Having arrived at Paro Airport we had to drive the 60km to the capital Thimpu which is in the next valley. It took over two hours on the narrow winding road. I doubt there is any flat ground in Bhutan.
The rushing rivers are unbelievably clear as they come from the snowy peaks to the north. In the sections between the rapids the water is totally transparent. A great pity this pristine water eventually finishes up in the Brahmaputra (Brahmaputrid?) River in India. The buildings are very un-Asian and the towns look like Swiss villages.
Everyone wears national dress (compulsory for government employees) and the society is based around the Bhuddist religion and the King. The King is a benevolent despot despite the illusion of a parliament, which he can, and does over ride. The Monks have 20% of the seats in parliament. Despite all this, the first impression is of a pretty contented people, happy with the, undoubtedly popular, king’s superior wisdom.
The local newspaper is a totally sycophantic publication but there are no restrictions on 50-channel cable/sat TV or broadband Internet services. Mobile phones work in two or three of the bigger towns (with a population of 600,000 in the whole country, “big” is a relative term). English is universal as it the language used in the schools.
Tourism is totally controlled with only 7,000 per year (140 per week!) coming in to the country. $US200 per day must be spent and everyone must be accompanied by a tour leader. If you come as a couple or singly you still must have a tour guide and get charged 40% extra!
The king does his duty and, coming back from the market in Thimpu, I saw a kid’s school athletics carnival on the city sports field. Right on the finish line there was a large white tent with the king in all his golden finery sitting on a large throne-like chair surrounded by his 4 Queens (like being on a QANTAS flight), courtiers and advisers. Reminded me of King John at the jousting competitions.
After a couple of days in the capital Thimpu I set off to drive the 170km to Phuentsholing on the Indian border. We only stopped for a twenty-minute break for lunch and the trip took 6 hours. I doubt there was 100 metres of straight road anywhere on the journey. A single lane continuous switchback road precariously cut into the valley sides is the main highway in the country. Landslide closures are a daily occurrence. It is not without just cause that the Thimpu-Phuentsholing bus is called the “Vomit Comet”. The traffic is not heavy but when you come up behind a truck it stops immediately on the toot of the horn to let you pass. I have never seen such polite drivers.
Arrival at Phuentsholing is quite spectacular, as you are still 2,500 feet above the town 5km out. The mountains just form a wall rising up from the Bengal plains – no foothills. As we got further south the sparse vegetation turned into full-on rain forest. When the British forced the Bhutanese to give up their territory in the 1800’s they drew the border right along the hills leaving the Bhutanese not one square inch of their previous fertile Brahmaputra Valley plains. The Indian border runs right through Phuentsholing and is basically open. The border actually divides a street with just a deep stormwater drain indicating its presence. People are supposed to go through the gate but the police occasionally remove planks across the drain placed by those too lazy to walk up to the official crossing. All Indians must be back in India by 6.00pm. How they would ever know has got me beat.
I did an exploration into Indian Jaigiang, the sister town or, more correctly, the southern half of the Phuentsholing/Jaigiang city complex. I was a little worried about getting back as I did not have my passport so I asked the customs inspector sitting on a deck chair on the footpath as streams of Indians flooded by into Bhutan for the day.
“Do you have a Bhutan visa?”
“Yes, but I do not have my passport with me.”
“That is OK. Just so long as you tell us you have one you can come back in.”
So much for the three weeks notice for visa application, issue of individual invitations and prepayment of $200 per day!
The comparison between Phuentsholing and Jiagiang is quite remarkable. The Bhutan side is quiet, orderly and clean while on the other side of the gate it was a typical seething Indian town with broken drains, piles of rubbish, beggars and shouting shopkeepers.
My duties commenced with inspection of the various warehouses holding hundreds of tons of food for the school distribution in January and resulted in a big list of repairs and modifications for the Food Corporation of Bhutan to carry out.
The worries about the Bhuddist aversion to killing (rats) have been overcome by employing Indian warehouse labourers The killing aversion is not a universal embargo or moral position but a personal restriction on the path to enlightenment. If others choose to kill that is their bad luck and they will never reach Nirvana.
I could not understand seeing Bhuddist monks wolfing down Lamb Roghan Josh or beef kebabs until it was explained that Bhudda said you must not kill but never said you can not eat meat. An underclass carries on the trade of butchers accepting they are never going to reach enlightenment while providing the pious with food. “If it is already dead, we may as well eat it.”
Sex Crazed Grandmothers:
Read the article in today’s paper describing how 50% of condoms issued in the AIDS prevention program have gone to women aged 60 to 80. No such luck for the grandfathers as investigations revealed the lubricant on the condoms enhanced the smoothness and appearance of the fine threads the grandmothers use in their traditional weaving!