Thimphu, Bhutan — He pivoted left, faked the pass, then eased a one-hand jumper through the hoop. His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck has chalked up another two-pointer for his basketball team, just as he has scored big points for his country since becoming the fourth King of Bhutan. When his father, who is regarded as the "architect of Modern Bhutan," died in 1972, Crown Prince Jigme Singye inherited a legacy that he is striving to honor: to bring his country into the mainstream of the progressive world.
Bhutan, a landlocked Himalayan country wedged between India and Tibet, officially opened to visitors in September 1974, welcoming about 300 Americans that first year. Many had learned about this isolated country when foreign dignitaries attended the King's coronation (June 2, 1974), which was covered by the international press. Since two hotels had already been built for the ceremonial guests, the government trained a staff to accommodate tourists. Less than 20 years ago, there wasn't even a road leading into the country.
In 1958 it took seven days on horse for the late Indian Prime Minister Jawaharial Nehru to reach Bhutan's capital city, Thimphu, from the southern border. Prime Minister Nehru agreed to finance a road, completed in 1962, to link the isolated country with the outside world. Today the 112-mile highway winds its way up from Phuncholing through scenic mountain passes, reaching the capital valley (7,500 feet) in five hours time. "I would say that Thimphu is probably the most remote capital city anywhere in the world," said the United Nations Deputy Representative Bernard Hausner, who with his wife and daughters, is the first American family to live in Bhutan.
Phuncholing, Bhutan's industrial border town in the Terai, or tropical, humid flatlands, is the only entry point into the country for tourists. And it is a three-hour bus ride from the Indian airport in Bagdogra, the nearest air field to Bhutan.
Bhutan became an autonomous country in a 1949 treaty with India which guaranteed the kingdom its independence. But the geography of Bhutan makes this Himalayan state accessible only through India, and you need a special transit permit to pass through in order to enter Bhutan. But once all the protocol is taken care of, Bhutan is unlike any other country one can imagine. People's faces are Asian, yes, but they are not like the Japanese, or Koreans, or Chinese , or Filipinos, or Thais. They are Bhutanese -- a mixture of Nepalese, Tibetan, Mongolian, and Indian.
The original inhabitants emigrated from Mongolia and Tibet in AD 450. Now, about 1.2 million people live in this country, which is about the size of Vermont and New Hampshire. The Bhutanese are called Drukpas and they speak their own language, Dongkha, which is closely related to Tibetan. English, however, is the official language of the government and nearly all street signs are written in English, too. Only a small percentage of the working population speaks English, which they've learned in the United States, Great Britain, Australia, or India.
though these men and women had gone abroad to study, consequently becoming Westernized, they nevertheless returned to their homeland to work for their country in various government positions. "Everyone who does go somewhere to study and live for a few years comes back.
"We have a strong patriotic feeling to make our country and government one. We are a traditional people. And we even wear our traditional robe (kho) when we work," said Ugyen Tshering, a graduate from the University of California (Berkeley) in international studies. Mr. Tshering studied in the US for four years and now works in the Bhutan government as an undersecretary in the planning commission. Most of the people he met in the US didn't know where Bhutan was, nor had they even heard of the country before.
As a result of Westernization among the educated, marriage to a foreigner has become common, though first the King must give permission -- rarely withheld. "My brother married an Italian woman he met while studying in Darjeeling [India] , then went home with her to Italy and learned to be tailor. He now makes the best continental-cut suits anywhere in Bhutan," said tour guide Wangchuck Wangdi , who is 21. Mr. Wangdi speaks English very well.He's an ardent fan of the western movies of Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, and Steve McQueen.
"I enjoy being a guide. It helps me to speak English better and also to learn more about America and other countries," Mr. Wangdi said. At first reticent and quiet, he later opened up with interesting anecdotes. "When I was very young, living in the Ha Valley (which is close to Tibet), I really didn't know about other kinds of people in the world. I never saw any foreigners," he said. "I remember, though, the first time that I ever saw Tibetan people when my grandfather brought a couple to our house. We gave them food and a place to sleep because they had just escaped the Chinese Army, traveling day and night. These people didn't really look like us. And they wore different clothing and spoke differently, too." Since becoming a guide three years ago, Mr. Wangdi has met people from all over the world.
The Kingdom of Bhutan is an agrarian society in which every family raises enough food for its own consumption. A rich man is one who has a surplus. Though the country does export some timber, fruits, canned juices, and agricultural products (to India), the country's main source of income comes from tourism, followed by the sale of its postage stamps, traded by philatelists around the world.
