Bhutanese citizens celebrating a festival

“Road sinking, drive slowly” a road sign warns as we drive from the moist and lush lowlands of Bhutan’s south border with India to its arid upper reaches in the Himalayas. I ask Tsering, a guide contracted out to show me around the country on a press trip, if that means sinking as in quicksand kind of sinking or the whole ground is sinking. “The whole ground,” he answers.

One hour into the country and the adventure has just begun. The population change from India’s 1.2 billion to Bhutan’s 740,000 is evident the moment I cross the border. The change in roads… not so much.

The windy road carved out of the Himalayan rock had diminished to a muddy mess at this point. Despite being the start of the rainy season, the clouds are just spitting at us on and off. We chug along slowly, squishing our way steadily up. As we pass one road crew after another chipping away with picks and hammers at massive boulders that have slid onto the road, Tsering tells me of the DANTAK, an Indian road building crew who built the roads in Bhutan that opened the country up in the 1960s.

What was just your run-of-the-mill guide remark sounded almost like a joke to me. It’s as if the Indian government gifted the Bhutanese a free jalopy with a lifetime warranty that they forced them to service at their own shop—since the Bhutanese have so little labour it creates continued work for the DANTAK to repair the roads they built.

The driver, Lobsang, methodically handles each of the many curves in the road with an ease that makes the drive an overall calming experience despite the unsettling knowledge that the road could disappear underneath us at any point. I study Lobsang next to me with curiosity. He chants mantras under his breath with regularity as he drives. At certain points along the road he puts his hands in a quick Anjali mudra to bow before gripping the wheel again.

I wonder if it’s common for drivers in Bhutan to keep the peace like he does. With a speed limit of a whole 50 km on highways and even less on roads this is one country where driving pretty much has to be a practice of mindfulness. With roads that never seem to go straight for more than a few hundred metres there’s ample need to keep attention on the task, and with stunning mountain views there’s an equally ample reason to appreciate the natural beauty. The only other alternative would be road rage and with such a low speed limit, meditative drivers and hairpin turns I’d imagine any road ragers in the country would die prematurely of high blood pressure.

Punakha Dzong in Bhutan

Punakha Dzong

Gross National Happiness

It is just this kind of thing that I came to observe in Bhutan. The country captured the world’s attention when its fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, coined the term “Gross National Happiness (GNH)” in 1972 as an alternative measurement of progress in contrast to GDP. And it has managed to keep the world’s attention. A few years ago the UN implemented Resolution 65/309, which officially put happiness on the global agenda; several countries have been holding conferences on GNH to figure out how to utilize happiness indicators to make their population happier.

Bhutan’s policy on GNH is a four-pillared platform that takes a wholistic look at progress, balancing the non-economic with the economic. The four pillars are good governance, sustainable socio-economic development, cultural preservation and environmental conservation.

Bhutan provides universal healthcare and education to its citizens. Though the services they provide are basic, for one of the least developed countries in the world, providing these services to all their citizens is quite a big accomplishment. They also have a very progressive environmental policy. According to the UNEP, 60 percent of the country will remain forested forever under Bhutanese law. Over 40 percent of their land is protected in the form of national parks, nature preserves and wildlife sanctuaries.

Whether all this talk of Gross National Happiness truly makes a difference is another story. There’s a shadow to the happy face people know Bhutan for. Though they provide for the majority of their population in a commendable way, they also booted a sixth of their population, the ethnic Nepali Lhotshampa people, out of the country in what was considered one of the largest ethnic cleansing campaigns in history proportional to population.

Farm land and small village in Bhutan

Farm land and small village in Bhutan

 

Thimphu touring

One bend after another we climb to a dizzying height of 2,700m before heading back down. The warm moist air and drizzle gives way to cool mountain air and blue skies. I’m now entering the heartland. Thimphu is the capital, a city where a good chunk of the country’s population has moved to in recent years in search of urban jobs and a modern lifestyle. A billboard greets me as we enter Thimphu: “Long Live the King.”

