Over twenty-three days, my wife and I travelled to Hong Kong, India, Bhutan, and Bangkok. Below are a few observations married with some pictures and videos of life from these very different locales. While saying, as Canadian travellers “we are enormously fortunate,” is trite, our guided tour left us gasping at the appalling poverty, admiring the exquisite craftsmanship, and marvelling at the ubiquity of our fossil fuel culture.
Compact, noisy, efficient, modern and expensive. Our tour guide works three jobs- guiding from 5 a.m. to 3 p.m., pizza delivery in late afternoons, and bar-tending at night and home by 3 a.m..
Even entering the city at midnight, the blare of horns and the constant need for aggression by our driver was a sight to behold.
We flew to Guwahati, a city in north-east Assam state with a population of about ten million. Along the Brahmaputra River we visited a number of small communities located on sandbanks annually flooded by monsoon rains. Below is a school for Muslim refugee children. The Indian government provides some support to these families. Such support is not always viewed favourably by Indian taxpayers.
The village had about 1200 inhabitants.
Along the way we stopped at a co-operative transforming jute into burlap bags. The noise was deafening.
We also visited another village. Here is a cropped picture of some young men. Their glimpse of the white tourists was not welcoming.
It must be galling to see the $1000 plus cameras, clusters of smart phones, the groups of well dressed visitors descend on a village that has no running water, which depends on subsistence farming, is prone to annual flooding, while their pictures are taken and their moms try to sell fabrics.
Roads in Assam between Guwahati and Jorhat
Homage to Bhutan (with apologies to George Orwell)
Compared to the frenetic pace of India, Bhutan was calming and refreshing. Bhutan is known for its Buddhist roots and its form of constitutional monarchy. The King is a revered figure as well as the Supreme Abbott. The country is also known for measuring its success by gross national happiness. Tourism is strictly limited and each visitor must pay a daily fee of $250 U.S. for the right to be guided through the country. This alone provides very significant monies to the country which is objectively poor. (Per capita GDP is about $2600 U.S.) Tourism is a growth industry which promises to transform the traditional way of life for decades to come. The roads are better in Bhutan than in India and considerably safer!
Houses are styled in a traditional way with colourful designs. Its educational system is free up until university as is health care. We visited an arts institute where students learn to draw, sculpt, carve, and weave producing exquisite paintings, sculptures, tapestries, and clothing. But the subject matter of the art is limited to producing Buddhist iconography. The textile museum in the capital Thimphu is a must see.
Unlike Myanmar (Burma), where Buddhists’ temples are a centre for the sale of tiny buddhas and other paraphernalia in every town of that dreadfully poor country, the Bhutan monasteries and temples are “co-located” with historic forts. These “forts” protect the monasteries and elaborate temples, which are replete with awesome paintings, tapestries and sculptures of former abbotts and many deities.
Our guide was well versed in the history of the Bhutan founder, numerous Buddhist gurus, and other mysteries. A highlight of this quiet mountain nation is the journey to the Taktsang Monastery, known as the Tiger’s Nest.
This monastery sits perilously on the side of a cliff and whose construction and evolution seems miraculous. The monastery was built around a cave commencing at the end of the 17th century. The legend of this remarkable series of temples is that of Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche) who flew from Tibet on the back of a Tigress. This, and many magical stories, were related by our guide with considerable pride and seriousness over the four days we travelled in the country.
You do get the sense that many Bhutanese believe in these legends or fairy tales. In the beautiful clothes worn (Gho for men and Kira for women), there is an old world charm about the place. But change is taking place in this country dominated by respect for the King (no one is supposed to look at his face) and Buddhist tradition. On the streets in Paro and Thimphu, young people were dressed in jeans. Construction is booming but subject to a five-story limit. Many construction workers come from India.
School children actually walk to school in uniforms usually one to two kilometres and seem genuinely excited. There are no real extremes in wealth although an airline and hotel and oil company is privately owned by a well-known resident. No obvious pockets of penury, though.
This city of about 14 million lies in the lower reaches of the Chao Phraya River inland from the Gulf of Thailand. Notorious for its sex trade, the city boasts a modern look with expressways, including toll roads, wide bridges,and tall condos and office towers.
The visit corresponded with the last few weeks of official mourning for the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej who was head of state for 70 years.
The military took over in a coup three years ago and promise democratic elections by November 2018. We shall see.
Thailand is also a Buddhist country and temples are a popular spot for tourists to visit. Indeed, on one venture south of the city to visit the ancient ruins of Ayutthaya, every five kilometres, large temples with ample parking space for visitors, were situated. Also along the way were huge food manufacturing plants.
Bangkok’s rivers and canals are busy and noisy- vital transportation links in this rapidly transitioning economy.
Three different countries and one special administrative region in 22 days. In Hong Kong, the family or clan trumps religion. Business, mainly in the form of trade, is central there. For India, religion does not seem as important although the Muslim-Hindu divide (the bloody 1947 partition) is always a subtext. Bhutan’s society, government, and economy is heavily dominated by ubiquitous religious symbols and myths in this beautiful mountain country. In Thailand, Buddhism is dominant and evident in the architecture and the temples throughout the countryside. Still, globalization has had an obvious and significant impact on the landscape,
In all of these nations the tension between conformity, order versus freedom, dignity, and respect is palpable. In Hong Kong the principles of free-trade and wealth creation confront the opaque hand of the mainland Chinese state. In India, the sheer chaos of hundreds of millions of human beings struggling to survive – each with their own opinion is juxtaposed with the old caste system purporting to bring order for each being “knowing their place.” The metaphor for Bhutan’s governance model is the old historic forts combining the secular with the sacred. As Thailand faces the globalization challenge, the Chinese government’s influence grows. This was pointed out by our guide at the imperial summer palace where the Chinese government has undertaken to restore one of the major buildings. The generals, in the name of order, are not popular as recent press coverage of a southern cabinet tour reveals, unhappiness among rubber farmers who have been vocal about protesting declining prices.
So democracy is not “one size fits all” and obviously not everyone’s cup of tea nor necessarily an inevitable outcome of humankind’s social development. Still as Winston Churchill opined: “It has been said that Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”