Bhutan, by contrast, had no television then, no daily newspapers, only medieval buildings. Its capital, Thimphu, basked in a stainless quiet in which everyone wore traditional, medieval clothing (as they still do), and fewer tourists arrived in a year than pile into Disneyland in an hour. The young King Jigme Singye Wangchuk was pursuing a policy of "Gross National Happiness" which said that peace was as important as plenty, and immaterial needs were at least as important as material. There is a point of diminishing returns in development, he was suggesting (in terms that more and more people now heed), and he would gladly give up hard currency if he could thus preserve cultural integrity and continuity. The absence of television meant that there were more video-rental shops along Thimphu's single main street than I see in my hometown in California. And yet there was a sense of stillness, even unfallenness in the country that made me believe the teenagers who offered, unsolicited, "Why need discos? We have monk dances here."
But the first law of modern life is that everything is as impermanent as an image on a screen; the only form of continuity (the Buddhist monks in Thimphu or Kathmandu might have told us) is change. Suddenly, Nepal, haunted by violent Maoist insurgents on the one hand and an autocratic King on the other, is the country that is difficult for tourists to enjoy, its streets silent after dark, its character less free and easy than stuck and stricken. As for Bhutan, its citizens can now take in Sex and the City on TV, watch foreigners check into Aman luxury hotels for $700 a night, and hear about the local incarnate lama who is fêted in Hollywood for his movie The Cup. Thimphu is the place on which foreign sights are set (even though fewer than 10,000 official tourists still visit every year), not Kathmandu. "You know anything about motorbiking across Bhutan?" a snaggle-toothed hippie asked me as he let me into a Californian hot-springs compound at 1 a.m. on a recent night.
Yet neither Bhutan nor Nepal were ever quite so transparent as outsiders liked to suppose. Kathmandu might have boasted an Old Etonian King, the finest apple pies this side of Iowa and all the mongrel props of what could be called Peace Corps imperialism, but it is still technically illegal to proselytize in Nepal, and as recently as 1990, up to 175 people were languishing in prison for spreading their Christianity. Freedom was always more in the eye of the foreign beholder than in the heart of the beheld. As for Bhutan's purity, it was to some extent imposed from above. No citizen was allowed to hold foreign currency, no school trips could be taken out of the country, and Bhutanese women who married foreigners lost rights. Behind the sound of clashing cultures on Freak Street in Kathmandu, beyond the carless emptiness of Bhutan's Paro Valley, both countries have long been dealing with the same problems of severe illiteracy, deep poverty and centuries-old regional divisions.
It is almost as if the two remote and transporting Himalayan kingdoms have been playing out a fairy tale in which one woman opens her doors to everyone and the other lives like a nun inside a convent. King Gyanendra of Nepal and his Maoist enemies now seem to believe that what Nepalis most need is an infusion of discipline and authority. The people of Bhutan, meanwhile, peer shyly out at a world that fascinates them, in part, through its very chaos. And even as the people of Nepal loudly protest their King's taking of all power into his own hands, the citizens of Bhutan are mourning their own monarch's announcement two months ago that he plans to depose himself in 2008. Thus the final irony is that Nepalis are clamoring for the very political freedom that many Bhutanese don't want. Perhaps the King in Nepal should listen to his counterpart in Bhutan and acknowledge that real power should lie with the people.