Posts tagged ‘Bhutan’

In Bhutan, a Penn Stater is No Longer Prime Minister


The reelection poster for former Bhutanese prime minister Jigmi Thinley ’76g.

There’s nothing like traveling abroad to make you more aware of culture and politics in different parts of the world. And I experienced that in a big way this year—not just when I traveled with a group of Penn Staters to Bhutan, but after we got back as well.

I’ve mentioned before that one of the highlights of our trip was the chance to meet Bhutan’s chief elections commissioner, who happens to be a Penn Stater.  The Alumni Association had invited Kunzang Wangdi ’80g to the Penn State reception at our hotel in the capital city of Thimphu, and even though he had to have been up to his eyeballs with work—the national primary elections were about 10 days away at that point—he showed up. It was a fun and thought-provoking evening, as we peppered him with questions about his country’s very young democracy and also got to hear a bit about his time as a grad student at Penn State.

The election was also of special interest to us because Bhutan’s first democratically elected prime minister—another Penn Stater, Jigmi Thinley ’76g—was up for reelection. Wangdi knows Thinley, as you might imagine; they each earned a master’s of public administration degree under Robert LaPorte at Penn State, and Wangdi worked for Thinley in the Bhutanese government at one time.

I remember Wangdi telling us (as did our travel director from Odysseys Unlimited, Yeshey Wangchuk, who lives in Bhutan) that Thinley might be vulnerable—that his reelection was not a sure thing by any means. And they proved to be right: Although Thinley’s party was one of two to survive the May 31 primaries, it was ousted fairly decisively in the July 13 general election. Thinley is no longer the prime minister; instead, he’s now the head of the opposition party.

It made me want to find out more: How could Thinley, who was so well known internationally as an ambassador of “Gross National Happiness,” who had appeared in a CBS 60 Minutes segment about his charming little nation, have been tossed out of office? The answers turn out to be pretty interesting.

From what I’ve been able to read, I get the impression that Thinley’s efforts to put Bhutan on the map internationally, and especially his globe-trotting advocacy for the concept of Gross National Happiness (that sustainability, fulfillment, and other ideals trump commercial growth), didn’t play so well back home. Although Bhutan has done well economically under Thinley, the country has also struggled at times with debt, unemployment, and government corruption—so much so that, according to the BBC, some Bhutanese sarcastically refer to GNH as “Government Needs Help.” That’s not a phrase we ever heard in the course of our 10 days over there, but then again, the locals in any country always put their best foot forward for the tourists, so who knows.

New prime minister Tshering Tobgay says he doesn’t plan to promote Gross National Happiness to other countries the way Thinley did. But Thinley’s work will likely live on: The United Nations now promotes an International Day of Happiness every March, and according to an excellent profile of Thinley in Asia Times, world leaders will gather in Thimphu next June to adopt a New Bretton Woods agreement, further cementing the importance of a happy citizenry in each nation’s economic goals.

The other factor that appears to have hurt Thinley in his reelection bid was an interesting foreign policy move he made in June of 2012. Bhutan’s geographic location is strategically important because it lies right between two rival countries—India and China—and for years Bhutan has been more closely allied with the former than the latter. Bhutan and India signed a friendship treaty in 1947 stipulating that India wouldn’t interfere in Bhutan’s internal affairs, but that Bhutan would look to India for advice on foreign policy. So when Thinley went last year to Rio+20, a UN conference on sustainable development, and met with China’s premier Wen Jiabao while there, India was not pleased. And, when India discontinued its oil and kerosene subsidies to Bhutan right in the middle of the national elections this year, some observers think it was a calculated move to weaken the electorate’s support for Thinley. Whether that’s true or not, it’s clear from reading stories in India-based news media that that country is happy to see Thinley gone. See for example the story called “India Breathes Sigh of Relief as with Elections, Bhutan Returns to the ‘Fold.’

Meanwhile, it’s not clear what Thinley—whom Penn State has honored as both a Distinguished Alumnus and an Alumni Fellow—will do next. Earlier this week, he resigned from the country’s parliament, and I haven’t been able to figure out what that’s about. (I didn’t even realize that a prime minister could also serve in the parliament.) I’ve set a Google Alert to his name, so I’ll be able to find out what the next chapter in his career will bring.

