When the Bhutanese king declared he cared about Gross National Happiness (GNH) over Gross National Product (GNP) in 1972 the world took note of this radical notion. It was an idea ahead of the times. But it was the king’s way to show his commitment to the preservation of the deep-rooted Bhutanese culture, the protection of their unspoiled natural environment, and the quality of life for the Bhutanese people.
The irony, of course, is that for a kingdom with such a radical modus operandi, life in this Himalayan country is far from modern. In fact, television, cell phones, and the internet didn’t even come to Bhutan until 1998 and that was only to the capital, Thimpu. The country has no traffic lights.
Agriculture is the main “industry” if it’s even considered an industry. Refrigerators are viewed as a non-necessity even today. Everyone is expected to wear the national dress when they are working or going to school.
Buddhism is the prevailing religion in the country and while folklore and legends make up the history lessons that are taught today, surprisingly, citizens are free to practice any religion of their choosing. The king’s dedication to GNH is what drives all the decisions that are made, including the fact that the country was closed off to outsiders for most of its history – cultural preservation. Bhutan only opened its doors to tourists in the last 30 years, and it did so cautiously previously only allowing only 500 tourists to enter annually. Today, any number of tourists can visit Bhutan as long as they fork over the daily set minimum of $250-$300pp. Bhutan it seems, is a kingdom paving its own road – living in the past and simultaneously opening its doors to modernization.
That, of course, is why I had to go to Bhutan.
I wanted to see the juxtaposition of the old with the new and more importantly, figure out if there was truth to any of it. Bhutan is often called the “last Shangri-la”. Could this place really be that heavenly? Could the Bhutanese really be that happy?
When I arrived at Paro Airport, the first thing I noticed was that the Bhutanese architecture is everywhere – including the airport. Fitting considering there’s a law that you can only construct buildings in the historical architecture here. The second thing I noticed is how gorgeous their queen is!
Holy smokes, Bhutanese women are beautiful! The queen is only 23 years old and she and the king have the cutest love story. When she was in elementary school, she met the then-prince when he visited her school. She walked up to him and told him that she wanted to marry him (the lady has gusto!). Many years later, they met again and this time, fell in love and got married. When she reminded him of that day in elementary school, he was surprised since he didn’t recognize her. Either way it all worked out for her and now she is the Queen of Bhutan! She wears the regality well, don’t you think?
Over the next few days, my guide brought me to various temples and dzongs (administration sites and residences for monks) where he regaled me in all seriousness about the history of these sites; the history, however, often involved spirits, people riding on flying animals, stories of reincarnated monks, and “enlightened” historical figures who transformed themselves into multiple forms. He believed in all of it.
We stopped at many temples and prayed to the different Buddhas. There are Buddhas for longevity, wealth, health, and fertility and he prayed to all of them. After all the stories he told me, I got the impression that religion and folklore weighs heavily in Bhutan.
Take all the phalluses for instance. For such a conservative country, they have tons of phallic drawings on their houses!
Not all the houses have them (I heard they’ve cleaned it up some since tourists were shocked to see them) but the ones in remote villages had plenty. The reasoning behind the phalluses is not to increase fertility for the household, but to ward off evil spirits; if you have a drawing of a phallus, your house is safe from evil. I’m not sure that concept would fly in the U.S. but hey, whatever works!
By the way, this should explain part of the restaurant photo I posted the other day. The other part is explained by noting that “cum” means “and” in Bhutanese. Now that photo doesn’t look so bad, right?
One of the things I found refreshing in Bhutan was the signs posted on their “highways”. For the record, their highways aren’t really highways – they look like roads that you share with oncoming cars. In keeping with the peaceful MO, their signs were the most polite I’ve ever seen always reminding people to take it slow and enjoy life.
I especially liked that there was even signs to thank those for – I assume – following the previous signs.
I wouldn’t mind having signs like this in the U.S.!
Anyway, as I learned more about the way of life, I was using all the tidbits to figure out if Bhutan really is the last shangri-la. There is the overwhelming role that folklore plays here. There’s also the personal stories my guide shared with me about his own life. He is divorced (surprisingly 30% of marriages end in divorce in Bhutan) after having rushed into marriage after getting his then-girlfriend pregnant. He had issues with his mother-in-law (so far, it sounds like the Bhutanese have the same problems as we do in the U.S.). He felt like a slave in his marriage. I couldn’t tell if he was exaggerating or not on the “slave” comment, but Bhutanese women not only run the household, they are in line to get all the property the husband and wife accumulate together. That’s right, men – you get nothing in Bhutan! He also mentioned that men are allowed to have several wives and women are allowed to have several husbands but only one spouse can have the multiple wives/husbands – not both! Hmm, seems like a pretty hedonistic arrangement; maybe that’s why they are happier in Bhutan? In all honesty, talking to my guide wasn’t really getting me any answers. Listening to his life story was making me depressed and confused.
Fortunately, I had the opportunity to dine with a local family and as luck would have it, the dad in the household was a lama, too (who drove a Land Rover – more evidence of modernization trying to fit in with the old way of life) so I used that as an opportunity to make sense of everything.
Quite simply, happiness is all about mindset – in Bhutan and everywhere else. The Bhutanese are blessed to live in a small country with a small enough population (700,000) that people know their neighbors. As a result, crime is non-existent. They do, however, have the same problems as everyone else, but that’s where the Buddhist teachings come in. Buddhism is a philosophy, a way of life here, and a constant reminder to be at peace with nature, all living creatures, and other people. As a result, people practice compassion and forgiveness and respect each other and the environment. The result then is a country that recognizes its blessed beauty in the mountains and that accepts everything the way it is – folklore, phalluses, spirits, legends and all. That is why they are happier.
The more I think about it, isn’t happiness all about compassion and acceptance no matter if you live in a village nestled in the Himalayas or if you live in a bustling metropolis? The only difference is that the Bhutanese make it their way of life. In this respect, they may be ahead of all of our times.