I’m sitting in the Ambient Cafe, a second floor Western-style cafe with large windows looking down on Thimphu’s main street below, taking advantage of free wi-fi over a bowl of spaghetti and a mango juice. I just had lunch with Henk de Jong, a Dutch filmmaker who is working on a documentary about the opera with a focus on Dutch violinist and concertmaster Laura Anna Bruggen.
Henk lived in Bhutan for a few years and has visited regularly for the last 15 years. He was telling me how much it has changed in the last decade. When he first visited, Thimphu was a small city. According to Preston Scott, an attorney from Florida who is Opera Bhutan’s liaison to the Bhutanese (he has been here 34 times since 2001), the Thimphu population was around 40,000 in 2001. Now, it’s about 110,000.
Henk said the main drag, called Norzin Lam, which we can see from our table in the Ambient Cafe, was once a row of simple shops. Now, it’s a row of multi-story buildings containing businesses, apartments and hotels. The buildings we saw as we drove into Thimphu from Paro a few days ago were rice fields not long ago.
As Bhutan has opened itself more to the outside world, parts of it have begun to change in a dramatic way. More amenities are available to the Bhutanese people — cell phones, Western music and television, packaged food products, jeans and Angry Birds shirts—but the introduction of more material goods and more money has also introduced some petty crime and the concept of stress in a country that measures Gross National Happiness.
Walking down the street I have seen a child strapped to his mother’s back in a traditional cloth sling carrying a bottle of Coca-Cola, men in ghos (the traditional dress of Bhutan) talking on their cell phones, and in our hotel, we have outlets that fit Western-style plugs. As visitors used to being connected to the rest of the world through several different devices at all times, we have complained that the Internet here is slow and unreliable, but at the same time we feel that a weight has been lifted from our shoulders as we turn off our cell phones and let our Facebook pages stay un-updated for a few days.
Thimphu is a city of contrasts — large, ornate and beautiful homes sit side-by-side with shacks that look like they were built in an hour—and being here we feel pulled in two directions. On the one hand, we cling to the modern and familiar, choosing pizza and pasta restaurants for lunch and dinner,especially if they have wi-fi, and on the other hand we embrace the new — and yet very old — simpler way of life.
Jenn Crawford is the director of editorial services for UTEP's University Communications Office.