Tina Hay, editor

August 14, 2013 at 1:01 pm 3 comments

Bhutan: Photos From the Travelers

One last note from the Alumni Association’s trip to Bhutan:

Bhutan is a spectacularly photogenic country, from its lush mountains and valleys, to its friendly people, to its Buddhist-inspired architecture. Their ubiquitous stray dogs are pretty cute, too. I asked the trip participants if they’d be willing to share some of their photos with me, and below is a slide show of about 30 or so images they contributed.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Tina Hay, editor

June 4, 2013 at 9:46 am Leave a comment

This Traffic Cop is Poetry in Motion

DSC_1605_med_traffic_copThimphu, Bhutan, is said to be the world’s only capital city to not have a traffic light. In fact, I think it’s safe to assume that there are no traffic lights anywhere in Bhutan, because if the capital city (population: about 75,000) doesn’t have one, the smaller cities elsewhere are even less likely to.

One busy intersection in Thimphu does have a kiosk where a police officer directs traffic in a graceful, almost mesmerizing series of gestures—even if we didn’t exactly understand what his gestures meant. Combine the mysterious hand movements with the fact that people drive on the left side of the road in Bhutan and, well, I think I’d be better off letting someone else do the driving.

Penn State traveler Julie Nelson shot the one-minute video clip below during the Alumni Association’s trip to Bhutan. Note that of all his signals, not one of them seems to say “stop” or “wait.” Yet somehow it works.

Tina Hay, editor

May 28, 2013 at 9:19 am 2 comments

For Penn Staters, Bhutan’s Elections Hold Special Interest


Bhutan’s elections commissioner, Kunzang Wangdi ’80g, visited with our group on our first night in the country.

Our Penn State group happened to visit Bhutan at a really interesting time: The country is in the midst of its national primary elections, in which voters will be choosing, among other elected officials, a prime minister. The current prime minister is well known to many Penn Staters: Jigme Thinley ’76g earned his master’s in public administration from Penn State, and the university has honored him as both an Alumni Fellow and a Distinguished Alumnus.

If you saw the 60 Minutes segment on Bhutan back in 2008, you saw Thinley talking about the country’s program of Gross National Happiness. I haven’t been successful in finding an online video of that 60 Minutes piece, but you can read a transcript here.

Actually, it’s not quite correct to call Thinley the current prime minister. The way it works in Bhutan, when the elections roll around, the current government steps down and an interim government is put in place for about three months. So Thinley is out of office while he seeks reelection.

Thinley isn’t the only Penn State connection to the Bhutanese elections. The guy in charge of the whole process—the country’s chief elections commissioner—is Kunzang Wangdi ’80g, and our group had the pleasure of spending an evening with him early in the trip.

The folks in the Alumni Association’s travel office invited Wangdi to our opening-night reception, and despite the fact that this has to be an incredibly busy time for him, he showed up. He sat in the hotel bar with us for an hour or so, munching on snacks and answering our questions about the elections.


Bhutan is a fascinating study because it’s relatively new to democracy. Starting back in 1907, the country was a monarchy, and there have been just five kings in its history—all part of the Wangchuck family, all called the “dragon kings,” and typically referred to simply as “the first king,” the “second king,” and so on.

As I understand it, it was the third king who, back in the 1950s, started transitioning Bhutan from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional one, with the establishment of a National Assembly—akin to a Parliament. His son, the fourth king, formed a royal commission to study democracies around the world and pick the best elements of each. Just four years ago, that same fourth king abdicated the throne in favor of his 29-year-old son, in part to help accelerate the move toward a democracy. (Vanity Fair did an interesting article at the time on the coronation of the fifth king.)

In talking with Wangdi, the elections commissioner, we were struck by how much foresight and selflessness the kings had shown over the decades in realizing that their country would be better served by a democratic government than a monarchy. We also were impressed at how Bhutan had learned from other countries’ mistakes in creating its elections policy. The requirement that the incumbents step down at election time, for example, is based on the idea that you shouldn’t be trying to govern and campaign at the same time. And the government funds the elections in full, leaving no room for political action committees and their influence.


Jigme Thinley ’76g (third from left) is running for reelection as Bhutan’s prime minister.

You also don’t see the roadsides in Bhutan littered with campaign billboards and yard signs. Instead, every so often you come across an “Election Advertising Board” like the one shown here.

We loved the evening we spent with Wangdi and were so impressed that he took time to visit with us. As if that weren’t enough, on the last day of the trip we received a package from him—a box of Bhutanese gifts for us. A very nice touch.

As for Jigme Thinley, it obviously would have been cool to meet him as well, and my colleague Deborah Marron ’78, ’86g did some advance legwork starting last winter to see if she could get it arranged. But we were visiting the western part of Bhutan at a time when Thinley was campaigning over in the eastern part of the country—and, after spending a few days bumping along at 12 mph on those narrow Bhutanese roads, I fully understood why the distance made that impossible.

