Don’t worry be happy.
That might as well be the national song of the Asian Kingdom of Bhutan. It’s like no place I’ve ever been.
This is a beautiful country where the hillsides are dotted with ancient monasteries and colorful prayer flags blow in the breeze. There are no traffic lights; no chain stores; no billboards. The only signs I see are telling the passersby to “fight the HIV Virus, not people” and “It is not a Rally, Enjoy the Valley.” I knew visiting Bhutan was going to be special.
Gross National Happiness
Since the early 70s, Bhutan has rejected the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) as the only way to measure progress. Instead, this tiny nation has championed a new approach to development, which measures prosperity through the specific principles of Gross National Happiness (GNH): economic self-reliance, conservation of the environment, good governance, and cultural preservation. For example all citizens are required to wear the National Dress while in public during the day. The men wear a knee-length robe tied with a belt called a gho and women wear a kira, a long dress.
While they wear dresses, it may surprise you that it’s the women who “wear the pants” in Bhutan. They are traditionally the land owners and run most family affairs. Both men and women work in the fields or own small businesses, but it’s the men that often cook and make or repair clothes.
Plus, here, protecting the environment has become part of their constitution. The country has pledged to remain carbon neutral and to ensure that at least 60% of its land will always remain under forest cover. They are on the path to becoming the world’s first totally organic country. They have banned export logging and have even instigated a monthly pedestrian day that bans all private vehicles from the roads. It doesn’t mean they completely reject economic growth (there largest industries are agriculture and fast-growing hydroelectric power, which is exported next door to India), its just not at the expense of the good things in life.
The Last Shangri-La
Despite its focus on national wellbeing, Bhutan of course, isn’t perfect. While slowly growing, it still remains one of the poorest nations on the planet. A quarter of its 750,000 people live below the poverty line, and many still live without electricity. There has been a slow rise in crime, a growing gang and drug culture, and a rising ethnic conflict due to the expulsion of one-fifth of its population (mostly ethnic Nepalese) in the name of preserving the Tibetan Buddhist culture and identity. After many years in refugee camps, many are now moving to host countries like Canada, Norway, the United Kingdom, Australia, and the United States. The U.S. admitted 30,870 refugees between 2008 and 2010. Of course, I don’t see any of problems while here. Tourism is very controlled since you remain with a guide the entire time.
Until quite recently, this “last Shangri-la” was truly off the beaten path and inaccessible due to its geography and a deliberate desire to remain this way. Bhutan is a remote country tucked away between two big neighbors (literally and figuratively), India and China. This conservative Buddhist kingdom high in the Himalayas had no paved roads until the 1960s, was off-limits to foreigners until 1974, and only just granted television and Internet access starting in 1999. Can you imagine the culture shock when the Kardashians, gansta rap, and Walking Dead hit the airwaves here? Because of its isolation, Bhutan had been able to preserve much of its Buddhist traditions and keep its landscape free from unnatural interruptions like signs, billboards, and advertising. Now, some channels have been banned, but it will be interesting to see how this tiny bastion of times-gone-by changes over the next few decades. The population is very young, so some of today’s kids have already grown up with Internet and television, making western dress, music, and smartphones quite common. Many of this new generation are moving to the cities or heading to India and rejecting the traditional agrarian lifestyle.
Many people I have spoken to don’t know much about Bhutan let alone have barely heard of it.
So, some Bhutan Facts for you:
- The first democratic elections were held in Bhutan in March 2008.
- They drive on the left.
- Locals had no television or Internet access until 1999.
- The country did not open up to tourism until 1974.
- It’s the only country in the world to ban the sale of tobacco.
- There are no traffic lights in the entire country.
- Bhutan had no electricity, no cars, and no phones until the 1960s.
- The first 20 students ever to complete high school graduated in 1968.
- English is their second language and taught to all school children.
- Bhutan is the first country in the world with specific constitutional obligations on its people to protect the environment. Among its requirements: At least 60 percent of the nation must remain under forest cover forever.
- Plastic bags are banned in Bhutan.
- The Driving of cars is banned on the first Sunday of the month…it is known as “pedestrian day”
- In Bhutan, healthcare is free for both residents as well as visitors.
- The national sport of Bhutan is Archery.
Bhutan is small (the size of Switzerland), but mountainous, so driving throughout the country can take a long time going up and over mountain passes. The fifth and current king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, wed a commoner and daughter of a pilot, in 2011, and their photos are plastered everywhere. The beautiful, young couple were even on a pin my flight attendant wore on our Drukair flight into the country. His father, the fourth king, was responsible for the start of Gross National Happiness as well as many of the modern reforms in the country.
Tourism in Bhutan
I am touring this beautiful, isolated country with Exodus Travels, the longstanding adventure tour company of the UK. A two-week trip just scratches the surface here, but the tour is giving me a great overview of this stunning and natural wonder.
As you can tell, this is like no place I’ve ever visited. Even the tourism industry has specific rules set in place to protect the culture and environment.
In order to visit Bhutan, you must pay a per-day fee to the government of $250. It sort of becomes an “all-inclusive” country.
The fee includes:
- All internal taxes and charges
- All Meals
- All travel with a licensed Bhutanese Tour Guide
- All Internal Transport
- Camping Equipment and Haulage for Trekking Tours
So while some recoil at hearing the hefty per diem tax, when you take into account all that it includes, it’s not really that bad. Yes, you could certainly travel cheaper independently, but, well, you can’t do that here. It certainly is a unique tourism model – one that does keep the country from being over run by tourists and backpackers, something you can easily the effects of just next door in Katmandu.
More posts on Bhutan:
Disclosure: This is part of a series of posts on Bhutan. I was a guest of Exodus Travels as part of a Navigate Media Group initiative. As always, all writing, photography, and opinions are my own.