Bhutan: In search of happiness

By Leah McLennan

A women spins her prayer wheel in Bhutan, where happiness is valued above almost everything else. Photo / Thinkstock
A women spins her prayer wheel in Bhutan, where happiness is valued above almost everything else. Photo / Thinkstock

"Happiness is a place" is the catch-cry of the Tourism Council of Bhutan.

I've arrived in this Tasmania-size country curious to find out if Bhutan is indeed the happiest nation on earth.

This unique Himalayan kingdom, sandwiched between China and India, is home to mountains, tigers, rice fields, Buddhism and Gross National Happiness (GNH).

In 1972, when the fourth king, 17-year-old Jigme Singye Wangchuck, was crowned; he declared that GNH was more important than Gross Domestic Product.

Since then, caring for the environment, equitable socio-economic development and preserving Bhutanese culture have been the government's top priorities.

But during my week in Bhutan, the local newspapers I read contain numerous articles and letters lamenting the impact of technology on GNH.

In the Bhutan Times a businessman writes that he is concerned about the behaviour of young people in Thimpu, the capital.

"The youths of today are spoiling the peaceful environment of our nation," he writes.

"The increase of assault, harassment, family disturbances, is alarming.

"TV is much to blame for the increase in crime we are seeing in our society."

Bhutan was the last country to turn on television in 1999, suddenly allowing residents to view 46 cable channels.

Several years after TV was switched on, viewers complained that it was eroding their culture. The government in response banned channels that it felt did not contribute to GNH.

On a mountain on the outskirts of Paro in western Bhutan I meet the Head Lama of Chumpu monastery.

Lama Rinchen says he worries about the impact of TV on the monks.

"There was no TV when I was growing up," he says.

"TV is consuming the time and changing the traditions of the people," he says.

"A monk from Paro Zhong (monastery) watched TV and saw a Bhutanese girl dancing and he rang her and fell in love," he says shaking his head.

But Lama Rinchen says he enjoys his new mobile phone. Mobile phones became available in Bhutan in 2003.

"There's a lot of disadvantage and advantage with phones.

"If I get sick I can just call a doctor.

"But the phones are also consuming people's time when before they would walk to visit each other."

On the other side of Paro township at Drukgyal Lower Secondary School I meet Kunzang Drukpa, the principal.

He says achieving happiness is not easy, even when you live in the land of GNH.

"One has to be happy with what you have and what you are," he says.

"Buddhist people are becoming more materialistic and competitive.

"Happiness is getting farther away for us."

But outside Thimpu, the capital, and the township of Paro, life in rural Bhutan, home to most of the population, seems largely untouched by technology.

However, whenever there is a TV available for viewing it has a large group of people completely entranced.

Bhutan Talent Hunt is currently showing and it has captured the attention of much of the nation's 700,000 residents, who will walk long distances to get a glimpse of a TV.

But it seems that since the introduction of TV the Bhutanese have been searching for ways to turn technology to their own advantage and use it to make people happier.

"The primary objective of the show is to bring smiles on the faces of the viewers," the shows creator Mila Tobgay says in an interview with The Bhutanese.

IF YOU GO

Getting there: The writer travelled with British Airways to Bangkok Thailand, and then with Druk Air (the only airline flying to Bhutan) to Paro, Bhutan (three hours). Visas are required and must be obtained by a licensed tour operator. Uma Paro hotel can arrange everything from flights to visa applications.

Staying there: COMO Hotels & Resorts operates Uma Paro, near the town of Paro in western Bhutan. The hotel has a range of accommodation styles, from standard rooms to two-bedroom villas. All villas come with a personal butler service (butlers do everything from babysitting to unpacking your bag and generally acting as your personal assistant).

The writer travelled courtesy of British Airways and Uma Paro.

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