After several months of anticipation, we returned to Bhutan three days ago. Someone told, me it would feel like coming home and I didn’t quite believe but it I do now.
It is funny how your perspective changes. When we arrived in Thimphu for the first time in January 2011, I thought it was charming and so nice that there was a traditional feel about the city itself. Circled by mountains, often with fog and mist hovering in the background and open and friendly in every respect. Cars stop for pedestrians and people smile and assist not just tourists but each other. It was not just that so many people, old and young alike were wearing traditional clothes and that it was evident they were proud of their culture. There was something intangible that made it feel warts and all a place that had got its values in the right place. Yes the litter, the howling packs of dogs and the make a buck quick mentality were there too but the capital seemed to be moving forward with a sense of place and civic pride.
At the time I returned from a year of living in the “far east” my impression was completely different. I was wowed by the prospect of the choices available at dinner: pizza, burgers, chips, real coffee and other such little luxuries unavailable for so long but I was also disappointed. Those concrete copies of traditional structures with all their beautiful art work just can’t compare to the 100-year old wood, stone and rammed earth or mud brick authentic versions in the country side, villages and towns. Those arrogant youth with their low slung jeans and loud aggression on the streets at night were a shock after the more respectful, albeit fashion conscious youth of the east. The rampant development of the suburbs and the many more cars, taxis and public buses adding to the noise and chaos of a city growing too fast were unwelcome. We had been told it would feel like New York after so long in the ‘bush’ but no this was not the big apple.
Those impressions basically repeated themselves in 2012. We had left for the winter break and the high-rise, glass and bright lights of Bangkok and other Asian adventures brought home that Thimphu had got a lot of it right. It was still small, accessible, friendly and had a unique Bhutanese flavor. But by the time we were bidding goodbye to the Land of the Thunder Dragon at the end of that year, we had come full circle again. Love the pizza, but who under 18 and not at school, wears traditional dress anymore? Development was rearing its ugly head in all kinds of unlikely places. Don’t get me wrong a convenient modern lifestyle is definitely worth having. Road access, running water, sewerage, electricity who doesn’t deserve them? But was this really considered progress or run away development at any cost?
When we arrived this time I felt immediately at home. Eyes wide at the vistas we remember so well, smiling broadly at those ubiquitous prayer flags flapping, and hearts warmed by the fields of rural splendor on the drive from the airport to the capital. We couldn’t stop grinning while walking around familiar old haunts on our first afternoon here and yet again millions of smiles and instant assistance even when you hadn’t realized that was what you needed, greeted us. In a city this size it is still possible to be walking along and someone to stop their car in the middle of the road to say hi and not only not cause a traffic jam, a chorus of honking horns or even a shout from the other road users but to have to be reminded that they should possibly keep driving and we will catch up again later. This is exactly what happened to us not 2 hours after hitting the streets for the first exploration.
I am in love with this country and have no right to comment on Thimphu’s progress or anything else for that matter. I have lost count of the number of times an observation in America, Australia, Thailand, Tanzania, Myanmar or Laos has begun with, “But in Bhutan…” in the months since we left. So go right head Bhutan teach me a few more lessons on how to get life into perspective and retain what’s worth having and reject what you don’t consider suitable. I’ve still got a lot to learn and hopefully a lot to give too.