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Cover Story May 29th, 2008

  Untitled Document

cover

by lyle e davis

What do you say to the idea of you and me moving to and living in Shangri La? That special place where all is peace and quiet. Where flowers bloom and animals nibble at the food in your hand? Where music constantly fills the air? Where there is almost no crime . . . and only smiling, loving people?

You might consider the Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan. According to Bill Williams, Bhutan, while one of the world’s most isolated nations, is also one of most desired places to go for the informed tourist.

Who is Bill Williams? Just the guy you and I wish we could be. He retired as a highly successful and respected high school teacher from Oceanside High School then, most every year, loads up his camera gear and heads out to some isolated part of the world and captures its beauty through his lense. He is brilliant at what he does. He’s a handsome guy (well, okay, he’s no lyle davis, but still . . .), has a stunningly beautiful wife, Peggy, travels around the world, makes beautiful things happen and takes pictures of them. And he is paid quite well for the pleasure of pursuing his avocation.

You are welcome to view his many photo galleries at his website: www.williamlwilliams.com.

He tells me that this beautiful Himalayan land is becoming more and more popular with tourists, but access is strictly controlled. The government wisely wants to maintain sensitive environmental and cultural controls and do not want to see a Starbucks on every other corner.

Located between two powerful neighbors, India and China, Bhutan is tiny, it’s remote, and somewhat impoverished, though the latter is changing.

One of the things that totally fascinated me, absolutely riveted my attention, was that while other nations measure their growth by, among other things, Gross National Product, Bhutan’s King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck measures his country’s growth by Gross National Happiness. (Bhutan is the only country to measure happiness). That, to me, is a class act. How many rulers of countries do you know that measures growth by the happiness of its people?

The King said that "Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product." This statement signaled his commitment to building an economy that is appropriate for Bhutan's unique culture, based on Buddhist spiritual values, and has served as a unifying vision for the economy. The policy seems to be reaping the desired results. In a survey in 2005, 45% of Bhutanese reported being very happy, 52% reported being happy and only 3% reported not being happy. Compare that, for example, with the USA, where only 30% report being very happy, 58% being pretty happy and 12% were not too happy (based on data from the General Social Survey). Based on this data, the Happy Planet Index estimates that the average level of life satisfaction in Bhutan is within the top 10% of nations worldwide, and certainly higher than other nations with similar levels of GDP per capita.

In 1999, the government lifted a ban on television and the Internet, making Bhutan one of the last countries to introduce television. In his speech, the King said that television was a critical step to the modernization of Bhutan as well as a major contributor to the country's Gross National Happiness, but warned against the misuse of television which may erode traditional Bhutanese values.

After centuries of direct monarchic rule, in March 2008, Bhutan held its first democratic elections. In fact, its parliament was just seated this month, May 2008, and is currently debating the direction Bhutan shall take. It is now a Constitutional Monarchy. Its current King is viewed worldwide as an enlightened monarch. Indeed, it was the monarchy itself that called for conversion to a constitutional monarchy and voluntarily gave up some of its kingly power.

Bhutan is still regarded as one of the last Shangri-Las in the Himalayan region because of its remoteness, its spectacular mountain terrain, varied flora and fauna and its unique ancient Buddhist monasteries. It is in a relatively unexplored pocket of Asia. Violent storms coming off the Himalaya gave the country one of its other names. The Bhutanese call their country ‘Druk Yul’ which translates to ‘Land of the ‘Thunder Dragon.’

Bhutan, high in the Himalayas, had no paved roads until the 1960s, was off-limits to foreigners until 1974. Fertile valleys (less than 10 percent of the land) feed all the Bhutanese. Bhutan's ancient Buddhist culture and mountain scenery make it attractive for tourists.

Cascading rivers, conifers, wild rhododendron and blue poppies, long sweeping valleys, fields of maize, tall and imposing white-capped peaks: these are only a few poetic references. From the lowlands of the south where the weather is more sub-tropical and the land more lush to the rich farmland of the central valleys to the high peaks close to the Tibetan border, Bhutan’s land changes with the altitude and latitude. Bhutan’s rugged mountains and dense forests long rendered it almost inaccessible to the outside world, and the country’s rulers reinforced this isolation by banning foreigners until well into the 20th century.

