by Kim Indresano, Feb 12, 2004 | Destinations: Bhutan / Thimphu

Bhutan's national language is called Dzongkha, closely related to Tibetan, and we learn a few key words and phrases right off: Kuzo Zangpo La is hello. Kadin Che La is thank you. And Shimbay means delicious and a word we use frequently at mealtimes.

We meet people of all ages who are downright lovely, helpful and energetic. Much of rural Bhutan is practicing their work as it has been done for centuries. For the younger generations, some are traveling to Thimphu's capital or pursuing their education abroad.

Television was introduced to Bhutan in the late 90's. Upon arrival at our hotel in the capital, a staff member shows us to our room and immediately picks up the remote and turns on the TV, perhaps a kind gesture in making a westerner feel right at home. MTV flashes on the screen and the incongruity is too much to bear and we turn it off. Modernization is making inevitable inroads in Bhutan, but slowly for now. One memorable evening in Paro we dance at the Millenium Complex, the local nightclub, and the one place where young people shed their traditional clothing for jeans and sparkly tops, probably imported from India.

Jigme Singye Wangchuck, Bhutan's fourth king, appears to be gracefully leading his country, striking a balance between mindful economic development and cultural preservation. We enjoy hearing stories about him: That he is married to four women who are all sisters and he lives in a simple log dwelling, turning down offers of a more ornate home; he visits the country wearing the traditional gho and hiking boots; his license plate reads "Bhutan;" and his country's motto is "Gross National Happiness."