The flip side of happiness

We are leaving this part of the world and returning to the West. Maybe more on Nepal later, but for now, some final thoughts on Bhutan.

Bhutan in general. Yes, we’ve all heard about the Gross National Happiness Index in Bhutan, and maybe that makes you yearn for what must be a heavenly lifestyle.

But – just as food for thought – we thought we’d share what we learned about what constitutes happiness in Bhutan.

First of all, everyone here must be united in one religion. There was an ethnic cleanse of all Nepalis (who are Hindus) in the late ’80’s/early 90’s as part of the “one country, one people” mandate. Bhutan deported some 100,000 of these people, about 1/6th of the entire population of the country. In 2006, the US took in 60,000 of these stateless people, who were living in refugee camps in Nepal – where many still are. Now, outsiders are welcome in Bhutan only on carefully controlled visits, and it would be complicated for a Bhutanese who marries an “outsider.” Yes, it’s possible, but it must be a real stigma.

Based on a mere week of observation, we had the impression that there is a degree of contempt for all the neighbors of Bhutan – India, China, Nepal and China-Tibet. Lots of history reflected in this attitude. It’s odd about the Indians, though, as their relationship with Bhutan is very close. India helped jump-start the Bhutanese drive to modernize, trains its army, and provides much of its imports, including food. Bhutan is not a self-sustaining country – it can’t even grow enough rice for its population of 770,000. But unlike tourists from any other country, Indian tourists are allowed to travel within Bhutan without restrictions involving minimum amount of money that must be spent every day by every other visitor ($250), nor are they required to be accompanied by a government-approved guide.

While Indians are treated with the same graciousness that the Bhutanese treat all tourists, there is some grumbling about Indian tourists, mostly because they don’t do enough for the local economy. Indians often come with their own drivers and guides, which is not appreciated. At any rate, we left not being sure who exactly is favored by the Bhutanese, though we were treated quite nicely. Other than Indians, Bhutan attracts only about 40,000 tourists a year, and it looked like about 80 percent of those at major tourist sites were from India.

Though this is now ostensibly a democracy, the king is really the ruler of the country. It’s a lot easier to get things done when a strong hand at the top dictates the terms. There are constant messages from the government that have a Chairman-Mao kind of touch – and often a whispered rebuttal. For example, “Small families are happy families!” – intended to keep the population under control. “Large families are royal families!” – the observation of the more cynical, who note that K-4 had 11 children with his four wives and all those children now have children of their own, all of whom are supported as extended members of the royal family by the Bhutanese population. (Like the royals in Great Britain, they don’t have paying jobs.)

Media came late to this country – television in 1999, and it was the last country in the world to allow the internet. We’re not sure what, if any, the degree of censorship is, but we have gotten the sense that negative news reporting is frowned on. Investigative journalism is not a subject one would study in school here, we’re quite certain.

The emphasis on continuing traditional dress is charming – in a theme-park kind of way, as is the insistence on traditional architecture and painting. Men wear the gho and women the kira, both of which are very attractive. In an effort to preserve and promote its cultural heritage, all Bhutanese are required by law to wear the national dress in government offices and temples, in public roles such as tour guides, in schools and on formal occasions. So, pretty much everywhere.

We were seduced at the beginning – and still love it – but it does have a very restrictive code of behavior. Sometimes the 15th century bumps up hard against the 21st and ideas collide. Tourists love the national costumes, but everyone who wears them also has jeans and t-shirts. Everyone has a cell phone, and is quite tech-savvy, but that is a very new construct for a country that was closed off from the outside world for many many years. Tourists weren’t allowed into Bhutan till 1971, and even we had a dress code to follow. (No problem for us.) The cost of a trip into Bhutan discourages visits from the younger generation, unless they are committed trekkers willing to pay the price. (More likely they would go to Nepal, where the living is much easier.)

It will be very interesting to see whether more exposure to the modern world or some discontent with the public dictates of the royal family (vs. their private behavior) will cause even more change. At the moment, Bhutan remains a basically isolated country. They are very happy to show you around their country — for a price — but they want to make sure that you do leave.

Other parts of the measurement of Gross National Happiness focus on maintaining a clean environment (it’s the only carbon-negative country in the world, with a constitutional requirement that no less than 60 percent of the country be covered in forest), education, food distribution, and strict adherence to the principles of Buddhism.

We will watch with great interest and affection the future direction of this exquisite country.

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