Bhutan’s primary election is just days away now—Friday, May 31—and it will narrow the field of prime minister candidates from four down to two, with the general election to follow in July. It’s safe to say that the Penn Staters on this trip will be keenly interested in the results.

Tina Hay, editor

May 27, 2013 at 10:29 am 1 comment

A Trek to the Tiger’s Nest


Bhutan’s most famous site by far is called Taktsang—or, more commonly, the Tiger’s Nest Monastery. It’s famous because it’s perched almost impossibly on the side of a sheer cliff, at an altitude of more than 10,000 feet. The only way to get there is by a long, steep trek with an elevation gain of about 2,000 feet.

The legend is that the second Buddha, Guru Rinpochhe, flew to the site on the back of a tigress in the 7th century. He meditated in a cave there for three months. Somewhere along the way the Buddhists erected a monastery and temple on the site; it burned in 1998 and was reconstructed.


We saw lots of prayer flags in Bhutan, but nowhere were they more ubiquitous than on the Tiger’s Nest trail.

Tourists like us typically trek to Tiger’s Nest on the last day of their trip—partly because it’s a high point (no pun intended) of a Bhutan trip, but probably more so to allow time to adjust to the altitude. I suspect also that the guide is taking mental notes on the easier hikes earlier in the trip, noticing who does well and who struggles, and therefore who’s going to need extra time to get up to Tiger’s Nest.

There’s an option to ride horseback up to the halfway point, but Yeshey, our trip director and guide, opposes that. He says it’s more dangerous than hiking, and it’s sinful besides. I’m a little fuzzy on the sinful part, but I think it has to do with respect for animals. Yeshey says that Buddhists believe those who ride horses for transportation won’t fare well at reincarnation time—they may end up coming back as horses themselves and have to carry people on their back up steep hills. (On the other hand, he says, the horses that carry the monks, the royal family, and other important people clearly must have done something right in their previous lifetimes.)

Yeshey did advise us that, when we saw horses coming, we should move to the side of the path to let them pass—and that we should move to the mountain side, not the cliff side. That way, if the horse squeezes you off the path, the results won’t necessarily be, um, fatal.

On our Tiger’s Nest hike, we encountered people from all over: China, Japan, Kolkata, Santa Fe. A group from Thailand came up from behind us on horseback and passed us, looking relaxed and happy and shooting photos of our sweaty selves with their iPhones as they passed.

As is the case everywhere in Bhutan, every visitor or group of visitors hiking up to Tiger’s Nest is accompanied by a Bhutanese guide—almost always male, it seems, and recognizable by their attire, the traditional gho. No tourist explores Bhutan on his or her own, for reasons I’m not sure about. Whether it’s a group of 24 or just a couple or even a single person, a guide goes with them.

We decided this guy was crazy.

We decided this guy was crazy.

The trail is your basic steep mountain path, a combination of dirt and rocks and horse plops, but with an added bonus: Buddhist prayer flags everywhere along the path, strung from one tree to another. They made great photo ops. Yeshey also brought some along (you can buy them in Paro; a bag of five prayer flags costs about five bucks) for us to put up when we got to the monastery.

My goal was to get as far as the cafeteria, which is roughly halfway up. I’d heard there’s a good view of Tiger’s Nest from there, and considering my plantar fasciitis and my general out-of-shapeness, I figured that would be a fine accomplishment.

We got to the cafeteria—and to say I brought up the rear would be a massive understatement—and took a break for tea and crackers. When the rest of the group hiked onward, I followed for about five minutes to another good overlook, then headed back down to the cafeteria to hang out and wait for them. (I was lucky to find a friendly stray kitty who jumped into my lap and slept while I looked at photos on the back of my camera and jotted down some notes on my iPhone.)

When the group came back, they reported that the second half of the climb was way harder and steeper than the first, and that they had to hustle to get to the monastery before it closed at 1 p.m. for the monks’ lunch. They were able to visit three temples in the monastery complex, and at one temple could look through a trap door in the wooden floor to see the cave where the Lord Buddha spent those three months meditating so many centuries ago. No photos allowed in the temples, though, as has been the case at every temple we’ve visited.

Penn State traveler Julie Nelson, halfway up to Tiger's Nest.

Penn State traveler Julie Nelson, halfway up to Tiger’s Nest.

The Penn Staters also had the great fortune to meet the head lama of the monastery, who listened as Yeshey showed him our prayer flags and explained to him in the local language what specific wishes were behind them (a safe journey back home to the U.S. and so on). The lama blessed their prayer flags and sprinkled the Buddhist equivalent of holy water on them. Right after that, and I am not making this up, he took a call on his cell phone.

