World Adventurer | Issue 1 | June - July 2005

Golden gong for land of the Dzong

Often ignorantly looked upon, or overlooked, as an irrelevant, backward political curiosity, Bhutan is now acknowledged as a world leader in the field of environmental protection through political stoicism, muting, at least temporarily, those who would criticise the absolute rule of the Wangchuk Dynasty.

Recent global television coverage by renowned documentary maker and former Monty Python, Michael Palin, piqued the world’s interest in Bhutan. Moved by the Kingdom’s scenic beauty, benevolent ruler and deeply pious constitution, Palin was moved to declare:

“If the fabled Shangri-La exists beyond the legend, this is it.”

In a curious twist, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) effectively validates the fable immortalised in James Hilton’s 1933 best-seller, Lost Horizon, where westerners escaping strife-torn China crash land in a mythical Himalayan kingdom.

That imaginary kingdom, Shangri-La, was bound by a terse but highly effective constitution put simply as; “be kind”. A phrase so often echoed in the teachings of Buddha.

The subsequent 1937 film of the same name opens with the tantalising notion: “In these days of wars and rumors of wars - - haven’t you ever dreamed of a place where there was peace and security, where living was not a struggle but a lasting delight?” - a phrase not altogether lost even today! Bhutan is not completely untouched by the realities and tribulations of the 21st Century, but often these political and diplomatic frictions had their genesis in much earlier times. Bhutan only became a ‘state’ in its modern form in the early 17th Century when an exiled Tibetan monk, Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, began a dynasty that ruled for three hundred years.

Consequently Bhutan has its very roots in the foundations of Buddhism, a religion that backs up the “peace and goodwill” rhetoric of other faiths with action - and nowhere in the Buddhist world, or the whole world perhaps, is this mantra more evident than the supremely humble Kingdom of Bhutan.

Away from the fanciful literary world, King Jigme Singye Wangchuk, the National Assembly, the Council of Ministers and the good people of Bhutan have worked harmoniously to produce an environmental policy and national development plan that places the preservation of the environment and wellbeing of the people above all else.

This policy is even represented by a unifying set of goals euphemistically entitled Maximisation of Gross National Happiness (MGNH), human development, the promotion and preservation of culture and heritage, balanced and equitable socio-economic development, good governance, and environmentally sustainable development.

Gentle modernisation, a sustainable use of resources, eco-friendly power and even the recent banning of tobacco sales speaks volumes for their commitment. Nowhere will you see gaudy western architecture, tasteless multinational advertising or thoughtless acts like littering, graffiti or rudeness.

Bhutan’s unique MGNH objective has even been mimicked by envious western governments eager to emulate this laudable policy. Australia’s own Indigo Shire Council in NSW is one such body hoping to bathe in Bhutan’s karma.

Bhutan’s 2 million inhabitants are mostly subsistence farmers and have a modest lifestyle unburdened by the ‘polluting effects’ of westernisation. Internet use is extremely limited, there are only two radio stations, just two airports and less than 10,000 mobile phones. On the flip side, the Kingdom has the lowest road fatality rate in the world (0.08 per 100k of population and just 20,000 cars), virtually no pollution, almost no crime and the only violence you’ll see is maybe one of the fierce Himalayan storms that give Bhutan its alternate name: Land of the Thunder Dragon.

Although tourist numbers are rising, they are effectively limited by the number of seats available on the only airline to service Bhutan, the national carrier, Druk Air. Currently just 5,000 people visit annually and the King actively seeks “upscale, environmentally conscientious visitors” in sympathy with the country’s cautious but gradually expanding contact with the modern world beyond its borders.

A delightful scenic film, “Travellers and Magicians”, a modern day parable directed by Khyentse Norbu and set in Bhutan, is currently screening in Australia - try and catch it!