Breath of Fresh Air in Thimphu

Trip Start Dec 15, 2012
Trip End Dec 27, 2012

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Where I stayed
Hotel Riverview Thimphu
Read my review - 4/5 stars
What I did
memorial chorten
changlimithang archery ground
kuensel phodrang

Flag of Bhutan  ,
Saturday, December 22, 2012

    Arriving in Bhutan, the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon, at Paro Airport was a breath of fresh air after the noisiness and the unpleasant encounters at Delhi Airport.  The airport is probably the most peaceful and quiet airport I have ever experienced: a parking-lot sized concrete area amidst several mountains full of evergreen trees and a couple of colorfully Bhutanese buildings with a single poster of the King and Queen welcoming you to the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon.  The royal couple's faces are the only images I ever saw on billboards in Bhutan-I didn't see a single actor, celebrity, or corporate advertisement for that matter.  In a way, it was relieving to be free of popular media and the images it pushes upon us on how to look or behave. 
    The nation is dominantly Buddhist with two giant neighbors, China and  India.  While it maintains a cordial diplomatic relationship with India, it doesn't seem to have much ties with China.  India seemed to be the largest provider of Bhutanese imports such as food, skilled labor,
education, and healthcare.  The Himalayan Kingdom has colleges, but its most gifted are sent to universities in India for graduate studies.  There are also hospitals, but patients in critical condition are sent to Indian health providers for advanced procedures.

    The first adjective the tour guide used to describe his nation was "underdeveloped."  Television didn't exist in this country until 1999, and mobile telephones and the internet are recent introductions within the last few years to the mass public.  Bhutan has no traffic lights, only policemen to regulate traffic in necessary areas.  Although tourism is a growing industry, the government stringently regulates it and necessitates a tour guide for visitors at all times.  There is a steep fee of $250 for each day spent in Bhutan, which acts as a barrier to keep the young partying backpackers out and perpetuates the state of peace and calm that attracts a niche audience in the first place.  Most of the country was economically based on agriculture just decades ago, but now the biggest employment is civil service.  Education and healthcare are taken on by the government. 

    The kingdom's strong-flowing rivers are strategically harnessed to produce electricity which is then exported to India.  I found this ironic after visiting Nepal, because Nepal is also a Himalayan nation with the nickname "rooftop of the world" and possesses water, including rivers, as its number one resource, yet it suffers from electrical power shortages.  We would be at eating at a restaurant in Thamel, a tourist-oriented town of Kathmandu, and our power would go out.  Our Nepalese tour guide described it as a political failure, as the leaders could never agree to establish hydroelectric generation and therefore Nepal relies on importing electrical power from other countries such as India and Bhutan.  Many at first glance would consider Nepal a more "normal" and westernized country than Bhutan, but I guess Bhutan has something special, which the last king introduced to the world: Gross National Happiness (GNH).  This idea is based on four pillars:
1) Good governance
2) Socio-economic development
3) Environmental conservation
4) Preservation of national heritage and culture

    The idea of GNH is that a nation should be measured by how happy the people are, more so than how much money they make.  Studies have continuously shown that wealth or income is not a good indicator of one's happiness.  The wealthiest nations often have the highest rates of suicide and depression.  So why not govern a nation with a drive to lead them to happiness, rather than wealth?  The last king seemed to have been very well respected and innovative, as he also broke the notion of an unlimited autocracy based on royal lineage and integrated meritocracy into political rule.   
    Indeed, the Bhutanese did seem in better shape than many underdeveloped countries I've seen.  Most of them seemed shy, but they were responsive in smiles and nods when I tried to interact with them, especially when I was dressed in their traditional dress, kira.  I didn't see a single beggar or merchant trying to force a purchase.  Many people didn't seem to possess the obsession for money, as the majority of the service staff actually refused tips.  I had to insist for them to take the money. 

    Thimphu, the capital city of Bhutan, was a pleasure to see.  Its probably hard to imagine, but its the most developed city of an underdeveloped nation.  It had cars and quite people on the streets but was not nearly as loud or as busy as the cities in India I visited.  The hotel we stayed at was also incredibly nice, much nicer than any of the hotels I had stayed at in India.
We began the first day in Thimphu in Memorial Chorten, where people spun prayer wheels and walked clockwise around the tower while praying.  Then we drove up a mountain to visit the big
    Buddha statue in Kuensel Phodrang and could see a nice view of the entire city.  There we saw Indian construction workers, which according to the tour guide is a common site due to India's big supply of skilled laborers compared to Bhutan's shortage thereof. 

    We visited the weekend archery competition in the Changlimithang archery ground where the top prize was a washing machine imported from India.  The audience stand was quite full, as archery is the national sport of Bhutan and a very popular hobby for the local men.  Then we visited the fortress

    Trasichhoedzong where *gasp* we saw the king and queen drive by.  To be exact, I saw the back of the king's head, as he was turned around from the front seat talking to someone in the back seat.  My friend saw the queen look out at her.  She said the queen looked very innocent and poised.  It was an awkward moment as we were supposed to be walking away normally as our tour guide was telling us not to take pictures.  Apparently, it is common for tourists to run into the king, and he is known to be very friendly with them.  It was an honor to see the top couple of the nation in person, or in their car. 

    After being starstruck at the fortress, we visited a local vegetable market.  Being in the traditional dress helped with taking pictures of the locals.  Many of them didn't seem to speak English, but their body language and mannerisms conveyed an air of gentleness and purity, nonetheless.
    I looked up much information about the royal couple after that
encounter, and it turns out the king proposed to his queen when he was
17 and when she was just 7 years old.  They got married just last year,
so he waited over ten years for her to grow up to become a beautiful
woman.  Although his father had four wives, and it is not uncommon for
Bhutanese men practice polygamy, granted he can economically provide for
multiple wives, this king promised to marry only her.  Quite romantic, I
would say.

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