My son is about to travel to Bhutan, Thailand, and Cambodia with his grandparents. He got to choose the location for a trip in his 13th year, and Bhutan is where he wanted to go. The other two countries were “on the way.” Why did he choose Bhutan? Because it is the last Mahayana Buddhist Kingdom, intact and free from the colonial interruptions so many other countries have suffered. Tibet fights bravely to remain free and suffers terribly for it. Tibet tries to maintain its soul, but the ever-present Chinese colonialism is brazenly attempting to snuff out that culture in any way possible. So Bhutan it is.
Bhutan is where I would live if I could live anywhere in the world. They don’t allow people like me to live there, however, unless you are a Fulbright scholar or someone who can provide expertise they need to increase the happiness in their culture. Bhutan’s king is devoted to the concept of Gross National Happiness, and it is working. Rivers downstream of the capital city Thimpu are clean enough to drink. There are no high rises, and many people dress in their traditional clothing. The architecture is traditional as well; brightly colored wood and mud-brick buildings, some of them 10 stories high, dot the countryside. Children are educated in their own language, at least part of the time. The countryside is 70% virgin forest, with the Himalaya looming over the valleys from the north, for the most part an effective barrier with contact (and domination) by the power center that lies on the other side. Because Gross National Happiness is at least the baseline for conversation when considering issues like tourism and development, the country has learned from the mistakes of other neighboring countries, like Nepal and India.
I’m forever glad that I got a chance to visit this fantastic, almost mythical, place and I’m so happy my son will get to see it as well. To know that it is there, to know that a place like Bhutan is possible and exists not just in the mind, but instead is a real place, is a starting place for optimism. Instead of saying, “No, it just isn’t possible to have resilient and local places led by a government that actually believes in and prioritizes the people in its care,” you know that it IS possible within a certain framework, one built on compassion and generosity as well as the belief in reincarnation and responsibilities to future generations. And when I long for clean water and lush valleys lit with a backdrop of snow-drenched mountains towering above the landscape, I know that somewhere there IS a place… not here, perhaps, but I know that it exists and that makes me feel more at home wherever I lay my head.