Wednesday, April 18, 2012

རྒྱལ་ཡོངས་དགའ་སྐྱིད་དཔལ་འཛོམས་ Gross National Happiness

          After our dramatic escape from the Himalayas’ icy clutches, we have enjoyed 2 full days in Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu. Some of the highlights have been hiking to monasteries, visiting craft shops, playing a game of soccer with Buddhist monks, and crashing the Prime Minister's party......but more on that later.

          Bhutan prides itself with the unique measurement of Gross National Happiness (GNH), and truly, we can find no shortage of happiness here. Everywhere we have been so far, we have been greeted with nothing but smiles and kind words from the locals. No matter how poor they might be, or whatever the job they hold, the people are just genuinely happy and welcoming. Examples abound – I’ve already detailed the farmer who welcomed us into her home to warm ourselves by the fire – and earlier today, we visited a monastery and school where young monks live and train from age 6 all the way to their late teens to become proficient monks. Now you might expect that everything there would be very rigid and dogmatic, but this is Bhutan. After their (very serious) morning studies of Buddhist scripts, the more athletically inclined monks regularly enjoy a game of soccer at lunch. Now we learned in Laos a few months ago that women and girls must not have any physical contact with monks (lest they impurify them with girl-cooties or something…), but this rule apparently doesn’t apply here in Bhutan if it’s soccer and you’ve got after the monks watched Emily kick a ball around, we were both invited (challenged) to put together a team and play against the local “A team”.

          We chose our guide and four or five monks to round out our team and played an intense 30-minute game of soccer. Emily more than held her own, scoring three goals from the right wing and probably teaching the monks a few important lessons about girls as well. Overall, the game finished about tied with each team scoring about 8 or 9 goals. I would have thought that wearing a full set of robes, and sandals would have slowed them down a bit, but these guys have been playing like this for most of their lives. I hate to admit it, but with all the red robes and shaved heads, it was hard at first to remember which monks were on our team, but after a few minutes we could identify them by adornments (beaded necklace; double wrap-around belt; blue sandals, etc…) and all was well again. Only the older monks got to play in the match, the younger ones had to watch from the sideline, but we were told that sometimes they would steal the ball and run off with it to annoy the older guys – which was hilarious to me and Emily as it reminded us of things our younger sister would do to interrupt a game she didn’t like us playing.

          Before the game, we visited a classroom, where the first year students were supposed to be memorizing texts, but their teacher was in town for the day so after we showed up, the little monks had more fun talking and goofing around. Their ages ranged from about 9 down to a tiny 6-year-old. I also would have thought that they would be very peaceful and calm, but when they started asking questions, one of the first was if we watched WWE (World Wrestling league – the one where the wrestlers supposedly break chairs over their opponents heads, etc.). After that they all started telling us their favorite wrestlers and their favorite finishing moves, like the pile driver. When I think of Buddhist monks, I don’t expect them to start talking about pile drivers. My dad made the whole class scared (and then laugh hysterically) when he told them he knew the move and pretended to pick one of them up and “pile drive” them.

            Another memorable activity we did during our time in Thimphu was to sneak in to an event being attended by the prime minister of Bhutan and a number of other important ministers. Just 4 years ago, in 2008, the Kingdom of Bhutan transitioned from being an absolute monarchy, ruled only by the king, to a constitutional monarchy - so this first-to-be-elected prime minister, Lyonchoen Jigme Y. Thinly, is a very important man. In most countries, we probably would have been arrested or shot at for the way we got in to the party - but, again, not in Bhutan, where there was no suspicion for our intensions, and our entry into the party was treated by the police more as a puzzle to be solved and less a crime to be stopped. The event was a ceremony dedicating a statue of the Buddha, which was a gift from a group of Thai Buddhists. We first walked to the main (and only) entrance, and our guide asked the police if we could go in, he was told that we couldn't go that way because we were not official guests, but the policeman left our guide with the impression that perhaps there was an “unofficial entrance” for unofficial guests, if only we were to look for one.... So, we passed through some barriers and started walking around to another side,  climbed a small hill, and walked through the park where the event was being held. There were a number of armed police patrolling the obviously closed park, but each one we passed didn't stop us – instead, they would each suggest the best direction by motioning with their head. We eventually ended up “backstage” with a group of performers who were about to dance at the event and we went around barricades at their entrance, through the back of a tent, and were finally in the event area. In most events like this, attendees would have been shocked that people came in uninvited, and would have made us leave. But here no one said anything about that, and instead told us the best spots to film the dancing and other performances. Eventually, we relaxed about breaking-in to the event and by it’s end, we were up on stage dancing with the prime minister and all the other distinguished guests. We were courteous enough to make our departure just as Bhutanese officials started presenting all the guests with elaborate gifts of appreciation (for the 40-foot tall statue of the Buddha being dedicated). When I came to Bhutan, I was hoping to meet the King, but the Prime Minister will have to do!

the Prime Minister of Bhutan (back left)

            A final thought for this blog entry is that even though Bhutan would be classified as a very poor country, it nonetheless is very dedicated to its people and the land. Nearly everywhere we’ve been here, there have been trashcans and signs saying to save the environment and to recycle. There are forestry laws that are actively enforced, and because of this they have 70% of their land covered with forest (in stark contrast to the similarly located country of Nepal, which used to be heavily forested, but where now, according to the World Wildlife Fund, only 29% of the forest-cover remains). They have a free education system that is effective and is available to all. They have plans to connect every house in Bhutan to the power grid, and to generate all their electricity by hydropower in the next five years. Their King is also very dedicated to the people, and regularly heads out to even remote villages to talk to the locals and fix their problems. When the massively destructive earthquake hit the country last year, the government stepped in and is paying everyone who had damage to help cover the cost of reconstruction.

Emily looks over Thimphu valley (and Thimphu Dzong) during one of our day-hikes in the hills

          In short, Bhutan may be just a small, peaceful little kingdom in the mountains, but it’s got more happiness then just about anywhere else on our planet.  


  1. Andrew, love this piece. I watched a program on PBS called Journey to Planet Earth, featuring Lester Brown and his Plan B -- mobilizing to save civilization. The Bhutan way is The Way. This information is so vital! Thank you for your post! And if you can try and see that program -- they also mention the project your dad is so involved in -- micro-loans. So interesting!
    love you honey -- you are doing such a wonderful job! mm

  2. It must be pretty awesome to be in a country with so much happiness.
    I am an SBMS social studies class student.

  3. I think its really cool how you adapt and do what you love to do where ever you go

  4. Wow looks like a very happy happy place to be i hope to go there someday.