From Bangkok to Shangri-la by Roger Beaumont*
27th Dec., 2009: I have wanted to visit Bhutan since I was 10 years old after being enchanted by a feature in a National Geographic magazine. So when destiny called on the phone to my studio in Bangkok last May, asking if I would be interested in helping The Centre for Bhutan Studies (CBS) and the United Nations Development Programme with an upcoming Democracy Conference in Paro, I shouted so loud in delight the house cat kamikazed through a glass screen and landed startled in shards of glass on top of a car in the soi below. I haven’t seen it since.
But between that phone call, the missing cat, and seeing Mt Everest and the mighty Jomolhari out of the Druk Air window three months later, it was all a true lesson in Buddhist patience.
At one point, I was asked to send a scan of my passport. I was in England at the time, away from my own computer and gadgets, so a friend of my mother’s offered to help. He is 86, and had just bought a scanner. He had been practising.
“I think we’ve got it,” he said, placing his third glass of wine on the desk. He then pressed send. Three days later, we received an email from the CBS, saying: “Thank you very much for the delightful picture of a tin of Heinz Baked Beans.”
When I arrived in Bhutan, the CBS was unable to find a place for me immediately, so I made base camp in the Thimphu Hotel for the first few days. It was cheap, loud and cheerful; a mix of Tibetan plumbing (no water, an alarming clanging of pipes, then a sudden, scalding torrent), slow service, and big smiles. I bought a small side-lamp; the connection started smoking. Then the toilet flushed on its own volition. I didn’t dare turn the TV on.
I loved every minute. I also walked around the main chorten (stupa) 21 times, to offer sincere gratitude that I had finally made it here. Once I started, it was very hard to stop. Soon after I arrived, I was asked for my medical certificate. Mai mee. First I knew about it. A knowing smile was followed by a phone call. Hospital. Go. Now. No problem. There was form filling then, see the doctor on the third floor. Come back here.
I was expecting at least two hours of being poked, prodded and checked for swine, bird and whatever the plague of the day was.
All I got was: “How do you feel?”
“Good. Sign here. One dollar.”
Up to the fifth floor. Stamp. Done. Twelve minutes. Brilliant.
I have now been here 12 weeks and still don’t have a clue what my address is. There’s no name or number on the apartment building, nor indeed on most of the capital’s residences, but of course the locals know where everyone lives. But imagine if you had to ring the Fire Department.
“Hi. I seem to have set my kitchen on fire.”
“Where do you live?”
“Er … well, you know the Bhutan Broadcasting Tower on top of the mountain?”
“Well, you know that tree next to the rubbish tip, a bit further down?”
“You mean the one with the cow tied to it?”
“Yep, that’s the one. Well if you … oh, never mind … too late.”
MY FIRST IMPRESSIONS
Observing the way the Bhutanese drive and their almost heroic incapacity to follow any rules is one of the most entertaining things I have ever experienced in the Himalayas. The pedestrian crossings are a complete waste of paint.
I love the way Bhutanese kids never say “hello” to you. It’s always “Hi! Where are you going?”
“Where you come from?”
“Up there …”
I love the way guys put their hands into that huge pouch in their go‘s (the national dress for men) as though they are all auditioning for the leading role in a Napoleon Bonaparte film. What I also like, and truly respect and appreciate, is that once you are accepted here, you can really talk to a Bhutanese. You can say what you think. My impression is they like it, expect it, encourage it, prefer it.
And a warning: I threw my first khuru (basically, a gigantic pub dart) last weekend and nearly skewered a middle-aged gentleman who was standing at least 12 yards to the left of the target. Please don’t give me any weapons. I cannot be trusted.
And this crisp weather. All around, nature is dying by inches, and doing it beautifully. These clear, sharp, cobalt-blue days are simply stunning. Hey, I was born near Manchester in England where the weather is so bad, dogs bark at the sun. I am also burning the furniture now that it’s late December, yet being in an unfurnished apartment, this could be a problem. After 16 years in Bangkok, it’s going to be a truly different, very challenging, and testicle-shrinking experience.