As I read that I really get the sense of being in an actual kingdom, which to me equates to a more traditional way of life. Thimphu, however, is not the ideal place to start the journey for those looking to experience the traditional Bhutan. Typical of just about any city you get youth sporting funky hairdos and the latest styles. The western influence is very much felt despite a good number of Thimphu folk wearing traditional dress. Building codes in the city demand buildings be constructed according to traditional Bhutanese architecture, but minus the fancy windowsills and door frames and these are concrete behemoths like anywhere else in South Asia. Thimphu is a great place to end a trip to Bhutan though since it has a number of museums and sites that are worth checking out like the impressive 169-foot Buddha statue at Buddha Point.

The statue towers over me with an impressive might. Skill saws buzzing beside me mute some of the awe, making me wonder just how much more impressive this site will be once construction is completed. It feels like a lot of prayer has been done at this site, with a lot more to come: once the Buddha gets finished it’ll be a focal point for the city to hold religious events.

The renowned mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote in The Power of Myth that as societies progress, the highest building in a city illustrates what informs the society most. The church was the highest at a time when religion played a dominant role in people’s lives. Then government buildings as the state replaced religion as the power brokers in society and finally the skyscrapers of today as corporations dominate our lives. If the Buddha statue is any indication, Bhutan has its priorities pinned on the Buddha as it stands far higher than any other building in Thimphu.

Slow progress

Bhutan has taken a slow approach to progress. They only allowed tourists to enter the country as recently as 1974, and even then tourists have to spend a minimum of $250 a day during high season ($200 a day during low season), which keeps tourist numbers low since it’s considered a large sum for travelling this part of the world. They do this to ensure their policy of high value, low impact tourism, which helps preserve their traditions and culture.

They just became a democracy in 2008, and there too, they’ve taken a hesitant step. They’re still technically a kingdom since under their constitutional monarchy the king has final say over all bills the government debates on. When they opened up to democracy the king only allowed two parties to run, both of which were pro-monarchy.

Memorial Chorten in Thimphu, Bhutan

Bhutanese citizens doing their regular kora (walking meditation) around the Memorial Chorten in Thimphu, Bhutan

Memorial Chorten

The Memorial chorten reflects the centrality of religion to the Bhutanese people’s lives. A chorten, also known as a stupa, is a sacred ceremonial site, in this case commemorating Bhutan’s third king, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck. Built in 1974 this chorten is a focal point for many in Thimphu. It serves a religious role of devotion to the Buddha, but also to the king. It is here that the Buddha and the king are intertwined.

According to Lopen Namgyel, lecturer at Tango Buddhist University, the Bhutanese people see their king as a Buddha in the sense that he has the potential to be a Buddha, but has to be tested first (many people are regarded in such a way in Bhutan). Thanks to its central location in the small city, citizens routinely swing by on their way to or from work or school to do a few koras (circumambulation around the chorten), chant their prayers or to do prostrations.

I do a few koras, taking in the peaceful scene around the chorten. Despite being located between a couple of main roads, the place has managed to maintain a certain amount of peacefulness to it, a peacefulness that becomes evident when seeing the many serene elders hanging out there, slowly spinning their prayer wheels as the hours roll by.

Take a ride and be happy

Driving with Lobsang reveals still more of the ways spiritual practice is worked into the Bhutanese people’s lives. Once in a while there will be a small chorten on the side of the road with a pullout on the other side of it. Lobsang slows the car down and drives along the pullout so as to go around the side of the chorten—not doing a full kora around it (that could get dangerous). The symbolic meaning of this slight detour is all as a reminder. The more times we pull ourselves out of distraction the more we’re being in the present moment. Bhutan offers a lot of these reminders, such as the public buses in Thimphu that have “Take a ride and be happy” inscribed on the backs of them.

We drive to Tashi Chho dzong. As with other dzongs in Bhutan, Tashi Chho is a dual purpose fortress/monastery that serves both administrative and spiritual functions. And since Bhutan’s government is a democracy-monarchy mix this particular dzong in the city’s capital acts as both the seat of the civil government as well as the King’s throne.

Wangyal Memorial on Dochu La Pass

Wangyal Memorial with 108 chortens on Dochu La Pass

Isolationism and racism

This building parallels Bhutan’s multi-faceted character. As a tiny neighbour sandwiched between India and China it could have easily gotten its culture and traditions steamrolled. Like a tortoise it moves slowly while the two tigers race ahead. To avoid getting eaten up they’ve taken some pretty substantial measures to protect themselves, like the aforementioned policy on tourism. In addition to that they also banned TV until as recently as 1999. Since democratizing in 2008, Bhutan has relaxed much of its media restrictions, but still does not have any laws in place to guarantee citizens’ rights to information.

