Bhutan is a country that has been insulated from the outside world and corporate control. This country didn’t get TV or the internet until 1999 and there are no Starbucks or McDonald's. Tourism, which began only in 1990, is carefully controlled.
by Barb Brouwer
Imagine living in a world where decisions are based on environmental impact, good government, culture and socio-economic factors. A place where government dictates that at least 65 per cent of the country must be forested and where forest watchdogs make surethere is no illegal harvesting. A place where the 750 black-neck cranes remaining in the world are given priority in their wintering ground – a valley where solar panels and wood stoves provide heat and light because nobody knows how electricity would affect the birds.
Enter the world of Bhutan, where the country’s Index of Happiness governs citizens who are gentle, friendly, compassionate and 90 per cent Buddhist, says Salmon Arm resident Joyce Henderson, who visited the country with husband John in November.
Henderson says she has long wanted to visit Bhutan because it’s a country that has been insulated from the outside world and corporate control. This country didn’t get TV or the internet until 1999. There are no Starbucks or McDonald's either, and tourism, which began only in 1990, is carefully controlled. Visitors, who must spend a minimum $240 per day while in Bhutan, are brought in on one of twice-daily flights.
Visitors receive a white scarf, then a piece of coloured twine. Blessed by a lama, the twine is worn around the wrist to provide protection from evil spirits.
Tourists are introduced to Bhutan’s traditional architecture right at the airport and, Henderson says, anyone who wishes to build in the country must do so according to the finely crafted, intricate tradition.
Describing Bhutan as a country like no other she has seen, Henderson says the importance of religious beliefs is in evidence everywhere. “At every mountain pass and every river crossing, there were all these prayer flags,” she says, noting tourists hang a prayer flag inscribed with a Buddhist prayer and their names. “It is a prayer for the well-being of all sentient beings and the wind carries the prayers off down the river across the land.”
In the squares in each town there are prayer wheels around which everyone walks in a clockwise fashion, saying their prayers.
Eighty per cent of Bhutan’s citizens are subsistence farmers, avoiding an influx of impoverished people into the cities. People are self-sufficient, growing fruits and vegetables on their terraced plots – nearly all by hand. Wild bees provide sweetener, leaving salt as the only necessary purchase.
“We didn’t see any kids that were malnourished, they’re so healthy looking,” says Henderson. “All the kids assemble in the courtyard at school and sing to the lama or god of wisdom and then sing the national anthem.”
Bhutan’s rich culture is further preserved by the wearing of the national dress, something that is mandatory in all government offices.
The week before the couple arrived in Bhutan, a new king was crowned, an unusual event in that it was reported throughout the world. Also unusual to the North American mind, is the king's appearance in a huge stadium in the capital city of Thimphu. A massive crowd had gathered and the king shook hands with everyone and gave them a commemorative coin, Henderson says. "He was so affable, there was no security, he kissed all the old ladies and touched all the babies."
While they celebrate and honour their own culture, the Bhutanese are very aware of their neighbours. “It is important Bhutan keeps its identity and gets along with China, Tibet and India,” says Henderson, noting the country is very vulnerable to its neighbours, a situation well-described by a Bhutanese tour guide. “If India coughs or China farts, they suffer the effects, so keeping culture alive is very important for them.”
Pulling a label out of her photo album, Henderson describes it as another example of how intrinsic spirituality is to the culture. The label from a bottle of water manufactured by Himalayan Dew Co. advises consumers to “treat the product with respect because of its higher spiritual significance, being brought to Bhutan in the 8th century by Guru Rinpoche.”
Henderson notes the values between Bhutan and Canada are at different ends of the spectrum. “If you make a decision based on the environment, culture and the happiness of the people, you’d come up with different decisions than if you’re saying you’re gonna make money.”
Barb Brouwer is a journalist with the Salmon Arm Observer. The stories that most appeal to her are the ones that celebrate the human spirit or where she is able to provide a voice to people who are being treated unfairly.