Bhutan is one of the most beautiful and unique countries on our planet and it was a combination of unforeseen and fortuitous circumstances that led to my first visit. The term “Shangri-La” has been overused and applied to many real and mythical places but I had never seen such a concrete example of that ideal concept. The size of Switzerland and with a population of only 700,000 people, it sits below the huge mountains of the Great Himalayan Range, nestled between Tibet and India. Almost 73% of the land is still covered by dense and diverse forests and it would be hard to find any other country that has so successfully managed to preserve and protect its rare ecology. The land falls down from the 7000 metre peaks on its northern borders in a patchwork of mountain ranges and valleys that were cut over the centuries by a rush of streams and rivers, until it settles into the Indian plains in the southern part of the country.
The overwhelming majority of Bhutan follows Tibetan Buddhism that was first introduced by the 8th century Tantric Master, Guru Padmasambhava or Guru Rinpoche. He was the first of many Mystics to visit Bhutan and the country has its own lineage of spiritual teachers, many of whom first came to the country from Tibet and travelled the land to spread the teachings of the Buddha. The living legacy they left behind can be seen in the many gompas or monasteries that cling precariously to hillsides and cliffs in defiance of normal gravity. I have never seen such vibrant and well-kept gompas in any of my own Himalayan journeys, each one with its own community of monks and unique collections of religious statues, Thangka paintings and art. The smiling faces in any Buddhist land always seem to me to have a special warmth and humanity and the people of Bhutan greet you with a natural friendliness that immediately makes you feel welcome. But perhaps Bhutan’s greatest gift to our modern world came back in the early days of 1972 when the fourth King of Bhutan introduced the unique concept of GNH or Gross National Happiness instead of only focussing on Gross Domestic Product as an indicator of national wealth. In the face of growing materialism in the wider world, the King redefined the way a country’s success should be measured by initiating explicit development goals aimed at creating a balance between economic progress and self-reliance and the greater psychological and spiritual good of society. Following Bhutan’s example, more and more western countries have now started to measure their own people’s happiness not simply by material success but also by a much more sophisticated and intelligent enquiry into the psychological well-being of their populations.
Bhutan only cautiously opened its doors to foreign visitors in 1974 and made a decision to follow a policy of “high value, low volume” tourism to limit the number of visitors and protect itself from the negative effects of tourism. Each foreign visitor is required to spend a minimum of US$250 per day and the government uses US$95 of this daily minimum payment to fund free education and health services for all its citizens and to upgrade the country’s infrastructure. In 2008 the fourth King also made history by introducing democracy and a parliament to Bhutan. He voluntarily gave up the absolute power he and his ancestors had held for the previous 100 years and converted the rule of the monarchy into merely a constitutional and ceremonial role: a transformation that usually needs a bloody revolution and the power of the gun.
To visit Bhutan is to straddle an experience of a rich and unique past and a viable and working present that may increasingly serve as an example to the world of how we might live harmoniously with our neighbours and with our ecology in the future. It offers a vision of a gentler and more balanced life whose time has come.