… aims to be the environmental capital of the country

Younten Tshedup | Panbang

While the rest of Zhemgang dzongkhag is slowly drying up, down south, Panbang is buzzing with life.

Usually, at this time of the year, the otherwise quiescent settlement comes alive as visitors – local, regional and international come to explore its subtropical weather and ecotourism characteristics.

The activities in the town started to grow with the opening of the Gyalpoizhing-Nganglam, according to residents.

However, things were different some five decades ago.

Settlement began in Panbang in mid 1960s when late Dasho Keiji Nishioka travelled to the area and began introducing agricultural activities.

The first elected representative of the community, Sangay Dorji, recalls how the conditions were back then. “Wild animals walked freely around and the few of us brought from the mountains struggled to make our presence felt,” he said. “Ferrying oranges on foot to the neighbouring Assam used to take us weeks. There were no roads.”

The 65-year-old said that the construction of the 13km road from Mathanguri till the current Panbang town opened developmental activities in the area. “The time taken to travel to Assam shortened and we the frequency increased. Shops began to grow and more people came in.”

Panbang Drungpa, Sonam Dorji, said that Panbang, of late has become a moderately sought after destination for governmental workshops and conferences, corporate and private sector’s retreat activities especially during winter.

“It is a good sign and we welcome such activities in our community,” he said. “Despite our own challenges especially in the logistic area, we have received positive feedback from visitors so far.”

The drungpa said that this was made possible with the dzongkhag administration’s recent request to government agencies to hold their conferences and seminars in the dzongkhag.


Zhemgang’s call 

Earlier this year, Zhemgang dzongkhag in a letter of invitation requested ministries and agencies to bring their winter activities from the usually Phuentsholing and Gelephu-centric to Zhemgang.

A personal initiative of dzongdag, Lobzang Dorji, the idea was to officially reach out to the authorities and attract local visitors to the dzongkhag.

According to the dzongdag, given the less number of international tourists visiting the place, the dzongkhag was exploring measures to attract domestic tourist.

He said the general notion among most Bhutanese is that Zhemgang is a far-flung and inaccessible place with no basic amenities and services.

“It was an attempt by the dzongkhag to make people aware about Zhemgang and its potential as an ecotourism hub and an alternative tourist destination.”

Dzongdag Lobzang Dorji said that Zhemgang has the potential to become the environmental capital of the country given its rich and globally endangered flora and fauna presence and several untapped and unexplored resources and places.

He said that the dzongkhag today has improved road networks, telecommunications and other basic infrastructures. People can also explore the rich cultural experience of the Khengrig Namsum (three agro-ecological zones-upper, middle and lower Kheng).

“Our attempt is to promote Zhemgang as a nature-based, community ecotourism in the country,” he said, adding that this would also help enhance the local economy of the people.

“We are beginning to receive more visitors and I think this would continue based on their feedback,” the dzongdag said. “Our people here are also learning from each visit and improving and upgrading their services.”

Drungpa Sonam Dorji said that one of the major challenges is the lodging facility, which is overwhelmed when a large group of visitors arrive. “We have plans to increase the capacity of the existing eco-lodges.”

Sharing the recent experience from the 10th engineers, architects and planners’ conference, he said that some of the participants were placed inside tents.

“In all honesty, this came as an opportunity for us to present even a better version of Panbang,” he said. “Participants shared how exited they were to experience the real-camping feel. Everyone here would have stayed in a posh hotel but this was a different experience, which was a pleasant surprise for many.”

More than 200 people thronged the area during the three-day conference.

“We are all learning here, which is why if there were any flaws in the services, I would like to request the guests to be considerate,” said the drungpa. “As a community, we will keep improving and the best of Zhemgang would only be offered.”