Tim Fis­cher re­flects on the ap­peal of Bhutan, home of the world’s first Gross Na­tional Hap­pi­ness con­cept

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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.

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