Travel: 'Why do rich people come here?': In the Keng region of Bhutan, one of the world's most isolated countries, Lesley Reader struggles to explain the whims of Westerners to a local woman

Click to follow
The Independent Travel
THEY don't have a word for tourist in Kengkha, the language of the Keng region of Bhutan, remotest part of one of the most isolated countries in the world.

It is an exclusive holiday destination. Tourists pay enormous sums to visit. They usually want to see the Dzongs; unique, fantastic buildings.

I sit on the kitchen floor in my friend Kunzang's house and we watch them. 'Why have they come?' she wants to know.

'To look.'

'The Dzong is old, it's falling down, why do they want to look at it?'

'Because they don't have any Dzongs where they come from.'

'Oh,' she says. She is cooking rice and potato curry over the wood fire. Smoke swirls about us as we talk.

'Are they rich?' she asks.


'But we are a poor country. Why do rich people want to come here?'

'I'm not sure.'

She pours me a generous slug of the most potent of the local brews and we chat about the work in the rice fields, her family, my job.

The children come home bearing firewood. The tourists have taken their photographs and given them ballpoint pens and sweets but haven't spoken to them. They want to know if they'll be sent copies of the pictures.

'Not if you didn't tell them your names and address,' I say.

'But how could we, they can't speak our language?' demand the kids.

'You learn English in school,' I remind them.

'They didn't speak English]' They wander out again, hopeful. 'Perhaps those other ones will give us something as well.'

'Why don't those people speak English?' demands Kunzang.

'They're not from England, they're from another country with another language.'

She eyes me up and down. 'They look like you.' I have to agree. 'How many other countries are there?' she asks.

'Lots,' is the best I can do.

'Will they stay here tonight?' she demands.

'Probably not.' They usually go on to Tongsa; a bigger, older Dzong.

'Will they go to the fields?' she asks.


'To the forest?'


She ponders. 'Why do they take pictures?'

'So they won't forget,' I suggest.

She glances at her altar in the corner of the room adorned with pictures of Buddhist


'Will they put the pictures on their altar and worship them?' she wants to know.

'No,' I admit.

She shakes her head, shrugs. 'Have another drink.'

(Photographs omitted)