The picturesque Sakteng village has lost its remoteness. With a road right on the doorsteps of the once secluded highlanders in the east, Sakteng is, today, less than a half a day’s journey.
Together with the remoteness, Sakteng also lost its exclusivity. So has Merak. In the west, the distance to Laya is cut short by days. The road has reached Koina, a few hours from Laya. Soe and Lingzhi are no more remote too.
Decades of development has brought dramatic changes and advantages to the highlanders. Electricity and telecommunications are not new. All houses are CGI roofed and many use electric appliances for cooking.
Roads, the latest development, are making lives a lot easier.
Road was high on the priority list of many highlanders. They can transport construction materials, rice, chillies, cooking oil and supplementary cattle feed for their animals on the back of Boleros now, the preferred vehicle. There are no regrets. They are reaping the benefits of development.
Those living outside the mountains and visiting the highlands have a different view. Talks of being able to drive to Sakteng and back in less than a day is not received well. Many agree the highlands have lost the charm of being remote and exclusive. The agreement is that the remote highland communities would benefit more from not having roads.
To be fair on the highlanders, they shouldn’t be treated as a community where curious tourists or urban Bhutanese could visit, take some pictures with them. They want to reap the benefits of development and modernisation.
They are reaping it. Shops are stocked with, not cheese or chugos, but carbonated drinks, junk, fairness creams and hair gel and dyes. Electricity has enabled highlanders to watch television. Some own dish TV and watch the same programme that is beamed to Thimphu residents. They are no different.
There is a downturn however. In Sakteng, local say about 200 horses are suddenly rendered useless. The once beast of burden are freed of the burden. They graze in the open fields. The repercussion is felt, without realizing, by young strong men who suddenly have a lot of free time.
They have enough time to receive and see off officials, Dashos and Lyonpos who are frequenting them. The road makes it easier for them to visit the people. Sakteng in one week received two ministers, a secretary and a director besides other people from the Zhung.
Without the need of horses to transport goods, a good number of men are jobless in Sakteng. Not all highlanders own cattle. Those without cattle depended on porter and pony services. It was the mainstay of the highland economy. Roads have robbed this of them.
A motorable road to Laya or Sakteng, for instance, is a curse than a boon. Given their scenic beauty, unique traditions and customs, the highlanders could benefit more, for example, from tourism if roads are missing.
Places like Laya and Sakteng could offer more opportunities and benefit from the tourism sector. The highlanders could benefit from farmhouse stays, locally made products, porter and pony business.
There is not much to carry up and down when tourists and government officials drive to their doorsteps.