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THE TRAVELING LIFE: This may not be the end of the world, but...

October 29, 2007

"A pop-culture update for those who've been living in Bhutan for the last several years....." That was the beginning of an article in a recent Indianapolis Monthly and, while I don't even remember now what the story was about, I knew after reading those words that I had to go to Bhutan.

My reasoning: If this country is so remote that it's used as a frame of reference for being out of touch, then I wanted to go there.

Turns out that foreign tourists only have been allowed into Bhutan since 1974. And even today, the number is limited. They are charged $200 per day to visit and must be part of a tour group accompanied by a licensed guide with arrangements made by an authorized tour company. As a result, in 2004, only about 9,000 foreigners visited the country.

Secluded in the majestic Himalayas beyond Tibet and Nepal, Bhutan is spectacularly beautiful. Its benevolent King Jigme Singye Wangchuk is revered and obeyed. How revered and obeyed? On December 17, 2004, the king banned smoking in the entire country, not just public buildings and restaurants. There was little outcry and strict adherence.

The King wants his people and the environment to remain pristine and uncontaminated by the outside world, and that seems to be working. The citizens of this remote kingdom were only given access to television and the Internet in 1999. Only one person we spoke with in Bhutan had ever heard of Indiana and the only thing he knew about the state was Bob Knight. One person said he thought Indiana was somewhere between Los Angeles and New York.

With its isolation and restricted outside contact, this country is to humans as the Galapagos is to animals.

While on a three-hour trip between towns, Katrina asked our driver to stop at the next place with a bathroom facility. A few minutes later the driver pulled over to the side of the road and parked in the middle of nowhere. It was clear there were no facilities-just trees and bushes. We shouldn't have been surprised. Seventy percent of the country has no electricity. Bhutan's Thimphu is the world's only capital city with no traffic lights.

Though the people are poor, they are seemingly very happy and still dress in traditional clothing rather than western clothes like most other Asians. The reason is that they have bought into the philosophy of Gross National Happiness. Several locals told us about the GNH concept, which the king originated.

GNH is the proposition that happiness is a state of mind, unrelated to wealth, position or possessions-which is quite appropriate for people who have few possessions and a government who can't provide any. As if to confirm this, there are no beggars on the streets, which we thought was a positive statement until we learned that begging is prohibited by order of the king.

To add to the culture shock of this place, archery is Bhutan's national sport. We attended a match and watched the locals get as excited as we do at Colts games. There are archery fields throughout the country, but only one 9-hole golf course and no football stadiums.

That Indianapolis Monthly writer may have been a little flip in his reference to Bhutan, but having now been there, I can tell you, as someone once said, "This may not be the end of the world, but you can see it from here." Partially for that reason, we were happy to have experienced this interesting and remote culture but were equally happy to come home.



Basile is an author, professional speaker, philanthropist and senior vice president of the Gene B. Glick Company. His column appears whenever there's a fifth Monday in the month. To comment on this column, send email to fbasile@glickco.comor mail to 3564 Clearwater Circle, Indianapolis, IN 46240.
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