Frontline World

Bhutan - The Last Place


Synopsis of "The Last Place"

Letter from Co-Producer Alexis Bloom

The Impact of Television

Most Watched Cable Channels

Article by Orville Schell

Interview with Rinzy Dorji, Co-owner Sigma Cable

Letter to the Editor

Facts and Stats about Bhutan

Media, New Technology, Human Rights and History




Journey to the Hidden Kingdom
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.

Photo of Alexis BloomBhutan 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 bedfellows?

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.

Photo of Tshewang DendupAs 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 America.

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 popular governance.

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.

"This 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 balls.

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.