As Bhutan heads to its second round of elections this weekend, Max Johnson reports on the mountainous nation and its commitment to Gross National Happiness
'WE ALL WANT happiness: the question is, how much happiness does economic development bring you? Gross National Happiness is more important to us than GDP. We want to develop, but not at the expense of losing our culture, our identity.’
We had stopped on a mountain road between the Phobjikha valley and Wangdue. The narrow, winding road was being widened and huge great Indian diggers were ploughing up the hillside above us. The barrier was in place until 5pm and it was only 3.30.
I stretched my legs a bit, still getting used to the high altitude after three days in the country, and made eye contact with a well-dressed gentleman in a traditional gho. He turned out to be a former government lawyer turned businessman with impeccable English.
‘Does being Buddhist make GNH easier for the Bhutanese to understand?’ I asked.
‘Look, all human beings want their lives to improve of course. But when we are on our death beds and we look back, we want to know that we lived a fulfilled life, a life without laziness, greed, arrogance, wrath and desire. The pursuit of wealth does not lead to the satisfaction of the soul. In the end, ashes to ashes, as you Christians say.’
The first week of January marked a momentous occasion in Bhutan’s history. Imagine the first time the Pope came to Britain — and also that everyone here was still Catholic. I was in Punakha on that day. The Punakha dzong (fortress) served as the capital until the mid-1950s and sits at the meeting of the Mo Chhu and Pho Chhu rivers.
It is a majestic structure and home half the time to the Je Khenpo, the holiest man in Bhutan. Every year he travels to India to give blessings but this year, for the first time, he gave fifteen days of blessings on the banks of the rivers. 200,000 out of the 600,000 population attended.
I could see great camps of sticks and corrugated iron lining the riverbanks; small traders had opened restaurants and market stalls. Monks were everywhere bathing the landscape in the crimson glow of their robes. Prayer wheels were spinning on all sides and prayer flags fluttered in the wind with their colourful spectrum.
There are going to be elections this year as well — only the second in the country since the fourth king abdicated to his young Oxford-educated son in 2008. There was fierce resistance to the notion of a constitutional monarchy, but not from the top: whereas in some countries the monarchy resists democratisation, in Bhutan it is the people who resent it.
KING AND COUNTRY
The Bhutanese like the idea of a strong king governing them with a good heart and a good mind. One striking thing the King said was:
‘Throughout my reign I will never rule you as a king. I will protect you as a parent, care for you as a brother and serve you as a son. I shall give you everything and keep nothing; I shall live such a life as a good human being that you may find it worthy to serve as an example for your children.’
His father also liked to lead from the front, once heading a jungle expedition to raid Assam fighters camped out in the Royal Manas park.
Bhutan is thus a place unified both by religion and by love of the king. There is no red-shirt democratic protest movement, as there is in Thailand.
Having seen the love and selflessness of the Bhutanese psyche makes it much easier to understand how a concept like GNH can be readily accepted.
But what exactly is it? President Jigmi Y Thinley said in his party’s manifesto that the central tenet of GNH is about balancing the needs of the body (material gains) with those of the mind (spiritual growth).
GNH is thus based on four pillars: equitable and sustainable socio-economic development, environmental conservation (72 per cent of the country is covered by forests and 60 per cent is protected), preservation and promotion of culture and good governance.
Interestingly, MPs are required to visit their constituencies only twice a year. (I’m sure that would be a very popular policy in Westminster.) One measure of GNH, for example, will be comparing how many minutes one’s child takes to walk to school. (Visit grossnationalhappiness.com for more information.)
GNH has been billed in Western media as little more than propaganda or religious rhetoric — a vague system for justifying further ‘happiness-creating’ policies. Far from it.
Even after a week there, I now firmly believe that Bhutan’s approach to government and economic development can teach other developing nations great things. It is hard to believe that a country with such an ancient history and such devout believers actually has a modern constitutional monarchy barely a century old. GNH is no accidental policy, rather another unique approach to government which Bhutan has always possessed.
Since 55 per cent of the country is protected, the mining industry is non-existent, so low-impact, high-value tourism was adopted as the best method. What you do not see in Bhutan is van-loads of backpackers, but global luxury has certainly come to Bhutan.
I stayed at the Amankora Gangtey (Aman has five resorts in the country), the Zhiwa Ling, with its stunning hand-painted interiors, the newly opened Uma Punakha, the sense-stimulating Kichu resort on the banks of a gushing river, and the Namgay Heritage Hotel in Thimphu.
People think travelling to Bhutan is expensive, but if you consider what you are getting for your money — driver, guide, three meals a day and accommodation — it is good value. I travelled with Blue Poppy, which is just one of the excellent tour operators that can arrange anything from a 25-day trek to staying in a local farmhouse and taking a hot stone bath.
THE NEXT GENERATION
The tourism industry is bringing in dollars and giving job opportunities and valuable training to young and ambitious people. Brent Hyde, general manager of the Hotel Zhiwa Ling in Paro, takes great pride in sponsoring them to go to European hospitality schools to further their education.
As he told me, he wants them to be able to run the hotel one day. Managing in Bhutan is never without its difficulties, he went on to say, but always with greater rewards. In his words, ‘Bhutan is a land of happy coincidences.’
But tourism does bring threats. As I sat in the departure lounge, more children came up to look at my iPhone than they did to look at my big nose or blond hair (as is usually the case), and it is hard to imagine globalisation, diminishing local culture, won’t finally take root in Bhutan.
But we are Westerners, so it is not our place to say who should want what when, and any trace of your cultural pride is erased after climbing for two hours to the 3,140m Tiger’s Nest outside Paro and reaching the holiest place in the country. It is a privilege to bow down (no matter what your faith) and show respect to Guru Rinpoche, who flew there on a tiger, a privilege to experience Bhutanese spirituality. In the end, ashes to ashes.
Blue Poppy Tours & Treks offers a range of tailor-made holidays including culture tours, treks and festival tours. All tours are fully escorted with a personal guide and driver throughout. For enquiries contact Choki Dorji at firstname.lastname@example.org or on 020 7609 2029 or visit bluepoppybhutan.com