Here we are in beautiful Bhutan, the Land of the Thunder Dragon, truly a place unlike any other on earth. A tiny Himalayan kingdom of less than a million people sandwiched between China and India, this is the land of Gross National Happiness, a place where no tree can be cut down nor any animal killed, where tobacco is banned, male skirt wearing is positively encouraged and there’s a national park dedicated to the protection of the yeti.
Crossing over the border from India through a huge ornate archway, the change was immediately apparent. The streets quieter and cleaner, the buildings adorned with colourful depictions of Buddhist folklore, a small town square where people ambled and chatted in the morning sun, spinning their prayer wheels.
While its neighbours have struggled to free themselves from rule by monarchy and military, it was the King of Bhutan who forced democracy onto his subjects in 2008 in a decision that caused widespread national unease – people were overall very happy with the way things had been going, and trusting of a ruling clan that had overseen the introduction of universal education and healthcare, robust economic growth and overall peace and stability. Despite now having a Prime Minister, the royal family remain highly revered, with photos of the King and Queen – both impossibly good looking – appearing in nearly every shop and tea house. The colourful Tata trucks that rumble past us on the road now have “Long Live Our Benevolent King” painted on the back as opposed to the usual Indian slogans we’ve come to know and love – “No Girlfriend No Tension” being a particular favourite.
We’ve both been quite overwhelmed by just how charming this country is, a spectacularly beautiful and well-preserved wonderland of soaring snow-capped peaks, hidden green valleys, and magnificent fortresses and monasteries topped by colourful prayer flags flapping in the wind.
Today we hiked up to the most famous of these monasteries, the Tiger’s Nest. Legend has it that the legendary guru Padmasambhava, who brought Buddhism to Bhutan along with Sikkim and Tibet, alighted here on the back of a flying white tiger some time in the eighth century. Twelve hundred years later, it was also the spot where Aung Sun Syu Kyi, the de facto First Lady of Myanmar, received a proposal of marriage. The suitor was one Michael Aris, a revered British scholar of Buddhism who spent six years tutoring the children of the Bhutanese royal family back in the late 60s. After accepting his proposal, the Lady subsequently spent a year in Bhutan with him and apparently remains in close touch with the Bhutanese royal family. Just before their marriage she wrote “Sometimes I am beset by fears that circumstances and national considerations might tear us apart just when we are so happy in each other that separation would be a torment. And yet such fears are so futile and inconsequential: if we love and cherish each other as much as we can while we can, I am sure love and compassion will triumph in the end.” These fears were sadly to be realised as she returned to Burma and Michael was subsequently refused a visa to visit her, even after being diagnosed with cancer. He passed away in the UK in 1999 without every having been able to properly say goodbye.
A less appealing link between the two countries is the controversial treatment of minority groups, reflecting the flip side of Bhutan’s concern with cultural conservation. While Myanmar has made the international news for how it has handled conflict between its Buddhists and Muslims, the story of Bhutan’s treatment of citizens of Nepalese origin is far les well known. In fact nearly 20% of the population were effectively kicked out in the 1990s in the name of preserving the country’s Buddhist culture and identity. The majority were of Nepali origin but had been living in Bhutan for generations and had long campaigned for rights of residence as well as of language and dress. Hundreds of thousands ultimately ended up stateless in refugee camps or resettled against their will as far as away as the US.
Bhutan also strictly controls tourism and we’ve spent several months organising to drive our motorcycle through the country. Doing it alone is an absolute no-no as all travellers must be supervised by a guide and have their itinerary pre-approved. So we were collected at the border by our own mini-caravan, with a guide on another motorcycle out front and a support truck following up behind. At first rather rebellious against the impingement on our freedom, I think we’re both secretly coming to quite enjoy having a few days where worries about roads, routes, and repairs have vanished into the pristine Bhutanese air and we can just sit back and enjoy the ride.