There was certainly some component of exoticism in my decision to go for the first time, 23 years ago this month. Recently married, I was eager to get back to my earlier pattern of wanderings. I prevailed on my bride to join me in this exploration (although the itinerary’s delight in announcing the availability of hot-and-cold running water almost put her off). Six years later, we went again and, while I went off with most of the group on a trek in the mountains, she stayed in “town” and we arranged for her to teach a decorative arts workshop in the local middle school. Ten years after that (2014), I went for a third visit, this time introducing three dear friends of long-standing to the place and people they had heard me talk about for many years.
One of the main draws for me has been to witness and learn from Bhutan as one of the few places which is connected to the global sprawl of modernity, but which is trying to consciously manage its own encounter with that epistemology. Western imperialism and the sparkly lures of capitalism and technology have swamped most parts of the world; most local cultures didn’t stand a chance. Plastic shoes and T-shirts with knock-off logos can be found in the most startling locations on earth. This is not to say the Bhutanese are wholly averse to the things we take for granted, but they do so (if I may overgeneralize a bit) thoughtfully and with a commitment to maintaining their culture while they interface with the wider world.
Part of this is due to the profound resonance of Buddhism. Bhutan is part of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition (the name Bhut-an actually means the “end of Ti-bet”). It is the only country that has Buddhism as a state religion. The country’s isolation until the later 20C has enabled the religion’s continued vibrancy and the reverence of the people makes it stunningly different from the noise and bustle of e.g., Bangkok or the sensation in nearby Nepal of being overrun with tourists. Buddhism is embedded in Bhutan in a way hard for those of us from a “modern” Christian-rooted, secular-trending culture to fully grasp.
Bhutan has become (relatively) famous for its concept of “gross national happiness,” which was articulated by the 4th King (the now-retired father of the current King) in 1972. GNH has since been adopted as the government’s foundational policy goal. It symbolizes a priority for the qualitative over the quantitative, for social and cultural harmony over economic development. This is a laudable aspiration, but one should not confuse Bhutan with Shangri-La. By Western development standards, Bhutan is a poor country and there are serious issues about its treatment of Nepali and other Hindus.
Nor is Bhutan immune from modernity (nor COVID (although it was well-managed)). During our second trip (2004) we visited the first (only?) disco in the country. By 2014, electrification had reached a considerably majority of villages and I had to remind our local trip leader that extended conversations with his friends on his mobile phone disrupted the purpose of our trek. Some of the ills of modernity (medical and moral) have come along with internet access.
These developments are important reminders that the Bhutanese are not there for our touristic pleasure, like the re-enactors in Colonial Williamsburg. We might wish to see the way life “used to be,” but the Bhutanese are no less entitled to electrification and inoculations than are Texans or Turks. At the same time, while the colorful festivals and quiet temples continue to exist for the people, not for tourists; they are amazing at several levels.
Beyond the culture at a broad level, Gina and I have been fortunate to connect to individuals who have shown us immense kindness and generosity. These experiences, on walks, in homes, or in more formal settings are worth at least as much as the sites and public events. These sorts of things do happen in travels to Australia or other parts of Asia, etc. but there seem to have been more of them in Bhutan than the time we have spent there would predict.
Yes, London is different than New York, and San Francisco is different from Shanghai, but Bhutan’s different-ness is different. It is not primitive (a la tribes in New Guinea or the Amazon), but it is not-so-modern. Therein lies its ability, for those of us from the “West” to open doors of serenity and perspective. To be sure, its different-ness has lessened some over the years that I have been going; but watching the process (progress?) has been rewarding on its own terms.
I have been working with the Bhutan Foundation on some projects relating to democracy education and tree planting; and lately, we’ve talked about me making a fourth visit (perhaps next year) to check them out. Something to look forward to….