Land of Happiness or Cultural Tomb?

Emily Akada Waite

© Copyright 2010 by Emily Akada Waite

Photo of Tiger's Nest Temple in Bhutan.  Photo (c) 2009 by Joseph Waite.

Paro, Bhutan-- As our Airbus jet approached Bhutan’s only airstrip, situated in a small town called Paro, I felt a combination of excitement and terror. Excitement at visiting a brand new place, nestled high in the Himalayas, famed for its pristine beauty and non-materialist way of life; terror at having just read, in Drak Air’s in-flight magazine, that Paro had recently been voted “the world’s scariest place to land.”

This produced one of life’s “What am I doing here?” moments. Of course when you are 16, the answer is pretty simple: Parents.

Bhutan had always fascinated my mother and she often speculated on how wonderful it would be to visit a country that measures its success using Gross National Happiness rather than Gross National Product. GNH, unlike GNP, takes into account spiritual values and environmental stewardship, rather than the pursuit of material wealth.

This, plus the fact that they permanently banned the use of plastic bags, pretty much sold my mom on Bhutan as paradise. So, for her 50th birthday, my dad cashed in every last frequent flyer mile… and our entire family was now headed straight for a mountain side. The family that flies together…dies together!

We did manage to land safely, if abruptly, at Paro Airport. We were met by our guide, Pauldin, and began a two-week visit that included a seven-day trek to remote and beautiful mountain passes and more than one glimpse into the homes and lives of the Bhutanese people. The learning for me was that things are seldom exactly as they seem in the travel books and brochures and that, even in Bhutan, Gross National Happiness has its limits, along with its attractions.

Bhutan’s attractions were many. The country, about the size of the province of Nova Scotia, is remarkably untouched by commercialism. The population is small, about 600,000, and there are no real cities as we think of them. The towns do not have street lights, so you can actually see the stars at night. Pauldin told us that the capital, Thimphu, briefly had a single traffic light in 2007—but it was promptly removed because no one liked it.  As a tourist (one of a few thousand allowed in each year) I especially liked the serenity of the place; the fact that people wore colorful national costumes; and the richness and unique nature of the local Buddhist practice (quite different from the Buddhism of my own Japanese-Canadian heritage). As an actor, I was also captivated by the musical and stage performances and rehearsals we were able to attend.

And for those who enjoy trekking and camping, it is one of the finest places on the planet. I would especially recommend the day-long hike to the Tiger’s Nest monastery or any of a number of multi-day treks through the mountains.

Bhutan’s limits took longer to emerge. Insight was provided by Pauldin who, while ethnically Bhutanese did, in his own careful but candid way, raise interesting issues.  For example, he pointed out that Bhutan is not only populated by Bhutanese. In fact, there are significant minority populations of Tibetans and Nepalese who are, well, not all that happy, especially around the requirement that they wear “national dress” that is not their own and that they adhere to a form of Buddhism that is alien to them.

Over time I got to meet more local people of Nepalese or Tibetan heritage. They confirmed that they often felt they were not made to feel completely welcome or at home and related that in recent years thousands of Nepalese had been pushed out of Bhutan by the government into refugee camps in India.

Another problematic aspect of Bhutanese life revolves around culture.  In an attempt to preserve their traditions, culture seems frozen in time. Perhaps I am overly western in outlook, but the idea of just doing the same folk dances and wearing the same costumes year after year, decade after decade, while discouraging any innovation or modern interpretation, struck me as a cultural dead-end. It might even create a kind of nation-as-museum, not all that different from what I had seen with the Ainu indigenous people on our family visits to Hokkaido in northern Japan.

Flying out of Bhutan is easier than flying in. You make three hard, banked turns to avoid the ever-present mountains, and then you are away. As you climb, you reflect on the fact that you are leaving a beautiful place, filled with many beautiful people. But you also realize from the experience that it is important to look beyond slogans like “Gross National Happiness” to examine situations and places with a more critical eye.

If there is a truth to be discovered in visiting and examining different societies and cultures, it is that there is no mythical Shangri-La and there is no magic formula for universal human happiness. Bhutan is unique and well worth a visit. But it is not perfect, any more than Canada is perfect. Which is probably not entirely a bad thing; I am not sure I would find a perfect world-- all that interesting, especially as I look forward to playing some small role in making it a better place.

I live in Ottawa, but I'm currently a boarding student at The Bishop Stranchan School in Toronto. I am 17 and recently graduated.  This fall I will enroll at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and major in anthropology. I am a dual US - Canadian citizen. In terms of outside activities, I am an actress in Canada (and hold an ACTRA card) and have appeared in a number of CBC radio and tv productions and in 2008 was nominated for a CAPPIE award in the best actress category.

(Unless you type the author's name
in the subject line of the message
we won't know where to send it.)

Contact Emily

Book Case

Home Page

The Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher