bhutan2Fregmonto is heading off to study in Bhutan for 3 months. Expect him to become a Back in a Bit regular…

Today I leave for Bhutan, the last hope for Western tourists searching for an authentic Buddhist cultural experience now that Tibet has been thoughtfully modernised by its caring older brother China. Alas I will not be travelling as a tourist, as that costs $250 a night — the current Bhutanese tourism policy is to let in a few rich retirees a year, fleece them of their money and kick them out as quickly as possible, rather than be swamped by hordes of backpackers and child sex tourists like Nepal or Thailand.

As part of a political internship with my university, I will be working in the capital Thimphu for three months, devising a theatre show in collaboration with unemployed young people, exploring their experiences of Bhutan’s rapid modernisation. Since the abolition of serfdom in the 1960s, Bhutan has lurched straight from feudalism to post-industrialism — there is now a large proportion of university educated young people who cannot find employment in the country’s small civil service (the overall population is little over 600,000).

Cable television was introduced in 1999, with access to over 300 channels in rural areas. Since then there have been reports of children accidentally injuring each other using WWF wrestling moves, and a rise in reports of theft and begging. In the past few years the country has also experienced a transition, initiated by the king himself, from an absolute monarchy to a parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarch, and all the while the level of exposure to Western and Indian consumer culture has increased exponentially.

Fortunately for Westerners with a Buddha shaped hole in their spiritual upbringing, there is a new tourism policy being drafted for the Bhutanese government by an American consultancy company: it’s called Brand Bhutan. It proposes raising the number of tourists from ten thousand or so a year to 250,000, turning Bhutan into a Disney-fied Buddhist theme park where even the colour of woven bags would have to be dulled down to ‘authentically’ suit Western market tastes.

While I’m going to have to be flexible and change my plans according to the interests of the people I’ll be working with, at present I’m keen to see how these young people perceive their culture, and how they can claim their own cultural autonomy, so rather than attempting to preserve a marketable Brand Bhutan ‘tradition’ or replicate a monotonous bollywood-hollywood culture, they can draw on both these strands of ideas and many others besides in creating their own version of their culture. I’m sure once I arrive every assumption I’ve made in this post will be proven wrong, so I’ll let you know over the next few weeks how it goes.