A Landlocked Island

I’m writing this from a noisy hotel room in Siliguri, India near the train station, sitting on the hardest mattress I’ve ever felt in my life. We came to India six hours ago from Bhutan, and the contrast is incredibly jarring. (I do have a newsletter planned about our trekking in the Himalayan foothills in Nepal, but since we’re about to undertake another trek from Darjeeling, I will wait until we’re done and compare the two.)

Bhutan is famously closed off from the rest of the world. Tourists from all countries except India have to pay a government guide $200 a day or more. The guide’s itinerary for his tourists cannot be altered (much, we did a bit), and the Bhutanese government has to pre-approve it.

(Seth and me in Bhutan’s national dress, though mine barely fit, which is why I look uncomfortable.)

Bhutan is a constitutional monarchy that only stopped being an absolute monarchy in 2008 when the king decided to make the transition. The royal family is still revered, and pictures of the king, his wife, and their four-year-old son are everywhere, in restaurants, shops, temples, monasteries and stupas. They are everywhere in person as well—we saw the king’s sister at a high pass where we stopped to admire the view.

The government exercises strict control over other things as well as tourism. All construction is of a particular style, brought to Bhutan by the unifier, Ngawang Namgyal, in the 17th century. He escaped from Tibet to Bhutan after a misunderstanding with the Tibetan leadership, smuggling some relics in his sleeves.

Bhutan is a majority Buddhist country, and they practice a type of Tibetan Buddhism rich in symbolism and folklore. In the stupas and temples we visited, images of the Buddha, were surrounded by what our guide termed Enlightenment Figures, which looked like many-headed and -limbed demons, wearing skulls and severed heads, embracing female demons, while standing on suffering humans. Tibetan Buddhism embraces an enormous pantheon, so local deities and protectors, many also with fearsome aspects, looked down from the walls.

Tiger’s Nest monastery, photo by Seth Miller.

Because of my husband Seth’s connections, we were invited to lunch by a pilot for Druk Air, Bhutan’s government owned airline. (A druk is a thunder dragon, the emblem of which can be seen on Bhutan’s flag.) We had a delicious lunch with him and his wife at a Korean restaurant in Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital city. We discussed all manner of things, including Druk Air’s strong moves toward sustainability, and another topic was Bhutan’s concern with the number of Indian tourists that visit every year. Bhutan has a population of just under 800,000, and is caught between India’s billions to the south and China’s billions to the north. Many in the Bhutan tourism industry fear Bhutan being turned into just another Indian hill station, if the tourism isn’t controlled.

Control is a key aspect of life in Bhutan. The national dress, which is lovely on women, and convenient and handsome on men, seems to be mandated by the government as well, at least for those in the tourism sector. And while some may chafe under that control, at least now it is chosen by a representative government, and it does seem like the only way to keep Bhutan’s culture and beauty intact. Though Bhutan has many wandering cows and stray dogs, and is not much more prosperous than its neighbor to the south, it is also clean and quiet, at least for a visitor, compared with the litter and noise of India.

And while I do love India, one of the things I love about it is how it takes everything in and makes it Indian. Even McDonalds and Coke, rather than being American incursions here, have been absorbed, and made Indian. Bhutan’s people are right to fear that happening to them.

I kept being reminded of our visit to Iceland a few years ago. Iceland’s population is even smaller than Bhutan’s and receives 2.3 million total visitors per year. In the summer, Iceland is overrun with tourists, seeing nearly its population visit every month. EU workers in their teens and early twenties arrive in the summer as well to work the tourist jobs—you can spend a whole week there and never encounter an Icelander. Iceland’s natural beauty makes it worth the visit anyway, but I found it more like visiting some sort of international park than visiting a different country.

All this raises questions I’m not equipped to answer—what is the value of a country’s culture, at what cost should it be preserved? What tradeoffs are worth it? Bhutan’s most valuable industry is hydropower, which it sells to India, but tourism comes second. Does Bhutan have to fear turning into a theme park in some ways, no matter what? Is there a way to modernize while staying true to its roots? One of the benefits of being late to modernity and the digital age is learning from the mistakes of other countries. I hope Bhutan can retain its magic.


My trilogy of novels about Viking-Age Norway, The Half-Drowned King, The Sea Queen, and The Golden Wolf, are available wherever books are sold and make great holiday presents! Find a place to buy them online here.

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