The only way most people can get a visa for Bhutan is to visit with a guided tour. I had booked a tour but it was cancelled at the last minute, and I ended up on a “group” tour that was just me, a guide and a driver. It is an expensive country to visit, and I only spent 4 days there.
Bhutan is a small country bordered by India and China. The country is known as the Land of the Thunder Dragon and is home to around 700,000 people. More than 70% of the country is covered by forest. It certainly seemed pristine compared to India and Nepal.
Bhutan’s third king tried to modernise the country in 1962 and built the country’s first schools and hospitals. Bhutan was the last country in the world to get television, in 1999. Almost every article you read about Bhutan mentions two things: supposedly Thimphu is the only capital city in the world that doesn’t have any traffic lights and Bhutan’s policy of Gross National Happiness. This involves encouraging health, education and sustainable development projects. Bhutan’s fourth king introduced the concept of Gross National Happiness and reformed Bhutan so it became a constitutional monarchy with a parliament rather than an absolute monarchy. He then abdicated in favor of his son, Bhutan’s current monarch.
In The Geography of Bliss, Eric Weiner explains that Gross National Happiness:
means knowing your limitations; knowing how much is enough. Free-market economics has brought much good to the world, but it goes mute when the concept of enough is raised.
As the renegade economist E.F Schumacher put it: “There are poor societies which have too little. But where is the rich society that says ‘Halt! We have enough!’ There is none.”
Wealth is liberating, no doubt. It frees us from manual labor, working in the fields under a merciless midday sun or flipping burgers, the modern-day equivalent. But wealth can also stymie the human spirit, and this is something that very few economists seem to recognize.
As Schumacher said, “The richer the society, the more difficult it becomes to do worthwhile things without immediate payoff.” That is a radical and profound statement. In a wealthy, industrialized society, one where we are supposedly enjoying a bountiful harvest of leisure time, we are discouraged from doing anything that isn’t productive – either monetarily or in terms of immediate pleasure. The Bhutanese, on the other hand, will gladly spend a day playing darts or just doing nothing…
In the last few decades, Bhutan has made tremendous strides in the kind of metrics that people who use words like metrics get excited about. Life expectancy has increased from forty-two to sixty-four years. The government now provides free health care and education for all of its citizens. Bhutan is the world’s first non-smoking nation; the sale of tobacco is banned.
Dealing with the stress of yet another executive meeting.
Does that mean Bhutan is now a happy country? When I arrived at my hotel the receptionist was singing a song to himself, as was the janitor in the airport bathroom. There are plenty of studies claiming to rank the world’s happiest countries, but the studies vary widely in results and their methods could be described as questionable at best. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development ranked Australia as the happiest country in the world.
They surveyed 36 countries.
The Happy Planet Index ranks Costa Rica as the happiest country in the world.
A UN sponsored survey found that Denmark was the happiest country in the world. They didn’t survey Bhutan.
Although the Bhutanese government admirably places an emphasis on the happiness of its people, at other times I couldn’t help noticing some similarities to North Korea (another country where the only way to visit is by guided tour). Photos of the royal family are prominently displayed in many locations.
My guide was happy to inform that ALL Bhutanese love wearing their national costume.
The majority of locals I met also seemed to have a complete indifference towards tourists. Compared to India where people stared at foreigners or expended a great deal of energy on trying to sell things to tourists, the Bhutanese in shops often didn’t say anything and locals on the street generally treated me as though I was invisible. Even in North Korea, at least people made it clear they were focusing all their energy on deliberately ignoring your presence. It is the first time I’ve spent a few days in a country, and not a single local, other than my guide asked me where I was from.
The royal family is very popular in Bhutan. A couple of hours after arriving in Bhutan I visited a temple. The king’s grandmother was visiting the temple at the same time, so I had to wait for her to come out. She said hello and asked the American family standing next to me if they were enjoying their visit to Bhutan. Fortunately I was more than suitably attired to meet royalty – sandals, $5 trousers I bought in Nepal and a Pacman vs. Ghostbusters t-shirt.
Bhutan’s main tourist attraction is Paro Taktsang, the so-called Tiger’s Nest, a monastery built on the side of a cliff. I went for a hike up to the monastery, which is an amazing building.
It was built in 1692 and is supposedly the place where the monk that introduced Buddhism to Bhutan meditated. He allegedly flew up to the site of the Tiger’s Nest on the back of his wife – who had assumed the form of a flaming tiger.
Over the years, Bhutan fought many wars with Tibet and the country has lots of fortresses known as dzongs. Bhutan’s main language is dzongka (literally – language of the fortress). If you read about the history of Bhutan, you will most likely find it full of unfamiliar terms:
The dzongpon of Punakha – who had emerged victorious – had broken with the central government and set up a rival Druk Desi while the legitimate druk desi sought the protection of the ponlop of Paro and was later deposed.
The first British representative sent to negotiate with the Bhutanese wrote that the meeting hadn’t gone as well as he had hoped:
[The Bhutanese representative] took up a large piece of wet dough and began rubbing my face with it; he pulled my hair, and slapped me on the back, and generally conducted himself with great insolence.
Bhutanese cuisine uses a lot of chillies and everywhere you see chillies drying on roofs.
Drawing penises on buildings would be considered graffiti in most countries, but in Bhutan is serves as a good luck fertility symbol.
The takin, the national animal of Bhutan. An animal described as having the head of a goat and the body of a cow.
The winding road linking Paro (the airport) to Thimpu (the capital) has been the site of many accidents and now features lots of warning signs for drivers:
It is not rally. Enjoy the world.
It is highway, not runway.
Shooting stones! Drive carefully.
In places three quarters of the road had been covered by falling rocks. Tuesday is pedestrian day in Thimphu, which means that only tourist vehicles, city buses and alternating odd/even numbered taxis are allowed into the city during the day.
Danger! Monks crossing.