You can go there today, but it can be a pricey holiday so it pays to shop around. Several travel organizations I checked with charged $6500 per person, plus airfare from Los Angeles to Bangkok, Thailand, $1310, and airfare from Bangkok to Paro, $820. Bill Williams, however, was able to secure a better rate. His recent trip there cost about $200 per day, plus airfare from the states. He went with Windhorse Tours, was there for 12 days, has been back for about a month. Even a veteran traveler like him blanches at the thought of 36 hours flight time. He flew from Los Angeles to Tokyo, Tokyo to Bangkok, and Bangkok to Calcutta, then Calcutta to Paro, Bhutan. The seat configurations on JAL (Japan Air Lines) were apparently designed for the smaller Japanese bodies. A sympathetic flight attendant saw that Williams was uncomfortable in the small seats, and on such a long flight, that she offered to swap seats with him. He gladly accepted and flew in the larger, more comfortable flight attendants seat.

Bill not only knows his way around but has contacts within Windhorse Tours and can assist you in your arrangements. He can get the tour at a lot less than the $6500 per person some tour companies charge. His tour, including air fare, all food, travel, expenses, guides . . . ran around $5000. You can reach him at williamlwilliams.com or 760.743.2610.

One particular flight into Bhutan, the fifty-minute flight from Katmandu to Paro can truly be described as a flight into fantasy. During the flight, a close up view of Mt. Everest, Mt. Kanchenjunga and other famous peaks can be seen. Bi-weekly flights between these two kingdoms make travel to the long isolated Dragon Kingdom of Bhutan very convenient and easy.

Progress has been made in the development of transportation since 1960, when the trip from the Indian border to the Bhutanese capital, Thimphu, took six days by mule. Now the journey can be made in six hours by car along the 120-mile winding mountain road from Phuntsholing, on the border, to Thimphu.

Entry by air is available only via India, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Thailand. The border with China is closed. A passport and visa are required for entry into and exit from Bhutan. Visa applications are available from selected travel agencies. Travel agencies will usually arrange for a traveler’s entry visa and clearance. After Thimphu, Paro is Bhutan’s fastest-growing town. Since 1983, scheduled air service between Paro and the above cities has stimulated Bhutan’s growth.

Independent travel is not permitted in Bhutan. Visitors are required to book travel through a registered tour operator in Bhutan, which Bill Williams can easily arrange, given his many contacts in country. This may be done directly through Bill, or through a travel agent abroad, which he will gladly arrange.

Paro Valley:

Generally visitors enter the Kingdom at Paro by the National Airline, Druk Air. Paro is one of the most fertile valleys in the kingdom producing a bulk of the famous red rice from its terraced fields. The beauty of Paro valley is embellished by clusters of quaint farm houses. Bhutanese houses are very colorful and traditionally built without the use of a single nail. The house looks very big from outside but is quite simple inside. It’s normally three stories. The ground floor is always used for cattle while the attic is used to store hay. The families live in the middle floor. The best room is always kept for the family chapel. A visit to a farm house is very interesting and offers a good glimpse into the life style of a farmer.

photo
Bhutanese Baby

While the Bhutanese are free to travel abroad, Bhutan is seen to be inaccessible to many foreigners. There is a widespread misconception that Bhutan has set limits on tourist visas. However it is the high tourist tariff and requirement to go on packaged tours that makes Bhutan an exclusive tourist destination.

I spoke with Tshewangc Dorji, a Counselor at the Bhutan Desk of the United Nations in New York City. He pointed out that the tariff of $200 per day is not really all that expensive when you consider it covers travel, guides, lodging, and food. “We are a small country. (Bhutan is only 18,247 square miles in size, - with a population as of the 2005 census of only 672,425). We cannot handle large volumes of tourists. The tariff helps control that volume. We believe in a high value, low tourism formula.”

Williams reports that accommodations there are better than average. I asked about restrooms. Clean restrooms are a big thing with me. He reports the accommodations do, in fact, have clean restrooms and do not simply offer a latrine type facility, or privies (unlike some other underdeveloped countries). He says the accommodations are average to better than average.

There is more and more emphais placed on sanitation, hygiene, and just general cleanliness. For example, Williams cites a game he saw kids playing where kids would be in a circle. One would ball up a piece of paper and throw it on the ground. Others would run to retrieve it and be first to place it in the trash can. The emphasis being on avoiding litter and keeping things clean. He also reports that the kids are taught English in schools and are quite fluent, readily talking to you upon seeing you. The older folks, of course, and the people in very rural areas, will not speak English, generally. Dorji reports that this all started around the 1960’s when Bhutan opened up and decided to establish relations with other countries. As of that time, the medium for educating its students became English. Indeed, Dorji spoke very good English with hardly any accent. Easy to understand and talk to.

