_A shorter version of this story first appeared in USA Today. “I’m suspicious of any place this
There has to be a downside,” I said to my fellow travelers
on the first day of our trek in the mountains of Bhutan, the remote Himalayan
kingdom which until recently has kept itself isolated from the modern world.
“It’s like they’ve all been drinking the same kool-aid,” someone answered. “A bit too Stepford-ish maybe,” was another opinion.
Obviously we were jaded. We couldn’t
believe any place in the world could be this, well, nice. Earlier, we’d been discussing that nice is overrated in terms of qualities you want in a mate. “If the
first word a girl uses to describe me is nice,” said a thirty-something San Francisco man, “I’m doomed.
That may be true for people, but countries
could use a little more of that adjective.
Consider Bhutan. This is a country that
measures its citizens’ Gross National Happiness, where no policy is enacted
unless it goes through the happiness filter first (cigarettes are banned since
they lead to unhappiness, as do plastic bags, also banned; everyone owns land
and if you somehow end up without any, the government gives you five acres and
money to build a house.) Bhutanese, being Buddhist, don’t believe in harming
sentient beings, so not only is stepping on bugs to be avoided, but so is
cutting down trees. Mountaineering, as in technical climbing, is banned since
it isn’t nice to the mountain. And as for Bhutanese behavior at archery
contests, the national sport, grown men perform a little song and dance when
the other team scores, while pretty teenage cheerleaders sing and dance
demurely in traditional costumes their grandmothers would have worn.
This is a country that takes nice to a
whole new level.
In fact, for a seasoned traveler, it’s
almost unnerving. At a bank machine in the capital city of Thimphu—a
hidden in a green valley where instead of traffic lights, they have a
traffic warden—I came across a young Bhutanese man who asked for my
help. Apparently he’d never used an ATM and couldn’t get it to give him
money. “Usually PINs have four digits,” I said. “Yours only
has three.” He looked vaguely confused, but quickly brightened to thank
before leaving without his cash. After I used the machine myself, I
waiting around a corner outside. I smiled and kept walking until
me turn around. I thought of the Mexican ATM scam where my husband’s
account was mysteriously emptied. Someone spies as you
enter your PIN, then inserts a
memory card which reads your card’s information.
Rushing back to the ATM in Thimphu, I wondered if that brilliant young Bhutanese
huckster used a mirror to watch me make my withdrawal. Was he reading my card’s
information now? He looked so innocent—feigning ignorance, and that
fake-looking bank booklet with the three-digit PIN.
How could I be so naive? I peered through the glass door of the ATM and sure
enough, he was in there again. And his ‘card’ was in the machine. What a scam
artist! I opened the door and said warily, “Oh, hi, you’re trying it again?” He
looked at me curiously and nodded.
In a flash, his sweet face told me
everything I needed to know. Bhutan
was the nicest country in the world and I was an idiot. Obviously I’d grown
cynical from years of narrowly missing or hearing about travelers’ scams: the
Thai umbrella scam; the Indian gem scam; the Italian
please-take-my-baby-while-I-pickpocket-you scam; the Tierra
hey-you-have-pigeon-droppings-on-your-coat-I-think-I’ll-rob-you scam, the
Moroccan carpet scam. Here’s the thing about Bhutan which is peculiar: it’s
entirely lacking in shady characters. It’s scoundrel-free. The only graffiti
are happy faces.
Happy faces indeed. Business Week rated Bhutan
the happiest country in Asia and the
eighth-happiest in the world based on a global survey in 2006. Never colonized,
difficult to get to, Bhutan
feels like the last untouched place on earth. People really do seem happy
there, but I kept wondering, are they really happier than the rest of us, and
if so, will it last as they join the modern world?
Back on our first day on the Druk Path, a
centuries-old five-day trek through alpine wilderness, we passed blossoming
apple orchards and tiny mountain villages where locals smiled and waved. At the
end of the day, breathless from the high elevation, we reached a row of
colorful prayer flags rippling in the wind near a monastery at the top of a
pass. Rain began to sprinkle. Our guide Tshe Tshe turned to us excitedly,
lifted his face to the sky and called out, “Blessings!” We laughed and did the
same thing. What a lovely way to regard rain.
Until the 1960s Bhutan had no cars, modern roads,
postal service, phones, TV, nor tourists. But the 3rd King of
Bhutan, deeply vexed by the Chinese invasion of neighboring Tibet and not wanting his country
to suffer the same fate, decided to modernize his country and end its policy of
isolation. He’d do this, however, in a slow deliberate way, monitoring the
development of other nations and avoiding the same mistakes.
Schools were introduced in the 60s and just
recently a new policy sees that every child, even in remote areas, goes
school. The internet and TV were introduced in 1999, although several
including MTV and international wrestling, neither of which the
do much for happiness, are banned. Tourists are now allowed, but the
amount they spend daily must be at least $200 (US), and they must be on
tours with a local guide. I’m doing mine through Bio Bio Expeditions
based in California, which works locally with Xplore Bhutan.
