Number 43 on the list of “55 Things To Do in Bhutan” I was given on arrival at the hotel in Thimphu, the capital, is “See a pine tree”. No 38 is “Manual posting of letter and postcard”.
OK, so No 10 is “Hiking & trekking” and no 18 is “Understand Buddhism”, but you get the idea. The bracing mountain air, traditionally decorated houses and tranquillity of this Himalayan kingdom are reminiscent of rural Switzerland, a country of which it was once witheringly (and incorrectly) said that 500 years of democracy and peace had produced only the cuckoo clock.
But let us not forget happiness. The best-known export of this nation of 700,000 tucked between India and China is not yak cheese (No 45 – “Taste local cheese/butter”) or Buddhist trinkets (No 35 – “Buy a souvenir”) but the concept of gross national happiness (No 26 – “Understand GNH”).
It all started in the 1970s, when the former king Jigme Singye Wangchuck, asked by an Indian journalist about Bhutan’s feeble economy, responded that it might be better to measure happiness as well as output growth.
This idea – like the wheel, obvious once you have thought of it – implies concern for spiritual and cultural wellbeing and environmental sustainability as well as for gross national product. It has been admired and studied abroad, including at the London School of Economics, and has spawned an academic industry at home: the Centre for Bhutan Studies developed a GNH index with nine domains, 33 indicators and 124 variables.
The dogged pursuit of happiness, however, has not stopped Bhutan from frantic urbanisation or from harnessing its rivers to produce an eventual 10,000 megawatts of hydroelectricity for export to India.
Thimphu is pockmarked with unfinished buildings left stranded by a government austerity drive that curbed imports of construction materials and cars after a national consumption splurge prompted a financial crisis.
Some young men have adopted the spiky hairstyles of Korean pop stars, while the Queen Mother is planning a charity concert next year with KD Lang and Bryan Adams. Parents complain that their children – and even Buddhist monks – are tempted by imported snacks in shiny packets. Drink is a problem, and Tuesday is officially a dry day.
In the newly electrified villages of the countryside – once days away from the capital by winding tracks and now connected by roads serving the hydroelectric projects – farmers amuse themselves by watching Hindi or Korean soap operas on satellite television.
The local shops and bars of Balaygang, a village in southern Bhutan, are decorated with paintings of tigers and Buddhist saints, as are the turbine halls of the nearby hydroelectric plants. But the lives of residents such as shopkeeper Sangay Dema are otherwise typical of any country in the throes of modernisation.
She is 51 years old, uneducated and missing two front teeth, but her grocery shop has benefited from the traffic generated by a nearby hydroelectric project and all her four children are in Thimphu, where one is a nurse, another a monk and the youngest two are studying. Does she know about GNH? What would make her happy? “I can’t say,” she laughs. “If I had a bigger house and a lot of things, of course I’d be happy.”
For all the talk of GNH, the truth is that Bhutan, having moved from isolation to openness over the past decade, finds its economy growing as rapidly and chaotically as other former cultural islands (and tourist paradises) such as Laos and Myanmar.
Happiness has not been forgotten, but GNH no longer dominates policy making. The new government of Tshering Tobgay won power in Bhutan’s second general election this year partly because Jigme Thinley, his predecessor, was accused of swanning around promoting GNH overseas instead of worrying about prosperity at home.
Bhutan’s natural beauty, its clean air, and respect for culture, tradition and the environment will continue to charm foreign tourists who come to trek in the unspoilt Himalayas.
But it was a sign of the times that my ostensible reason as a Financial Times correspondent for landing in Thimphu will no doubt one day be the 56th item on the list of tourist attractions: “Visit a hydroelectric power station/learn about turbines”. It is almost as good as seeing a pine tree.