Another novelty. In Thimbu, Bhutan’s capitol, there are no stoplights. Only one policeman who directs traffic.

In an effort to preserve and promote its cultural heritage, all Bhutanese are required to wear the national dress in government offices, schools and on formal occasions. The men wear the Gho, usually a colorful fabric that resembles someone walking around in a knee length bathrobe with knee-high socks and shoes. The women wear a Kira . . . which resembles a Japanese kimono in many ways but the colors tend to be, in my judgment, a bit on the gaudy side. They look comfortable but a bit too colorful for this conservative taste. (I’d be all for us men wearing knee-high bathrobes around town, with knee-high socks and shoes. Sounds comfortable. We’d be a bit less gaudy though, I reckon. Who knows? Perhaps we can start a new trend!)

Bhutan Bhutan
The Gho - traditional Bhutan Men’s wear The Kira, traditional Bhutan Women’s Wear

 

Bhutan, though small, is a very proud nation. Williams tells how he took a bunch of pencils and other writing and drawing material that he had hoped to give out to the children. His guide, however, told him it was not allowed. The government did not want the children to be expecting gifts from tourists, and certainly didn’t want to train the kids to come running and begging for things from tourists. Williams, still a teacher at heart, and an improvisational genius, suggested that he would give the pencils and papers to the guide and the guide would give them to the children while Williams stood some distance away. It worked.

Mission accomplished and culture respected.

The climate in Bhutan varies with altitude, from subtropical in the south to temperate in the highlands and polar-type climate, with year-round snow, in the north. Bhutan experiences five distinct seasons: summer, monsoon, autumn, winter and spring. Western Bhutan has the heavier monsoon rains; southern Bhutan has hot humid summers and cool winters; central and eastern Bhutan is temperate and drier than the west with warm summers and cool winters.

photo
Monk in training, about 8 years old

Williams was under the impression that the crime rate is so low that Bhutan has neither prisons nor jails. A bit of research, however, showed that Bill’s assumption was in error. There is relatively little crime in Bhutan. Petty crime, such as pick-pocketing and purse snatching, is occasionally reported. However, Bhutan is very strict about enforcing laws dealing with importation of, or possession of, weapons, narcotics, and other contraband that would mar its idyllic atmosphere. You can bring tobacco into Bhutan, as a tourist, but if you try to sell it to a Bhutanese . . . you could be jailed for that.

The people, in fact, are a very pleasant, loving group. Perhaps the King’s philosophy of Gross National Happiness has something to do with that attitude.

Bhutan has had wars in its past . . . but long, long ago; most recently with Tibet when Tibet was still a free country. It lost some of its southern plains area to the British . . but all is forgiven and today they not only retain their independence but have excellent relations with both Britain and India.

Now, about my original suggestion . . . you and me moving to and living in Shangri La, in Bhutan, the Kingdom of the Clouds. Can it be done? Is it legally possible? The answer appears to be yes, no, and maybe.

If you and I are there on a tourist visa . . . there is no maximum length of stay. As long as you and I have the assets to continue paying the government imposed tariff of $200 per day, we are more than welcome. Can you and I buy a business? Or land? Or start our own business? There the answer is . . . not yet. However, the newly elected Parliament (just elected this month, May 2008) is debating that very issue presently. The smart money is betting that Parliament will not only welcome but encourage foreign investment in Bhutan.

As to immigration itself, if you have a profession: doctor, engineer, scientist, welcome! If in some other area of endeavor, it depends. You’d have to qualify and would be subject to the existing immigration laws. There are no quotas from different countries allowed or encouraged. You would have to state your reason for wanting to emigrate to Bhutan, apply for residency, and show the financial ability to provide for yourself and not become a ward of the state. Similarly, if you want to move to Shangri La simply to retire . . . it probably could be done . . . provided you have the assets to support yourself. To give you an idea of the cost of living on the local market you need to recognize that the average annual per capita income in Bhutan is between $400 and $600 according to Frontline, India’s national magazine.