“High quality, low impact,” explained Xplore Bhutan’s
Ugyen Dorji on his country’s philosophy of keeping the environment
not overrun with tourists and debris like in Nepal.
Indeed, one of the four pillars of
happiness in Bhutan’s
Gross National Happiness index (along with preservation of culture, good
governance, and the economy) is care for the environment. Strict conservation
laws are enforced, which is natural in a country where Buddhism permeates and
mountains, trees and rivers are sacred. Bhutan is the only country in the
region that can boast an increase in forest cover in the past 25 years.
Seventy-two percent of Bhutan
is forested, and the country absorbs three times as much carbon as it produces.
As for factories, they don’t seem to exist—Bhutan’s
main source of revenue is hydroelectric power sold to India. Tshe Tshe told us that the
few factories they do have are all in southern Bhutan
on the Indian border, “since India
is already polluted anyway,” he giggled.
OK, so they’re not entirely perfect.
Nonetheless, this environmental pillar of happiness resonated strongly with me.
Over the past year, my regular happiness levels have slowly depleted from
fighting to save a spring, a forest and a river in my hometown of Wakefield, Quebec.
Suffering burnout, I wanted an escape, and in Bhutan,
a country the size of Switzerland
that almost nobody has heard of, I found a place where they understood that the
preservation of the natural world is a source of happiness for all. Bhutan,
only newly coming into the modern age, is light years ahead of us.
On the second day of the trek, after
climbing all morning through forests of rhododendron and along steep ridges
with staggering views of the snowy Himalayas
in every direction, we passed into high alpine meadows. Somewhere around 11,000
feet, we came across a young boy yak herder. He was sitting all by himself on a
rock, smiling at us, and holding a puppy beside a makeshift shelter of
branches, sticks and tarps—his temporary home I presumed. I wondered where his
parents were, how he could be so content to just sit there alone all day with
nothing but his puppy. It occurred to me that I myself would love to sit there
all day surrounded by views like that, but people are inured to the beauty
they’ve grown up with, even to views of the Himalayas.
I asked the boy if I could take his picture and he eagerly nodded, invited me
to hold his puppy and even to peek inside his shelter. Sadly, we couldn’t
converse. The language of instruction in Bhutanese schools is English, and most
Bhutanese are fluent in several languages including English, but this boy was
one of the few unschooled. With the new policy of every child going to school,
I wondered how his life will change and if he’d be happier at school.
I also wondered how life will change for
the Bhutanese with TV and the internet. When I lived in Fiji in the early 90s, TV didn’t exist and Fiji
seemed like the happiest place I’d ever been. Women were gloriously big and
proud of it and kids sang on school buses and entertained themselves by
climbing trees and playing on the beach. Since TV’s introduction in the late
90s, things have changed dramatically. Not only are the girls and women now diet-crazy
for the first time ever, they also suffer from eating disorders. When I was
there, dieting was unheard of—there wasn’t even a word for it. Today, Fijian
women watch Friends reruns and think
they’re fat. As for Bhutan,
even with their policy of banning certain TV stations, keeping out modern
images is nearly impossible in the digitized age. I saw a Thai music video in
my hotel room in Thimpu where a Britney Spears Thai-lookalike was gyrating in a
barely-there outfit while smoking a cigarette. It made me cringe for all those
sweet young Bhutanese girls wearing their traditional long-skirted national
costume every day. Can watching a video like that lead to happiness?
An hour or two after encountering
the young yak herder, as we climbed up a steep rocky brook, we were almost
stampeded by a herd of 50 yaks thundering downhill.
Seemingly out of nowhere came along a young woman yak herder who beamed at us
as she laughed about the stampede. She had a beautiful Bhutanese face,
aristocratic, with high cheekbones and almond-shaped eyes. I wondered if she
lived as simply as the little boy. The faces of the two of them—flushed rosy
cheeks, bright dark eyes—revealed not a life of hardship but of something else.
Although it was impossible for me to know, I couldn’t help but catch an
unmistakable flash of the human spirit in their faces that said they were
entirely happy in their world.
As I continued on the trek, I pondered the
notion of happiness. People are happier in places where there’s not a huge
disparity between rich and poor, when everyone is doing about the same. I
remember thinking New Zealand
was like that when I was there almost 20 years ago —no really rich people but
no poor people either—and Bhutan
seemed the same. Even Bhutan’s
beloved young King doesn’t live high on the hog. We happened to see him driving
by one day in a regular car on a rough road, and his house, although pretty,
certainly isn’t palatial.
Study after study shows that, with the
exception of being in poverty and escaping it, happiness levels don’t increase
with material gain. With Bhutan’s
baby steps into the 21st century, many Bhutanese now go on shopping
sprees to Thailand.
