Bhutan is a tiny landlocked country bordering my own. In this year-end post, I put forth a personal account of my travel to The Land of the Thunder Dragon, which brings up many pleasurable memories. We set out to visit our next door neighbor in 2013 for the first time. Being Indians, me and my husband did not need a Visa for entry. We cross an arch from India and there we were! The dirt and crowd of West Bengal suddenly giving way to the quiet and calm of Bhutan. We simply needed a stamping at the border town of Phunsholing, which was facilitated by an agent. We stayed for a night in the border town, which is a buzzing commercial center and were surprised to see all kinds of wares for sale and some enterprising Indians having thriving businesses.
The next day, we drove to Thimpu, the capital city via the hilly roads. We stayed in a place away from the city center, yet close enough to be reachable by walk. We visited the National Stupa, Buddha point overlooking the city, the oldest Chorten(temple) of Bhutan, the arts school, the central clock tower and the beautifully lit Thimpu palace.
Each evening we took pleasant walks around the city, looking at the market consisting of Bhutan-made scarfs, paper, ties, bags and other handwoven clothing items. From Thimpu we went to the Drochula pass, the home of 108 memorial stupas for Bhutanese ssolders, the Punakha palace – the previous house of the royal family, the fertility temple and finally the city of Paro, near which we did a 4-hour trek to the spectacular Tiger’s Nest monastery.
The aspects of Bhutan that I remember the most are the traditional attires mandatory for both men and women for any official business, the hospitality and friendliness of the people, the delicious Ema Datschi(chilly cheese) which is the staple food and the preference of Indian money over Bhutanese currency, even though both are equal in value!
The Mountain Echoes Literary festival is being hosted at Thimpu, the brainchild of queen mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, the first wife of His Majesty, the king Jigme Singye Wangchuk is the pinnacle of literary interest in Bhutan. The country also captures the imagination of many a Western traveler due to its dream-like location, serene beauty, the culture deeply rooted in Buddhism and the emphasis on Gross National Happiness Index over Gross Domestic Production(GDP). There is a healthy curiosity about the country and there are any number of books out there with scholarly studies as well as trying to romanticize the life in Bhutan. However there are really few books available from Bhutanese authors in English.
For my reading, I chose Home Shangrila from Dorji Lingchen because this story is very close to the experiences that were related during my travel. The novel talks about the trials of a student who studies from a prestigious institute in Bhutan but struggles to find a suitable job. This is very close to the accounts I heard from students I met during my trek to the Tiger’s Nest monastery who lamented over the obligation to leave home and travel to New Delhi in search of better prospects. I hope to learn more about the situation on the ground from this book.
Home Shangrila tells the story of Rinzin, a humble, sensitive boy from Bhutan. He finishes his education from the prestigious Sherubtse College, is currently living with his sister and her family, is looking for job prospects in Bhutan as well as scholarship opportunities to Universities abroad and aspires to fly to Europe or America, live there for some years and ‘return home a rich man’.
‘I was fed up of my provincial life in Bhutan and I really wished that I was living in some cosmopolitan cities of the world with plenty of jobs and money. ‘
He finally wins a scholarship at Scotland in Library Science and is ecstatic about it.
‘The charming anticipation of strange lands and adventures wouldn’t let me fall asleep.’
He sets out on this life-altering journey. His first stop in New Delhi to collect his Visa turns out to be a cultural shock.
‘Cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles and auto rickshaws weaved all over the road, pushing and honking incessantly from all sides. My heart thumped in my chest at every brake and stop. I was frightened as a cat on hot coals and thought that it was the end of my life. I thought that even hell would not be as scary as this. The ride through the road in Delhi was definitely not for a faint heart like me.’
He gets his Visa stamped in Delhi and travels to Scotland for his course. However life there is full of small humiliations – most of them perceived by himself – due to cultural differences. His attempts to approach acquaintances at the University welcome dinner are not accepted, which is a big blow to his self esteem.
‘It was a feeling of being abandoned, of not belonging to the foreign culture and for the first time, I experienced the discomfort of being a part of a minority and felt stupid, ugly and awkward – and odd face in the crowd’.
His stay has its pleasurable moments, mainly during his short trips around Scotland. For an individual from a landlocked country, the proximity to the ocean is an exhilarating experience.
‘I set my eyes on the North Sea, I felt every cell dance inside me with pleasure.’
His efforts to find a part-time job are futile for a long time. Loneliness makes him embrace spirituality, that was always latent in him, even further. He actively explores the principles of Buddhism, the teaching of the masters and tries to imbibe them.
‘When one is weak, one tend to be kind.’
His country’s unique principles and way of living turns out to be a source of inspiration in his academics.
‘I explained to Keith about how Bhutan was following the policy of high value low volume tourism in order to maintain its living culture intact in the face of rapid changes taking place in the country.’
In the end, his experiences in foreign lands only serve to bring to the forefront the immense love he has for his homeland and culture.
‘Here was my country Bhutan, the last Shangrila on earth, with its unique tradition and culture embedded deeply with the Buddhist values of love and compassion and the overwhelming spirit of untouched nature thriving over the centuries. Here everything appeared to be resting at its natural ease, perfectly peaceful and tranquil. i felt incredibly lucky to be born in Bhutan and my gratitude to my Kings increased more than ever.’
As travel usually does, it helps the author to discover his identity and his place in the world.
‘I became more Bhutanese by going to the West than I was when I was in Bhutan.’
This is a simple little book, definitely worth a read for everyone curious about the changing landscape in the serene land of Bhutan and a reference and inspirational for new generation of Bhutanese youth facing similar questions. I am completely satisfied with my choice of reading from Bhutan.
Other Options from Bhutan:
Room in your Heart – Kunzang Choden
Folktales from Bhutan
When loss in gain – Pavan K. Varma
A broken man misdiagnosed with cancer finds solace in Bhutan