Tour itineraries are structured and carefully planned by the Bhutan National Tourism and Travel Agency. Because facilities, accommodations, and roads are limited, travel, too, is limited, and also restricted to only the less populated western half of the country. Sightseeing is permitted in just Phuncholing, Paro Dzong, Punakha, Wangdu Phodrang, and Thimphu.In Thimphu, however, tourists may wander alone into the stall shops along the one main street. "You are not just a tourist in Bhutan. You are also our guest. But we don't want guests coming in masses like the tourists do in Nepal," said the tourist promotion director called Sangey. He has no first name, nor a last one. He's not even addressed as "mister" by his staff, just Sangey.m His rhetoric is authoritative, philosophical, sometimes glib; his English has been perfected by the visits that he makes annually to the US, Europe, and England. "We are a special country with an interesting history, situated in a unique part of the world. Our past is still our present. Our life style is traditional, simple. Our country doesn't do things quickly, but rather cautiously, gradually, so that we can correct our mistakes as we move slowly along," Sangey said. "It is important to us, too, that we do not become influenced by the tourist dollar or that it becomes an instrument to tempt us to sell ourselves. We forbid any kind of tipping."
Some visitors have described Bhutan as the "last Shangrila," "the Switzerland of Asia," and "real Viking country." But it is actually called Drukyul, or Land of the Dragon, by its people.
Well, there's only one handicrafts emporium in Thimphu, the only opportunity to buy Bhutanese products and souvenirs, such as fabrics, furniture, paintings, jewelry, and other assorted crafts.The Bhutanese currency is equal to the Indian rupee, which is acceptable in Bhutan, as are traveler's checks and bank credit cards. And there's only one (national) museum in Paro Dzong, which used to be a look-out fortress against invaders from Tibet. Inside, included among the collections, are those historical documents that were not destroyed by fire and earthquakes in earlier centuries. Unfortunately, most were, thus little is known about the history of Bhutan.
There are special eight-day packages offered through the government's tourist office: $977 per person during high season (March-June, September-December) and ground transport, sightseeing, and guide. Both Pan American and Air India service New Delhi, the closest major airport, from New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. For more information and reservations, contact: Bhutan Travel Service, 133 East 55th Street, New York, N.Y. 10022. (212) 838-6382.
In the past, only visitors who were part of a tour group were permitted entry. An adventures individual could not just drop in on a whim. But just this year, the government has modified its restrictions. Now an individual can apply for a visa on his own. Allow 4 to 6 weeks. Cost is $130 per day during high season and $90 per day during the off season, with a minimum stay of 7 days. In either of these two offers, all tourists are still escorted and cannot enter Bhutan nor travel inside without a guide. There isn't any commercial air service into Bhutan yet; however, Bhutan and India are negotiating a proposed air route that would link Calcutta with Paro Dzong, which is 1 1/2 hours from Thimphu. An airfield already exists at Paro, but there isn't a Bhutan International Airlines Company set up yet, nor have aircraft been selected.
In conjunction with cultural sightseeing, a Bhutan itinerary can also take in several days of trekking or a yak safari. Altitudes may reach 15,000 feet.
More emphasis is being put on trekking packages, from 7 to 12 days, because Bhutan is a beautiful country, uncrowded and unpolluted. Bhutan started trekking tours in 1976 with advice from Mountain Travel Inc., a tour company in the US which pioneered adventure trips to off-beat destinations around the world. Mountain Travel offers two trips to Bhutan during October and April.(For more information and a catalog, write: Mountain Travel Inc., 1398 Solano Avenue, Albany, Calif. 94706, (415) 527-8100.)
Diana Niskern recently went trekking in Bhutan with a Mountain Travel group. "I was interested to see the flowers and birdlife and chose the spring for that reason. I've gone trekking in Nepal during the fall and winter and thought that this would be different, especially trekking in Bhutan," Miss Niskern said. Bhutan's landscape is rich with wild orchids, the rare blue poppy and rhododendrons -- red, yellow, white, and pink.
Nancy Petersmeyer also jointed the trek."I think that the Bhutanese hospitality is unequaled," she said. "One day we had to change our route because of unexpected snow and came to this farmhouse. The family cooked dinner for us and let us sleep there. They were so gracious."
Though Bhutan's chief source of foreign exchange does come from the tourist dollar, the country is striving to become self-reliant. But it is still economically tied to India.
Before the first King was crowned in 1907, Bhutan was governed by a theocratic ruler. Today, however, church and state are separate; government falls under the jurisdiction of the 25-year-old King, along with the National Assembly, his Council of Ministers, and the Advisory Council.
After his working sessions, the 5-foot 9-inch monarch plays basketball during the afternoon. An avid sportsmanhunter, archer, soccer goalie, the King has a passion for the American-invented game. So strong is his love for the sport that he hired an American professional player (from the International Circuit out of Europe) to coach his teams, the Royal body Guards, and the Royal Army.
"You have to understand how much His Majesty is loved by his people. They look up to him and respect him. The boys want to learn how to play basketball because it is their King's game," said Steve Nycum, a 6-foot 9-inch southern Californian from Cypress Junior College. Mr. Nycum also conducts clinics each morning at the Yang Chenphug Central School. "The King is the best player in the country," he said. Jigme Singye Wangchuck, King of Bhutan, has a firm grip on the ball. His country is in good hands.