They have also resorted to some pretty harsh measures to keep their culture intact. The Lhotshampas, the ethnic Nepali minority who started immigrating to Bhutan in the 1800s, were the target of a forced exodus in recent years. Though the Lhotshampas lived in Bhutan for generations, in 1989 the king implemented the One Nation, One People policy aimed against them. According to Human Rights Watch, the Hindu Nepalis were forced to adopt Buddhism, to take on traditional Bhutanese customs, to wear the traditional Bhutanese national clothing and they also stopped teaching Nepali in schools.

They intensified their actions in the ‘90s by intimidating the Lhotshampas with imprisonment and torture into signing “voluntary migration forms,” eventually managing to force an estimated 108,000 of them out to refugee camps in Nepal, where they lived for many years until the UNHCR gave up hope of ever repatriating them back to Bhutan and started exporting them as refugees to other countries, such as the United States, Canada and Australia. It was no easy political situation the current king inherited when he hopped onto the throne in 2008.

Inside the dzong

As we wait to be let in to the dzong, the King and Queen come outside to see off some visitors. They wave to the 100 of us foreign tourists, who happily wave back with big smiles. “We love you,” shouts one Thai tourist. Regardless of the nationality, it seems royalty has a way of exciting people anywhere in the world.

The dzong is huge. Several mammoth administrative buildings, most of which were closed to the public, enclose multiple courtyards. The main attraction is the monastery. It radiates beauty with grand statues of revered Buddhist figures. The walls are painted with elaborate paintings common to Vajrayana Buddhist monasteries. The prominence of the monastery within the complex points back to the centrality of religion in Bhutan and how it’s interweaved with politics.

Assessing happiness

Improving the happiness of a nation is no easy task. First, the question of what happiness is has to be defined. Then there’s the issue of appealing to a broad section of society, all with individual needs. Once that’s resolved comes the task of developing a framework for improving happiness. To that extent the Bhutanese have done a commendable job for coming up with a set of guidelines that work. And they’ve implemented much of the ideas they came up with as well. But, there’s more to happiness than just that.

Are the Bhutanese really so happy? Most would say they are, particularly when they compare their lives to their neighbours in other south Asian countries. But ask the minority Lhotshampas and they’ll give a very different answer.

The Lhotshampa issue opens up a lot of hypocrisy in the Bhutanese claim to be a happy place. Compassion was central to the Buddha’s teachings of eradicating suffering—to love others as we love ourselves, which burns a big hole in Bhutan’s policy of happiness.

It’s a hole worth knowing about. I went to Bhutan knowing about this part of their history. Seeing the country so often marketed as a Shangri-La, I was curious about it. But typical to other ancient societies I’ve found in south Asia, racism and traditions run very deep, which makes the place a complicated one to understand.

As I sit back into a relaxing drive with Lobsang and Tsering, I absorb the massive vistas of the Himalayan scenery. For every peak there’s a valley. That high and low is reflected in all aspects of society, culture and life everywhere in the world. And as any mountain lover can tell you, mountains look far different up close than from far away—they need to be experienced over time and close up to truly appreciate them. It takes time to appreciate Bhutan. And with their complex culture and multifaceted history, it’s a good thing they have so many mountains to gaze at in contemplation.

Read other articles from this travel series on Bhutan»

Note: The Tourism Council of Bhutan covered my expenses while I was in Bhutan. I was not told I had to write positive reviews and I was not told that I cannot write anything negative. The intention of the press trip was to familiarize the writer with the country so as to convey that information properly to readers. To properly write about a destination in travel writing means to have actually travelled there, which is not always the case in travel writing. This was a place I had wanted to write about, but given the financial reality of travel writing this was not a possibility without some form of financial assistance. This arrangement did not affect the objectivity of my writing in any way.

image 1: Soumitra Pendse via Shutterstock; image 2: Punakha Dzong via Shutterstock; image 3: Beautiful view of rice fields via Shutterstock; image 4: Adwo via Shutterstock; image 5: Dochula Pass 108 Chortens via Shutterstock

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