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Rinzin Tsheten


Interview with Rinzin: Bridging Traditions in Bhutan – From Remote Villages to the Capital's Pulse

Rinzin, can you tell us a little about your background? I understand you're from the countryside of Bhutan. How would you describe the particularities of your hometown in comparison to the capital?

Firstly, Thank you, Robin, for this interview opportunity, and I also would like to thank you for being part of my stories. I am from a very remote village in the eastern part of Bhutan, nestled within a pristine environment where festivals are blessings, moral responsibilities, respect, and smiles are the everyday life of the people there.

A rooster is our alarm clock, the sun's direction is our clock, the chirping of different birds and changes in stars' direction tell us the seasons, and many more.

After my studies, I moved to the capital city of Bhutan for better opportunities. As I now reside in the capital, Thimphu, of course, it’s different and changes dramatically accordingly with the rest of the world, but it is good that we Bhutanese still like to keep our age-old customs and traditions alive amid modernization and influences from east, west, north, and south.

Bhutan is a unique kingdom with a royal family. What are your thoughts on the monarchy, and in what ways do you believe it sets Bhutan apart from other nations?

Let me answer this one not only as a Bhutanese citizen but also from the view of any average human. From the beginning of the Bhutanese era, the monarchs of Bhutan have played a vital role in bringing harmony and Bhutan’s sovereignty to Bhutanese society.

Wangchuck Dynasty’s quality of “selflessness” and “genuine love and compassion” for Bhutan and its citizens, the Monarchs of Bhutan gained respect in Bhutan and worldwide.

Bhutan’s Philosophy of Gross National Happiness was gifted to Citizens by the fourth King of Bhutan and is the only country in the world that has officially proclaimed the Gross National Happiness (GNH) as a measure of the country’s progress and also for its dramatic landscape, temples, and centuries-old fortresses.

I'm fascinated that Bhutan is the first carbon-neutral country. Can you explain the reasons behind this achievement, the national sentiment towards it, and how it came to be?

Bhutan’s achievement towards a carbon-neutral country is because of the Bhutanese’s respect and relationship with the natural environment surrounding them since their forefathers. Because of the Bhutanese constitution, they must maintain at least 60 percent of their land covered with forest. Bhutan is now covered with more than 70 percent of its land with forest, making it a place that absorbs more carbon dioxide than it produces.    

Buddhism has been an integral part of your upbringing. How has it shaped your life and worldview? How often do you meditate, and in what ways do you incorporate its teachings into your daily life?

I was born Buddhist and chose to be Buddhist even though I had a choice of picking my way of life later on. It is because of Buddhism’s philosophy of studying, training and correcting your mind to make yourself a better person and to be more compassionate and loving to others.

Buddha’s teaching has always been and still is my guiding philosophy in every walk of my life, like meditating for at least 20 minutes a day, still learning and practicing the art of making myself humble, being respectful, and trying to spread love and compassion to people and animal from different parts of the world.

Before becoming a travel guide, you were a mountaineering guide and traversed the Snowmen Track several times. Can you share some memorable stories from those expeditions? How have these experiences impacted your life, and are there any specific rituals or traditions associated with these mountain journeys?

I would like to give this honorable title, “Mountaineering Guide,” to our friends worldwide who take tourists to challenging great White Mountain peaks. I am a trekking guide who takes tourists through the greater Himalayas without climbing a tremendous white mountain.

Since my society respects and worships the great White Mountains and also due to global warming and maintaining our ecosystem, climbing White Mountain peaks is banned in Bhutan. We greet mountain gods, hoist prayer flags, and pray for our luck through the mountains to mountain gods and deities every time we cross the mountain pass.

Yes, I had the privilege of leading a few groups of tourists a few times on a snowmen trek and had to rescue some of them due to altitude sickness. There was a time when we camped at a place where the only way to go at a lower altitude was by crossing a mountain pass; I had to put one of my tourists inside Gamow Bag (Potable Hyperbaric Chamber) until the rescue helicopter team arrived she got severe altitude sickness in the valley of mountains where we had no place to decent down.  

