Story and photos by Laurie Gough
“I’m suspicious of any place this Shangri-La perfect. There has to be a downside,” I said to my fellow travelers on the first day of our trek in the mountains of Bhutan, the remote Himalayan kingdom which until recently has kept itself isolated from the modern world.
“It’s like they’ve all been drinking the same Kool-aid,” someone answered. “A bit too Stepford-ish maybe,” was another opinion.
Obviously we were jaded. We couldn’t believe any place in the world could be this, well, nice.
Bhutan, after all, is a country that measures its citizens’ Gross National Happiness, where no policy is enacted unless it passes the happiness filter first (cigarettes are banned since they lead to unhappiness, as do plastic bags, also banned; everyone owns land and if you somehow end up without any, the government gives you five acres and money to build a house.) Bhutanese, being Buddhist, don’t believe in harming sentient beings, so not only is stepping on bugs to be avoided, but so is cutting down trees. Mountaineering, as in technical climbing, is banned since it isn’t nice to the mountain. And as for Bhutanese behavior at archery contests, grown men perform a little song and dance when the other team scores, while pretty cheerleaders sing and dance demurely in traditional costumes their grandmothers would have worn.
This is a country that takes nice to a whole new level.
In fact, for a seasoned traveler, it’s almost unnerving. At a bank machine in the capital city of Thimphu—a small city hidden in a green valley where instead of traffic lights, they have a single traffic warden—I came across a young Bhutanese man who asked for my banking help. Apparently he’d never used an ATM and couldn’t get it to give him money. He showed me his bank booklet with his PIN which I keyed in for him. “Usually PINs have four digits,” I said. “Yours only has three.” He looked vaguely confused but thanked me politely before leaving without his cash. After I used the machine myself, I spotted him waiting around a corner outside. I smiled and kept walking until something made me turn around. I thought of the Mexican ATM scam where travelers had their accounts emptied by Mexican criminals using memory cards.
Rushing back to the ATM in Thimphu, I wondered if that brilliant young Bhutanese huckster was reading my card’s information now. I peered through the glass door of the ATM and sure enough, he was in there. What a scam artist! I opened the door and said warily, “Oh, hi, you’re trying it again?” He looked at me curiously and nodded.
In a flash, his sweet face told me everything I needed to know. Bhutan was the nicest country in the world and I was an idiot. Obviously I’d grown cynical from years of experiencing travelers’ scams. Here’s the thing about Bhutan which is peculiar: it’s entirely lacking in shady characters. It’s scoundrel-free. The only graffiti are happy faces.
Happy faces indeed. Business Week recently rated Bhutan the happiest country in Asia and the eighth-happiest in the world. Never colonized, difficult to get to, Bhutan feels like the last untouched place on earth. People really do seem happy there, but I kept wondering, are they really happier than the rest of us, and if so, will it last as they join the modern world?
Back on our first day on the Druk Path, a centuries-old five-day trek through alpine wilderness, we passed apple orchards and mountain villages where locals smiled and waved. At the end of the day, breathless from the high elevation, we reached a row of colorful prayer flags rippling in the wind near a monastery at the top of a pass. Rain began to sprinkle. Our guide Tshe Tshe turned to us excitedly, lifted his face to the sky and called out, “Blessings!” We laughed and did the same thing. What a lovely way to regard rain.
Until the 1960s, nothing about Bhutan was modern and tourists barely existed. But the third King of Bhutan, vexed by the Chinese invasion of neighboring Tibet and not wanting his country to suffer the same fate, decided to modernize Bhutan and end its policy of isolation. He’d do this, however, in a slow deliberate way, monitoring the development of other nations and avoiding the same mistakes.
Schools were introduced in the 60s and just recently a new policy sees that every child, even in remote areas, goes to school. The internet and TV were introduced in 1999, although several channels, including MTV and international wrestling, neither of which the Bhutanese feel do much for happiness, are banned. Tourists are now allowed, but the total amount they spend daily must be at least $200 (US), and they must be on organized tours with a local guide. I’m doing mine through California’s Bio Bio Expeditions, which works locally with Xplore Bhutan. “High quality, low impact,” explained Xplore Bhutan’s Ugyen Dorji on his country’s philosophy of keeping the environment pristine and not overrun with tourists and debris like in Nepal.
Indeed, one of the four pillars of happiness in Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness index is care for the environment. Strict conservation laws are enforced, which is natural in a country where Buddhism permeates and mountains, trees and rivers are sacred. Seventy-two percent of Bhutan is forested, and the country absorbs three times as much carbon as it produces. Bhutan’s main source of revenue is hydroelectric power sold to India. Tshe Tshe told us that the few factories they do have are all in southern Bhutan on the Indian border, “since India is already polluted anyway,” he giggled.
OK, so they’re not entirely perfect. Nonetheless, this environmental pillar of happiness resonated strongly with me. Over the past year, my regular happiness levels have slowly depleted from fighting to save a spring, a forest and a river in my hometown of Wakefield, Quebec. Suffering burnout, I wanted an escape, and in Bhutan, a country the size of Switzerland that almost nobody has heard of, I found a place where they understood that the preservation of the natural world is a source of happiness for all. Bhutan, only newly coming into the modern age, is light years ahead of us.