I have wanted to go to Bhutan for the last 20 years. And when I told friends that I was heading there this May, I was surprised that for most, the first question was: “Where is Bhutan anyway?”, followed closely by the second question: “ …And why is it that you want to go there? “
I would explain that there is a tiny country, nestled between the giants of India and China that is laden with endless mountain ranges, all of which seem to be peppered with ornate, carved-onto-the-stone, Buddhist monasteries where you worship just above the clouds. It’s a country of just 700,000 people who have determined as a nation that they want to go slower, live more communally and worry less about “developing” at the lightning speed of the rest of us.
They want to enjoy the every day a little more rather than work every day a little more for perceived enjoyment delayed to a later date.
And they have taken pretty drastic measures to protect this place from the frenetic global direction. For example, Bhutan has limited tourists by placing an extremely high daily visa fee of $200 on visitors and a cap on total annual visitors in order to protect itself from a flood of tourists that invariably change the economy, culture and pace of the land. The money from the visas is used to build roads and covers the national health care system. And the people deliberately vote to slow down every chance they get. For example, this is a nation that got their first traffic light a few years ago in the capital – the only one in the entire country – and decided swiftly to remove it right away and revert to the traffic guard that would direct people at their busiest intersection because it just didn’t fit.
It felt a little bit like the land before time to me.
And for someone who feels so alive in New York’s chaos and who loves Mumbai’s masala mix of people that bump and bustle around the place, I was surprised by how quickly I took to the place. It was the absolute calm, the lack of development cranes blocking the vistas that opened up instead scenic view after scenic view as you traveled on the singular road around the country. It was the long mountain hikes that allowed me to hear my inner voice in a way that can feel drowned out in Toronto’s everyday commute.
And it was the people.
I know it’s always the people, but in this place where there are few tourists and a real appreciation for a simpler, deeper life – people are willing to spend a great deal of time talking with you, sharing their lives and learning about what moves you. I found it refreshing to walk into stores or down the street and not have people prodding and poking me into buying trinkets and postcards. I loved breaking bread for hours with folks that asked about how an Indian-Tanzanian woman experienced growing up in Canada. I loved their sense of community and authentic welcome that was about getting to know me and not acquiring tourist bucks.
It is no wonder that Bhutan has chosen to measure an indicator the nation feels is much more important that the “Gross National Product”. They measure “Gross National Happiness (GNH)” instead as an indicator of how people feel in their home and native land. The government asserts that: “GNH is a much richer objective than GDP or economic growth. In GNH, material well-being is important but it is also important to enjoy sufficient well-being in things like community, culture, governance, knowledge and wisdom, health, spirituality and psychological welfare, a balanced use of time, and harmony with the environment”. And so they measure all of these factors by asking people how they would rate themselves.
The results of each index are then categorized under the following four metrics: ‘Unhappy’, ‘Narrowly Happy’, ‘Extensively Happy’ and ‘Deeply Happy’. In 2015, 91% of Bhutanese were some category of happy and 43.4% were ‘Deeply Happy’. The goal is for all Bhutanese people to feel ‘Deeply Happy’.
And I for one would score just that: Deeply Happy.
The trip was a once in a lifetime experience.
Bhutan is one of those magical kingdoms (literally, it has a King that is so loved by the people, you would think he was a rock star) that reminded me to slow down, to breathe and to take your time to get to know others, such that you truly get to know yourself.
 Centre for Bhutan Studies and GNH Research, Nov 2015 – Available at: http://www.grossnationalhappiness.com/SurveyFindings/Summaryof2015GNHIndex.pdf at p. 2.
 Ibid at p. 4