Article: ‘End of the road’ for Bhutan’s identity? (724 words)

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The road makes me happy,” she says, “as it will greatly improve my family’s living conditions and make life easier.

Interesting article with fantastic images from photographer AJ Heath and Traveller Magazine.

AJ Heath spent 12 months in Bhutan and while he was there photographed the Brokpa tribe in the village of Merak in the east of the country.

As well as in Traveller Magazine, AJ Heath has written about this project for Edge of Humanity, Maptia and Lightfoot Travel.  A larger selection of photos from this project can be viewed on AJ Heath’s website.

The Brokpa, who are ethnically distinct from the Bhutanese, are a tribe of semi-nomadic yak herders.  Up to now, the remote village of Merak could only be visited by undertaking a multi-day trek which went over a 4,300m pass.  AJ Heath reports that that is about to change with the construction of the first road.

The traditional way of life and distinct cultures of rural communities like the Brokpa in Merak are at risk of disappearing.  As communications improve, they lead to a desire for more modernised lifestyles. Electricity was introduced in 2012 which was followed by satellite TV and fridges and mobile phones.

In his article for Lightfoot Travel, AJ Heath noted:

As the majority are illiterate, I was fascinated to know how they put people’s names into their phones. One lady showed me that she used the emojis – ‘dog, dog, cat, heart’ was her son who lives in Thimphu and ‘cat cat heart heart’ was for her daughter.

A post shared by AJ Heath (@ajheathphoto) on

AJ Heath’s project documents the Brokpa and their way of life, and the articles examine the change that completion of the new road will bring.

Their lives have not really changed in centuries, but change is coming and the change will happen very quickly. I wanted to capture this before it is lost.

As Bhutan develops, its people struggle to preserve their traditional way of life and unique identity as they look for diferent and/or easier ways to earn a living.   

The road will increase tourism which will increase the incomes of the Brokpa.  Paradoxically, tourism provides an incentive to maintain traditions but its increase will, in turn, also put more pressure on their traditional way of life as the Brokpa use that income to modernise and buy consumer goods.  

There is an inevitable tension between the Brokpa’s desire to improve their lives and tourists’ yearning for things to remain as they are.  In a bid to prevent the loss of culture as a result of modernisation, the Bhutanese government has introduced legislation to protect cultural traditions.  

According to the articles, some fear that this could lead to unequal development within the country with some communites being preserved as living museums to satisfy lucrative tourist demand while other parts of the country are permitted to develop.  

Travel in Bhutan is only possible as part of an organised tour, which costs around $250 a day, or $290 if travelling solo or in a pair.  The rationale for this daily fee is to permit sustainable tourism which protects Bhutan’s land and culture while offering tourists an insight into a unique way of life.  A portion of the fee is used by the government to fund roads, infrastructure, health and education programs.  

While money from tourism plays a part in improving the country, the challenge for Bhutan will be how it manages not to distort development while maintaining that income; to keep both international visitors and Bhutan’s population satisfied.

While the tourists yearn for Bhutan to remain the same, Heath said that the Brokpa people welcomed the changes: “They all seemed very excited by the prospects of the new road being built. They thought it would improve their lives and that their living conditions would improve. The road would also bring in more tourists which will give them extra income to buys TVs and fridges.

In a country which places much stock in the idea of Gross National Happiness, only time will reveal the effect the road has on communities like Merak and whether the Bhutanese government and people are able to balance the competing demands of development, tourism and tradition.

For more about British photographer, AJ Heath and to see more of his work, visit his website (where there are more photos of a different aspect of Bhutan), or follow him on Twitter or Instagram.  

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