(This is the 2nd of an ongoing feature, Travels with Tony)
The Buddhist religion plays a central role in the life of the Bhutanese. Attending temple is a habit for the people. Today I endured a two hour hike to see the Tiger´s Nest, a cliffside temple that is Bhutan´s most famous tourist site. But there were just as many Bhutan citizens streaming through the tight quarters as foreigners. The locals consider the temple to be a major pilgrimage site. The peaceful, non-violent tenets of Buddhism carry over to all aspects of Bhutanese life. They keep the killing of animals to a minimum: fishing from the rivers is prohibited, hunting is not allowed, cows are free to roam the roads while dogs are often found sleeping in the middle of the street. The pace of life in Bhutan is generally laid back. Even in the capital city of Thimphu, there is no hustle and bustle to speak of. Car horns are sounded only to get animals to move along. The people have deliberate pace that is not rushed; it reminds me of the Italian custom of the passeggiata where couples and families go for a leisurely stroll each day before dinner.
Over 10 years ago, Bhutan´s fourth king decided that rather than emphasize his country´s gross national product, he would focus on the happiness of his subjects. He wanted Bhutan to have the highest score on what was called the measure of Gross National Happiness. A survey was given to all who could respond—everyone from young children to the elderly. Results showed that 97% of the citizens were happy with their lives. The unhappy ones are the young people who want to leave the farms but they can´t find work in the cities. Anyway, this meant the people of Bhutan are the happiest in all of Asia. And in emphasizing Gross National Happiness over a high GNP, the king put tiny Bhutan on the world map. No other country uses this measure. With per capita annual income at around $2400 (World Bank figure), it kind of proves the old adage that money does not buy happiness. Life is simple and the people don´t seem to be materialistic.
In 2008 Bhutan´s century old monarchy was changed to a constitutional monarchy where the king no longer had absolute rule. There were now 10 elected ministers and a national council with two houses of elected representatives who work with the king to decide national policy. Having a healthy populace is also high on the list. To curtail smoking, the government prohibited the sale of tobacco products in 2010. But smokers are getting around this somehow; I have seen my guide/driver sneaking a few puffs on several occasions. The government has also encouraged physical exercise and developed fitness programs for all ages. The former king (he turned over the reins to his oldest son in 2006) sets an example by hiking and biking the streets and hills of the capital.
Currently there is a huge program that encourages people to take care of the environment by keeping rivers pollution-free, cleaning up garbage sites, refraining from littering and going green in every way possible. The goal is for the country to have a zero waste factor by the year 2030. They are trying to get taxi owners in Thimphu to switch to electric cars but the cost of new vehicles and charging stations have made the change slow in coming. But at least now I understand why the prime minister drives a Tesla (an all electric car); he wants to set a good example.
Keeping the old traditions has been a hallmark of life in Bhutan. The people were not allowed to have television and access to the internet until 1999. And the use of cellphones has just mushroomed in the past year. I don´t know if it´s national policy or not but there are no western fast food operators in Bhutan; no McDonalds, KFC or Starbucks. However I was surprised to find a Baskin Robbins tucked away in a little Thimphu mall. Changes will surely come about as Bhutan gets into the 21st century but the government will have a big role in deciding how fast outside influences will take place. If you are interested in seeing a culture that is authentic, an environment that is unspoiled and life is generally relaxed and slow paced, Bhutan is a great choice. The people are welcoming and helpful as well as English-speaking and the country is virtually crime-free. What more could you ask for?
I am not much of a souvenir guy. But when I went to the central Thimphu post offiice to pick up a few items for a stamp collector friend, I found that for amere $4, they could take my picture and put it on a sheet of 12 stamps. They are real stamps issued by the post office that can be used for mailing but I decided to keep them together. In more ways than one, Bhutan certainly gets my stamp of approval.