Baby Bhutan

It’s been a week since I flew into Bhutan, known to the West as the last Shangri-La or one of the happiest nations on Earth. While neither of those titles was confirmed right away, seeing the Paro airport gave me a sense of the country. The airport could be a large Bhutanese mansion, more homely than corporate. We stepped off the only airplane operating onto the measly tarmac and walked through the sliding doors of the brown and white building. Even though it was busy by usual standards, the inside was sparsely populated and the one luggage carousel had a measly audience. The lines for immigration ranged from nonexistent to a small gaggle of foreigners.

Quiet, sparse and barely developed. I had arrived in Bhutan.

Though it may be too early to tell, the country seems to be incorrectly generalized as a kingdom of happiness. Stray dogs mope around listlessly throughout western Bhutan and the same sewage smells linger among the streets of Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital. By many standards, Bangkok seemed cleanlier. Not to say that the country isn’t special. One thing you realize quickly is the immaturity of the nation.

The nation only recently opened itself to the world; up until 1974 outsiders weren’t allowed in Bhutan. Things like television and the internet have been relatively recent as well, only appearing until 1999. Bhutan is new to the developed world. That’s part of its charm. It’s partially why it’s decorated with accolades, I feel. Partly. There’s plenty to love about Bhutan.

In my minuscule experience with the youth of Bhutan and even less with older citizens, I have been treated with a sometimes uncomfortable amount of generosity. Multiple times individuals have paid for my food, let me borrow money, and taken the time to help me understand Dzongkha or a cultural difference. And that’s not merely because I’m a foreigner, at least not entirely. Because I’m half Chinese-Malay I look quite Bhutanese. So while I’m experiencing everything from the eyes of a foreigner, many don’t treat me as an American in their country right away.

I was celebrating a friend’s birthday a couple of days ago and was slightly confused when the birthday girl paid for everyone’s meal. That kind of selflessness isn’t what I’m used to.

It’s refreshing, but also extremely intimidating. Sometimes I feel as though my habits of leaving things slightly messy or accepting gifts quickly might be annoying to the Bhutanese. So far they seem fine with my behavior and give me a pass once they know I’m a foreigner.

I must remember that I’m spending time mainly with the college’s student leadership, what is likely a particularly nice group of Bhutanese. When the international students got to the college the regular students hadn’t yet returned from their long winter break. Only the residential assistants, those in student government, and club leaders were around. So maybe I have an even more skewed sense of the Bhutanese community in Thimphu.

Mountains sprawl deep into the vistas wherever you go, but especially from where the college rests, which is higher up from Thimphu. When you look down into the valley a monstrous golden Buddha rests on a hillside. Snow caps the tremendous hills and prayer flags decorate the roads that twist along mountainsides. You a real sense of being in the world’s most monstrous mountain range.

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It’s partially the reason the country is relatively late in terms of its development and unification. The Himalayas act as natural walls between the various regions of Bhutan, delaying travel and complicating cultural integration.

While it may be an impediment to economic growth and communication, it’s refreshing to live in a place where nature is largely untouched. But to call this country the last Shangri-La or the happiest place on Earth is a misnomer. As far as I’ve learned, from my discussions with other Bhutanese and foreigners here, this country is undergoing major growing pains.

Unemployment for the bottom-heavy population is a serious problem, as is drug abuse and consequently suicide. Students struggle with independent study and the ability to seriously work on problems. College classrooms retain the same adolescent snickering and hushed participation that primary school is known for. The transition to intensive work seems tough for most Bhutanese students.

When driving up to Royal Thimphu College (RTC) there are mounds of gravel leftover from the road’s maintenance that nobody cares to clean up. Thimphu’s streets are filled with holes and the roads are sprinkled with potholes, partially due to the recent implementation of improved piping. After the pipes were put in around Thimphu they were haphazardly covered with bulging piles of dirt. I also expected less litter in a country known for its environmentalism. Thimphu, contrary to my expectations, is in many ways a complete average city.

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So while there’s a beautiful foundation to the country, the country seems, for the moment, to lack the necessary skills to follow through on such conscientious goals. RTC, the first private university in all of Bhutan, seems to be striving to solve that gap. The teachers seem thoughtful and engaged. The university also seems to be ready to shift in order to meet the education needs of the country.

RTC is the only private university in Bhutan, which happens to contain what is one of the most diverse populations in the country. And by most diverse populations I mean myself, the 16 other students and around 15 number of foreign faculty. In relation to the country’s educational initiative, it’s the tip of the spear.

This country is not the kingdom of happiness that it is portrayed as in the west. Its people are loving, it’s environment largely unharmed, and it has wonderful and extremely innovative government initiatives like Gross National Happiness (GNH). But in my eyes, it is merely a country in the unique position of being new to the world. Like a baby, it has the greatest of potentials and has yet to be largely spoiled by the vices of the developed world. Unless you look at the mass ousting of the Nepalese people from Bhutan that took place not too long ago.

Whether is will truly become the kingdom of happiness up is impossible to tell. There’s plenty of growing pains for Bhutan to deal with, but the foundation is there. Most of us will have to just wait and see if Bhutan succeeds, no doubt we all hope it does.

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