Bhutan guarantees its citizens the right to happiness, and that’s how this small kingdom became a Shangri-La for visitors from the West who come in search of meaning. Now, though, budget tourism and geopolitics are threatening to destroy the idyll.
The journey to happiness begins with a dragon ride. Left, right, nose down; left, right, dip further down – as the A319 belonging to Drukair, the state airline of the Kingdom of Bhutan, dances around the Himalayan peaks. A moment ago, I could see the top of Mount Everest glinting in the sunshine from my window seat, and now I am looking at rock faces. The call of the mountain is a little too loud here. Houses come into view, trees, a flock of goats. Then we touch down. The passengers clap. We’re happy already!
Only a handful of pilots are qualified to land at Paro Airport. The runway intersects a narrow valley basin at 2236 meters, and the pilot has to fly by sight and intuition. Sometimes the dragons – “druk” means exactly that, dragon, in Dzongkha, or Bhutanese, the official language of Bhutan – circle in the air for a long time before finally pushing through a gap in the blanket of cloud. Traveling to Bhutan is still an adventure – even today.
The country, which is roughly the size of Switzerland but has a population of just 800 000, for a long time had no interest in anyone going there. Sandwiched between the two top dogs India and China, the ruling nobility and clerics feared it could become a pawn in geopolitical power games. It was not until the early 1960s that Bhutan had a paved road. The state television channel first broadcast in 1999 and the Internet arrived four years later. To this day, not a single set of traffic lights regulates the traffic in the capital city, Thimphu: easy going in the Himalayas.
A good 100 000 people live in Thimphu. The roads are clean, the houses are sturdy and have pitched roofs reminiscent of Austria and Switzerland. Bhutan cultivates good relations with both countries – the Austrians have opened a hotel training academy there and the Swiss are building bridges – but with China, they are a little strained. In the border region, the red giant has built a road into Bhutan, just like that, unasked, even though the border is officially closed. India, Bhutan’s protecting power, sent in troops, which resulted in the soldiers of two superpowers tugging at each other’s jackets and throwing a few stones. Videos of the absurd incident became a YouTube hit last summer, but no one in Thimphu was amused. Instead, people there began to realize that not always is the small kingdom the architect of its own happiness.
Yet that is exactly what Bhutan is known for in the West: for its people’s happiness. The right to happiness is enshrined in the constitution, which decrees that “if the government cannot create happiness for its people, there is no purpose for the government to exist.” But how can it be possible to unite the entire population of a country in happiness?
Doesn’t such an aspiration damn every government to failure? How happy are the people of Bhutan really? In Germany, happiness is not a matter for the Federal Chancellery to deal with, but a branch of business in which coaches advise managers how to attain it. The managers then hand in their notice and write bestsellers on the subject. Happiness comes to us via app or as a tea, as the result of a yoga class or in the form of a steaming bowl of food at a vegan cooking course. Magazines like Country Living, Flow and Mindful are paper promises of happiness that attract millions of readers. Happiness in Germany is consumable; it costs money, although money is becoming less and less the defining factor these days. Once upon a time, happiness was having plenty of cash in the bank; today it is often having plenty of endorphins coursing through your veins.
The quest for happiness also has the science community electrified. With its Happy Planet Index, a British think tank attempts to compare countries’ happiness levels. Indicators, such as economic growth and personal well-being, play into the national ranking. Costa Rica, Mexico and Columbia top the index, while Germany ranks 49th and Bhutan only places 56th. No matter, say the happiness officers of young King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, 37. We have our own concept, Gross National Happiness, which has been in place since 1979 – and since 2008, the country has also had a survey to monitor the concept’s success. The most recent score was 0.756. What does that figure tell us?
An arrows hums through the air on the training ground of the Archery Federation of Bhutan. Thud – bull’s-eye. The tension in Karma’s features melts away. The 27-year-old reaches into her quiver, pulls out a new arrow and fits it into her 2000-dollar carbon bow, takes aim and lets fly. Thud. Archery is a silent sport, a system of eternal repetition. Archery is also the national sport of Bhutan. And Karma – yes, that really is her name; many people in Bhutan have only one name – is a national hero. In 2016, she was one of two athletes who represented her country at the Olympic Games in Rio.
“I am not a hero,” says Karma during a break in her training program, “I’m just a woman who’s good with a bow and arrow.” She smiles shyly, braids bobbing either side of her head. She opens a sunshade and walks across to the target in the midday heat. The rush of a mountain stream can be heard in the distance, the conifer forest gleams a lush green against the tall mountaintops. Bhutan looks like the backdrop for a Heidi film. When Karma returns with her fiberglass arrows, I ask her what the word “happiness” means to her. “Being here. Being able to practice my sport with this fantastic view. I love my country.” In Rio, she carried her country’s flag in the Parade of Nations. On television, she looked very happy.
We drive from Thimphu to Punakha. Along the way, we pass the world’s tallest statue of Buddha, a gleaming gold, 52-meter figure of the religion founder set high above the valley. A businessman from Hong Kong financed this XXL pilgrimage site. The Chinese are not just building roads here, but sacred monuments, as well. Then our all-terrain vehicle climbs over the Dochula Pass, 3100 meters up. Fog robs us of our visibility. Where chinks appear, we catch sight of steep bluffs rising from the bottle-green jungle. Believers have hung prayer flags between the crags – colorful floss in the jaws of a giant.
