September 30, 2004

Bhutan: A Place for Travellers and Magicians

Few people could answer even the most basic trivia questions on the isolated mountain
kingdom of Bhutan. And for centuries, that’s exactly the way the deeply religious Bhutanese have liked it.

Only in the last decade or so has the Kingdom of Bhutan opened even slightly to the outside world. Tourists arrive in an orderly, metered trickle with numbers deliberately regulated to preserve the cultural and religious integrity of the tiny country. Even though modernisation is taking place gradually and carefully, the focus is on communication, infrastructure, health and social projects. Nowhere is there a garish Western fast-food outlet or gaudy franchise to be seen.

However, Bhutan has begun delicately exporting its cultural heritage and complicated belief system via the medium of film. Acclaimed filmmaker and revered Bhutanese lama, Khyentse Norbu, has tantalised international audiences with his two recent productions, The Cup (1999) and Travellers and Magicians (2003). Acutely aware of the power and stigma of modern “Hollywood” style filmmaking, Norbu believes he can use a more subtle and romantic approach to convey the respectful and pious message of his country without employing crass evangelism.

“People automatically associate film with money, sex, and violence because there are so many such films coming out of Hollywood and Bollywood," says Norbu, "but if only they had access to films by the likes of Ozu, Satyajit Ray, Antonioni, people would understand that film-making doesn’t have to be like that. In fact it is a tool. Film is a medium and Buddhism is a science. You can be a scientist and at the same time, you can be a filmmaker.”

By all accounts, Norbus’s sensitive portrayal of Dondup, a young government official stationed in a remote outpost from which he is eager to escape, has touched viewers with its sheer vitality and powerful storytelling. His cautionary tale of morality and misplaced desires is completely in keeping with the teachings of Buddhism and the national psyche of Bhutan.

Following on the overwhelming success of his previous two journeys, Adventure Associates Founder, Mr Dennis Collaton, is planning a third group tour to the fabled land of Shangri-La in April 2005.

“Even after a lifetime of travel to every continent on Earth,” says Dennis, “nothing prepared me for the spectacle of Bhutan.”

Bhutan is truly one of the last remaining outposts available to the world-weary traveller. Parochial without being backward and introspective without the paranoia or hostility, the Bhutanese are many stresses and anxieties that plague us in the so-called ‘modern’ world.

Interested in travelling to Bhutan? Sign up for Ewen Bell's Bhutan Photography Tour

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