BPD: Life in Bhutan: An exec summary!

(BPD: Life in Bhutan: An executive summary!, 26 Apr -1 Jun ‘15)

After my stay in Bhutan over the past week, here is what I’ve gathered about the country. Understandably, this is based on first hand experiences at Thimphu and Paro, but also based on interactions with locals travelling from other parts of the country, and based on the similarity (and simplicity) of life throughout Bhutan.

1. Tourist Season:

Image source: DrukasiaMost people visit Bhutan during the fall months of Sep-Oct-Nov which is considered the peak tourist season and resplendent with local festivals and activities for tourists. This is followed by the spring period of April-May, which sees some tourists. However, unlike other tourist places, even during the current tourist season of April, one can hardly be bothered by crowds. This can be explained by the relatively lesser awareness about tourist options in Bhutan, and also because its expensive for foreigners (non-Indians), wherein there is a mandatory daily package fee of $250 per person.

2. Administration:

Bhutan has been a monarchy since its unification about a century back, when it used to have several regional satraps. It is now taking baby steps towards democracy, as initiated by the 4th King less than a decade back wherein, only the second elected government is in power. All governance mechanisms of a democracy are slowly taking shape including the new Bhutanese Supreme court building, that was recently inaugurated by Indian Prime minister Modi during his visit to Bhutan. However, the people are uniformly very fond of their Kings, and still not entirely comfortable with the concept of democracy, and hence view it as not-so-essential. Every house and monastery has pictures of the Monarchs and they are worshiped as God.

3. Religion:

Prayer bell in a school playground, Paro!A huge majority of the population follow Buddhism, though there are some Hindus from Nepal & India, which explains the occasional presence of very small Hindu temples and pictures of Hindu Gods. One can find Buddhist prayer flags, inscriptions and pictures of Buddha & Guru Rinpoche ( who is considered the second Buddha) everywhere. People are generally very religious and one can find people chanting mantras even while walking in the street or travelling in public transports. Its a common sight to see people carrying mini-prayer wheels, apart from utilizing every opportunity to give a gentle, clock-wise push to a prayer bell in the vicinity; and the bells are found everywhere.

4. People:

Toddlers, at the back!The people are friendly and helpful all over Bhutan, but are generally less talkative and get into a brief conversation, only when approached. Men wear the traditional attire of ‘gho’, while women are slender and attractive in their ‘kera’. It was surprising to see kids go to school in this attire, differentiated only by colors of robe, based on the school. Kids come with dollops of cuteness and its a common sight to see toddlers neatly tied at the back of parents for easier carrying around. It was a surprise to not find a single pram throughout my stay in the capital! The people are law-abiding, with almost zero instances of theft or other illegal activities, and I also heard that the punishments are very severe and swift for any deviation. I was routinely reminded by locals that the law-and-order scene was unlike in India, since I could leave my stuff anywhere in the open, and it would stay untouched for days together!

Archery is national sport and archery training fields seen in all parts of the country. Snooker also seems to be of interest, as seen by the numerous parlors that have sprung up. The local language is ‘Dzongka’, however most people follow and speak basic Hindi, thanks to the influence of Bollywood and the huge dominance of Hindi Entertainment channels in every part of Bhutan. All Indian DTH antenna are very prominently used by people, though its still illegal — all hotels I stayed in provided Sun Direct service!

Almost everyone chews the betel leaf and areca nut, locally called ‘doma’. This is hard to miss in Bhutan, and even if you miss the red-stained teeth and lips, the pungent odour would surely hit you. There are blood-like spots of the ‘doma’ in all places around the country, and one can find people routinely spit on the roads and around the buildings. This was one undesirable thing that stands out against the clean imagery being propagated in Bhutan.

5. Transportation:

A rare traffic junction, Thimphu cityRoads in the city are broad and clean, while the vehicle movement is disciplined at its best, with the way of right for pedestrians. I was surprised to not find any traffic signals or traffic jam, blaring horns or even loud music in vehicles, there are only the occasional traffic junctions manned by cops. While walking to the Tango monastery in Thimphu, I was shocked to see instances of people in cars who didn’t want to sound horns even when pedestrians were walking right ahead of them, blocking the road unintentionally; for a while, all the cars patiently followed behind!

I found the taxi drivers to be polite and reasonable, which again took me some time to adjust to, after all the unpleasant conditioning over the years, on our Indian roads. Most taxis are Maruti Alto or Hyundai Santro, while a lot of private vehicles are fancy SUVs.

6. Economy:

A shopkeeper in ‘kera’Being a small mountain country with a miniscule population, Bhutan ends up importing almost all of its goods, largely from India, Nepal and Thailand. Hence, its easy to buy most Indian products, but only at a premium and always above the MRP. People have a good time in Bhutan and are well taken care of, with heavy subsidy and care by the government — free education, free healthcare, near-free agricultural inputs and public goods. There is a strong focus on quality of life and the businesses appear a little laid back, with less aggressiveness that one finds in other countries. The offices close at 5 PM and most tourist shops and stores start winding down by 7 PM, as well.

Bhutan produces and sells most of its electricity, produced from the abundant hydropower thanks to its mountain landscape. It also exports Cement and a handful other goods that earn revenue for the country, apart from tourism that also generates some income. The country evidently spends a lot on preserving its culture and is fanatical about conserving the natural environment through sustainable development. All of this is in line with Bhutan’s famed GNH policy (Gross National Happiness), as opposed to building an economy around the GNP (Gross National Product) as is the practice world-over.

7. Infrastructure:

Post office, same architecture again!

The first thing one would notice about all buildings is the uniformity of all structures, whether its a house, commercial building or even a mall! All of them follow the traditional Bhutanese architecture, as dictated by the Driglam Namzha..” href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Driglam_namzha%3E." nbsp=”” shape=”rect” style=”border-image-outset: initial; border-image-repeat: initial; border-image-slice: initial; border-image-source: initial; border-image-width: initial; border: 0px; color: #047ac6; cursor: pointer; font-family: gotham, helvetica, arial, sans-serif; line-height: 1.571428em; margin: 0px; padding: 0px;” target=”_blank”> The cities are green and clean with enough trees planted (or rather not cut off). The government has taken care to place dustbins every few metres throughout the city, and more at tourist places — this is in line with Bhutan’s target to achieve Zero Waste by 2030. Overall, there are no flashy signs of development or grandeur, even the capital Thimphu looks like a big, but pretty ordinary city.

All houses have paintings of religious figures for good luck and protection. All tourists find it amusing to see pictures of penis or ‘phallus’, locally painted on the house walls, which is believed to ward of evil spirits. Perhaps, this must be one of the most commonly photographed things by tourists in Bhutan!

‘Penis’ on house walls, a common sight!’Phallus’ dolls.. just to ward off evil spirits