I have been outside the arctic. Most people I met seemed very open, friendly and genuinely hospitable. I was lucky to attend two religious festivals, called "tsechus". For spectacle, these rival anything that Hollywood can dream up when depicting colorful, medieval era, traditional religious ceremonies. Many people still wear traditional dress, adding to the color of the place. And, it seems everywhere one goes, a monastery or temple is perched high above you on a nearby hill or mountain.
A "cultural tour" like the one I did, will bombard you with fantastical stories of gods, demi-gods with terrifying faces, and a whole phalanx of invisible defenders of the Buddhist faith. They are organized hierarchically from the top Buddha all the way down to the guardian of the faith on the village level. It will seem that the great leaders in Bhutanese history did everything important based on visits by spirits in their dreams. You will even be told a story, with a straight face, of how their national animal, the Takin, was created instantly one day in the Middle Ages by a guru known as the "divine madman". As a sort of gag, the Divine Madman combined the bones of a cow's body with the skull of a goat and? presto!... a new animal species was made!
The overwhelming lesson of a cultural tour is that Buddhism pervades every aspect of Bhutanese life. A prime and fun manifestation of this is the religious festival, called a "tsechu". Seeing a tsechu is something I highly recommend to any visitor. A tourist should check the calendar of Bhutan holidays and festivals and plan their visit to coincide with at least one. While the tsechus are wonderful and fun spectacles, they play a serious role to the Bhutanese. It is believed that by attending the tsechu, and watching the dances, one can be cleansed of sin and aided toward enlightenment.
A particularly fun character in a tsechu is the Atsara, or Joker. Like a medieval royal court jester, the joker has license to do outrageous things during the tsechu performances. Jokers will mock the dancers during their various steps. Often, Jokers carry around male phallus clubs and will tease the women dancers. Or they'll go around the crowd, dishing out tawdry jokes, making suggestive motions with their phallus clubs, sometimes overtly flirting with the women, and often coaxing donations from spectators. At the second tsechu I attended, in a beautiful mountain valley called Ura, the Jokers went to each person in the crowd sprinkling a white powder on the person. This was a fertility blessing. Of course, a requisite donation was expected!
The male phallus is on display everywhere one goes in Bhutan. As the male fertility symbol, the phallus is seen to bring on good luck and ward off evil. Depictions of erect male phalluses are seen painted on people's homes and sides of buildings. In the village of Sopsokha, near the important historical town of Punakha, a phallus or two seems to be painted onto every single house. The town is host to the Chimi Lhakhang Temple, also known as the "Fertility Temple".
I covered a lot of ground on my tour of Bhutan. I had my own guide and driver the entire trip. Both were young and very easy to get along with. My driver was 21 years old. But unlike most other 21 year old male drivers, he drove slow. Really slow. In a country that believes in endless reincarnation until one finally achieves enlightenment, I figured that my young driver was the reincarnation of a half blind crippled old lady. In the entire 19 day tour, he went above the speed of 40 kilometers an hour (25 MPH) cumulatively less than an hour. Everybody was always passing us (though there is not much traffic in Bhutan). Many times I wanted to get out and see if I could outrun him. In fairness, roads in Bhutan are not very good. They are winding, narrow and often in ill-repair. Many are in high mountain areas along the edges of steep cliffs. So caution is advised. Still, in the land of eternal meditation, my blood pressure moved up a few notches during the trip in frustration of our infernal slow pace.
The widespread depiction of male phalluses is not the only odd thing that the new visitor to Bhutan will find. The food of the land is a bit eccentric. The Bhutanese love chilies. But, they don't use chilis as a condiment as the rest of the world might. Chilies are a main food! A typical meal for my guides, for example, would be a huge pile of rice and chilis, with an accompaniment of pork (with chilies) or beef (with chilies). Curries made with chilies are another staple on the Bhutanese food menu.
Pork and beef seemed to be the most common meats available in Bhutan. Chicken is not unusual either. What is interesting is that the average Bhutanese farmer that raises livestock does not actually slaughter it. Because the Bhutanese believe that killing animals is against Buddhism, the farmers hire non-Buddhists to do their dirty work. A local Catholic will serve this purpose just fine, or the more abundant minority Hindu Nepalese are often employed for the task of killing livestock.
Fish is not abundantly on menus. Not because there are no fish in the lakes and rivers. Actually there is, quite a lot of fish in many cases. It is again because of the belief against killing. Fishing licenses can be obtained. But they are prohibitively expensive. So, most fish served in restaurants or sold in the country apparently is imported from India. As with livestock, it is OK if the killing is done by someone else other than a Bhutanese Buddhist!
