For decades, the goal of the tiny Himalayan Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan has been neither to keep pace with the rest of the world nor to hide from it, but rather to increase what the king calls “Gross National Happiness.”
Before going to Bhutan, I read as much as possible about the country and talked to folks who’d been there. The published articles agreed on two things: tourism was limited to 6,000 people a year and the country was Shangri-La. The people who’d visited agreed on nothing: being a Western Buddhist was an advantage/would be ridiculed; everything was expensive/everything was reasonable; adjusting to the altitude was difficult/the altitude was no big deal; and it was inevitable that the cold would get to you/wearing layers made everything easy.
Let me address the tourism assertion first: it’s a myth, wrong, false. In fact, tourist arrivals have been as high as 9,000 people in a recent year, and Bhutan encourages people to come: you just have to write a letter to the Minister of Protocol asking permission, and stating why you want to go. And you have to wire $200/day for the duration of your expected stay. (The idea is that this will keep “the backpackers” out.) The letter, I would learn, is pro forma, getting a visa doesn’t take long, and the $200/day covers your guide (mandatory), hotel, meals, permits (required for visiting monasteries and government compounds) and transportation, and is, therefore, not a bad deal at all.
As for Bhutan being Shangri-La, well, too many places in that part of the world claim the title. If you ask me, Bhutan is quite amazing; I’ll leave it at that. I prefer the notion that we all have our own vision and version of Shangri-La, whether influenced by James Michener or not.
What did matter, after all, is that I am a practicing Buddhist, of the Kagyu branch of Tibetan Buddhism; so are the Bhutanese. My guide, Pema Tshering, made a point of telling people that I was a Buddhist: it made a difference to him, and to – it seemed – everyone I met. It meant, among other things, that I was open to a society based in Buddhist principls, a place where generosity was expected, moderation (the middle way) always a goal, loving kindness and compassion a way of life, and stupas, monks and monasteries everywhere. It meant, critically, that – by Bhutanese lights – I knew how to behave in both the secular and sacred realms. And so I was able to meet with high lamas, go into inner sanctums of monasteries, receive blessings, have discussions on the dharma. I had access to aspects of life that, I was told, were generally unavailable to tourists.
was not really a tourist, of course, but a journalist. Yet I was traveling on a tourist visa. This made me nervous. Getting a journalist visa took much more time, and I didn’t have but a few weeks between assignment and anticipated arrival. I figured that having a small tape recorder was less obvious than a video camera, but still I was concerned: Bhutan maintains a tight control over its internal and external image. So before I left I met with Gyaltshen Penjor, the First Secretary of the Mission of the Kingdom of Bhutan to the United Nations. He was friends with a friend of a friend, it turned out. And that, too, mattered.
I told him that I was going to Bhutan both as an academic interested in issues of media and cultural change (which was true) and as a journalist. “Should I be worried about that?” I asked him. He responded by querying me about my Buddhist beliefs. Why was I a Buddhist? For how long? What did that mean for my life? My answers satisfied him: he said I’d be fine, that I should use his name as necessary during my travels, that he wanted me to meet his brothers and to spend time with his mother in her village home.
After our meeting, I sent him an article I’d written several years before, “The Journalist in the Lotus,” about reconciling the practices of journalism and Buddhism. He said he wanted to talk with me more about the dharma when I returned.
During my too-brief stay in Bhutan, as I tried to understand the impact of recently-introduced media on a profoundly Buddhist culture, I thought often about the conflicting advice I’d been given by visitors, about the falsehoods in the (always gushy) Western press, and about how fortunate I was to have met Gyaltshen. I had a meal with members of his family in Thimphu, and spent an extraordinary afternoon with his mother in her village near Paro.
What I experienced in those 10 days in Bhutan will take me years to unravel; I hope I’ll be back before too long to add more to the skein.
– Karen Michel
Thanks to Valeria Vasilievski, Pema Tshering, Deki Wangmo, Gyaltshen Penjor, Bob Vye, Yeshey Dorji, Tshering Pema, and Hotel Dragon Roots.