Bhutan Today and How It Will Be for ISfTE 2012
Jackie and Greg Willis, Montclair State University, New Jersey, USA
Greg and I traveled to Bhutan in December 2009 to fulfill a twenty-year dream. It
was a road-trip of sorts that allowed us time for walking in the extensive forest
habitats of Bhutan, to visit a friend who moved there long ago, to travel in a culture
and land that has changed little in the last 200 years. As naturalists, Greg and
I enjoyed the 75 bird species and the various mammal species that were new to us.
But the people and history were also beyond our experiences.
Try to imagine: a country without traffic lights; no railroads; only one valley
big and flat enough to land an airplane; only two aircraft; no helicopters. This
is a country that is very vertical, located among the highest of the Himalayan peaks,
with valleys that gradually drop down toward northern India. Waterfalls abound and
hydropower supplied to India is the leading export.
Bhutan has many large, ancient Buddhist temples, no other religious structures.
Most temples are located on very high ground and were built as combination temple
and fortress to ward off invasions from Tibet and Nepal. The country was united
from a cluster of small fiefdoms and held together by an effective hereditary monarchy
established in the late 1800’s. Recently, the government converted to a democracy,
but the beloved 5th King still provides an important stabilizing influence, controlling
the country’s westernization and modernization, to foster the retention of traditions.
Business attire in Bhutan is a heavy traditional wraparound Gho and knee-socks for
men and an elegant floor-length Kira for women. School uniforms are the same traditional
dress. All new architecture must have traditional arched windows, in block-shaped
buildings decorated with colorful hand-painted motifs and wooden carvings. Buildings
usually do not exceed four stories in height. Motifs often include large phallic
paintings. The national sports are archery and darts. Forest preservation is closely
monitored to maintain Bhutan’s sixty per cent pristine habitat. No overhead electrical
wires are permitted in the valley where the vanishing black-necked cranes over-winter,
endangered by accidents with civilization and the perils of their trans-Himalayan
migrations from China, where their eggs are harvested for food.
All healthcare is free to everyone, tourists included. But retreat to Bangkok would
be wise in case of serious illness. A major threat to health is highway travel.
The main national highway is about 250 Km long and for most of that length the pavement
is one lane wide with a white line down the middle, winding around curves and up
switchbacks. The center-line helps drivers see in bad weather where the road is
located, and how far a vehicle should retreat off the pavement in order to avoid
head-on collision with oncoming traffic. One traffic light has been tested in the
busiest intersection of the capital city, but it did not suit the inhabitants and
was removed to restore the traffic policemen and their dance-like moves.
Bhutan has been changing, however. All the schoolchildren we met spoke clear and
correct English. They were friendly and open, happy to meet us. Cell phones are
common and work well in surprising locations. TV was introduced about nine years
ago, but most stations are from India with only one Bhutanese. Internet access is
good in the two main cities, but not very good in other places. There might even
be a railroad by the time ISfTE meets. Do not expect central heating or insulated
buildings. Winter is cold and you might have to keep feeding wood into a little
iron stove in your hotel room. Bhutan is an adventure. It is different from all
other countries, and well worth the visit. For our friend, it became home. ISfTE
in 2012 will give you the opportunity to see for your self, and us the chance to
fulfill our wish: to return.