Another big characteristic of Bhutan that tourists will notice is the large amount of meditating that seems to go on everywhere in the country. If a nation became rich on meditation, then Bhutan would be one of the economic powers of the world. Of course, the many monks in the country's monasteries meditate long and regularly as one expects. (Many start monkhood at a very young age, making a drastic life decision that is final. Monkhood is generally for life. Monks cannot know a woman or marry). But, in addition to monks, I met many people who had a non-monk relative that was away meditating. And these sojourns to meditate aren't for short 1 or 2 week vacations, like a Westerner seeking an "alternative experience" might consider. They can be for years. One young lady I met told me of her father who was meditating for 3 years so far. He had two more years on his goal of 5 years of meditating.
A cultural tour, as opposed to a trekking tour, will involve visiting a number of temples and monasteries. Here the visitor will become intimately acquainted with the two most important heroes in Bhutan history: the Guru Rinpoche and the Shabdrung. The Guru Rinpoche is revered in Bhutan as the second Buddha and was key to bringing Buddhism to the Himalayan region in the 8th century. His image is to be seen in every temple and monastery. Usually his image, and sometimes his many mystical incarnations are the main display at temples. The Shabdrung, whose formal name was Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, was a key political and military figure in the 17th century. He is credited for uniting the warring factions of Bhutan into a single entity. In the western part of the country, he is the number one figure revered in temples and monasteries, with the Guru Rinpoche given a slightly less emphasis.
In the temples and monasteries, one will see some of the many symbols and drawings of Bhutanese Buddhist lore. Some almost universally seen are the Buddha image along with an assortment of various Gods. One will also see ferocious images, statues and displays of the Vasrakila. These are general protectors of Buddhism, who always use a dagger-like weapon to subdue demons that threaten Buddhism. Kalachakras are another ferocious looking set of defenders of Buddhism, this time on a local area level, protecting against evil deities. Kalachakras are usually depicted embracing a female consort in a position of standing copulation. It all very colorful and depicts the vivid spiritual world that the Bhutanese Buddhist see themselves as a part.
All along the way of any tour, one sees countless prayer wheels in every form. Water driven prayer wheels, enclosed in little houses and set above streams are everywhere. Every town will have one or more larger prayer wheels. And of course, all temples will have lots of small prayer wheels built into the wall on the perimeter of the temple. For those not familiar, prayer wheels are actually more like cylindrical drums with prayer verses imprinted on them. Spinning the prayer wheel is believed to cast off the prayers, bringing blessings to the surrounding area.
Like prayer wheels, gaily colored prayer flags are seen abundantly too. They will be seen strewn around important religious landmarks, both manmade and in nature, at key junctions in mountain passes, and around temples and monasteries. Like prayer wheels, it is believed that the wind blowing the prayer flags and pennants will spread the blessed verses into the surrounding area bringing good luck.
But to any visitor who is a bit observant, a number of things on the tour will contrast with the image of Gross National Happiness. One of the major issues facing the country is what to do about the almost 1/6 of its population that lives in forced exile in refugee camps in Southeastern Nepal. Almost all of these people are of Nepalese descent and Hindu in religion. Driven in large numbers out of Bhutan in the early 1990s, the numbers of people estimated to be in the refugee camps exceeded 107,000 at one point. The refugees have been in a stateless limbo for the past decade and a half. I don't think they are too happy.
Another interesting site one sees driving around Bhutan is the large amount of imported Indian labor. Almost all large development projects are carried out with Indian labor. Road construction, bridges, and a large damn project, are all done by temporary migrant labor from Bhutan's colossal southern neighbor. This seems in line with a country that officially has a fairly low unemployment rate of a bit more than 4%.
Yet many of Bhutan's young people are unemployed or underemployed, presenting society an important contemporary challenge. Incongruously for such a heavily Buddhist oriented land, tourists guides warn visitors about going out later at night in some of the bigger towns, including the capital Thimphu. This is because many young men with too much time on their hands, take to drinking or consuming drugs, and then causing fights. The problem seems especially so in the very popular tourist destination of Bumthang village. Here the drug problem apparently is quite pronounced. The workers at the hotel I stayed while in Bumthang, were pretty emphatic that if a visitor wants to go out at night in the town, to go with a local that knows where to steer clear from trouble.
The government of Bhutan, in contrast to most other governments in the region, really seems to care about its people. The ruling royal family, in a move to modernize, recently put the country on the path to democracy. Most people that I met seem to believe that the government, more or less, really tries to do good by its people.
One big thing struck me though as not fitting for a country with a fairly benign government: An exit visa, which comes with a lot of qualifications, is required for a citizen to travel abroad. This is a practice more commonly associated with repressive regimes. According to my guides, if they are accurate, it is especially hard for a young woman to leave Bhutan. The fear is that she'll marry a foreigner and not return. (It is quite common though, for both female and male students to attend university abroad. Most do so in neighboring India, often at government expense).
But overall, Bhutan seems credible in its aspiration to be the land of Gross National Happiness.