If the entire world thought, acted and behaved like Bhutan, we would be in a far, far better place than we find ourselves in today
Unique is a horribly overused word in travel commentary, and yet here we are - Bhutan is utterly unique. Not so much in its landscape (Nepal’s is comparable in many ways) nor its spirituality, as nations of many faiths can fairly lay claim to similar levels of commitment and belief. Its nuances, language, and cuisine are all ‘unique’, but there’s nothing unique about that. So what is it?
It’s the culture and values. Bhutan is a country that feels set apart in the connected-ness of its people and in their belief in the bettering of the nation as a whole, rather than focusing on the individual.
This is not all down to the SDF (Sustainable Development Fee), but rather part of a far wider greater drive that extends beyond tourism and into the greater consciousness of this kingdom of around 770k people. So often, small countries and kingdoms such as Bhutan try to emulate the approach taken by the world’s most powerful nations - the ‘big players’ - who, incidentally, have often ridden roughshod over their lands and divided their people. Smaller nations can be drawn to follow similar paths by misguided outside influences and misplaced loyalty. Whilst Bhutan is heavily influenced by two world superpowers on their borders, they have avoided this fate, taken their own path and used their position as a geographical buffer to their advantage.
Bhutan is run like a small values-led company, where the people - its most important stakeholders - are (seemingly) considered in every decision. The people I spoke to throughout my journey know all about this and are fully invested in it. It’s more than just pride. They feel empowered that they can genuinely influence the direction that leadership takes, both on a local and national level. They’re led by a king who works tirelessly, travelling around the country on a near-constant basis to be amongst his people, to hear from them and help them.
The first king of a unified Bhutan was crowned in 1907 and, although the country is a democracy, the king still wields a lot of power and is heavily involved in parliamentary decisions. The current king is only the 5th, so in many ways it’s a very young country with a fresh energy. Many of their overall values, and the resulting plans, are really inspiring. They ended any system of serfdom in the ‘50s, limiting individual land ownership to 25 acres. It is illegal to force any religion on anyone, and Buddhism is not a national religion but rather the country’s spiritual heritage.
They have a very modern constitution, fit for the challenges of today (unlike many in the west). 72% of Bhutan is forest (the constitution states a minimum of 60% at all times) and 51% of Bhutan is given over to National Parks which are all connected through biodiversity corridors. The government is trying to encourage fully organic farming too, and they offer subsidies on certain equipment to encourage greater production within Bhutan and less reliance on India.
I was, probably like many, charmed but also a little wary of the much-publicised focus on Gross National Happiness. A great bit of branding, I thought, but not much else. I’m delighted to report that my slight cynicism was misplaced and that this ideal is genuinely at the heart of everything in Bhutan. Gross National Happiness is not just a clever saying, or an illusion to spike the world’s interest or cover up any perceived shortcomings in key areas (i.e. GDP); it’s a meaningful intention and a matter of science. There’s a manifesto and a 3-inch-thick publication setting out in detail how it is measured and what the country’s objectives are. Its reach and impact are so much greater than I could have imagined.
More recently, we’ve seen the introduction of ‘Bhutan Believe’, a simple slogan that is not created for tourism (as many industry players within Bhutan initially thought) but a call to action from, and for, the entire country.
While this all sounds very idyllic, there’s no denying that life for most Bhutanese is still hard. The farming land is set over steep terraces which have to be worked in all weathers, many people are poor, and most have little in the way of mod cons. However, I’ve seen on my own travels that there is a real and far reaching sense of contentment amongst most people, although admittedly it’s hard to tell how much of this is true feeling. Certainly, the outward displays of happiness are more frequent than we’re used to seeing on the streets of most of our hometowns.
Much of modern western culture leads us to strive to want ‘more’ all the time - more material wealth, higher status, bigger, better everything. Our expectations are set sky high and it can feel like a never-ending race to the top. In Bhutan, it doesn’t feel like that. Here, there’s a genuine emphasis on a sense of spirituality within the everyday; an appreciation for space and time and peace, and a gratitude for the impact and value of small things. It feels like a healthy way to live - one that many in the west are only starting to strive to achieve while Bhutan leads the way.
'In Bhutan We Believe' - article published by Kuensel last year (State-owned news paper) https://kuenselonline.com/in-bhutan-we-believe/
'New Brand Line for the country - Bhutan - Believe' - article published by the Bhutanese (private newspaper) https://thebhutanese.bt/tcbs-new-brand-line-for-the-country-bhutan-believe/
Video by Department of Tourism - Launch of new brand Bhutan - Believehttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IrzOUYgt0_E