Photo: Bhutan yak herder

A merry yak herder: Bhutan ranks as the world's eighth-happiest nation.

Photograph by Paul Chesley, Getty Images

By Boyd Matson

In Bhutan, a smile on your face is more valuable than a coin in your pocket.

Once upon a time in a country far, far away lived a most unusual king who proclaimed that in his tiny Himalayan kingdom, "Gross national happiness is more important than gross national product." Although most of us give lip service to the cliché, "Money can't buy you happiness," in our hearts we believe a big pile of cash can make a sizable down payment and at a minimum put smiles on our faces. To us, if a country's economic development isn't measured in dollars, it doesn't make sense. So the story of Bhutan and the King's commitment to Gross National Happiness (GNH) sounds like a fairy tale.

Even Bhutan's nicknames—Land of the Thunder Dragon, the Kingdom in the Clouds, the last Shangri-la—evoke a fantasyland. I've come here for a reality check, to immerse myself in Bhutanese culture, to see if fairy tales do come true and people can live happily ever after.

This landlocked mountainous nation, half the size of Indiana with one-tenth as many people, is squeezed precariously between two giants, India and China (or, rather, Chinese-controlled Tibet). As one local told me, discussing politics, "If India sneezes or China farts, we get blown away."

It's not Sunday, but I'm in church, or rather, a Buddhist temple inside our hotel in the city of Paro. The monk is conducting a Puja ceremony, offering us blessings for a safe journey and giving us packages of prayer flags to take along. Their significance becomes clear a couple of days later when I arrive at Dochula Pass just above 10,000 feet on a fog-shrouded, narrow, no-shoulder highway. The blind curves and steep dropoffs are lined with thousands of prayer flags strung out like spiritual guardrails. Religion isn't just "A Sunday kind of Love" for the Bhutanese. Buddhism is part of daily life, the foundation of the culture. It was Buddhist ideals that King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, or the Fourth King (K IV), as he's commonly known, was trying to institutionalize with his GNH proclamation.

Isolation from the outside world used to shelter Bhutan's unique heritage, but that's changing. One night in Wangdue Phodrang, three local Sha elders walk several miles to visit us in our hotel and share their insights into Bhutan's dramatic and rapid emergence in the 21st century. Ninety-four-year-old Lama Shatu served as an aide to Kings II and III and later worked as a judge before devoting the rest of his life to studying Buddhism. He tells me, "When I was younger, I kept hearing stories about big powerful machines called trains that could carry people quickly over long distances. I wanted to see one for myself so I walked six days to the Indian border. There I hitched a ride on a truck, which was the first motorized vehicle I'd ever seen, and rode ten hours to see my first train."

Bhutan still doesn't have its own trains, but in 1962 it got its first road and in 1983 its first (and only) international airport. Now I'm one of only about 25,000 tourists who find their way here each year. Far greater outside influence arrives in a torrent of electrons pouring through satellite dishes and computers, thanks to K IV having lifted the ban on television and the Internet in 1999. Will this new connectivity and technology "bring good things to life," as the TV commercial goes? I can only report that for the half hour I spent watching people watch TV, the crowd was mesmerized by the latest episode of "Bhutanese Idol."

K IV was an unusual leader in more ways than one. He declared that absolute power in an unelected monarch was not in the best interest of his country. He established a national assembly, insisted that Bhutan hold democratic elections for a prime minister and legislature, and finally, at 50 years old, saying it's time for the next generation to take over, voluntarily abdicated the throne, handing off the job to K V, his Oxford-educated son Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck.

Traveling the country, I visit the village of Kingathang, where a local farmer invites me to try some fresh-brewed ara, the local moonshine. He gives me a tour of his home and introduces me to the 12 family members, covering four generations, who live together under one roof. It is a scenario I will see repeated again and again—old caring for young, young helping old, and all regarding it as the natural order. My time spent visiting people in their homes is interspersed with trips to monasteries and temples to try to fathom the philosophy that shapes the culture and inspires the national policy of GNH.

I save the best temple for last, the Tiger's Nest Monastery, nestled 10,200 feet high on the side of a cliff. According to legend, Guru Rinpoche, who is credited with bringing tantric Buddhism to Bhutan, was carried here on the back of a flying tigress. The monastery followed in 1692, built to mark one of the most holy sites in Bhutan. Fortunately, given today's shortage of flying tigresses, I can follow a foot trail to the top. I planned to ask a monk some grand cosmic question about the meaning of life. Instead, once I arrived I had more pressing concerns and simply requested a new set of knees so I could make it back down the mountain. I'm not sure I gained any insights into the secret of Gross National Happiness up here, despite the great view.

But one Bhutanese shed some light when he said, "In our most beautiful places, we build temples and monasteries, and everybody goes there. In your most beautiful places, you build five-star resorts, and only the very rich go there."

Maybe that's the key to GNH—everyone gets a shot at fulfillment.

I can hear the critics now: "Gross national happiness—what a ridiculous idea to base government policy on such a subjective standard. Can you imagine our Founding Fathers declaring that Americans are entitled to be happy?" Wait, didn't Thomas Jefferson write something in the Declaration of Independence about the right to pursue happiness? Maybe he meant only those who work for a hedge fund that gives out obscene bonuses.

Who knows whether the people in the faraway Kingdom of Bhutan will live happily ever after, but for now it's official government policy to foster that goal. And according to people who measure such intangibles, the Bhutanese are in fact the happiest people in Asia and among the happiest in the world. My advice: See this country before it changes. There aren't many places like it. Some of the contentment here may be contagious. A bit of it even rubbed off on an old cynic like me—at least for the time I was in Bhutan.

Contributing editor Boyd Matson hosts National Geographic Weekend on radio.

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