Monthly Archives: October 2016
Is the world’s most expensive visa fee a way for tourists to pay for Bhutan’s road to riches? Or is Bhutan truly the last Shangri-la? Kara Fox investigates.
At first glance, Bhutan is just that – a magical landscape seemingly immune to the pull of the ever-tightening grip of modernity. Situated at a dizzying 2235 meters above sea level, most journeys begin with a steep descent into Bhutan’s sole international airport. The adventurous flight in can feel as reason enough to want to visit – a mix of altitude, excitement and vibrant green rice paddies growing in the shadow of imposing Himalayan snow-capped peaks will create a pungent cocktail of sensory overload for even the most experienced traveller. The Bhutanese word namasame literally translates as ‘between the heavens and the Earth’ – and landing in Paro town can feel that’s exactly where you’ve arrived.
Like all foreigners, my experience in Bhutan began by being greeted at the airport and whisked away to Paro town, a world of white washed houses, quaint roadside vegetable vendors and tidy, winding roads.
A few months earlier I had been offered a job working at a luxury resort in Paro town. Securing a working visa allowed me to avoid paying the mandatory $250 per day visa costs, which clips most travellers’ trips to about a week or two maximum. The luxury of this ‘free time’ allowed me to form more lasting friendships, to learn Dzongkha, the national language, and to adapt my taste buds to the national dish, ema datse – a diet of never ending chillies and cheese. But most importantly, it allowed me to gain a more coloured perspective into the friendly debate between tourism’s model Buddhist pleasantries and the Bhutanese internalization of those ideas.
When I arrived I rapidly began to notice the discrepancy between what I had thought existed as a land untouched by modernity in this ‘Shangri-La’ versus its reality. Tour guides sporting Oakley sunglasses walked around the town in traditional ghos (a large man-skirt of sorts), complimented by knee high socks. Old women spinning prayer wheels in one hand could be seen typing on their iPads in the other. Monks on mobiles, DJs at discos spinning top 40 tracks, everyone under 30 obsessed with social media. Was this so foreign after all?
Maybe I was unfairly spotting obvious physical juxtapositions, especially in today’s globalised world. But in a place that markets development and tourism with an official policy of Gross National Happiness over Gross National Product it seems blissfully ignorant to experience Bhutan only for what the tourism council encourages you to see.