22 June 2012

Bhutan: Genuinely Genuine

We've all been there. You are a tourist somewhere and your guide describes something as "authentic" or "traditional." Oh yes, this is "an authentic dancing exhibition" or "traditional dress of the blah blah blah people." You are invited to try it on, take pictures, and "go native" for a few moments to feel as if you have become one with the local people and their culture. The whole experience is entirely contrived and while we can debate the idea of authenticity and whether or not anything is ever truly "authentic," it's often glaringly obvious when an experience is entirely artificial. And then you come to Bhutan.


From five-star resorts to ancient temples to monasteries hanging from the edge of a cliff, every site, sound, and experience feels natural, normal, and as if it would be happening whether or not you were there. Over the past few days we have visited historical sites, eaten slightly less historical food, and at times found ourselves interacting with the Bhutanese in conversations that were entirely bizarre and often quite comical yet entirely unprovoked and unrehearsed.


In most places you visit an "ancient site" and there is some excessive tourist-only entrance price that allows you access to something historic that is now a giant handicraft mass-produced shopping hall. In Bhutan, you visit Punahka Dzong, built in the 16th Century, and discover it is STILL used as the main offices of the municipal government and the center of regional Buddhism where 600 monks converge each year. There is no entry fee and YOU are the odd man out, not the locals.


In most places you stop at designated tourist restaurants that serve mediocre food without a smile (usually a frown). In Bhutan, the restaurant delivers dinner to your room that is specially prepared for a three-year-old then offers to sit in your hotel room for three hours and babysit for free while you go to the restaurant and have some grown-up time. If you do not take them up on their offer they get rather upset, as they have been looking forward to spending time with the "pretty white baby" all day.


In most places, you trek up the side of a mountain to some holy religious site and are chased by people who want you to ride their horse or buy their cheap crappy jewelry for an inflated price, arguing that it is "real jade." In Bhutan, you wind slowly along a cliff edge completely unbothered and reach the holy site - in our case the mesmerizing Tiger's Nest - to discover that it houses full-time monks and has been in continuous operation for over 600 years.


Finally, in most places you stay at a fancy hotel and what you've paid goes directly into the hotel chain coffers and the bribes paid to officials to avoid paying tax. In Bhutan, you know exactly how much of your room cost goes directly to funding universal healthcare and free education for the entire population.


Bhutan is not just some place and as the manager of our hotel so eloquently put it, "the whole world has changed to cater to tourists except Bhutan. In Bhutan, the tourists are fundamentally changed to adapt to this magnificent magical land." To say it is surreal doesn't go far enough. To say it is otherworldly makes it sound too ethereal. It seems that there are no words to accurately describe this beautiful yet understated, charming yet mesmerizing, perfect yet unpretentious land. Perhaps you'll just need to come and adapt yourself. I promise you won't regret it.


No comments: