In Dzongkha, Druk Yul is the name Bhutanese give their country. It translates to Land of the Thunder Dragon. They should call it Land of the Thunder Dog. Packs of stray dogs infest Thimphu. To my torment, they sleep all day and bark all night. The four that camp out at our apartment entrance have become de facto pets for the girls. Gi-gi, Noodles, Grumpy Dog, and Russell.
Despite difficulties sleeping, Bhutan continues to confound and delight us. In Delhi, Bangkok, Tokyo, or Hong Kong it was easy to find a 7-11, Kentucky Fried Chicken, or Starbucks. Not so here. There are no chain stores, no billboards (other than pictures of the king), and no 6-lane highways. So we buy our produce at the weekend market, fast food is a street vendor selling Tibetan Momos (steamed dumplings), and our coffee is the instant crystal type.
Unlike other Asian countries we have visited, Bhutan is not rushing headlong into the modern/globalized world. They’ve seen the result such actions have taken on neighboring countries (deforestation, pollution, urban sprawl, crime) and politely said no thank you. Bhutan chooses to enter the modern age in its own time.
And so, as recent as 60 years ago there were no paved roads connecting this landlocked country with the outside world. The first television signals were not received until the late 90’s. In 1989, as a way to preserve Bhutanese traditions, the government began actively promoting Driglam Namzha, a code of conduct that specifies how to behave like a civilized Bhutanese. The most visible sign of this commitment is the requirement to wear traditional dress (Gho for men, Kira for women) at school, in the office, or when visiting temples.
The ethos of mindful-modernization permeates the entire culture. As part of its constitution, Bhutan maintains 60% of its land under forest cover. New construction must conform to traditional Bhutanese design. Even traffic lights are an object of scrutiny. When one was installed in the capital, the residents of Thimphu complained that it was too impersonal. After it was dismantled their city became the only world capital without traffic lights, leaving us to decode the movements of their traffic police.
In tourist brochures and travel shows, Bhutan is often compared to Shangri-La, that fictional Himalayan paradise first described in the 1933 book Lost Horizon. Having seen maroon clad monks with smart phones, in a country that jealously guards its forests despite their economical potential, Shangri-La 2.0 is a more apt description.