The photo above speaks a lot to me about Bhutan, a very small country in the Himalayas. I was fortunate to be able to visit Bhutan in March (2015) on a tour organized by GeoEx. The photo which I call the Monk and the Hipster is a meshing of the old and the new that is happening in this tiny landlocked country far away.
Twelve travelers joined GeoEx staff, drivers and guides to make our way across this remote, and I mean remote, country about the size of Switzerland, nestled into a mountainous area between India and Tibet. It is known by locals as Druk Yul or “Land of Thunder Dragon.”
It’s not far from Nepal, in the news right now because of the horrendous and tragic earthquake.
You might be asking where is Bhutan? Or you may have heard of it as the country that measures its success with Gross National Happiness. Here’s a map to give you an idea.
It took a while to get to from Grand Rapids MI to Bhutan. Multiple flights sending me through Japan, Bangkok and finally landing in the country’s only international airport in Paro. The airport is such a big deal that they have a “look out” spot to observe the runway.
They do have at least one other airport for internal flights, but air travel is quite new and not very reliable. The photo below shows several people in the Bumthang Valley in Central Bhutan looking up and to watch a plane land. It is such a novelty.
So, back to the photo at the top of the post. I was really fascinated with seeing the signs of change in this country steeped in their traditions and way of life. Bhutan has been in splendid isolation for most of its history, only opening the country to foreigners since 1970s and really only to tourism since the 1990s.
It’s often called the Last Shangri-La with no roads, no electricity, no phone or TV, no internet or postal service until the 1960s. Truly a land that time forgot.
The government has limited the number of tourists and travel has been tightly controlled so that their culture not be impacted. The country was never colonized or conquered so its centuries old traditions and way of life have been preserved. But nothing stays the same and even Shangri-la is forced to move forward. Signs of western development are creeping in……cell phones and cell towers. Kids in Thimphu in Western dress. Cars and buses. It’s a country attempting to leap from the Middle Ages to the 21st century without suffering the loss of its glorious culture.
The following are photos I took, trying to capture of some of these changes—an outsider peering into this magical world .
First, power lines and cell phone tower contrasting with the ancient practice of prayer flags.
Apple T-shirts at the Paro Festival. In a country where wearing the national dress is required in most situations, so seeing western clothes is a novelty.
Cell phones. Cell phones. Cell phones. We saw them everywhere.
We didn’t see many motorcycles, but we saw lots of trucks and even experienced a Bhutanese traffic jam high in the Himalaya Mountains. I got a kick out of the man wearing his Gho, the national dress for men, getting on his motorcycle. My sense is that both motor cycles and traffic jams are rare.
Join me next week for more from Bhutan.
For more about GeoEx Tours, go to their web site. Click here. For two terrific blog posts on Wanderlust, the GeoEx blog, written by Colin Christy who joined us on the trip, Click Here.