Bhutan Government and its tourism council with travel partners are well prepared for the welfare of its tourists, and there are no casualties so far. Snowmen Trek is one of the most beautiful treks I have ever done; it has stunning views of great white mountains, beautiful rhododendron and Azalea shrubs, and turquoise glacier lakes.; if lucky, you can also see the snow leopard, nomadic areas, and many more.                

You seem to have deep knowledge about Hinduism, India, and the widespread use of Sanskrit. How do you perceive the cultural connections between Bhutan and its neighboring countries, especially India?

Bhutan, a landlocked country in the Eastern Himalayas, shares a close cultural connection with its neighboring countries, particularly India. Historical, geographical, and religious factors primarily influence the cultural ties between Bhutan and India.

Historically, Bhutan and India have maintained friendly relations for centuries. Bhutan was traditionally influenced by the Indian subcontinent, particularly by the spread of Buddhism from India to Bhutan. Indian scholars, including Padmasambhava, played a significant role in introducing and disseminating Buddhism in Bhutan. As a result, Bhutan adopted Mahayana Buddhism as its state religion, which is also prevalent in many regions of India, such as Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh.

Geographically, Bhutan shares a long border with India, and the two countries have open and accessible border crossings. This facilitates regular cultural exchange and interaction between the people of both nations. The movement of people, trade, and ideas across the border has contributed to the cultural assimilation between Bhutan and India.

Religiously, Bhutan and India have a shared heritage of Buddhism. Bhutan is home to numerous Buddhist monasteries and sacred sites, many of which have historical connections to Indian Buddhist saints and scholars. Indian Buddhist pilgrimage sites like Bodh Gaya, where Gautama Buddha attained enlightenment, also hold significance for Bhutanese Buddhists.

Furthermore, Sanskrit, an ancient Indo-Aryan language, is prevalent in Bhutan and India. Sanskrit is considered a sacred language in Hinduism and Buddhism and is utilized in religious rituals, chants, and scriptures. Bhutanese scholars and monks often study Sanskrit texts, including ancient Indian philosophical and religious texts like the Vedas and the Upanishads.

Recently, cultural exchanges between Bhutan and India have been further strengthened through tourism, educational collaborations, and people-to-people interactions. Many Bhutanese students pursue higher education in India, fostering educational and cultural ties between the two nations.

Overall, the cultural connections between Bhutan and India are deep-rooted and multifaceted. They are shaped by historical, geographical, religious, and linguistic factors and continue evolving through various interaction and exchange forms.

Having served as a travel guide and even my guide, what do you aim to showcase most to tourists about Bhutan? What aspects make Bhutan genuinely unique in your eyes?

Firstly, I am happy and honored to be your guide in Bhutan. Tourism is a field I am more aware of, and I have my wishes and aims that I want to showcase to tourists visiting Bhutan. Thank you for the questions. I want to write a few points on my aim to showcase Bhutan and the things I know Bhutan is genuinely unique in my eyes:

1. Gross National Happiness (GNH): Bhutan is renowned for prioritizing the happiness and well-being of its citizens over economic growth. The concept of GNH, coined by the Fourth King of Bhutan, emphasizes sustainable development, cultural preservation, good governance, and environmental conservation as the pillars of national progress.

2. Environmental Conservation: Bhutan is recognized as a global leader in environmental preservation. It is one of the few countries with a negative carbon footprint, which absorbs more carbon dioxide than it emits. The country has a constitutional mandate to maintain at least 60% forest cover, and it places significant importance on protecting its rich biodiversity and ecosystems.

3. Cultural Identity and Tradition: Bhutan has managed to preserve its unique cultural heritage and traditions. The Bhutanese people take great pride in their distinctive dress, architecture, traditional festivals (such as Tshechus), and a deep-rooted reverence for Buddhism, the state religion.

4. Isolation and Limited Tourism: Bhutan has long maintained a policy of controlled tourism to protect its culture and environment. Until recently, the country imposed strict regulations on foreign visitors, including a daily tariff. While the restrictions have eased to some extent, Bhutan still limits the number of tourists allowed yearly, ensuring visitors a more exclusive and authentic experience.

