Tucked within the highest mountain range on earth, Bhutan
was long kept secret from the rest of the world. A
remote Buddhist kingdom, an eagle's lair, only one airline flies
into the country even today (and that airline has only two planes). As
we approached the airstrip in Paro, the skies cleared just long
enough for the plane to dip through a hole in the clouds, down
into a thin valley protected by white mountain peaks.
is careful to protect its hidden existence. Tourist visas cost
$200 a day, and many parts of the country are off-limits to
foreigners. Tourist quotas are also strictly enforced: in the
year 2000, only 7,158 tourist visas were issued in Bhutan --
fewer people than the average crowd at an NBA game. The tourism
board calls this policy one of "low volume, high quality." It
isn't that the Bhutanese aren't friendly -- they just don't
want their country overrun with trekkers and backpackers in
search of Shangri-La.
Unlike its neighbor India, most of Bhutan bears little evidence
of the modern age. Western advertising is barely visible, and
there aren't any malls or McDonald's. Yet despite its tradition
of self-imposed isolation, Bhutan now lives with the most powerful
invader of all: television. When I heard the news that the tube
had fizzed to life in Bhutan, I knew the kingdom was on the
verge of irrevocable change. Could MTV and Buddhism make comfortable
Several years earlier, in the early 1990s, Star TV had been
introduced to India courtesy of Rupert Murdoch and his globalized
media empire. Most people weren't prepared for the ripple effect
that Star TV caused. This Western smorgasbord of delights --
available at reduced rupee rate -- stirred excitement in unexplored
places. I was living in India when Baywatch burst onto
the scene, and I watched the crowds gather around television
sets in market squares all over the country. Crowds of twenty,
sometimes thirty people quivered with shock and excitement as
bikini-clad Pamela Anderson strutted her stuff along the beach.
Unrestrained Western culture was a force that the Bhutanese
had long feared. Until 1999, television and the Internet were
illegal in Bhutan. Royal decrees were intended to safeguard
the country against what was feared to be an onslaught of Western
values. Not until Bhutan could offer its own television service
would Western digital media be welcomed into the Kingdom. So
in June 1999, the country crossed the threshold of modernity
on two fronts: television and the Internet were legalized, and
the Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS) was born.
I read the announcement in a newspaper in London with a sinking
heart. But in Thimphu, unknown to me, my future co-producer,
Tshewang Dendup, was recording the nation's exuberance.
As one of the first journalists sent across the country to record
Bhutanese life with a video camera and microphone, Tshewang
was one of the first faces to appear on the homegrown BBS channel.
But over the weeks and months of the BBS's inaugural run, management
discovered the difficulty of daily programming and the new technology.
How to edit and output? How to separate ambient from dominant
sound? Nobody knew.
one of the most promising Bhutanese journalists, Tshewang was
sent to learn the tricks of the trade. He flew halfway across
the world to California, to the Graduate School of Journalism
at Berkeley, and enrolled in the documentary film program. I
had come from South Africa by way of London. When we met there
as students, we bonded as two foreigners in a strange country
do. We marveled at the size of the Coca-Cola cups, and at the
amount of grease on a Fat Slice Pizza. And we decided to go
back to Bhutan together, to see how the Himalayans were digesting
Bhutan is now a country with one foot in modernity and the other
in ancient traditions. And in many ways His Majesty the King
Jigme Singye Wangchuck embodies the new contradictions facing
Bhutan. He was born to a dynasty of absolute monarchs, and by
this yardstick he's a modern man. Not only has the king welcomed
the influx of modern media, but in 1998 he ceded a significant
portion of his political power to the 154-member Bhutanese legislature.
Unlike his predecessors, this king is paving the way to more
But in a somewhat contradictory move, nine years prior to the
legalization of television, his Majesty declared it national
law to wear traditional dress in public places. Under the king's
orders, members of the police force patrol the streets reprimanding
those wearing Western-style trousers. Youngsters found strolling
across the capital city in jeans are sent home to put on their
ghos and kiras.
is the paradox of globalization," said Bhutan's foreign minister,
Lyonpo Jigmi Thinley, during one of our interviews. "The more
one is exposed to outside influence, the more one becomes conscious
of one's own traditions and values. It's a question of which
pull will ultimately prevail."
Some Bhutanese say that the arrival of airplanes in 1974 marked
the true moment that Bhutan opened to the outside world. They
say that Bhutan joined the global community when the kingdom
became a dot on the map where people could fly. Those who embrace
modernity also point out that VCRs were legal under the old
regime. Sylvester Stallone made his appearance years ago, they
say, and still the Bhutanese honor their cultural inheritance.
But even with air travel, relatively few visitors have come
to this isolated Kingdom over the past thirty years, and far
fewer Bhutanese have left. And hardly anyone living outside
of Thimphu had access to VCRs and videocassettes. Religious
festivals were cited as the year's most exciting entertainment.
Far more so than India, Bhutan was a country unaccustomed to
the glitz and glamour of the West. So when television arrived,
the majority of the people who had access sat with eyes glued
to the screen.
Traveling around Bhutan, I discovered that owning a television
set is now a priority for the 600,000 people that make up this
small nation. Not surprisingly, consumer patterns have changed.
According to one local commentator, "the advertisements for
soap look so good that people want to eat it." Language has
also changed: words from American and Hindi action films now
pepper the official dialect, Dzongkha. And children watch cartoons
instead of playing traditional games with sticks, stones and
The government, the Buddhist monastic community and members
of the Bhutanese press all agree that Bhutan's unique heritage
is its most valuable strength. And personally, I hope that the
policies of cultural protectionism prevail. But as the foreign
minister so aptly acknowledged, in this increasingly small world,
the globalized exchange of cultures is simply inevitable.
Alexis Bloom, co-producer of "The Last Place", is an independent documentary filmmaker residing
in the Bay area.