We had an idealized view of Bhutan as a beautiful, practically pristine high-altitude, relatively rural, 700,000-person Himalayan country that:
- Is tranquil and peaceful, in which most citizens wear traditional clothes and cling to their customs and values and in which most buildings remain consistent with traditional styles (see below);
- Is committed to a balanced approach to development that embraces a quantitative measure of Gross National Happiness (GNH), consisting of survey measures of factors including satisfaction with government and government services; economic satisfaction; preservation of natural resources (72.5% of the land is forested) and preservation of the country’s culture. Although it certainly measures Gross National Product, this is secondary to GNH;
- Opened to tourism in a controlled way, by targeting a limited number of people who would pay for the privilege of experiencing their country (while limiting the impact on the people and the environment) rather than opening up to hoards of backpackers who may overrun the country while contributing relatively little to the economy (as in neighboring Nepal);
- Has an enlightened royal family that worked with technocrats and outside experts to transition the country to a constitutional monarchy;
- Has developed a political structure notable primarily for its civility and the general agreement between its political parties.
While things seem tranquil in Bhutan today, it has not always been that way. The country’s history story is somewhat vague, but other than legends of Buddhas and winged tigresses, it has been in a virtually perpetual state of war since its founding in the 8th century. It has either been fighting with some invader, against colonial threat or with itself, as when an entrenched theocracy battled an emerging civil government for some degree of control. It was not until 1907 when the Wangchuck Dynasty eventually brought peace to the land. Indeed, serfdom was a common practice until the early 1950s.
The 1950s also saw the Age of Great Modernization under the third king, with the building of schools, hospitals and roads. Just as importantly, after China’s 1959 occupation of Tibet, Bhutan decided that it had to join with the international community to protect itself. It joined the United Nations and aligned with India, which is now Bhutan’s most important trade partner, contributing most of the country’s manufactured goods (Bhutan has virtually no manufacturing, except for cement, beer and crafts) and buys most of the country’s exports (primarily hydropower). It also began opening itself to controlled, high-value tourism, which is its second largest source of foreign exchange.
The opening up of Bhutan also entailed a focus on English, which is not only the second most common language after Dzongksa, but is also the the official language in which school courses are taught.
Our Yak Holidays Tour
One must use a tour company to come to Bhutan. Our Nepal tour company (Himalayan Trails) booked our trip through another company that they work with, Yak Holidays . Yak generally did a wonderful job for entire eight-day Bhutan visit. The company and our guide, Lal, strived to address most of our individual needs, as well as what was specified in the itinerary. When we discovered that we were never informed that we needed our own sleeping bags or horse bags in addition to our backpacks, for our trek, the company provided them. When we told Lal that Tom wanted to try isema datses the Bhutanese national dish, he ordered a version that used the mildest chilies (instead of the hottest, which Bhutanese prefer) to give me a taste. (He also offered Tom a taste of his own personal chili stash, which Tom appreciatively declined).
When Tom explained that he wanted to discuss Bhutan’s political and economic system, Lal and our Himalayan Trails agent arranged pre-dinner drinks with Yak Holidays’ president, who was happy to delve into incredible detail into Bhutan’s history, the role of the royal family, its economy,the national illiteracy problem and how it was being addressed, and the geopolitical role of Bhutan in the ongoing contests among India (with whom Bhutan has political and economic ties), China (with whom it has settled one and now has another border dispute) and Pakistan (relative to its dispute with India re Kashmir). And while they were discussing Bhutan’s role in the world with Bhutan Holiday’s president, his wife, who was dismayed by our experiences with the hotel, had us upgraded to a suite and helped Joyce repack in preparation for the hotel’s staff to move our luggage.
Yak Holidays was also accommodating on our trek (see trek blog). The service and food were better than we had expected based on our hotel experience. The cook is particularly accomplished in his morning porridges and poached eggs in toast, evening soups and last-day’s breakfast cocoa raisin cake. Meanwhile, when we told Lal that our cold feet kept us awake at night, he filled some water bottles with hot water to warm us up on each of the subsequent nights. Good service, good company to choose.