Seeking Happiness in Bhutan

Notes from a few days in the land that forgot about GDP.

By Steve Burgess 9 Mar 2009 |

Steve Burgess will file one more report from Bangkok before resuming his placid existence in espresso-blessed Vancouver.

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Got cappuccino?

I am in the fabled Kingdom of Bhutan, the country that has enshrined happiness as its official goal. But there's a catch. The Kingdom of Bhutan also turns out to be the Land of Nescafe. You want coffee? Boil the water and open a packet. Happiness is beginning to seem as far off as a cozy Vancouver café.

Perhaps the lack of good espresso in this Himalayan nation is intended to make the important point that happiness cannot truly be achieved by artificial means. Good point. I'm sure I'm a better person for learning it. But I learn something else too -- after a somewhat dispiriting Day One, Day Two brightens with the discovery that two Nescafe packets in one cup actually provide some kick. Very soon I'm up to three.

Bhutan is famous for coining the term "Gross National Happiness," an official government attempt to monitor the national mood just as other countries do the economic output. This has meant a cautious and controlled approach to outside influences like tourism, which is regulated -- and therefore expensive. You can't just bum your way around this place.

Avoiding Nepalification

In order to get a visa here you must hire a tour company that will book your accommodations and provide a guide and driver, all of which guarantees you will be spending a certain amount of money. It's a canny approach for a country that has been able to avoid the military and cultural subjugation suffered by nearby Tibet and wants to avoid the kind of chaotic tourist invasion that has made such a madhouse of Nepal. Unfortunately for the tourist, the Bhutanese approach offers the sort of hand-held experience that defeats serendipity.

In fact, the country quickly begins to seem like a very small town. You keep meeting the people from your flight -- they and their guides arrive at the next approved tourist site just as you and your guide are leaving, and vice versa.

Bhutan's slow, carefully controlled march to modernity has not yet advanced to the Starbucks stage, and even an addict like me must admit that this is a fine thing. No McDonald's or KFC either, but not on account of the national religion. "We are all Buddhists," my guide Kunley tells me, "but Buddhists who eat meat."

To be precise, they favour a sort of dried beef that tastes almost like cow bacon. Very tasty. They also offer spicy green chilies with cheese, potatoes with cheese, steamed veggies, pink rice, dhal, lentil soup, curried vegetables, butter-fried broccoli or spinach -- all at one sitting. Bhutanese people are not fat -- haven't seen a fat one yet -- but man, do they eat. (In an odd aside, one day I told Kunley that the previous night I had been plagued with strange dreams about friends dying. "We say that when you dream of a friend's death," Kunley replied, "it means your friend ate too much last night." Anyone dreaming of my demise lately? Because I have been stuffed like a down pillow.)

All together now

Uniformity is the Bhutanese rule. There's even a national uniform, although it is mandated only for certain professions and special occasions. The country claims to be 100 per cent Buddhist. After the country made a remarkable shift from absolute to constitutional monarchy, the subsequent parliamentary elections gave the ruling party all but two seats. All the buildings look the same, giving every town a Whistler-esque look. Tourists are taken to all the same places and served the same food.

Ten years ago something new did arrive. Bhutan did not have TV until 1992 when it got one channel. Then in 1999, the floodgates opened with the arrival of cable. "No one went outside for a month," Kunley says. "They went crazy, clicking the remote."

TV sets also created a market for porn. "You can buy blue movies," Kunley says, "if you know somebody."

Could this be the true meaning of Gross National Happiness?

The Internet was introduced a few years back, as well. Nowadays lots of staffers in empty restaurants (it's the off season) huddle around computer screens playing video games.But just as many Bhutanese seem to hang around the streets playing aboard game called karem, which is sort of like snooker played with checkers.

Roused to action

Actually Bhutan seems modern enough, albeit rustic and a little sleepy. I hope they plan for wider roads soon -- these are single-lane, but with two-way traffic. One day my driver tried to pass a truck despite a windshield full of oncoming van. No seatbelts on my bench, either. If we'd been going much faster I would now be reporting on the modernity of Bhutanese surgical implements.

On my final day, we travel to the capital city of Thimpu. There is revolution in the air. "Next we will go the post office to look at some stamps," Kunley tells me.

I politely inform Kunley that we will not be looking at stamps. Instead Kunley gets on the cell and makes a couple of calls. Soon we are driving to a little place called Karma's Coffee. Open just three weeks earlier by a coffee fanatic named Karma Tenzing, who learned his trade making cappuccinos in Australia, Karma's Coffee is a little oasis of fine Italian espresso.

Later I am set free to wander the streets of Thimpu, browsing shops full of Bhutanese handicrafts. As good a guide as he is, I'm sure Kunley would agree that happiness is where you find it.

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