“The view’s perfect on the other side!”
I cried out to my brother while circling Phuentsholing’s sacred monastery to capture the amazing sunset near the Indo-Bhutan border.
Bumped into a local and caught a glimpse of his frowned brows. Utterly embarrassed, I said sorry multiple times and looked visited shook.
He picked up his keys and said in the softest voice.
“Slow down. You won’t reach anywhere if you don’t.”
He was wearing a Lacoste T-shirt and Adidas Bermudas. Yet it felt like the Dalai Lama has spoken.
15 years later, I recounted my experiences at Bhutan, growing up in a town near the foothills of the Buddhist kingdom with Sakhi Saxena who visited Bhutan in 2019. We realised how our experiences reflected the efforts of a closely-knit community to protect and preserve their homeland while staying true to their religion and culture.
When a country is united in actions, ambitions and will, even the Dragon smiles.
Bhutan is renowned for the highest rank in Gross National Happiness (GNH) Index. While the rest of the world was busy with rapid industrialization in 1972, Bhutan’s then ruler, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck proposed the novel idea that Gross National Happiness provides a more honest picture of a country’s progress than the sole economic indicator of Gross National Product.(1)
Less is more
Bhutan is not home to any major factory units or industrial regions. The few existing factories were set up only after 1980, and still remain limited in number.
Locals have a very simple logic behind this- they believe that the pollution and fumes released by industrial activities cause discomfort to the Gods they worship (who, according to their spiritual belief, reside in the sky). This is also a major reason why industrialization has been regulated by local government; everyone operates on the same logic, after all.
For this reason, Bhutan is the smallest and least developed economy in South Asia. In a related vein, Bhutan has also largely avoided the effects of globalisation and commercialisation.
Let Bhutan be
Our driver took us past a serene portion of the valley near the city of Thimpu, located next to one of Bhutan’s many freshwater rivers, and pointed out large constructions being undertaken by leading hospitality groups.
One could hear the disappointment in his voice as he talked about how similar hotel chains are choosing to expand by setting up luxury accommodations in the country; a trend which according to him would very likely continue.
The same way one does not see commercial hotels in Bhutanese cities, there are also no major dining or fast food chains. Most cities on the tourist circuit have a brimming cafe culture and are also full of small, cosy restaurants run by locals.
This Himalayan kingdom is a rare example of development that has been fostered without ecological damage. Bhutan has successfully halted the growth of heavy-duty industries by engaging in culturally-embedded sustainable practices. Thus minimising its carbon footprint and creating one of the most stable ecosystems worldwide.(2)
By charging foreign tourists a daily fees of approximately $250 during their stay, Bhutan also ensures that its tourists act responsibly within the country’s borders.
Vocal for local
Another major source of income among locals is that they often arrange for tourists to visit their homes for an authentic home-cooked meal or even home-stays. One can see why, after tasting any dish. Spicy, rich and 100% locally sourced, Bhutanese food is to die for! It is also primarily vegetarian and dairy-based. I’ve never considered the possibility of cheese and red chillies as a combination, but I was in for a pleasant surprise when I tried a delicacy called Ema Datshi at a local’s home.
No place like home
I also spoke to a number of locals who had worked in other neighbouring countries, such as India, Nepal and Bangladesh. While they were grateful for the opportunities they came across in these places, their experiences allowed them to appreciate the culture and values of Bhutan, and a number of them yearned to come back.
Many also talked about missing Bhutan’s immensely green landscape of mountains and valleys, once they lived in the concrete jungle.
One can evidently see that Bhutan’s people are simple and warm.
There is an immense amount of trust and shared respect for the country’s cultural values. Life, even in the capital city is simple. On a typical day, shopkeepers will open their shutters, large groups of talkative children will walk to their schools and farmers will commence their work for the day. In the evenings, there is often live entertainment in the form of a football game at the Changlimithang Stadium.
The stands are half full, with enthusiastic father-son duos, monks and cheering youngsters. The day ends relatively early and the city sleeps off by around 10 pm and wake up with the crack of dawn.
all for one, one for all
In today’s world of labels, a “national dress” is often missing or crumpled in the lowest shelf of the wardrobe. Only to be seen on “national” occasions.
Bhutan’s people sport their national dress every day, with pride.
Being a part of a strongly knit community that is united by common culture, ideals and values instils a sense of belonging like none other. “We are proud of our kingdom. You won’t find a better place or people. We live simple lives, respect each other and do our best to keep our country the way it is”, says a local who is studying to be a doctor.
When asked what’s the secret behind her hearty laughter, she blushed, took a moment and replied. “I am grateful for everything I have- my family, my home, my job. All of us have each other and we have everything that we want right here.”
Indeed, the glass is always half-full in the world’s happiest country.
Picture credits: Sakhi Saxena