J OURNEYS: THE S P I R I T OF DISCOVERY Kingdom come
Tim Fischer reflects on the appeal of Bhutan, home of the world’s first Gross National Happiness concept
S our ponies began to climb out of Gangtok, my spirits soared. I felt a wonderful sense of freedom and adventure in leaving British India behind and travelling into new and undiscovered countries.’’ So wrote Margaret Williamson as she headed towards Bhutan on her honeymoon with her husband, the British Resident Political Officer of Sikkim, Derrick Williamson. They had married in May 1933 at Gangtok, Bhutan, with a reception in the grounds of the Official Residence.
Margaret Williamson dwelt on the beauty of the green idyllic land of Bhutan, observing, decades before the Gross National Happiness concept had evolved, that the people enjoyed an unusually happy way of life.
Their honeymoon caravan travelled to the delicate settlement of Haa, then up over the stunning Chi Lai La pass to the hub valley of Paro, later via the valley of Thimphu and the Dochu-la pass to Punakha with its huge cathedral-proportioned Dzong, located as it is on a beautiful major river junction.
All by horse and tamed yak, this honeymoon caravan with tents, beds and servants in the golden era of the British Raj eventually reached Bumthang, to pay respects to the royal family, before turning north to cross the main spine of the Himalayas and on to Lhasa, Tibet.
Over the years many have chosen to spend part of their honeymoon in Bhutan, a good sign it is a good place to build the foundations of a new marriage.
It has to be said there are some Bhutan lookalike precincts of superb beauty in many countries around the world. These tend to be places dominated by hills or mountains, preferably with snowcaps in the distance, along with narrow valleys and fast-flowing clear mountain streams; indeed places where you can stroll and meditate and think of the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan as you gaze on mountains of great awe and mystery.
All of this is of course second fiddle to visiting Bhutan itself, in a minimum footprint and environmentally friendly way, soaking up authentic superb Bhutanese cuisine and inhaling the mountain air and all that Bhutan has to offer.
There are some tricks to the trade of making your first visit or repeat visits to Bhutan, dare I say. To begin with, you make sure your visa and all other travel requirements are settled well ahead of presenting to the Drukair departure counter at Bangkok or New Delhi international airports. Inbound to Paro, Bhutan, from Bangkok, Calcutta or New Delhi, it is best to sit on the left-hand side window seats, outbound on the righthand side, to maximise views of the Himalayan main chain of mountains. Ensure you remain vigilant from the moment descent commences over Bhutan. It is a short phase of the flight, given the fact that the ground, in the form of mountains, comes up quickly from the Indian plains to 7000 feet (2133m) and some, to greet the arriving plane.
Soon enough you will be in a mini bus hurtling along the straightest and smoothest road in Bhutan, namely the Paro Airport entrance roadway.
This is a little misleading and could be said to be the first tease of the visitor by the astute Bhutanese. It can lull you into a false sense of security, but the roads of Bhutan are improving greatly. By 2008, a new freeway entrance to Thimphu had been opened and the first and only two-way lane completed between Paro and Thimphu.
Welcome to one of the highest capitals in the world and also one of the newest. There are a couple of rules it helps to follow on the first day in Bhutan. Luckily the altitude is still below 10,000 feet (3000m) at Thimphu but it pays to move slowly and not do anything too strenuous until the body and mind have time to adjust to the altitude.
Equally it is easy to give unintended offence applying Western ways in Bhutan; it is recommended that you go out of your way to be polite and not demanding, especially on matters of timing. To this end accept it is not the end of the world that it takes a little longer to get things done and, whilst waiting, just lift your eyes and soak up the vista.
Over the next few days, unless you are an absolutely cold-hearted, narrow-minded, over-pampered, insular Westerner, you will quickly come to enjoy the difference and soak up all that Bhutan has to offer, complete with the official policy concept of Gross National Happiness.
It was over 30 years ago that the Fourth King of Bhutan, now King Father, hit upon the need for a better balance in life and progress. He developed the concept of Gross National Happiness and has attracted attention on this score ever since.
Now I know many have a hazy and sceptical view of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness; some think it is a blast from the past of good old Marxism laced with a bit of pot, with chimes ringing in the background and Gross
Heaven on Earth: Towering mountains dwarf Taktsang Monastery in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan National Happiness beholders nakedly swaying in a circle contemplating life. It has nothing to do with fringe dwellers from the lunatic left or the extreme right, indeed in recent years the concept has moved to the front and centre of mainstream economic thinking and this is exactly where it should be.
In raw form, it could be said Gross National Happiness has five main components: firstly the environment and climate, secondly security and related law and order, thirdly good governance, fourthly economic well being and employment, finally cultural tolerance and community cohesion.
Over the years further refinements have taken place and today the Government of Bhutan lists four main pillars as such and these are all practical and sensible.
The small country of Bhutan is now taking a big set of steps forward on the political front. Just when near neighbour Nepal is moving to no kings and a form of democracy, Bhutan has two kings in one sense and an expanded vigorous form of Government and a tiny Loyal Opposition as its well thought out version of a Constitutional Monarchical Democracy.
Further in this world there is too often little or zero communication between fathers and sons; the good news is that the King Father, the Fourth King, gets on well with the new King, in fact his son, the Fifth King.
Both are people of great modesty and humble ways, both live in modest residences, one prefers tennis nowadays and the other plays basketball, but both are as sharp as a tack. They have focus, great presence, firm views on a wide range of subjects and above all else a deep and abiding commitment to their country. In case you are wondering, there are no royal Lear jets, no extravagant lifestyle complete with incognito visits to nearby mega cities and casino resorts. Just two thoughtful, dedicated and capable men with their key advisers and family support, who have made a big call to step back and let a new partisan political power class emerge, a very big call in a tiny country and one that is a case of so far so good.
There is much to inhale about the Kingdom of Bhutan, to read, to listen, to look and to learn about this extraordinary country. It is not picture-perfect, but it is probably as close to a picture perfect mountain Shangrila that you will find on the planet Earth in the first decade of the 21st century. It is not governance perfect, but it is in many ways streets ahead of many other small nation states in regard to their government and with regard to the quality of their leadership in the Royal Family, within the bureaucracy, the Assembly, in business circles and beyond.
Bhutan, with 38,394sq km and a population of one million or thereabouts, does extremely well against the odds, enhanced by the phenomena and concept of Gross National Happiness. Other tiny nation states would be well advised to emulate much of the Gross National Happiness template of Bhutan but all need to be relentless on weeding out corruption.
You can inhale Gross National Happiness, Heaven on Earth, by visiting but you can also do it by reading and reflecting and meditating in whatever location you happen to be in around the world. You can also happily honeymoon there. Alas, you cannot catch a train into Bhutan just yet, but one is on the drawing boards, namely the Golden Jubilee Rail Line, which will connect to the Indian rail network.
The sun shone brightly for the three days of the main coronation ceremonies in early November last year, but there will always be storm clouds somewhere around the Himalayas. There can be no post-coronation complacency, just an inclusive ongoing commitment to make things better in a country that has so little in one sense, yet so much. This is an edited extract from BoldBhutanBeckons by Tim Fischer and Tshering Tashi (Copy Right, $39.60). Available at bookstores around Australia or www.copyright.net.au. A proportion of proceeds will go to charity projects in Bhutan.