It seemed our time in Bhutan was too short.
But we were there to work, not sightsee.
Our priority was to get the interview with the Prince, and to shoot some visuals that would be relevant to the film I’m making.
So given that, I don’t feel qualified to give a summation of the country. These then are merely my superficial observations of the brief time spent there….
There is a gentle energy to the place that becomes apparent from the moment you step off the plane.
The airport terminal itself is truly beautiful – built in the traditional Bhutanese style of intricately carved wood. I have never landed at a more beautiful airport.
And I have never been through a more benign Customs and Immigration.
Everything was so quick and easy.
And they actually smiled at you!
It’s not that they were lax in any way, they were just respectful.
Shy versus humble –
It became apparent right from the start that the Bhutanese are very humble people. Our tour operator said they were shy, and perhaps they are shy, but I preferred to call them humble. And respectful.
The women, when they talk to you, will often put their hand over their mouth, so that you can’t actually see the words being uttered. And they will avert their gaze. The men will often bow their heads, and step back in a gesture of respect.
I never regarded these gestures as being a sign of weakness or servitude.
On the contrary, it spoke of their humility – a product of their deep commitment to their culture, and to their religion, which is Buddhism.
There is no doubt they are a proud strong people. And the women, when they need to, will look you in the eye – and you can see in their eyes that they do carry the strength of the country.
The Bhutanese have huge respect for the Royal Family. There are often photos of the Royal Family in shops and homes – and there are big portraits of the King and Queen on billboards around the larger towns.
Having met the Prince, and sensing the power and status he must have in his country, I was knocked out by his humility and grace… There was no strutting, no ego, no grandstanding. There was a simple self-effacement. As though he was honoured to be in my company.
This astonished me.
And of course in being so humble, it gave him extraordinary power and strength.
Just like some outsiders believe that we in Australia have kangaroos jumping down our main streets, I too arrived in Bhutan with certain preconceptions.
I though it was going to be far more primitive than it turned out to be. And far more under-developed.
I was surprised at the standard of housing – big houses, beautifully built. There was very little low-cost housing, and I saw no slums or homeless.
As well, there is internet everywhere.
I thought that one of the reasons Bhutan is said to be so happy is because they’re not connected. They’re not online. Here finally was an old fashioned country where the people actually TALKED to one another.
The internet in Bhutan is one of the best systems I’ve ever encountered, anywhere. Our guide and driver were constantly on their mobiles, texting or posting to Facebook. And every hotel had terrific wifi with fast speeds.
I bought a SIM card for my iPad as soon as I landed, and 7GB of data (for a week, yes I know it was a bit of overkill…) cost me approximately $18. So it’s cheap, and ubiquitous.
Economy / shopping –
Bhutan looks like a fairly prosperous country. Apart from the fairly cheap internet, the cost of living is quite high. A cappuccino costs about US$3. That’s what you’d pay at Starbucks in the US.
I asked our guide, Kezang, who was very knowledgeable, how Bhutan made money. he said the principle export is power – hydro power – to India. The second biggest export is rice.
There are rice paddys everywhere – red rice most often – and as with most of the produce that is grown in Bhutan, it’s all organic. And all very delicious.
It tastes like real food, which is something quite rare nowadays in the west!
Food was always served in a buffet style – in hotels and restaurants for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And it was always pretty much the same thing – steamed rice, cooked mixed vegetables, local mushrooms and broccoli, chicken cut into small cubes, often with a big chunk of gristle inside. Sometimes there would be another meat dish, like lamb – but again, the “non-veg” portion of the meal was usually cut into small chunks, with bits of bone attached.
Drinks consisted of beer or water. There was a local beer – I’m by no means a beer aficionado, but Pieter likes his amber brews and he said it was pretty damn good.
You can’t though mention Bhutanese drinks without mentioning Butter Tea. Butter tea is made with milk and butter – oh yes, and a bit of tea. It’s truly one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever ingested, not counting that bucket of KFC I had one year when I had pimples and didn’t know any better.
Summer of 2012, if I recall…
The Bhutanese people I met were very friendly, respectful to the point of embarrassment sometimes, and they all seemed to be happy.
however I got to talking to an American lady in one of the coffee shops in the capital Thimphu. Turned out she was a psychiatrist working in Bhutan for several months, and she told me of a high suicide rate, particularly in the rural areas, and high incidences of drug and alcohol abuse, and domestic violence.
She said that alcoholism is a big problem – the booze is home made, from various grains, and is firewater. It makes the men do crazy things. Same everywhere, sadly – although I was hoping it wouldn’t be the case in Bhutan.
And the drugs come in from India. Largely opiates, which are an unrefined form of heroin.
The psychiatrist said there were seven suicides a month – and this with a total population of not even 700,000.
Perhaps this is the other side of the country that few get to see. Certainly it wasn’t apparent to me, as a casual observer. But the psychiatrist had no need to lie, or exaggerate.
Yin and Yang – everything eventually comes back into balance.
Tourism is tightly controlled, which is a good thing – because only then will the very delicate energy of this mystical place be maintained.
The way tourism is controlled is through the imposition of fees for entering the country – stiff fees – and you’re required to have a guide. And you’ll need a car and driver too. It’s not the kind of place where you can get around on your own.
So if you want to visit Bhutan it’s going to cost you a big chunk of change, and that weeds out a lot of people.
Buddhism is everywhere. And you see robed Buddhist monks most everywhere.
The Bhutanese take their religion seriously, although the serious ones point out that it’s not in fact a religion, it;s a way of walking through the world each day.
There’s no doubt that the gentle and very caring nature of the Bhutanese has been forged through a strong commitment to Buddhism.
Sites & Scenery –
Bhutan is a stunningly beautiful country, and it’s still relatively untouched.
There is a simple unadorned charm to the place, and I hope it stays that way.