While learning the native language, Dzonkha, would be interesting, it’s probably not necessary, given that English is being taught in all the schools. Your religious preference, if any, is protected. It is estimated that between two thirds and three quarters of the Bhutanese population follow Mahayana Buddhism, which is also the state religion. About one quarter to one third are followers of Hinduism. Muslim and non-religious communities account for less then 1 % of the population. The current legal framework in principal guarantees freedom of religion. Proselytism, however, is forbidden by a Royal Government decision. The literacy rate is 59.5%. The country has a median age of 22.3 years Bhutan has a life expectancy of 62.2 years. (61 for males and 64.5 for females) according to the latest data from the World Bank. There are 1,070 males to every 1,000 females in the country.

Medical Facilities and Health Information

Medical facilities in the populated areas in Bhutan such as Thimphu and Paro are available but may be limited or unavailable in rural areas. If Americans need urgent medical care, they should try to get to the General Hospital in the capital city, Thimphu.

Treks (hikes) in Bhutan can take visitors days or weeks away from the nearest medical facility. Helicopter evacuation from remote areas is available in Bhutan through the registered tour operators, or by contacting the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi.

Medical services may not meet Western standards, and some medicines are in short supply. Certain emergency medical services are provided free of charge to all tourists. Visitors planning to trek (hike) in Bhutan should pay special attention to the risk of altitude illness. Health conditions in Bhutan remain poor. Better personal hygiene, improved sanitation, and general access to safe water supplies could reduce the incidence of many infectious diseases.

Bhutan ranks low in terms of health indicators. Its infant mortality rate is high even for South Asia, and the country’s ratio of physicians to the general population similarly lags behind those of its neighbors. Most of the population lacks access to safe drinking water, and infectious gastrointestinal diseases are widespread as a consequence. Respiratory ailments, especially influenza and pneumonia, also are widely prevalent, and the incidence of parasite infestations, skin diseases, tuberculosis, malaria, and goiter is high in most parts of the country. As a result, the average life expectancy in Bhutan remains low, even for a developing country.

photoA notable feature of Bhutan’s settlements is the dzong, or fortress-monastery. The dzongs served as feudal strongholds in the past, but they now play important roles as combined administrative centres and monasteries. Almost every populated valley has a dzong, which is usually situated on a prominent site overlooking a stream or river. The dzongs continue to serve as focal points of Bhutan’s political, economic, religious, and social life. Their thick white walls, which slope inward in Tibetan style, shelter Buddhist lamas, government officials, and artisans.

Many of these monasteries were built in the 14th century. To see the intricate wood carvings and paintings that have survived through the years is simiply amazing. The monks take great pride in these paintings and cover them with a drape to protect them against sunlight, but will readily open them to show you, with pride, part of their national and cultural heritage. You will also find almost every house in the country has some type of painting as part of its decor.

Education is free for the students since the Government wants to attract more students.

60% of Bhutan is covered in forests of fir, conifers, temperate and broadleaf species. It is also known as the land of medicinal herbs and over 5000 species of plants are found in Bhutan. Williams reports the food is excellent . . . plenty of fresh vegetables and fruit . . . and a very special red rice that is the epitome of fine dining.
Bhutan’s mountainous territory is dissected by numerous rivers. All the rivers flow southward from the Great Himalayas and join the Brahmaputra River in India.

Perhaps we can best sum up our look at “The Last Shangri-La” by the following email from Dorji:

Hi Lyle:

Thank you for your interest in Bhutan - I look forward to reading your story. If the long distance flight does not suit you, as I mentioned, you can make a short trip to DC next month for the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival where Bhutan is being showcased.

There will, be over 200 participants from Bhutan. The Festival will celebrate Bhutan's national policy of "Gross National Happiness" as a special approach towards life in the 21st century. You can witness the artists, dancers, craftspeople, farmers, and representatives of monastic life who will exhibit our living traditions that define and sustain Bhutan's cultural heritage.

You can get more information on the Festival through the Smithsonian website. Should you have more queries I will be happy to help.

Best

Tshewang C. Dorji
Counsellor
Permanent Mission of the Kingdom of Bhutan to the United Nations,
343 East 43rd
New York, NY - 10017
Phone: 212-682-2268
Fax: 212-661-0551

Bill Williams will also speak to your civic/service club. A lively and beautiful showing of slides of Bhutan, followed by a Q&A session . . . it’s all available. Call Bill Williams at 760.743 2610

 

 

 

 

 

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