In the age of universal mobile phone coverage, Facebook and Lonely Planet guides there are still a few countries which tightly restrict independent tourism. North Korea takes great pains to ensure that foreign visitors only get to see the socialist utopia the country's Stalinist regime is trying to project by controlling the movement of visitors. In Turkmenistan, where the late president Saparmurat Niyazov, known as the Turkmenbashi ('Father of the Turkmen'), renamed the months of the year after, among others, himself and his mother, tourists have to be accompanied by a guide at all times. In both cases, the regimes appear to have something to hide. Yet in the mountain kingdom of Bhutan, a country of less than 800,000 people, the authorities insist that chaperoning of tourists promotes the peoples' well-being. All visitors to Bhutan have to pay around $ 250 per day and be accompanied by a guide. All visas have to be approved by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and visas can only be issued in person upon arrival in the country. The daily fees paid by visitors go toward supporting free education and healthcare for Bhutan's citizens while helping to alleviate poverty. While tourists are not monitored at all times and their freedom not as restricted as in North Korea or Turkmenistan, it is difficult for adventurous visitors to convince official guides to take them 'off piste' and away from the official programme.
For much of the 20th century, the 'Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon' (as the national anthem extols the country's name) was largely isolated from the outside world with the ban on television and the internet only being lifted in 1999. The country's former king Jigme Singye Wangchuck explained to his subjects these technologies should contribute to the kingdom's modernisation but that 'misuse' could affect traditional Bhutanese values adversely. In 1972, the king had floated the idea of Gross National Happiness (GNH), a more social
counterpart to the economic Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Ever since, Bhutan's domestic policymaking has revolved around what will make the people happiest, measured by sustainable development, conservation of the natural environment, preservation of cultural values and the establishment of good governance.
Yes Bhutan's record as the guardian of its citizens' well being is by no means universally applied. In the 1990s the government expelled and forced to leave over 100,000 members of the Lhotshampa minority, an ethnically Nepalese group which had settled mainly in the south of the country. The mountain kingdom had witnessed violent ethnic turmoil in the region for the past two decades, with East Bengal breaking away from Pakistan in 1971 and the kingdom of Sikkim, also with large Nepali and Tibetan minorities, being annexed by India in 1971. The Lhotshampa ended up in refugee camps in neighbouring Nepal which refuses to give them citizenship and many thousand remain here.
Bhutan's giant neighbour India is the main market for its energy exports which account for 42% of GBP. India is also the
source of cheap labour, with migrant workers mainly being employed in the construction industry. According to a survey conducted by the Ministry of Trade and Industry, Bhutanese workers are less keen on low skill, low pay jobs and are happy for migrant workers to take up the slack. This, however, has led to exploitative practices in the construction industry, including child labour. Bhutan's tourism authorities want to avert visitors' eyes from Indians toiling under Bhutanese masters.
Another well known, yet relatively hidden aspect of Bhutanese life is the drayang, a cross between a bar, a burlesque dance club and, in some cases, a brothel. Local girls are employed to perform for men and often give out their phone numbers, offering 'special services' after the performance. Though its unclear how many of 30 odd drayangs double up as brothels the issue was important enough to be raised in the national parliament.
Vlad Sokhin travelled to Bhutan where he succeed in documenting some of the hidden aspects of the 'Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon'.