Posts tagged ‘Kunzang Wangdi’

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 Jam-Packed First Few Days in Bhutan


Greetings from Punakha, a city of about 30,000 in western Bhutan. It’s the former capital—Thimphu is now the capital—and is still the spiritual capital of the country. I’m a little fuzzy on what qualifies a city to be the spiritual capital, but I suspect I’ll have a better grip on that after we visit the dzong (kind of a combination of fortress/palace/monastery) later today.

Here’s just a sampling of what we’ve done in our first few days over here:

—visited a school where Bhutanese teenagers spend six years learning any of 13 handcrafts, such as woodcarving, painting, sculpture, and embroidery;

—visited a small factory where workers make paper by hand from the bark of the daphne plant;

—went to the post office to browse (and buy some of) the fancy stamps that Bhutan is famous for;

—eaten a lot of foods that I can’t pronounce, but that involve things like red rice, river grass soup, mustard oil, and green chiles;

—seen lots of Buddhist prayer flags and smelled so much incense I thought we were back in the ’60s; and

—hung out for an evening with the country’s chief elections commissioner, who happens to be a Penn Stater: Kunzang Wangdi ’80. 

I’ll share a few photos with you for now, and hope to update you more in a few days, when we get to a spot that has better wi-fi access. First, to give you a sense of the scenery, here’s what awaited us when we landed at Paro airport (Bhutan’s only international airport) the other day:


That’s an Airbus operated by Druk Air, the national—and only—airline of Bhutan. If you click to enlarge the photo, you can see that on the tail is the national flag, the emblem of a dragon.

Next, some of the students at the painting school. Check out the guy on the left—apparently the occasional bout of boredom in the classroom is a universal phenomenon:


Something we noticed from the moment we landed is how thoroughly Buddhist a country this is. Prayer flags are everywhere, and when we visited the Memorial Chorten (a large Buddhist shrine in Thimphu), you could see people like the guy below, walking around twirling their prayer wheels:


After a couple of days in the capital city of Thimphu, we headed off to the Punakha Valley, a three-hour ride over a bumpy, narrow, mountain road that is essentially the national highway. It’s the only road between Thimphu and parts east. Here’s a glimpse of what it looked like out the front windshield of our maxi-van:


By the way, people drive on the left side of the road over here.

After our stay here in Punakha, we head to a city called Gangtey, where we’re told the electricity will be a little hit-or-miss. I’m guessing that Internet access will be out of the question. Other than an upcoming post about the local currency, it may be a few days before I can post again. Talk to you then.

Tina Hay, editor

May 18, 2013 at 1:08 am 1 comment

Heading to Bhutan

Tigers Nest

The iconic Taktsang Monastery, better known as Tiger’s Nest, above Bhutan’s Paro Valley. We’ll hike to this sacred site (legs and lungs permitting) on the last day of the trip.

When I tell you that I’ll be leaving in less than a week for Bhutan, I’m guessing you’ll have one of two reactions: either “Where the heck is that?” or “I am sooooo jealous.”

Those have consistently been the responses I’ve gotten when I’ve told people that the Alumni Association has asked me to accompany a group of Penn State travelers on a tour called Bhutan: The Hidden Kingdom. Some people, understandably, have barely ever heard of the place—it’s a small, landlocked Asian country, bounded on the north by Tibet and on all other sides by India. Others, though, know that its location in the Himalayas makes it a place of stunning beauty, and that its Buddhist history and culture make it a fascinating place to visit.


This map from gives you a good idea of where Bhutan is situated. (Click to view bigger.)

Bhutan has added interest to Penn Staters because its prime minister, Jigme Thinley ’76g, earned his master’s in public administration from Penn State. Thinley was featured in a 60 Minutes segment five years ago on Bhutan and its vision of “Gross National Happiness,” a concept puts such qualities as sustainability and cultural values ahead of economic development.

My colleagues in the Alumni Association who put this trip together (it’s one of about 30 or 40 trips they’re offering this year) had hopes that perhaps our group would be able to arrange a meeting with Prime Minister Thinley. But as it turns out, he’ll be in the thick of campaigning for reelection at the time we’re over there, so we’re not holding out a huge amount of hope for a get-together. Interestingly, Bhutan’s chief election commissioner is also a Penn Stater: Kunzang Wangdi ’80g, who also has his MPA from our College of the Liberal Arts. We have possibly a better chance of meeting him, which would be pretty cool.

The trip involves visiting some of the country’s historic sites, including a lot of dzongs, or Buddhist monasteries. There’s also a rafting trip on the Mo Chu River near Punakha (that’s OK—I never heard of it either), a visit to a place where paper is made by hand, a visit to a center honoring the sacred and endangered black-necked crane, and a trip over the Dochula Pass, described this way on our tour itinerary:

Then we embark on the three-hour drive to the former capital of Punakha via the Dochula pass (alt. 10,000 feet), which affords stunning views of the Himalayas. We stop to follow the sacred tradition of raising prayer flags for peace and wisdom at Dochula, where the bracing winds will help spread the prayers’ spiritual power to all sentient beings.

Prayer flags at Dochula Pass.

Prayer flags at Dochula Pass.

The big finale of the trip is a hike up to Taktsang Monastery, also called the Tiger’s Nest Monastery. That’s the building clinging to the side of the mountain in the photo at the top of this page. It’s a two-hour hike with a nearly 2,000-foot elevation gain, from about 7,500 feet to more than 10,200 feet. I’m currently trying to tame a bout of plantar fasciitis (heel pain), so between that and the altitude, this oughta be interesting. But I’m determined to hike to the top.

I may try to blog a bit from over there, as our schedule permits. I’ll be curious to see what kind of Internet access we have. There’s one place, for example, about which the itinerary says: “Phobjikha is slowly being electrified, though service can be highly inconsistent. Please be aware that the availability of both electricity and hot water may be limited during our stay.” Hmmm, what do you think are the chances they’ll have wi-fi?

Tina Hay, editor

May 6, 2013 at 8:39 pm 2 comments

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