The Real Magic Kingdom

Posted on May 22, 2009

The new king of Bhutan was crowned last November. He is Jigme Namgyal Wangchuk the 27 year old son of the 4th king, but referred to by all as the 5th king. It's a young dynasty, only formed in 1907 when the leaders of the various districts in Bhutan thought a monarchy would suit them, so voted to decide who amongst them would be king. Each subsequent king a direct descendant of the first king. A vote, limited to be sure founded a monarchy.

And a few years ago, the 4th king decided to establish a democracy. He announced (to the displeasure of most Bhutanese) he would step aside in favor of his son, but they would hold elections and his son would be a constitutional monarch. Unpopular idea, as the feeling was, 'if it's not broke don't fix it.' So popular and beloved was the 4th king no one wanted him to resign.. He and his father, the third king had brought Bhutan out of the dark ages into modernity, all in 50 short years, in a smooth well managed move. This no despotic monarchy, these leaders better than most the world has known.

Bhutan in 1960 had no roads, cars, electricity, running water, indoor plumbing, schools, hospitals, no currency, no postal system. What they had was a centuries old country, never conquered, never colonized, with almost no contact with the outside world.

Bhutan in 1960 had no roads, cars, electricity, running water, indoor plumbing, schools, hospitals, no currency, no postal system. What they had was a centuries old country, never conquered, never colonized, with almost no contact with the outside world. Infrequent communication with Tibet, with whom they share a border and religion. And less frequent communication with India, with whom they also share a border, but not much else.

China invaded Tibet in 1959, no country offered help, and speaking only Tibetan were unable to ask the world for help. The king in tiny neighboring Bhutan observed all this, and thought his best insurance against aggression from a neighbor would be relations with the outside world, and an educated English speaking populace.

The first road, from the Indian border to the capital, Thimphu was constructed. Easier said than done, as this needed to be built across terrain that makes Switzerland's mountains look like mere hills. The first car was carried in pieces to Thimphu and reassembled, so the first vehicle to motor in Bhutan would be in the capital.

Schools were built, scattered throughout the country, and as the population mostly lived far from schools, they were all boarding schools. Language of instruction English. Teachers in the early years were from India and Canada. The policy in the first years was that no child should have to walk more than 7 days to reach school. Today they have this down to a 3 day walk, though most have schools close to their village, so an hours walk is more the norm. You meet people today, (these are some of the friendliest people you'll ever meet) who will talk about their 5 day walk to school, with the village parents walking and camping out with the children, dropping them off, and coming to collect them 9 months later. You also hear stories of first vehicle sightings. The reaction similar to how you would react if a UFO landed in your town. Panic and fear. You hear these stories from people who are now doctors or engineers, went to university overseas and are as hip and sophisticated, and 21st century as can be.



Kris, along for the second trip repeats himself numerous times by quoting Lonely Planet Bhutan, which states Bhutan is one of the poorest countries in the world. Hard to agree with this he says, "where's the poverty, the squalor, the begging people, the downtrodden masses? It seems so prosperous, so tidy, so well managed and so peaceful." I think the answer is that there is not much money in this tiny country, but it is evenly distributed. There is a section of Thimphu with big homes, the Bhutanese call it Beverly Hills, but what strikes one is the profusion of modest schools, clinics and basic health units, government buildings, roads, bridges, drinking water for all.. It's rare that a country has invested so much in its future.

A Buddhist country with no separation of church and state, as Buddhism is so intertwined with the culture that even the concept of separation would be unthinkable. Consequently, when Bhutanese speak of their history, the first important figures is Guru Rimpoche, who flew to a mountain top on the back of a flying tiger in the 7th century. Guru Rimpoche is credited with having brought Buddhism to Bhutan from Tibet. He mediated in a cave atop the mountain for 3 months, a monastery now sits over this cave. The cave and monastery can be visited, we make the almost all day hike to what is called Tiger's Nest. (Tough but worth it, everyone agrees though they do not generally agree until they are down, showered and have had at least once drink). In the early 16th century the preaching of the monk Drukpa Kunley, better known as the Divine Madman did much to spread Buddhism across Bhutan. His preferred weapons of preaching: wine, women and song. Not your run of the mill proselytizer, his antics are fondly remembered today.

In the 17th century, the very powerful Shabdrung, another religious leader succeeded in unifying the country, and in doing so constructed a series of fortresses country wide. These Dzongs, are massive multistory structures, built of rammed earth or stone, always painted white with gold roofs. When built, each housed military, monks, and the civil servants, and in times of conflict or danger, entire villages moved within their walls. Today their function is the same, but for the army, garrisoned elsewhere. Foreigners, with advance permission are permitted to enter, and this we do with Dorji. Aside from the addition of electricity and running water, little has changed since they were built, all in the 1640's and 1650's.

The Shabdrung is in many ways the father of the country, he not only unified Bhutan, and built the dzongs, but he wrote many of the laws (including one with regard to women and their position as equal to men), set up a school to teach the 13 arts (with instruction for the renovation and construction of the dzongs, embroidery, weaving, painting, sculpture, wood working, carpentry, metal working, etc). This school exists today, and its graduates are the reason Bhutan looks today as it did 4 centuries ago. The Shabdrung also designed the gho and kira, as he wanted his people to have a distinctive appearance. To his everlasting credit, his fashion sense stands up well 4 centuries later.


When he died, the clergy was fearful his death would rock the country, so they kept it a secret for 50 years, announcing he was just meditating, passing a bowl of rice into his chamber daily. When the news seeped out, the people remained calm. He has since had 3 reincarnations.

Bhutanese are well versed in the history of their kingdom. If we American spoke of our historical figures the same way the Bhutanese did, we'd give equal importance to Moses, Jesus Christ, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, JFK, and Barack Obama. When you ask them if they really believe in the story of the flying tiger and Guru Rimpoche, they say yes. Then they ask about Jesus Christ and his miracles. Answer something along the line of "that's just a myth," and they give you a pitying look..

But these are the people whose country is inhabited by the yeti (even given protection in a national park), where stories of flying monks (seen even today) are taken as fact, where mountain peaks and valleys are thought to be guarded by deities, and where numerous Bey Yuls dot the countryside. Bey Yuls are portals to other worlds, and everyone has stories from their parents and grandparents of people who have passed through these portals, then returned to tell of the most fantastic places (sorry, this not on our itinerary). With so many stories swirling about the country, a flying tiger begins to look pretty tame.