I have also been extremely lucky. Following the conference my boss, Dasho Karma Ura, a highly respected historian, suggested I visit the Bhumtang region in central Bhutan and stay at a certain farmhouse that is rich in history and connected to a string of Bhutanese kings. This entailed a mountain switch-back drive through endless, thick, mystical forest, dotted with the odd high-peaked monastery for nine, awesome hours. More than 60% of Bhutan is pristine forest. I don’t know how many times I said ”wow” that day until the driver told me over the evening beer that night: ”Ninety-seven.”
I fell in love with this farm, especially the kitchen, with its babies, dogs, ancient aunts, roaring fire and the sound of butter being churned, which I am sure is the backing soundtrack to all life in rural Bhutan. It was like nowhere else, yet like every farmhouse kitchen I have been in from Scotland to South Australia. It was warm, earthed, busy _ the heart of all things _ and the local brandy went down singing hymns. I could not have felt more at home.
I immediately took to the owner – wise, broad shouldered, best gates and fences in the village; fat cattle and cared-for workers. He looked like the headman of the village (he is) and I presumed people came to him for advice (they do). When a recent earthquake struck the area, and houses to the north collapsed and offices in Thimphu – 240km away – quivered, his farmhouse didn’t move an inch.
He was the kind of man you could have entrusted with the left flank at the Battle of Agincourt, with supreme confidence. And why? Well, for a start, man for man, the Bhutanese are the finest archers on the planet. If he had asked me to stay and chop wood for the winter for board and keep, I would have accepted in a flash. He was short of labour anyway. The young, have gone. To the capital.
I have also been fortunate enough to visit the western region of Haa _ so different than Bhumtang _ wild, beautiful and I am sure, bitter-wintered _ and rarely visited by tourists. You can almost yell at Tibet from there, but then knowing the temper of Bhutan’s northern neighbour, perhaps that wouldn’t be such a cool idea. I yelled anyway.
Twelve smuggling caravans leave from there every day for Tibet, usually with a train of 14 tough ponies and horses. They take dollars and return with cheap shoes, cheap heaters, and thick, warm blankets. I bought two. There is no tax on the goods but serious risk to the smugglers. Ponies die (from the cold), cook boys die (from the booze). This is quite normal.
So 12 weeks in, Bhutan feels like a place with a great past in front of it. No wonder they keep it so expensively hidden. The high value _ low volume policy seems very wise. If they open the gates, Thimphu would be like Kathmandu in a year, and this kingdom is far, far too precious _ and indeed innocent and not ready _ to be swamped and diluted by hordes of people who will admire the scenery, respect the religion and then start demanding their own multiple and outrageous needs after sunset.
Alternatively, they could let them in and then let me loose with a khuru … to help keep the numbers down.
BHUTAN: Land of the thunder dragon
The Kingdom of Bhutan is a landlocked nation in South Asia, located at the eastern end of the Himalaya Mountains and is bordered to the south, east and west by India and to the north by China. Bhutan is separated from the nearby state of Nepal to the west by the Indian state of Sikkim, and from Bangladesh to the south by West Bengal. The Bhutanese call their country Druk Yul, which means “Land of the Thunder Dragon”.
Bhutan used to be one of the most isolated nations in the world. Recent developments including direct international flights, the internet, mobile phone networks and cable television have increasingly modernised the urban areas of the country. Bhutan has balanced modernisation with its ancient culture and traditions under the guiding philosophy of Gross National Happiness.
Rampant destruction of the environment has been avoided. The government takes great measures to preserve the nation’s traditional culture, identity and the environment. In 2006, Business Week magazine rated Bhutan the happiest country in Asia and the eighth-happiest in the world, citing a global survey conducted by the University of Leicester in 2006 called the “World Map of Happiness”.
Bhutan’s landscape ranges from sub-tropical plains in the south to the Himalayan heights in the north, with some peaks exceeding 7,000 metres (23,000 feet). The state religion is Vajrayana Buddhism, and the population of 691,141 is predominantly Buddhist, with Hinduism being the second-largest religion. The capital and largest city is Thimphu. After centuries of direct monarchic rule, Bhutan held its first democratic elections in March 2008. Among other international associations, Bhutan is a member of the United Nations and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. (Source: Bangkok Post )
*Roger Beaumont is the Editor and English Language Consultant to the Centre for Bhutanese Studies in Thimphu, Bhutan. An author and journalist who worked in Bangkok for more than 10 years has gone from the sweltering plains of the Thai capital to the mystical mountains of Bhutan, one of the most beautiful and isolated countries in the world.