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Thimphu, Bhutan

The two best words I can use to describe Bhutan would be "rarefied" and "idyllic". I was drawn to Bhutan largely because of their unique metric for economic activity (called Gross National Happiness), their status as the world's newest democracy (first ever national election held in 2008), and its reputation as the last surviving Buddhist kingdom set amidst inspiring natural scenery. My expectations were shattered in many ways, and I'll now attempt to relate my observations of these three themes.


I was initially attracted to traveling to Bhutan to learn more about their alternative method of measuring "progress" in the country. They do not adhere to the traditional economic metric of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), but have instead developed their own system, called Gross National Happiness (GNH). Having studied economics and ultimately arriving at a state of disenchantment with the neoclassical mantra of "growth" and "maximizing utility", I've been curious for a number of years to see how GNH differs from traditional methods of measuring economic activity.

My wonderful hosts, brothers and business partners Lotay and Fin Rinchen, arranged a meeting with a senior researcher in the Department of GNH. We shared a fascinating time together in his office that included a long discussion of Mahayana Buddhism as well as conversation of different economic theories espoused by authors we were both familiar with. I very much enjoyed the banter, but came away with little additional understanding of the metrics of GNH.

From what I could gather from multiple sources during my stay, Bhutan is still very much in the process of defining, quantifying, and legitimizing GNH. However, they have held conferences in Canada, Thailand, and one other country I can't remember to gain input and insight from the international community. GNH seeks to go beyond traditional economic indicators to include other factors of wellbeing and progess, including: vitality of a sense of community and connectedness, preservation of traditional culture and folklore, conservation and responsible stewardship of natural resources, individual psychological health (happiness), etc. The term, "Gross National Happiness" was first used by the Fourth King of Bhutan in the 1970's, and it seems the government has been trying to qualify and quantify it's meaning ever since.

As you can imagine, many of these indicators are difficult to measure in a reliable and quantifiable fashion, which results in much of the criticism bestowed upon the approach of GNH. Regardless, I think it is a noble effort at pursuing an alternative path of economic, social, and environmental vitality in a country that has such unique cultural and natural capital.


Up until a couple of decades ago, Bhutan was an isolated land of subsistent farmers who had little education, very limited access to health care, and virtually no contact with the outside world. While the life expectancy has gone from about 40 to 66 in the past thirty years and a good portion of the younger generation is now receiving a western education, much of Bhutan is still living in the past (70% of the villages in the country are still not accessible by road). To some extent, this is by choice. The leadership of Bhutan is currently walking the tricky line between integrating its citizens into the global marketplace and attempting to preserve the traditional culture and spiritual way of life. As I've witnessed the rest of the developing world diving head first into the ocean of consumerism, I expected to be refreshed by a country that seems to be charting a different course. In some ways, I appreciate the ways that the government of Bhutan is choosing to remain somewhat guarded from the way of the rest of the world, but I was also struck by the unintended consequences of withholding certain freedoms and choices from its people. Bhutan was the last country in the world to allow internet and television to its citizens in 1999. Certain channels and content are still prohibited or filtered. I began to realize the potential dangers of a government that decides it can make better decisions for it's citizens than they can make for themselves. This theme was also consistent with my inability to be an "independent" traveler in Bhutan, as only certain restaurants and hotels are sanctioned to cater to foreign visitors. This serves as a reminder that Bhutan is in its infancy of democracy, and I will watch with fascination in the next several decades at what happens to this small country with the expansion of freedoms and rights.

The brand new constitution includes unique provisions for our modern era, including one clause which effectively makes deforestation illegal by stating that at least 60% of all the land must remain under forest cover at all times. Judging by my flight into the country and the roads we traveled along, this clause is in no danger of being violated any time soon. That said, the founding fathers of the USA thought it would take 1,000 years for Americans to populate the entire country, and it took less than 100 years for every square inch of our vast land to be possessed by one owner or another. That is a fact that the government of Bhutan seems to be aware of, and is taking serious measures to try to avoid going down the same resource-destructive path as the rest of the world. In contrast to America, Bhutan is roughly half the size of North Carolina, with a total population not exceeding 700,000. Particularly considering it's precarious geographic juxtaposition between the two world giants of China and India, Bhutan is compelled to remain vigilant in protecting her sovereignty. Resulting from this unique blend of demographic and geographic factors, some level of protectionism and isolationism is justified, in my opinion.

What might be termed "protectionism" is, however, something I took issue with during several mealtime conversations with my well-informed host, Fin. I argued that it could provide a slippery slope toward the unfortunate direction of North Korea or Myanmar if the government of Bhutan leans too far in the direction of deciding it can make better decisions for its people than they are capable of making for themselves. To be fair, the democracy is only one year old, and I think they are off to a commendable start. That said, I'll be happy to return to my expanded rights and freedoms in the good old U.S. of A. Our democracy is about 233 years old, and we've still got some improvements to make as well.


I recommend pulling up a Google image of "Tiger's Nest" to get a feel for the unique monastic life of Bhutan. Some people say that Bhutan holds the purest form of Tibetan Buddhism today, and nearly 100% of Bhutanese people are Buddhist, and their spiritual tradition forms an integral part of the national identity. Mirroring my travels into Nepal and Ladakh, the landscape of Bhutan is spotted with prayer flags, mani walls, mountain top monasteries, prayer wheels, and white-washed chortens. I'll say that the monasteries of Bhutan seem to have a greater number of young monks than the other places I've visited, perhaps indicating a stronger monastic community here.

We visited quite a few monasteries during my stay, and the artwork is definitely among the best I've seen. I saw the oldest gompa in the country, which was established by the famous Guru Rinpoche in the 7th or 8th century. We also visited several dzongs, which have historically served the triple purposes of monastic housing, military fortresses, and government official administrative buildings.

------Other highlights---------

Coming soon in another blog entry...

permalink written by  Katy and Mark Lewis on July 10, 2009 from Thimphu, Bhutan
from the travel blog: India and Nepal
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Katy and Mark Lewis Katy and Mark Lewis
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We are two siblings from Colorado (aged 24 and 26) who find ourselves simultaneously between a job and a graduate school program. We both came down with a case of itchy feet, so we're going searching for the cure while we've got the chance!

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