If you ever have a chance to hike to Tiger’s Nest, here are some suggestions:

—It might not be a bad idea to get a prescription in advance for Diamox, as virtually all of the veteran travelers in the Penn State group did. Everything I’ve read says that you have to respect the altitude: 10,000 feet isn’t Mount Everest, but it’s definitely higher than most of us are used to. There’s no predicting who will get altitude sickness, and those in great physical condition can be just as vulnerable as those who aren’t. When the doc I talked to at Penn State explained the consequences—cerebral and/or pulmonary edema, both of which could be fatal—he had my attention in a big way.

—It’s also good to bring a walking stick, or rent a bamboo one from the Bhutanese guy in the parking lot before you go up. Two walking sticks are even better. They really help with your footing, especially if you encounter mud, as we did. Two of the Penn Staters showed me how to inch sideways down the muddy path by using the poles to side-step as you might when walking up or down a ski slope.

—Take lots of water with you, and stop often to drink it. I used the water breaks as an excuse to just stop walking and catch my breath. “I think I’ll stop and drink a little water now,” I’d say, and the others would say, “Oh yeah, good idea,” and I’d think, Yes! 60 seconds of oxygen!

—Be sure to bring lightweight rain gear and good walking shoes or boots with a grippy tread. The weather is so changeable up there: We went from overcast to sunny to sprinkly to pouring rain and back to sunny again. I somehow managed to not grasp the importance of rain gear when reading the pre-trip info, and failed to bring a rain jacket. So when it started to rain—hard—on the way down, I got pretty wet. And when my walking shoes, which are just fine on ordinary surfaces, proved to be no match for the rain-slicked path, I fell. So I got pretty muddy too.

Then again, some people seem oblivious to all the sane advice and somehow get away with it: One of our travelers noticed a family heading up the steep, muddy trail in flip-flops.

Tina Hay, editor

May 24, 2013 at 1:00 pm 3 comments

Birds of Bhutan


A common hoopoe, a very distinctive bird. (Click to enlarge)

Bhutan is said to be one of the most ecologically diverse nations in the world, and is a paradise for bird lovers, with something like 700 species. Our Alumni Association tour isn’t really focused on birding, but I’ve been keeping my eyes and ears open for birds when I get a chance.

My favorite bird so far, hands down, is a largish one that looks something like an exotic woodpecker with a plume on its head and a long bill. (See photo at right.) There were a pair of them pecking the ground for insects outside our hotel in the Phobjikha Valley, and I asked a few people if anyone knew what they were. At one point I struck up a conversation with a pair of travelers from Bangalore, and I asked: “Are you birders?” One of them said, “Of course,” as if everyone who visits Bhutan is a birder. I described the birds in the lawn and asked what they were, and they told me they’re common hoopoes. A great name, if you ask me, and a great-looking bird.

Otherwise, most of what I’ve seen is fairly similar to what we have back home. I’ve seen a few magpies (common in the western U.S.), a ton of crows and/or ravens, and a lot of sparrows that I can’t identify but that I suspect are not terribly exotic.

We also see a lot of some sort of grackle that’s black with white wings and a tail.

On our hike in the Phobjikha Valley, we heard a cuckoo calling loudly and repeatedly, but didn’t see it. I also heard but didn’t see a bird that, if I were back home, I’d say was a red-bellied woodpecker; they have a very distinctive chirring sound. The bird book at our hotel here in Paro says they have something called a rufous-bellied woodpecker over here, with a similar call, so who knows.

DSC_3032_med_crane_visitors_centerProbably the most famous bird in Bhutan is one that spends its winters here and the rest of the year in Tibet: the black-necked crane. It’s endangered—we watched a documentary that said only 800 of them remain, though I’ve since seen higher estimates. It’s also considered sacred to the Buddhists who make up most of Bhutan’s population. Supposedly the penalty for killing one is life in prison.

The cranes aren’t here right now, alas—their summer breeding grounds are north of here, on the Tibetan plateau in the Himalayas.

As evidence of their special standing among Buddhists, when the cranes fly south to Bhutan’s Phobjikha Valley in November, they circle over the roof of the Gangteng Monastery several times before landing in the valley. And they do the same on their way out of town in March. This isn’t some sort of apocryphal story—we saw some pretty cool documentary footage of them doing it.

There’s an organization here called the Royal Society for the Protection of Nature, an NGO that runs the information center we visited. A few of the Penn State travelers bought some handicrafts in the center’s gift shop, happy to know that a portion of the proceeds will benefit those beautiful cranes.

Tina Hay, editor

May 23, 2013 at 9:40 am Leave a comment

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