When I was checking in for my flight to Bhutan
in Bangkok, a
Bhutanese woman with a bundle of luggage, all newly acquired goods, asked if I
could claim some of her luggage as my own since she’d exceeded her limit,
laughing that she even had a PlayStation for her kids in one box. I complied—I
could see already just how nice Bhutanese people were—certainly she was no drug
dealer, just another shopaholic joining the modern world. I wonder though, are
her kids happier now that they have a PlayStation?
Near the end of the third day of the trek I
was beat. We’d begun
climbing early that morning through an eerie Wizard of Oz forest of
moss-covered trees before reaching a remote glacial lake, then higher still
onto a rocky moonscape above the tree line. Through all the long hours of
walking we passed the time by singing Neil Young songs and discussing every
movie, SNL sketch, and long-forgotten TV show we could think of. “Haven’t you
seen that? You should youtube it,” was often called out. Tshe Tshe would shake
his head at us, baffled and slightly aghast at the amount of accumulated pop
culture in our heads. I was the lone Canadian with a group of four Americans
but it didn’t matter. We were all raised on the same airwaves. This would have
been wildly unthinkable a century ago when people made their own entertainment
and information spread mainly from people traveling from one place to another
carrying stories and songs with them. Do we lose something when we’re all
culturally uniform? When we all know the same commercial jingles? Does it take
the joy out of discovery when every small town has the same chain stores?No wonder Tshe Tshe was shaking his head.
When he grew up, he told us the people in his valley were completely different
from the people in the next valley where he went to school, a five-hour walk
away. But with more and more young Bhutanese becoming educated, they’re leaving
their villages behind for the cosmopolitan life of Thimpu. So far though,
McDonalds and its ilk are banned in Bhutan, and traditional
architecture is enforced by law.
After reaching the third and highest pass
of the day and also the highest pass of the entire trek at close to 13,000
feet, we stopped to rest. Tshe Tshe pointed to a rocky hill beside us and
explained its significance. “If a baby dies, the family brings the dead infant
to the top of these rocks so vultures can take the body away. It’s called Sky
Sky Burial: horrific and heartbreakingly
beautiful at the same time, much like the world itself—a thankfully
multifarious world still seemingly full of surprises. I gazed out at the
mountain ranges all around us that with the fast-moving clouds, appeared and
reappeared by the second, revealing secret peaks and shimmering valleys for an
instant before disappearing again. I wondered how different I’d be if I’d grown
up in Bhutan with the Himalayas under my feet, perhaps herding yaks, walking
from one green valley to the next, drinking yak butter tea (the most vile
concoction I’ve ever pretended to drink), knowing nothing of Google or Seinfeld
or Springsteen concerts. It would be a different kind of happiness no doubt,
and I’d be a different person.
Wordsworth wrote that, “Pleasure is spread
through the earth, in stray gifts to be claimed by whoever shall find.” Kant’s
rules for happiness were: something to do, someone to love, something to hope
for. The latest research tells us that novelty and challenge bring happiness,
as does feeling like we’re growing, striving after our goals. As each day
passed in the wilds of Bhutan
I could feel my old self coming back, my anxiety about my hometown’s problems
lifting, and something replacing it: happiness. Perhaps it was the
heart-stopping reality of the natural world around me, those yak herders up in
the mountains. Just knowing they were there, that people still happily live
like that, I found comforting.
Something else that always gladdens the
heart are erect penises painted on houses. All over Bhutan, male genitalia are painted
on the outside walls of people’s houses and on storefronts—they really stand
out. The Bhutanese find it hilarious. This isn’t pornographic but a reference
most popular saint, the Divine Madman from the 16th century. The
Divine Madman felt that the somber nature of the clergy kept people from
learning true Buddhist teachings, so he deliberately acted outrageously, his
obscene and sexual antics a way to provoke people into lightening up. We saw
examples of his influence all over the country, from the Temple of the Divine Madman itself where
monks of all ages were laughing and chanting, to Tshe Tshe sneakily carving our
wooden walking sticks outside our tents one night so the tops looked like
penises. Surely carving penises onto sticks or displaying giant penises dolled
up with bows on your house is an act only cheerful people would engage in.
On one of our last days in Bhutan,
a week after the trek, we happened to stop at a meadow filled with wildflowers
and tall trees by a river. Thousands of prayer flags floated in the breeze like
rainbows at a party. When I asked about the abundance of prayer flags, Tshe
Tshe said that families had picnics there and always tied prayer flags up to
the trees before they left. Yes, I thought: families having picnics together:
so timeless, so basic, so fun.
Maybe the source of true happiness lies in
the celebration of our fellow humans. Maybe we should all have more picnics and
find happiness in the simple things—streams, mountains, smiling at strangers,
painting penises on our houses. Maybe nothing is more important for our
happiness than interacting with the ageless realm of things. If I had my own
prayer flags, I’d pray that Bhutan
can hold onto its happiness as it joins the rest of us. So far, they seem to be
doing a remarkable job.