A happy island of remote isolation where old ways thrive

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 June, 2012, 12:00am

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Money, an old saying goes, can't buy happiness. But that doesn't stop many people from looking for happiness by buying lavish apartments, brand-name fashion items and fancy cars.

Not in Bhutan, though. Bhutan is one of the world's smallest and least-developed nations. Yet it's also one of the happiest.

The Himalayan country is situated between China and India. It's famed for its grand ambition to make the happiness of its 700,000 people a government priority.

While most governments are concerned with their country's gross domestic product indicators, Bhutan's government operates by a gross national happiness index. The term was coined in 1972 by Bhutan's fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who opened the remote and isolated country up to modernisation, while guarding its ancient traditions.

Francoise Pommaret, a leading expert on Bhutan who was in Hong Kong last week, likes that idea. She says development just for the sake of it is a misguided goal. 'If people are better-off, but income disparity is growing, then a society is not healthy,' she says.

Pommaret notes that Bhutan's formula for happiness consists of good governance, sustainable development, cultural preservation, and environmental conservation.

In the case of each choice it makes, the government makes sure it is in harmony with old traditions, culture and values, she says.

In 2008, the fifth king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, ushered in parliamentary elections.

King Wangchuck has changed the country from an absolute monarchy into a constitutional monarchy with democracy. In the first parliamentary election, citizens elected their prime minister and began to have a say in policies. Nearly 80 per cent of voters turned up. 'People were generally grateful, especially [considering] the lack of freedoms in China,' Pommaret says.

'It is unusual that democracy could be achieved without bloodshed, without fighting. Locals see it as a chance to speak up and be heard.'

Almost completely cut off from the outside world for centuries, Bhutan has kept its culture and social fabric nearly intact. The majority Drukpa people are Buddhists. This ethnic group has a common culture with the Tibetans and other Himalayan peoples.

There is little advertising in Bhutan. Billboards for Coke and Pepsi are banned. Tourism increased 30-fold in four decades, but is restricted. Visitors must travel as part of a pre-arranged package or guided tour.

Pommaret notes, however, that contemporary Asian culture has been seeping into Bhutan. Youngsters are influenced by Korean pop culture and Thai fashion trends.

'They wear traditional clothes to work, attend ceremonies or visit temples,' Pommaret says. 'But at home and parties, they dress just like teens in Hong Kong.'

The Bhutanese take pride in their land and share a powerful connection with the environment. One third of the country is protected by law or is set aside as biological corridors to safeguard the land's diverse and rich ecosystem.

Most forests are protected.

Bhutan offers many lessons to the world, yet it has plenty to learn from others as well, Pommaret says.

The country has banned plastic bags for the past seven years, but it has just begun to separate and recycle waste.

'Bhutan could learn from countries like Singapore and Norway on how to handle waste better,' Pommaret says.