Travellers and Magicians (Bhutan, 2003)

This film, directed by the Nyingma lama Khyentse Norbu, tells the story of Dondup Norbu, a government officer in a small Bhutanese village called Khumbar. Secretly planning to apply for a visa to the United States, Dondup is highly Americanized; he is visibly different from his neighbors, with a shag haircut, an “I Heart NY” shirt, and a denim gho. In order to apply for the visa, he has to be in Thimphu within four days, and it’s a two-day journey from the isolated Khumbar.

On the Road

While waiting for the bus to Thimphu he meets an old apple peddler and a monk. The monk tells Dondup: “There’s no point staring at an empty road. You know, Buddha said hope causes pain.” It’s as easy to sympathize with Dondup’s restlessness amid such isolation as it is to scorn him for his obsessive desire to leave his post.

A view of Thimphu, the capital city of Bhutan. (Image: Douglas McLaughlin, distributed by CC BY 2.5 license)


Finally, after missing the bus, Dondup and his fellow travelers hitch a ride on a truck, where they meet a drunk, a rice paper maker, and his nineteen-year-old daughter Sonam. Sonam didn’t do well enough on her exams to get into college—or so her father thinks. In reality, she did excellently, but she decided to stay and help her father with his failing livelihood. As she tells Dondup, “Isn’t it our duty to look after our parents when they’re old?” These words must have stung deeply for Dondup, considering his plans to essentially abandon his family for better things in America. And yet, a shy, unspoken romance develops between Dondup and Sonam, complicating his American aspirations.

The Monk’s Tale

The film contains a story-within-a-story, told by the monk to the other travelers. Tashi is a young man studying magic in a tiny village. However, Tashi thinks less about magic than he does about women. He yearns to leave the village, and one day, after getting drunk, he mounts an unbroken horse that carries him to a house in the middle of the forest. There he meets an old man named Agay, and his much younger wife Deki.

When Tashi asks why Agay and Deki live so far away from town, Agay refers to his wife’s youthful beauty. Agay tells Tashi: “We may grow old, but our minds don’t age. Our jealousy stays young.” Living among other (and younger) men, he suspects, would jeopardize his marriage. In fact, Agay’s paranoia is justified; Deki and Tashi begin a secret affair. Deki confides in Tashi: “I’ve tried to leave many times, but he always finds me.” In order to preserve their budding relationship, they concoct a gruesome plan, revealing the terrible lengths to which illicit lovers can go in the name of love.

Loose Ends

When the next bus finally arrives, there’s only one vacant seat. Dondup lets the apple seller take it, presumably because he doesn’t want to leave Sonam. The monk remarks to Dondup: “The minds of human beings are so convoluted. What we hoped for yesterday, we dread today.”

Or, perhaps, the things we hope for are closer at hand than we might think. Travellers and Magicians is a classic iteration of the merry band of misfits trope, exemplified by films like The Wizard of Oz. As Dondup and his fellow travelers follow the yellow brick road to the Emerald City of Thimphu, each treks with their own purpose in mind. In Dondup’s case, that purpose is not to return to his own personal Kansas, but rather to reach his ultimate Oz: America. However, the film’s abrupt ending leaves many questions unresolved. This seems particularly fitting, given its overall dreamlike quality. Which pull ends up stronger for Dondup: America’s, or Sonam’s?

Up Next…

Beyond Silence (Germany, 1996)

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