Ahead of a new showcase of Bhutanese culture, we explore the contemporary art scene in the capital, Thimpu. 

If Bhutan the country is little known to the outside world—its snow-capped Himalayan peaks having shrouded it in mystery for centuries—its nascent contemporary art scene is all but invisible. Most visitors (and there are only around 100,000 a year) come to trek amongst those mountains and marvel at the ancient dzongs, the imposing fortresses that dot the countryside. They're drawn here too by the quirks of modern Bhutan: a monarchy that voluntarily ceded power in 2008 to usher in democracy; the much-vaunted notion of Gross National Happiness, which sets quality of life ahead of economic output; an—in no small way—by just how damn special the experience of being here feels (the US$200-250/day tourist tariff may not be universally popular but it's certainly kept the worst excesses of the modern travel industry at bay).

It's not that these visitors won't come across any art. Says Thimpu-based artist Rinchen Wangdi, "Art is deeply integrated into Bhutanese life. It's just that most artistic practice is associated with religion." Bhutan has a long and rich history of Tibetan or tantric Buddhism, and wherever you travel in the country you'll see astounding works of sculpture and painting; as well as multi-hued, intricately handwoven fabrics selling for upward of $1,000. There are no less than 13 official Bhutanese arts and crafts. But the focus is squarely on the traditional and, as Tashi Payden, a close friend of the artists and founder of Bhutan's RSPCA, points out, "we don't want to be seen just as a living museum."

With that in mind, artists like Rinchen are exploring contemporary Bhutanese issues (particularly environmental degradation) through their experimental mixed-media work. "Art is not about creating beautiful things," he says. "It's about the message." He readily admits the scene is still in its infancy. "We have a long way to go. Most of our buyers come from developed nations; we can't expect local people to buy this kind of work yet. So to sustain ourselves, we have to do commercial, educational work. We've had some government support, but to really keep art alive we need institutions. We need galleries, educators, magazines, art collectors. All of this is lacking at the moment."

A key figure in what progress there has been to date is Asha Kama, another artist combining traditional techniques with modern influences. Together with two friends he set up VAST (Voluntary Artists’ Studio, Thimphu; www.vast-bhutan.org), an NGO providing arts schooling and, more recently, an exhibition space. "There's no market to speak of for our kind of art," he says. "Traditional craftsmen are in good demand. But as a country we lack the love for and understanding of modern art. Abstract and self-expressive art just isn't appreciated." So, in the absence of formal art institutions, VAST was set up to offer would-be artists (including Rinchen, who was one of their first students) encouragement and direction. "Now, 16 years later, we have a lot of young artists working independently. Struggling but surviving," he says. Of his own work he explains that, having toyed with both modern disciplines ("everyone's a graphic designer now!") and traditional religiously-inspired techniques ("People keep this kind of work in their sacred places and I found I wasn't sufficiently committed spiritually"), he's working across the two. "I'm painting Buddha, but Buddha in my own way"—a fair summation of how this small group of like-minded artists are tackling the transition from old to new. 

So while the Bhutanese modern art scene is by no means big enough to base an entire trip around, as a counterpoint to your wanderings through the more traditional landscapes and tapestries of Thimpu (including the stunning Thimpu Dzong, which faces the Royal Palace across the river), some time spent exploring the handful of contemporary galleries makes a worthy add-on to any trip. The artists are refreshingly free of pretension and happy to sit and talk shop, and in both their conversation and their works you get a fascinating insight—and an often controversial at that—into how this long closed-off country is wrestling with modernization. Singaporean visual artist Erwin Lian, a.k.a. Cherngzhi, a part-time lecturer at Ngee Ann Poly, found it so inspiring he’s been back several times. “Actually, I had my fair share of doubt and cynicism when I first landed,” he says. “The Bhutanese tourism board markets it as the happiest place on earth. I thought: Perhaps they are trying to hide the ‘real’ Bhutan from an outsider. But I went exploring by myself—even sketching on the street at night—and it was so idyllic and peaceful. And while not everyone there is happy, they’re fulfilled. I’ve tried to capture the essence of just being there ever since.”

Works by all of the above artists will be on show at the Impressions of Happiness exhibition, which runs from April 12-17, 11am-7.30pm at Sculpture Square (155 Middle Rd.). Part of the proceeds from artworks sold will go to helping underprivileged young artists in Bhutan. There will also be a book launch (see below) and screenings of two Bhutanese films (April 12, 2-7pm). Find out more at www.drukasia.com/impressions

Exploring beyond Thimpu

Bhutan is unusual in that its only international airport serves the town of Paro, not the capital, an hour's drive away. Fortunately, Paro is much more than just a waypoint and you'd be remiss not to spend at least a few days there. Among the highlights is Paro Taktsang, or Tiger's Nest, a 17th-century monastery perched high on a cliff-face some 900 meters above ground—a solid four-hour return hike. 

Stay at Uma Paro, a gorgeous estate set amidst 38 acres of lush blue pine forest on a hill overlooking the town. It's a popular spot for executive retreats—and with an in-house COMO Shambhala spa, traditional wood-fire Bukhari stoves warming up the bar and restaurant and trails leading off in every direction up and down the mountainside it's easy to see why. Rooms start from US$450 ($570)/night.  


Essentials

Getting There

Fly from Singapore to Paro with Drukair for around $1,250 return.

Visa and Getting Around

A visa is required for all visitors to Bhutan (other than Indian, Bangladeshi and Maldivian nationals), and can only be obtained through authorized travel agencies like Druk Asia. They can also coordinate your trip, including the opportunity to explore the arts scene first-hand. 

Stay

Thimpu suffers from some of the urban sprawl and construction blight you'd find in any rapidly expanding town: it's certainly not as scenic as some of the more rural parts of the country, though the valley setting is still pretty special. 

The central location of the 66-room Taj Tashi is hard to beat and the food at on-site Bhutanese restaurant Chig-Ja-Gye among the best we had on our trip. They also organise traditional cultural shows in the evenings in their courtyard—and Asha Kama's works hang in the lobby and suites. It’s fancy without being particularly slick, and is a great base if you're keen to explore Thimpu after dark. Rooms start at USD400 ($505)/night. 

A few miles out of town, with wonderful morning views down the valley and a breakfast deck right by the river is Terma Linca Resort and Spa. It's a lot more modern than Taj, with huge rooms, a spa specializing in traditional Bhutanese hot stone baths (a godsend when you've been trekking), and its own vegetable garden. Downside: you're too far from town for a casual stroll. Rooms start at USD300 ($380)/night. 


What does Bhutanese cuisine taste like? Find out at The Soup Spoon. Plus, read our interview with Dr. Karma Phuntsho, author of The History of Bhutan.