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Last Updated: Saturday, 19 June, 2004, 10:50 GMT 11:50 UK
Bhutan gives TV cautious embrace
By Susie Emmet
BBC Correspondent in Bhutan

Bhutanese women in national dress
There is little locally produced content on Bhutan's TV service

Five years after television was introduced to this remote Himalayan kingdom, Susie Emmet finds the Bhutanese sharply aware of how TV could transform a nation's culture.

Beneath a cold, starry sky under the watchful gaze of four chewing cows, my bath is being prepared.

A traditional stone bath, that is, which is what the hardy Bhutanese use to ease away the aches from labours in mountain, field or forest.

With giant wooden tweezers the mineral, and supposedly therapeutic, rocks - having been heated to glowing point - are plopped hissing into the stone-lined coffin-shape in the ground which has been filled with spring water, along with a dusting of rice straw and other detritus on the surface.

A muffled cough from the gloom beyond the firelight's glow and I knew there were human onlookers.

Mind you, watching a foreigner bathe is not the only evening attraction these days. For this month it is five years since the arrival of television in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon.

There's a silence in the family because they're glued to the box
Bhutanese newsreader
In shops and bars - and some homes - Bhutanese families can sit in the glow of the flickering screen that delivers a non-stop stream of international news, soaps, shopping channels, cartoons and films.

At the end of the main street in the capital, Thimpu, in the wooden single-storey office of one of the main cable operators, the owner smiles broadly from behind his paper-strewn desk.

TV 'avalanche'

"We offer 45 channels" Rinzi Dorji says and pauses to flick through some of them on one of two screens poised at his elbows. American, Indian, Australian and, of course, BBC programmes flash by but little sign of Bhutanese life.

"Many people want more local content but there is so little produced," he admits.

At the other end of town, at the Bhutan Broadcasting Service, I meet journalists I first encountered five years ago right at the start of the TV avalanche.

A Bhutanese novice monk in class
Will television have an impact on Bhutan's Buddhist culture?
This is an extraordinary time for the ambitious. But with neither the experience nor the budgets of the slick satellite channels, frustration is evident too.

Professional comments aside they describe the profound changes television has brought.

"There's a silence in the family," says a newsreader, "because they're glued to the box".

An arts producer tells me that sleeping habits have changed: "Now people stay up late to watch their favourite programmes".

Another explains how the main family room pre-TV would have seats facing inwards to ease conversation with family and friends or to face the altar, but now television households re-arrange their rooms to the fount of visual stimuli.

There is no television without electricity, and 70% of Bhutan has not got power. East and north of the capital lies the high wide valley of Phobjika - a bitterly cold place in winter but green with crops in the summer sunshine.

At the end of the electricity-less community that snakes along one side, I am invited at dusk to join one farming family at the end of the working day in the potato field.

There are tools to wash, the house cow to see to and stall in the ground floor before we can climb together up the ladder steps to the first of the four storeys of their whitewashed timber-frame home.

Change is not to be feared, without choice you cannot choose the right path
Bhutanese lama
Seven children cluster giggling and whispering over their homework in the corner of the hurricane lamp-lit room. In the centre, a woodburner hisses and spits as it cooks a cauldron of rice.

I ask if they have seen television. "Yes," says the father. Would he like it in their home?

"I'd like my children to be able to watch it," he says. "Right now they know little of the outside world so TV could help them. But maybe it'd change the lifestyle we have now".

Cultural change?

Novice monks
Novice monks: For years Bhutan had a deliberate policy of isolation
Changes in lifestyle perhaps, but is television hastening cultural change and touching Bhutan's Buddhist core?

I feel in awe of the maroon-robed lama to whom I pose that question. A mild-mannered giant of a man there is a definite Dalai Lama-like twinkle in his eye.

"Change is not to be feared", he says calmly, "without choice you cannot choose the right path".

I get more dignified wisdom from the farmer I sit beside one morning to enjoy the high-altitude sun.

He says he has only seen television once and feels that not having been to school explains why he found it hard to understand.

But he adds: "I'm not saying culture outside Bhutan is bad but the best way is for us to pick the best of what is outside and try to still grow as a society as well."

All this to think on, as I steadily lower myself into the just-bearable heat of the stone bath. It is wonderful. The mineral-enriched steam and aromatic wood-smoke combine in a haze round my head.

The last nation on earth to get television seems sharply aware of television's impact on us all. Bhutan has a lot to teach the outside world - the delights of stone baths for a start.

From Our Own Correspondent will be broadcast on Saturday, 19 June, 2004 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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