Trouble in paradise?

Rebecca Newman explores a rapidly changing Bhutan.

‘I’m a street punk… people who see me run out of fear… I’m gonna be a gangster…’. At the end of four exquisite days trekking in the Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan, I’m sitting on the top of a ridge at 3,800m. Beneath us is the Jela Dzong, a 16th-century fortress. The Himalayas rise to the north of us, and to the east the Paro valley. The only sound is the flapping of the prayer flags hung at the top of the peak — and my guide Tshewang’s mobile phone, which is playing Bhutanese rap.

Bhutan is a Himalayan kingdom, roughly the size of Switzerland, which was isolated until the late 20th century. Until 1974 there were no tourists. Television and the internet were legalised in 1999, heralding a mini-crime wave. Mobile phones have been available for about a year, and are widely held to be agents of infidelity. The first democratic parliamentary elections were held in March 2008. No other country has attempted to leap from medieval to modern so quickly. Despite his love of Shakira, Eminem, and abusive MTV show Yo Mama, Tshewang sees the changes in the way his peers behave and is frightened. ‘I want to set up a movement to support the traditional ways. The youth are now smoking marijuana, sometimes heroin. Our culture is founded on respect, and that is vanishing. I fear where we will be in 20 years. There is a great difference between modernisation and Westernisation.’

The primary agent of change in Bhutan was the forward-looking fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuk. Famously, he incorporated Gross National Happiness into the constitution in 1972, putting values such as psychological wellbeing on a par with GDP. For all it sounds a great solution to the world’s boom-bust malaise, it is worth considering GNH a little further. A University of Leicester study ranked Bhutan 8th out of 178 countries in subjective wellbeing, despite being one of the poorest on the list. Certainly, I am overwhelmed by the smiling, open attitude of the people I meet. However, a recent survey conducted in Thimpu discovered that 5 per cent of respondents had considered suicide and 1.4 per cent had attempted it. A Bhutanese newspaper claimed: ‘In some villages, committing suicide has almost become a norm.’

Before I flew out, I had lunch with philosopher A.C. Grayling. He had recently been invited to Bhutan to speak about civil liberties in emerging democracies. Of GNH, he told me: ‘The irony is that the surest way to create unhappiness is to pursue happiness. It is an epiphenomenon of other things — a flourishing, liberated life. You can’t chase it.’

One consequence of this drive to cohesion and happiness was the expulsion of some hundred thousand Bhutanese of Nepali origins. Their crime? They refused to convert to Buddhism, or wear the national dress. Since the early 1990s they’ve been living in refugee camps on the edge of Nepal. In October the UN World Food Programme announced that it was being forced to reduce food rations in the camps due to funding shortages.

Bhutan may itself soon be short of cash. While much noise is made about its hydro-electricity projects, a decent slug of revenue is from development aid, and an increasingly relevant one from tourism. Should aid donations falter as belts are universally tightened, the new Prime Minister will have to renege on many of his promises — bad news for the modernisation project, as his ambitious five-year plans to reduce poverty, achieve 80 per cent literacy, provide safe drinking water, etc are key to its popular support.

Tourism could become the country’s breadbasket but, while my trek was mesmerically beautiful, other travellers I meet complain of litter, or tour operators who couldn’t find their camp as night fell on the mountains where the cold is fatal. One man told me his pack horse slid off their path, with his luggage, to its death in a ravine. If you are paying the US$200 daily tourist tax, plus the cost of the guide, Bhutan needs to remain a Shangri-La, worth the extra expense of a visit to Sikkim or Nepal. It can’t afford to put a foot wrong. 

Rebecca Newman was a guest of the Ultimate Travel Company.

Original article published in The Spectator, in April, 2010

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