Bhutan via Bangkok – or the other way around?

Entering Bangkok through Suvarnabhumi International Airport, we are greeted by the gracefully sweeping arcs of the modern concourses. First, we are hut by the warm wave of humid air followed by blasts of air conditioned coolness as we get off the jet way. The airport is polished and positively sparkling, with live orchids in intense green and purple adorning the mechanised walkways that cover the 500 meters to immigration. In a touch of modern efficiency, all seven (yes, seven!) of our bags are on the luggage belt.

This impressive efficiency and modern infrastructure are left in sharp contrast when we enter a taxi for Sukhumvit. The taxi is now competing with the Sky Train, a new rapid transport system that would whisk us into town in minutes. As soon as we are in the taxi, we see our mistake as traffic slows to a halt.

As we are on our way to Bhutan, it is impossible not to make comparisons. Is this a future that Bhutan aspires to? Despite the obvious difference in size, (Bangkok is nearly 10 times more populous than all of Bhutan), there are strong similarities between Thailand and Bhutan. Both are constitutional monarchies, both have largely Buddhist populations and ambitious goals of rapid modernisation and happy people.

Clearly, Thailand is well ahead in terms of economic development ($9700 vs. $6000 GDP per capita PPP), but the while driving into the city, we could only surmise that some of the concrete and glass we could see from the taxi window sits in the sights of Bhutan’s development aspirations.

Will Thimphu’s traditional architecture give way to tower blocks to increase the urban density as the restricted valley swells in population from a new wave of urban drift? Will it be cars for every citizen, or a fleet of electric buses powered by domestic hydroelectricity? Bhutan has already proven itself as a country of vision and idealism. How it effectively implements this remains to be seen.

This afternoon we met with the Bhutanese Deputy Regional Director at the UNEP Regional Office, who comes from Thimphu. She told us of Thailand’s 50-year plan for transport, which has already yielded the Sky Train, water taxis and natural gas infrastructure. Bhutan apparently still has no long term infrastructure plan, but they have had partial success by banning cars in cities one day a week to incentivise walking and cycling.

From conversations I had with government officials in Thimphu last year, Bangkok is unlikely to be the model for Thimphu’s development, while Singapore is aspirationally in the sights of Bhutan’s ambitious development goals. Singapore is a model city in terms of cleanliness, water use and infrastructure for education and biotechnology. Other countries such as Japan have best in class energy and carbon intensity.

Bhutan’s challenge when it comes to implementation will be to set its sights on the right aspirations, while finding the right stepping stones along the way. Clean and rapid economic development is a noble aspiration, but leapfrogging congested and dirty on the way might be a challenge.

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