5. Development through Gross National Happiness: Bhutan's development policies are guided by the principles of GNH. Rather than focusing solely on economic indicators like GDP, Bhutan prioritizes holistic well-being, sustainable development, and equitable distribution of resources.

6. Unique Political System: Bhutan is a constitutional monarchy, and the king plays a significant role in governance. However, the country has transitioned towards democracy by introducing a parliamentary system and the first general elections in 2008.

These distinct features contribute to Bhutan's reputation as a country that emphasizes the well-being of its people, preserves its cultural heritage, values its environment, and pursues a unique approach to development.

Rinzin, during our time together, we had the unique opportunity to meet the royal family while hiking to the Tiger's Nest. Can you tell us about that experience? Did it have a profound impact on your life? Who exactly did we meet, and what emotions or thoughts did that encounter evoke for you?

That was one beautiful day to look back at. We came across Her Majesty Queen Mother Ashi Sangay Choden Wangchuck near the beautiful waterfall at Tiger’s Nest Monastery.

It was so humbling and blessed that Her Majesty shared some conversation with us and said, “Hi, how are you guys? Are you fine hiking up?” with so much care, love, and concern. We also got a blessing from one of the high Buddhist masters from the central monastic body inside Tiger’s Nest Monastery. It’s indeed a very humbling and blessed day.

Can you share with us your favorite spot in Bhutan? Is there a hidden gem that frequent tourists don't typically visit?

There is a place called Tsho Phu on a Jomolhari loop trek in Bhutan where only some of the travelers to Bhutan make it.

After a night trek from Paro Valley, there is a place with twin turquoise lakes, surrounded by beautiful Himalayan White Mountains, and the place is called Tsho-Phu (Tsho- Lake, Phu-mountain).

You have an evident love for the mountains. Can you tell us about your favorite mountain and share the stories or legends tied to it?

Mount Jomolhari is 7326 meters (24035ft) above sea level. This Majestic mountain is considered an abode of the goddess Aum Jomo, who is bound under oath by Guru Rimpoche or Padmasambhava to protect the land, the Buddhist faith, and the local people. Locals there also believe climbing is impossible, and whoever is climbing will be thrown down.  

Bhutan has specific regulations when it comes to tourism, including restrictions on hiking certain mountains. Can you elaborate on the reasons behind these regulations?

Yes, Bhutan does have specific regulations when it comes to tourism, and these regulations include restrictions on hiking certain mountains. The reasons behind these regulations are primarily related to environmental conservation, cultural preservation, and sustainable tourism development.

Environmental Conservation: Bhutan is known for its rich biodiversity and pristine natural environment. The government of Bhutan places a strong emphasis on environmental conservation and sustainability. By restricting access to certain mountains, they aim to protect fragile ecosystems and prevent potential damage caused by unregulated tourism. These regulations help maintain the ecological balance, preserve wildlife habitats, and safeguard the natural beauty of Bhutan's landscapes.

Cultural Preservation: Bhutan has a unique cultural heritage deeply rooted in Buddhism. The government recognizes the importance of preserving and promoting its cultural traditions, including sacred sites and mountain monasteries. By restricting access to certain mountains, they can protect these holy places from overexposure and ensure they remain undisturbed. This helps maintain the integrity of Bhutan's cultural heritage and allows visitors to experience the country's traditions authentically.

Sustainable Tourism Development: Bhutan follows a policy of high-value, low-impact tourism, known as "low volume, high-quality" tourism. The government aims to minimize the negative impacts of tourism on the environment and culture while maximizing the benefits for local communities. By regulating access to certain mountains, they can control visitor numbers and ensure that tourism activities are sustainable and well-managed. This approach helps preserve the quality of the tourist experience, prevents overcrowding, and minimizes the strain on infrastructure and resources.

Overall, Bhutan's regulations on hiking certain mountains are driven by a desire to protect the environment, preserve cultural heritage, and promote sustainable tourism practices. These measures contribute to maintaining Bhutan's unique identity and ensuring the long-term sustainability of its tourism industry.

