Bhutan’s se­cret to hap­pi­ness

Bhutan Times - - Home - By Barry Petersen and T. Sean Her­bert

W e’re tak­ing a jour­ney this morn­ing to an ex­otic land some­times known as THE FOR­BID­DEN KING­DOM. But de­spite that nick­name ... de­spite the fact that few peo­ple travel there ... it’s a place that could hold an im­por­tant key to hu­man hap­pi­ness, as Barry Petersen shows us in our Cover Story:

It’s been called the For­bid­den King­dom, but it could be Shangri-La, hid­den away for cen­turies amid the soar­ing majesty of the Hi­malayas.

Sur­rounded by pow­er­ful neigh­bors China and In­dia, Bhutan has al­ways gone its own way.

And does to this day. Its econ­omy is still based on agri­cul­ture, and its con­sti­tu­tion man­dates that 60 per­cent of the land must be for­est; the ac­tual fig­ure is 72 per­cent -- no overde­vel­op­ment here.

So com­ing off the plane you breathe in some of the fresh­est air on the planet, as you drift into a past that is al­ways present.

You’ll en­counter Bud­dhist monks, and land­scapes strewn with prayer flags. By royal de­cree, even new build­ings must be dec­o­rated with tra­di­tional carved wood and myth­i­cal crea­tures.

Our lo­cal ho­tel had an el­e­va­tor, one of only about a dozen in the en­tire coun­try. But tech­nol­ogy did what in­vaders never could: come across the moun­tains. Cell phones are ev­ery­where. Some wonder how they got along with­out them, like free­lance jour­nal­ist Tsh­er­ing Choeki.

“I can’t live with­out my cell phone to­day,” Choeki said. “I make my ap­point­ments on my cell phones. I check my emails on my wi-phones. And some­times when I’m in a hurry I even do ar­ti­cles on my cell phone.”

So when we met Amer­i­can- and Ox­ford-ed­u­cated Prince Dasho Ji­gyel, brother of the King, the topic was change.

When asked how change has af­fects his coun­try -- its cul­ture and the things he cher­ishes -- Prince Dasho replied, “It is both a plus and a minus, with glob­al­iza­tion and us open­ing up our doors. We can’t re­ally swim against the tide.

“Back in the day we didn’t have some­thing called shoes. We didn’t even have socks. So this is an evo­lu­tion of it, sir.”

Evo­lu­tion that took cen­turies, from feud­ing war­lords and serf­dom to a monar­chy founded in 1908, to democ­racy de­creed by the king in 2008 ... just like that.

It all took a long time, and there is still no hur­ry­ing in Bhutan. Rush-hour weary Amer­i­cans can marvel that in the largest city, Thim­phu, (pop­u­la­tion: 100,000), a traf­fic jam is about a dozen cars

Round­abouts fea­ture statutes of Bud­dhist god­desses, and the main in­ter­sec­tion is con­trolled by a po­lice­man who is a mae­stro of mo­tor­cars.

Bhutan had one stop­light. But peo­ple thought it was too mod­ern, so they took it down. And they also re­jected those sym­bols of Amer­ica’s global reach, so there are no McDon­alds or Burger Kings ... not even a Star­bucks.

Karen Beard­s­ley, a Ful­bright pro­fes­sor teach­ing global map­ping courses to stu­dents at the Royal Thim­phu Col­lege, says Bhutan re­sists po­ten­tially los­ing its iden­tity by invit­ing in Amer­i­can busi­nesses: “I’ve been to other coun­tries where those kinds of Amer­i­can shops are ev­ery­where and it starts to feel like you’re just in Amer­ica.

“I think the cul­tural iden­tity of Bhutan is very im­por­tant, and I think they re­ally want to main­tain that. And I think by hav­ing those kinds of stores here would take away from that.”

Petersen asked, “How does it com­pare living in Bhutan as an Amer­i­can, com­pared to what you had when you were teach­ing and living in the United States?”

“The con­cept of time is a lit­tle dif­fer­ent here; it’s a lot more re­laxed,” Beard­s­ley replied. “I think in the U.S. we’re al­ways very up­tight about time and very rushed about ev­ery­thing. I find life here very re­lax­ing, peace­ful. The peo­ple are won­der­ful.”

Even with­out fast food, the in­com­ing tide of tech­nol­ogy is chang­ing Bhutan, as we learned when we stopped at a lo­cal archery tour­na­ment. Archery is Bhutan’s na­tional sport; women dance to cheer their fa­vorite team. But the younger gen­er­a­tion is los­ing in­ter­est.

School teacher Sonam Dorgi’s fa­ther taught him archery at age ten. He says to­day’s chil­dren don’t like to play the game.

“Does that mean that in Bhutan archery might go away?” Petersen asked.

“Maybe. We are so wor­ried about that,” Dorgi said.

This in­va­sion of mod­ern times was in­vited in. Tele­vi­sion, with Amer­i­can re­runs and Bol­ly­wood soap-op­eras, came in 1999, fol­lowed by the In­ter­net and com­puter games that fas­ci­nate a 14year-old Petersen met.

“Be­cause I have a pas­sion for it,” he said.

When asked if he has tried archery, the teenager laughed. “No, I didn’t try.”

Some things have not evolved, when Bri­tish Royals Wil­liam and Kate vis­ited this past week, she dressed in a Kira, a blouse and skirt com­bi­na­tion that is Bhutan’s age-old style for women.

For men, the tra­di­tional wear is called a Gho -- a com­pli­cated belted robe. (As Petersen dis­cov­ered putting it on is a two-per­son job.)

But to go to Bhutan? Not that easy. It lim­its in­ter­na­tional tourists. There were 57,000 last year -- just slightly more peo­ple than visit Dis­ney World in just one day.

Of the lucky few who make it here, most head for a monastery high up a moun­tain.

Paro Tak­t­sang (also known as the Tiger’s Nest) is Bhutan’s num­ber one tourist at­trac­tion. And when they say the jour­ney is half the fun, that’s not the half of it for the jour­ney to get here

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