And, for the Bhutanese reader, it is like going on a vividly perceptive voyage across the length and breadth of the country with the author.
Published by Penguin, the book begins with a comprehensive introduction followed by three sections. In the first section Ashi Dorji Wangmo describes herself literally "growing with Bhutan", in the second she looks at traditional beliefs and practices, and the third section is about people and places. The book is about Bhutan and the Bhutanese.
The introduction, literally a journey across the country, establishes a backdrop of Bhutan's unique evolution. The reader sees the dramatic geography, senses the mythological history, and feels the excitement of change in modern day Bhutan. It establishes a basis of the Bhutanese identity and, for an involved reader, culminates in the essence of Gross National Happiness.
The book conveys the sustainable harmony of Bhutanese society through the eyes of a Bhutanese girl. This Nobgang family descends from known figures of Bhutanese history but, with a rooster as the village alarm clock and communal interaction best at the local water source, Ashi Dorji Wangmo describes the social and cultural values that bind our largely rural society. We see a childhood that enjoys the warmth and security that most Bhutanese children still know.
Ashi Dorji Wangmo makes it clear that the book is born out of personal perceptions and drawn entirely from personal experiences.
As a writer she brings fascinating personalities alive, getting to know farmers, weavers, students, herders, porters, reincarnates as she joins the daily lives of the Layaps, Lhops, Monpas, Brokpas, Khengpas, and other remote communities.
The narrative of "A portrait of Bhutan" is simple and rich in imagery. As the author makes contact with nature and life she provides the readers, not words, but the colours, the sounds, and the fragrance of Bhutan. It is poetically graceful:
"As darkness fell I looked out of the window to see the village bathed in the golden light of a hundred electric bulbs while, down in the valley below, Shelgna and Wangdiphodrang twinkled like a thousand stars."
The tone and imagery highlight the breathtaking scenery and the aura of deep spirituality that come together throughout the book.
The reader senses the serenity of Hokotsho in Punakha, the drama of Rangtse Nye in Samtse, the holy rock of Gom Kora in the east, and the rich biodiversity of Manas. Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck goes out herself to experience the real land of herbal medicines (lho jong men jong) through the therapeutic hot springs and the science of indigenous herbal medical practice.
As the glacial lakes flow into folklore and Bhutanese history becomes a mythological reality the book is a voyage through time.
The author recalls her 1963-trip to Thimphu which was then all paddy fields and forest. She conveys the excitement of a historian who is documenting living history and quotes visiting adventure writers of the past. From those notes we see that parts of Bhutan has not changed.
Change itself is both exciting and practical. Even as the author seems to regret that the old wooden water channels are replaced by impersonal water pipes, she portrays the images of development around the country. As she begins her education the Thimphu-Phuentsholing highway is built and her own village is transformed.
When history comes alive, the past meets the present. Ashi Dorji Wangmo touches on political intrigues of the past that affected her family, like the assassination of the Zhabdrung Jigme Dorji in 1931, an incident that was not clear to many Bhutanese. All the perceived sensitivities, however, are clarified when His Majesty the King visits Talo Monastery in 1988 and later commission a gilded image of Zhabdrung Jigme Dorji.
As nature and spirituality, history and culture, the land and people are merged into a portrait of Bhutan what comes through is the distinct Bhutanese identity. We see this throughout the book, not in the towns but on the rugged ridges, in lush forests, in the lives of remote near-forgotten communities.
"It is thanks to them and others like them in rural hamlets scattered across the country that Bhutan's distinctive culture, with its deep respect for spiritual life, its close communion with nature and all its elements, and its strong ties of family and community, survives and thrives."
Going beyond the Shangrila that tourists search for the average reader gets a better perception of well known religious images and historical monuments, senses the intuitive reverence for local deities, appreciates known social customs and eating habits, and sees age-old value systems, thus getting a better understanding of the identity.
Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck gives depth and clarity to details of the traditional arts like people weaving cane baskets in Zhemgang, artisans making dapas in Yangtse and hats in Sakten, women weaving yathras in Bumthang and kushitharas in Kurtoe.
And, when an old man in Zhemgang will not leave his home, despite an extremely hard life, because of his identity, the reader is forced to wonder if young Bhutanese will ever find that pride?
A Portrait of Bhutan, as an experience, raises other valid questions. If Gross National Happiness is the expression of a value system that has kept Bhutan intact over the centuries are we overlooking the lessons of this holistic system that is now visible only in some of our village communities? Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck describes her view of the traditional value system:
"A combination of our religious beliefs, social values and customs and the collective folk wisdom of a predominantly agrarian society such as ours that helps to curb ecologically harmful practices, and makes the relationship between the Bhutanese and their natural environment so close and harmonious."
"I realised how important it is to respect, preserve and record their way of life, which is an integral part of Bhutan's cultural heritage and to ensure that their participation in the progress and development taking place elsewhere in the country is at their own pace and on their own terms."
This is an essence of GNH that we are quickly forgetting. These communities are out of sight and, perhaps, might be out of mind in the future.
Conclusion: Yet the reader must also ask, is this all too idyllic? With globalisation already a reality, are we lost in romanticism? On the eve of historic changes, when we face unknown challenges, are we looking for solace in the wrong places?
The treasures of the Thunder Dragon, as we understand from this book, are not material treasures.
The elements that represent the foundation of the Bhutanese identity - the land and the people - offer the resounding message that Bhutan is the treasure. It is a treasure that must not be forgotten- must not be lost.
This is a vital message because Bhutan is changing and we do not know if it will be for the better.
As the book ends Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck compares the real value of Bhutan with "the treasures sealed in a chhorten, the seeds of journeys still to come-there are so many treasures of the Thunder Dragon that still wait to be discovered."
The reader can only wish that such discoveries will continue."