The cosmic whiplash of Bhutan

Stephanie Pearson recently traveled through the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan with Buddhist guru Robert Thurman (Uma’s dad), and has returned with a fascinating bit of reportage at Outside Online, called “Cosmic Whiplash“:

After watching the cultural and environmental decay that took place in nearby Nepal, which has historically catered to the $5-per-day backpacker crowd, Bhutan chose a different path–restricting visitors to only those who can pay mightily for the pleasures of paradise. At this point, those pleasures come in four basic flavors: a vehicle-based cultural tour; a high-country trek on one of 13 government-approved routes; an on- or off-road cycling tour; or a whitewater adventure with one of the handful of outfitters who have begun to explore the country’s endless network of rivers. Whatever visitors choose, they must be accompanied full-time by a certified guide. In Bhutan, there’s no such thing as DIY.

The strictures haven’t hurt the nation’s cachet. In 2005, a record 13,643 tourists flocked in, thanks in part to the recent openings of two five-star resorts in the nirvana-like Paro Valley—the Uma Paro, a beautifully renovated $500-per-night, 29-room lodge; and the austere and elegant $900-per-night, 24-suite Amankora. This was a 47 percent increase from the year before and an ungodly number of chilips for a Switzerland-size country of about 800,000 that, until the sixties, barred almost all outsiders and had few cars or paved roads, no nationwide school system, very little health care, no national currency, and a barter economy.

But a lot can happen in four decades, especially if the country is ruled by an enlightened being. His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck has presided over Bhutan since 1972, when, at age 16, he became the youngest monarch in the world. In his 34-year reign, King Wangchuck has pulled Bhutan out of the Middle Ages, expanding a 2,700-mile road system and providing universal health care and free education. Subsistence farming is still the mainstay for about 90 percent of the population, but the nation is enjoying more prosperity and modernity than ever before. In 1999, the king legalized Internet use and television viewing (Bhutan was the last place on the planet to permit the latter), allowing satellite dishes to sprout on rooftops in the remotest villages.

Bhutan is a country about which I’m intensely curious. Devoutly Buddhist, measuring the wealth of the country in Gross National Happiness, and through its tight control of the tourist industry (and high tarrifs: $200 per day) allowing for a unique and still relatively unspoiled experience. In addition to the recent import of modernity, the government is also soon changing from a monarchy to a parliamentary democracy. It’s an interesting time in Bhutan, and Pearson captures the state of things with wry observancy. The entire piece is fairly long, but well-worth the read.

Posted by | Comments (1)  | June 27, 2007
Category: Notes from the collective travel mind

One Response to “The cosmic whiplash of Bhutan”

  1. Tim Patterson Says:

    I went to Bhutan last fall – it was a dream trip – spectacular mountain scenery and vibrant traditional culture.

    Pearson’s article is a good read, but one thing to note is that the King recently stepped down in favor of his son, who was educated in America and is known as Prince Charming for his rugged good looks. No word on whether Prince Charming will speed the pace of modernization, but it seems likely.

    I invite anyone interested in Bhutan to check out my free online guide at

    -Tim Patterson