A langur monkey sits by the roadside chewing leaves; cows lie sprawled across the road. They have nothing to fear, since Buddhists eat no meat. Bhutan is a huge open-air zoo. In the north, black-necked cranes fly over the Himalayas, while Indian elephants roam the forests of the south. Tigers and snow leopards, yaks and red pandas populate the different climate zones. To make sure that’s how it stays, domestic policy here means environmental protection takes precedence. The law prescribes that 70 percent of the country must be woodland.
Dorij Pelden, 35, sits in front of his house, carving a large phallus, a fertility symbol in pinewood. “When things go well, I can make three of these in a day,” says the artist, looking very hipster-like in check shirt and leather loafers. The products of the last few weeks are arranged in rows in the window of his small shop – an army of fertility. Follow the muddy track up the hill and you come to the Temple of the Divine Madman, a drunk and womanizer who reputedly subdued and destroyed demons in Bhutan back in the 15th century – with his “flaming thunderbolt of wisdom,” of course, which is why Pelden carves what he carves.
Couples visit the temple of the Divine Madman when they want to have children but their attempts to conceive have so far failed. The lovers donate money, receive the monks’ blessing – and take a wooden talisman home with them. “This place has tremendous energy,” Pelden firmly believes. His wife, Sarita, 22, joins us, a child in her arms. “Three months after we visited the temple, my wife fell pregnant.” They called their little girl Kinley after one of the temple monks. Kinley cries – their happiness is hungry.
Bhutan does not want to end up like its neighbor, Nepal; it wants to keep out the mountains of trash and cheap hostels
Business is good close to the temple because it attracts not only Bhutanese couples, but more and more tourists, too. Ten years ago, only 21 700 people visited Bhutan, but by 2017 that figure had already risen to 150 000, despite Bhutan being very expensive. Visitors have to pay 250 dollars a day and on top of that a kind of admission fee, not to mention the high cost of flying there. Everything must be planned and booked in advance; individuals are not permitted to tour on their own. The reason for the supposed exclusivity: Bhutan does not want to end up like Nepal, so it aims to keep out mountains of garbage and cheap hostels. But there’s a snag to the system: The rules do not apply to guests from India because Bhutan does not want to provoke its protector. As a result, the flow of visitors from the south is growing, unfortunately bringing with it more trash than cash.
In Punakha, an old farmhouse serves as a luxury hostelry. To get there, we cross a suspension bridge over the torrential Mo Chhu River. This lodge is one of five hotels run by the Aman Resorts group in Bhutan. It has only eight rooms, and its architecture becomes one with the surroundings thanks to floor-length windows that give onto forests, mountain peaks and rice terraces. This is the kind of tourism the king would approve of. In the gleaming kitchen, Viknesh Victor, 27, wields his wooden spoon. He looks ten years younger than his age and sports boxy nerd glasses. “We’re going on an expedition tomorrow morning,” he murmurs mysteriously.
The market in Punakha is a challenge. It’s loud, colorful and a riot of odors. Every Saturday, farmers and vendors from the east of the country come here to sell their wares: plums and passionfruits, pumpkins and papayas, dried trout and green asparagus. Victor strolls from stall to stall, sizing up the produce, an Indiana Jones of good taste exclaiming, “Oh, I’ll make a gazpacho with these cucumbers!” and, “Wow, I’ve never seen that variety of tomato before!” Victor is from Malaysia, his mother from China and his father from India. He learned his craft at the Shangri-La luxury hotel in Kuala Lumpur, where his master chefs had been pupils of Alain Ducasse and Ferran Adrià. Since spring 2016, he has been working as a chef in Bhutan, where the only stars are in the night sky.
Most people in Bhutan have never seen an aggressive person
“The peace and seclusion do me good,” he raves over dinner. “I come from a tough city, where everything revolves around work, money and status symbols. It’s different here.” He now has seven people working under him. Most of them have never experienced an aggressive person, he tells us. “I really had a lot of adjusting to do,” says Victor, adding with a smile that in the old days, he would also throw the occasional pan across the kitchen. Then he serves up braised yak with red rice, pumpkin curry, yellow lentils and the national dish, ema datse – green chili with yak cheese. All of Bhutan is crazy about chili peppers.
The hot spiciness of the peppers isn’t really a flavor, according to scientists, but a pain stimulus. And it triggers the release of happiness hormones in the brain. So in Bhutan, you get happiness on a plate. “The people look very happy to me,” says Victor. Every rock here is steeped in Buddhism; respect for humans, animals and nature is all embracing. Even if many Bhutanese live in abject poverty by our standards, they still possess a great deal: “Their family, a strong village community, and their own four walls with a garden full of fruit and vegetables.”
In terms of gross domestic product, Bhutan currently ranks 130th in the world, between Vanuatu and Honduras. But to Bhutan itself, that means nothing. In 2020, the King’s officers will set out once more to determine the nation’s happiness. The aim is for the index to rise from 0,756 to a straight one. The catalogue contains 300 questions. “How much do you enjoy your life?” is one of them. What would your answer be?