You transitioned from being a travel guide to an entrepreneur by founding Shelter Cafe Bhutan. Can you take us through that journey? What was the inspiration behind it?

I always had the wish to open a cozy book café in the middle of Thimphu City where I can relax from traveling and focus on getting married and having a beautiful family; it was also because I want to grow in life and make myself and my future family financially secure to have or to give a better life. My earnings were just enough for my rent and daily meals.

I saw the light in my dream until I came across you, and So Ang. I also came across a beautiful, kind couple from Switzerland who will help me with my dream. With the help, I built, invested my savings, and modified the old, shabby, broken bar into my dream place. The Café was themed Book café and Named Shelter café with your and your friends' help. It was named Shelter, inspired by the famous Tiger’s Nest Monastery in Bhutan, and also, as I want to take Shelter from traveling and moving on with my wishes and dreams.

It is a very cozy café in the middle of Thimphu City with warm light, plants and flowers, books, authentic coffee, and good food. It was the talk of the town.  

It's admirable how candid you are about the challenges faced. Can you share why Shelter Cafe Bhutan failed and what lessons you took from that experience?

That journey taught me the most in my life. Shelter café was a success! It went well, starting from customer feedback to maintaining its reputation. We had a good sale, shared a perfect bond with our customers, and received lots of beautiful notes sharing their love for Shelter’s ambiance, friendly staff, and good coffee and great food from our customers on our Shelter’s wall. Covid came after a short period of Shelter’s operation.

On March 5th, 2020, at 11 p.m., the first COVID-19-positive case was confirmed in Thimphu, a 76-year-old tourist from the United States. That’s when gatherings of crowds are not allowed, and the closure of schools started regionally. We business firms are asked to maintain social distancing rules. I was confident enough that I could keep my business running, though we had fewer customers because I focused more on takeaway items through social platforms.

Initially, the Shelter survived with minimum profits and was enough to pay its rent, salary, and bills. With days, weeks, and months of more positive cases and lockdowns, Shelter barely could make its rent and went on paying from whatever savings I had in my account. I started to ask my financers, friends, and families to jump in to keep Shelter alive. Everybody around the globe struggled by then, even my financers, friends, and families.

There was a time when Shelter couldn’t even make a penny in the whole month and had to pay rent either way. With the hope of keeping my dream Shelter alive and ending the pandemic one day, I went into debt to keep the Shelter alive, hoping that I could repay once everything was fine. After countless struggles, finding ways, tears, and sleepless nights, I finally had to give up and close Shelter Café from my dream. It’s been a while since the pandemic ended, and I am still paying off the debt from whatever earnings I have.

Nobody knew the pandemic would come, and nobody could stop the things that could not be controlled. I am always ready for another chance to bring Shelter back if my luck and situation favor me. Thank you, Robin, for taking me back to that beautiful place.

Congratulations on becoming a parent! With a new baby and your aspirations to be an entrepreneur, can you share your vision for your future endeavors? Who is your target audience, and what legacy or experience do you hope to create for them?

Thank you, Robin. A feeling of blissfulness in becoming a parent and a husband cannot be felt without being a parent or a husband. I know you, and you will be a great dad and a husband, too; you may want to get married and have children, too. I’m blessed and thankful for a beautiful wife and son.

I am trying to get back to work with tourism again since the downfall of Shelter café. With my experience and lessons from the pandemic, I started working as a tour operator for tourists visiting Bhutan. I will make tourists visiting Bhutan have a wonderful time in Bhutan.

Lastly, thank you for sharing your story with us. Before we conclude, do you know if there is anything else you'd like to impart about Bhutan, its culture, or your journey?

Thank you, Robin, for this opportunity. I consider myself blessed to have been born in Bhutan, where I could still get the opportunity to experience my ancestor's culture and traditions. I am still learning; I am sure we all have ups and downs in our lives, and all we can do is correct ourselves to be a better person from our past mistakes and journeys.  

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