Bhutan: Exploring the happiest place on Earth
The Bhutanese are not happy. After having been in the so- called land of “gross national happiness” for a little less than 24 hours, this is a surprising discovery. But, as I lunch in a restaurant in Thimphu, where the bumper- tobumper traffic outside is beginning to challenge the city’s status as the only world capital without a set of traffic lights, it’s all there in black and white in a local newspaper.
Bhutan is beset with a major chilli shortage. This may not immediately strike the privileged visitor to this quasi- hermit kingdom as the stuff of national crisis, but the Bhutanese devour chillies with an enthusiasm similar to Americans and french fries – they can consume whole bowls of the fiery fruit at a single sitting.
But when they have to buy chillies at exorbitantly inflated prices from markets due to the government’s rejection of a consignment of them from India ( in Bhutan they must, by government decree, be organic), they become, well, let’s say, grossly unhappy.
Chilli, after all, forms the basis of the national dish, ema datshi, a concoction made from chilli and cheese with the latter usually derived from the milk, or dri or nak, of the female yak. In its purest form, ema datshi can have more firepower than the occasionally successful Kim Jongun ballistic missile test launch.
But I have not come all this way for a culinary adventure ( probably just as well). I’m more interested in the concept of gross national happiness, coined by the fourth king of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, in the early 1970s when the country received fewer than 300 foreign tourists compared with today’s ambitious target of 100,000 by 2020.
Gross national happiness was conceived as a Buddhism- based socioeconomic doctrine that metamorphosed into an even more enduring de facto tourism slogan than New Zealand’s “100 per cent pure” equivalent. Nowadays it’s been refined as “happiness is a place”. In its entry on Bhutan, the United States Central Intelligence Agency’s sober though informative Factbook guide to the nations of the world, makes no reference to gross national happiness in its Bhutan entry, while on the index of the world› s happiest countries the « land of the thunder dragon » languishes at a rather sullen ranking of 97. This idealistic mountainous kingdom may struggle for altitude on the more scientific world happiness indices but, as a destination it still manages a lofty rating in terms of traveller bragging rights. In terms of my own gross personal happiness index, I couldn’t be more delighted – elated even – to be here, in what has become something of a trophy destination, albeit one that may have shed a degree of its original allure in recent years
And on this, my first visit to Bhutan, it’s from Paro, site of the sole entry point by air for international visitors that I embark on my journey around the kingdom.