Thursday, September 24, 2009

First Impressions of Bhutan

We arrived in Bhutan Monday afternoon the 21st. We touched down in the
western town of Paro just an hour after an earthquake struck in
eastern Bhutan, but didn't hear any news about it until Wednesday.
Apparently this was the most powerful earthquake in Bhutan since 1941.
Over 1100 homes were destroyed and the death toll stands now at 13.
Cynthia and I are fine.

Tuesday was a holiday, the Rainy Day Festival, to celebrate the end of
the monsoon season. Actually, the day was sunny and pleasant. It was a
day for families to pack a picnic lunch and go out to watch archery
and darts competition.

 Archery is the national sport of Bhutan. Men use traditional wooden
bows and bamboo arrows. The target is placed 113 meters away and teams
vie for the greatest number of hits. Whenever anyone hits the target
(perhaps one out of twenty shots), the whole team stops to perform a
little dance together in celebration.

We spent two nights in Paro, then drove about 50 km to the capital
city of Thimphu. Both towns are a welcome contrast to Kathmandu --
nothing like the extremely crowded streets, the noise and the litter
that dominates the Kathmandu scene. Here, you are struck by how neat
and clean the streets are, the well kept homes and businesses and the
prevailing quiet, even in downtown Thimphu. Kathmandu suffers
immensely from the overcrowding, the unregulated over abundance of
cars, trucks, motorcycles and vans, and the deterioration of the city
due to the inability of the government to deal with any of the
pressing social issues.

 In Bhutan, it's clear that the leadership of a benevolent king has
been crucial for maintaining a way of life, preserving Bhutanese
culture, protecting the environment and cultivating a sustainable
economy.

 The monarchy in Bhutan began in 1907 and there have been five kings
since then. The fourth king, now about 55 years old has turned over
power to his son, now 28. Last year the son relinquished his royal
authority to a democratically elected government. The Bhutanese people
were quite happy with the monarchy, but the fourth and fifth kings
have made it their mission to educate their people about the benefits
of a democratic system and have moved to install such a system to
replace the monarchy.

Prior to relinquishing power, the king set up an electoral commission,
an autonomous commission with the power to investigate corruption, two
legislative houses, and a supreme court. A constitution was drafted.
Now the country is gradually learning how to use these new democratic
institutions, while the king serves an advisory role only.
Today was a special festival in which people dressed in the finest
clothes and brought their families to the courtyard of the dzong where
they watched monks perform a dance with elaborate costumes and masks.
There were several thousand Bhutanese in attendance and a few dozen
foreign tourists.

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