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Taktsang Monastery, Bhutan
From my spot on a high mountain ledge across the iconic Taktsang Monastery at almost 3000 meters above sea level, I marveled at the existence of this breathtaking structure parked precariously on the cliff across from me. I was awed and humbled and filled with questions.
First, I couldn’t fathom how someone could build an architectural miracle such as this more than 300 years ago.
Second, I wondered if I could walk the remaining stretch that involved over 400 steps, first downhill and then steeply uphill to visit the interior of the temple.
Our trek to Taktsang (Tiger’s nest) monastery was planned for the last day of our weeklong holiday in Bhutan, a tiny land-locked country of fewer than 800,000 people that is nestled in the Himalayas along India’s eastern border.
Global brands in Bhutan
We landed at Paro International Airport on the weekend coinciding with the beginning of the annual Paro tshechu (festival). Our time in Bhutan was marked by perfect spring weather – gentle sunny days followed by a tinge of cold after sunset, typical of the season.
Yet, for the past seven days, I had been plagued by questions of a nature that I had seldom encountered on my travels through thirty countries across five continents.
Have you been to a country where you do not spot an international food chain (like McDonalds), a familiar brand (like Nike), or a multinational store (like H&M) even after spending a week there? Before my Bhutan visit, I would have replied with a firm “no”.
Even in far-flung Tanzania, I had come across familiar logos, But in Bhutan, I constantly admired the absence of these ubiquitous signs of development that are part of the scenery of exotic destinations, visuals that we often take for granted.
Is Bhutan behind in the global marketplace?
Does the absence of these well-known symbols mean Bhutan is backward?
At Lawala Pass on the way to the town of Gangtey, home of the migrating black-necked crane, a few shops sold locally made shawls, table cloths and bags. Each makeshift stall and vegetable vendor in the local markets in Paro and Thimphu (the capital city), offered a QR code that could be scanned for payment through a local bank account. Internet connectivity essential to such payments was everywhere, even on roads that curved around mountain ranges, as we drove up and down great elevations on our travels.
From the most ornate hotels in the capital to tiny homestays on the edges of small and large temples, the architecture of the buildings had a consistent aesthetic. Our cheerful guide told us that building plans had to be approved prior to construction to assure that elements of Bhutanese architecture were incorporated into every design.
A common thread of creativity
Does this curb creativity? Absolutely not. Among buildings constructed for various purposes, there was a wide variety but they each had a common thread that connected them to the larger whole.
We saw hordes of school children on their way to remote schools in the valleys and large institutions in Thimphu city wearing the traditional kira and gho outfits for girls and boys, respectively. On my first day, I bought a dark pink and purple kira to wear to the Paro festival to witness the masked dances, an important aspect of Bhutanese culture.
Does it mean the people are steeped in old traditions, unable to communicate with the outside world? Once again, no.
A sustainable model
Every person we encountered, from the hotel reception staff to homestay hosts who drew up our hot stone baths, all spoke excellent English and confidently responded to our curious questions.
At hotel lobbies, roadside kiosks, and even at large monasteries in Punakha and Gangtey, we saw framed family portraits of the current king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk, his wife, and two children. Known as the People’s King for his egalitarian approach to his monarchy, the king is highly respected within the country.
Developing a sustainable model for a country requires making difficult choices, and it is to Bhutan’s great credit it was the first carbon-negative country and remains committed to maintaining over 65% of its land under forest cover. Bhutan’s singular claim to fame, however, is its emphasis on measuring Gross National Happiness as a metric of its well-being instead of other familiar markers.
Fees for foreign tourists
Despite its obvious allure, few people travel to Bhutan because of its focus on sustainable tourism which levies a hefty daily fee for foreign tourists. Yet, the pandemic years were difficult for this small country which lacks industrialization and manufacturing capabilities and depends on tourism. In an expression of gratitude for the financial help given by the king to those in the tourism industry during the pandemic, the tour guides in each location volunteered to use the downtime to refurbish their national treasures that are popular with visitors.
As I gingerly descended the zig-zag path of stone steps leading towards Tiger’s Nest, I thanked the many people who had freely given their time and labor to make this difficult trek more accessible to future visitors like myself.
I had originally planned my trip to Bhutan for mid-2020 but I could come here only after the pandemic had cleared all travel restrictions. For the past three years, I had been grappling with the question of how to lead an authentic life while remaining steeped in a culture where success is equated with material acquisitions, great power, and tremendous influence.
Was it possible to devise an alternate way of living that rang true to me personally?
Bhutan gave me that answer.
Authenticity comes from staying close to that which grounds you – nature, culture, tradition. When there is clarity about what you value, happiness, instead of mindless consumption, you can take the right action. It helps you pick wisely instead of grasping wildly. And when you remain grateful and committed to preserving those parts of yourself that are unique, you create an unforgettable aesthetic and an unshakeable, authentic place of respect for yourself in a constantly changing world.
In case you are thinking about visiting Bhutan, don’t wait, follow Nike’s motto – Just Do It.
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