Is this the happiest nation on earth?

In Bhutan tourists must contribute at least $250 a day. Anna Leach joins them to delve into the Himalayan country’s Gross National Happiness index. Is it just a gimmick or are the Bhutanese happier than other nationalities?

Bhutan: Home to the happiest people on earth – officially.

Bhutan is famous for its Gross National Happiness index. The fourth king of the tiny Himalayan nation that’s wedged between China and India decided in 1972 that the happiness of his subjects was more important than their wealth.

And it’s not just a gimmick, today Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Centre (GNHC) seven staff are dedicated to the advancement of the concept and teach the Bhutanese and people from other countries all about it.

On a recent visit, I asked Sonam Pelden at the Tourism Council of Bhutan if she thinks Bhutanese people are really happier than those in other nations. ‘It’s hard to say,’ she said honestly. ‘You might ask someone one day if they are happy and they’ll say yes, but you ask them the next day and they won’t feel so good.’

It’s true that happiness is difficult to measure, and very subjective, which is why GNHC has been working on an index to quantify it, but according to my observations, the wrinkles give it all away. In all my travels around Asia I haven’t seen such deeply ingrained smile-lines on the faces of the older men and women as in Bhutan. And these wrinkles are around the eyes, where the expressions of genuine happiness are formed.

I think as a tourist you receive more sincere smiles in Bhutan than in other places as well. The strict rules around tourism – visitors must spend $250 (€190) a day per person and be part of an organized tour – are criticized for elitism. But the happiness of the Bhutanese people is related to these unique rules which preserve the environment and local culture – two of the pillars of Gross National Happiness (GNH). The four pillars of Bhutan’s GNH are: sustainable and equitable socio-economic development, environmental conservation, preservation and promotion of culture, and good governance.

Are LGBT people happy in Bhutan though? There are no gay bars or openly gay celebrities. A Google search fails to divulge much evidence of an LGBT culture apart from one article says that ‘male intimacy’ is rife in monasteries. Our guide tells us that a transgender woman petitioned the education ministry (where she worked) to let her be wear a kira – the traditional dress for women – and was allowed. But when we approached her for this article, she didn’t want to speak publicly to international media.

Bhutanese people are generally tolerant, thanks to the strong Buddhist ethos. But sodomy is listed as illegal in the criminal code, probably taken from a similar law in India’s penal code (which was repealed by the high court in 2009). Purple Dragon, who organize tours to Bhutan for gay people say ‘there are many great reasons to visit Bhutan, but gay life is not one of them’.

Those many great reasons, I believe, make the $250 a day costs worthwhile. I can’t think of anywhere else on earth, bar the arctic and antarctic, that is so unspoiled and will remain untouched by Starbucks and McDonald’s – global franchises are not permitted to set-up in Bhutan.

The highlight of our trip to capital Thimphu and nearby towns Punakha and Paro was the latter’s the hike to the Tiger’s Nest monastery. The monastery, built into an almost vertical rock face, is stunning. The site is said to be where Guru Padmasambhava, who brought Buddhism to Bhutan, meditated for three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours in a cave in the 700s, after riding there from Tibet on the back of a tiger.

The temple itself was built in 1692 and it is still a monastery. Even the least spiritual may feel the hairs on the back of their neck stand-on-end when being blessed by the monks in this revered place. It is reached via a two-hour hike up the mountain at an altitude of 3,000 feet which can leave you short of breath (or perhaps I’m just unfit). As you get closer to the monastery you walk under webs of colorful prayer flags that have been strung up across vertigo-inducing drops.

Another attraction in Paro is The National of Museum of Bhutan which houses both a room of grotesque masks used for festival dances and a room of cabinets revealing the fascinating flora and fauna of the country, which remain comfortingly unthreatened by human development (the constitution guarantees 60% of the land remains forested).

The capital city of Thimphu would be considered a town in other parts of the world – you can see green hills in all four directions when you stand at the center. Architecture is in the traditional Bhutanese style of sturdy square with ornately painted wooden eaves and pillars and narrow arched windows. The design of new buildings has to be approved by the government and any plans that aren’t sufficiently Bhutanese are ruled out.

The only buildings that are familiar sights anywhere else in the world are the car showrooms. Most cars are new four-wheel drives that are status symbols for wealthy families in the west, but the hilly terrain and muddy tracks mean the people of Bhutan have a greater need for them parents on the school run in West Hollywood.

Thimphu’s roads are far from congested but the government recently banned bank loans for cars because they were concerned traffic was building. On Sunday each month there is no car day, when private car driving is banned in Bhutan’s towns.

The recently opened Textile Museum of Bhutan is worth a visit in Thimphu where you can see intricate hand-sewn materials and kira and goh (the national dress for women and men), including those worn by the much-loved royal family. The museum was opened by the Queen Mother Sangay Choden Wangchuck, one of the four sisters who married the fourth king.

The best place to eat in Thimphu is the Folk Heritage Restaurant where you can get traditional Bhutanese food made with all organic ingredients. The national dish of ema datshi – mouth-burning chilies in a cheese sauce – is an acquired taste. But we loved the dishes made from ferns, asparagus, spinach, chili beef, chicken and spring onion and the red rice.

If you’re still not convinced all that is worth $250 a day, be assured that you also get great hotels for your money. At Zhiwa Ling (meaning paradise) in Paro is a handful of traditional Bhutanese style buildings with views of green forested hills in all directions. It has a meditation/yoga room and a teahouse where guests can chose from a menu of teas from the region, including Bhutan’s speciality, butter tea and browse a library of vacation reads and attractive coffee table books. Terma Linca situated along the Wang Chuu river just outside Thimphu has a more modern look with minimalist rooms with a hint of 70s retro.

Also on our itinerary was the town of Punakha, a two-hour drive south of Thimphu. Here you visit the Temple of the Divine Madman where you can be blessed with a wooden phallus. The Divine Madman, or Drukpa Kunley, who lived from 1455 to 1529 and believed the best way to teach the unenlightened how to be more spiritual was to have sex with as many women as possible.

Bhutan may not have much of a gay pick-up scene but thanks to the Divine Madman you are guaranteed to see plenty of enormous penises during your trip – they are painted on the side of buildings to ward off bad spirits. No wonder the monks struggle with celibacy – it must be hard to keep your mind of sex when there are giant phalluses everywhere you look.

See comments after report for other views.

by Anna Leach
Source – Gay Star News