Kanpara in Eastern Bhutan.
I’m sitting on the porch of a forest ranger’s house watching the monsoon and remembering the first day I arrived in Bhutan nearly two decades ago. It was early September and the last of the rains threatened to close Paro airport. Then, much of the country was undeveloped with only a two lane road that stretched across the country, wide enough for a handful of cars and long-distance buses to share space with migrating yaks and skittish pack pony caravans, herding dogs in tow. In the early 90s adventurous travelers journeyed to Bhutan staying in simple government lodges in Paro and Thimphu, the capital. Only with official permit, could you make a day trip over the high Dochula pass to Punakha, where the theocracy resided during winter. Bhutan’s airline, Druk Air, had limited service into Paro, so travelers made the eight-hour twisting and turning drive up from the Indian west Bengali plains to Thimphu, awed by the sight of the Himalayas rising abruptly from the Gangetic plains and dramatic terrain changes from tropical vegetation to the glistening, snow-capped mountain peaks. With limited air and road access, Bhutan received less than 2000 visitors a year in those days.
A lot has happened in 20 years. Television, Internet, cell phones, Indian Marutis, and Toyota land cruisers have all arrived. With a government target of 100,000 visitors by 2013, new hotels blending modern amenities with Bhutanese architecture are being built in every part of the kingdom. From western to eastern Bhutan, road crews have removed parts of mountains, shifted hamlets, and bull dozed rice plantations to expand Bhutan’s network of roads linking hamlets that were once accessed only by arduous hikes on near-vertical trails. Druk Air has daily flights into the kingdom, and is inaugurating its first domestic flights to central and eastern Bhutan this fall. Bhutan saw its youngest King crowned in 2008, coinciding with its transition from a monarchy to a democratic constitutional monarchy. People say Bhutan will never be the same. Externally, perhaps, but inside their hearts, the Bhutanese are still the gentle people of the Himalayas.
My journey to eastern Bhutan is coming to an end. This year’s research yielded more data for my on-going craft project that has taken me to some of the most remote parts of eastern Bhutan. Although this region is one of the poorest in the country, its people are generous, kind, and compassionate. Just a few days ago while coming back from a 12 mile trek through the mountains, I nearly collapsed on the trail because of the heat and lack of water. I had failed to pack an extra litre of water in my day pack. An elderly woman leading a pack pony caravan stopped and offered me a cucumber. This woman, who was now without a water source herself, had earned ‘white pebbles’ for the next life. Buddhists believe when you help someone who is in dire need, you earn 'white pebbles'. When you die, you come up before the judgment maker, who either condemns you to the burning hells of the after life, or pushes you on to a good rebirth if you have amassed more good deeds, or ‘white pebbles’, than bad.
K. Zurich Fung