Visiting Bhutan is quite an experience. This landlocked country high up in Himalayas has been a mystery to me for a long time. I have heard of it being the happiest place of earth and the king being concerned about the happiness of his subjects that he designed a Gross National Happiness (GNH) index while other countries are preoccupied with Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and Gross National Product (GNP).
I finally made the trip there from 13-18 March 2011 with a team of educators, ex-educators and education practitioners on an education exchange with the Armed Forces Special School. We did two workshops for school leaders and preschool teachers in Thimphu, followed by visits to a village school in Punakha and a private school in Thimphu. We toured famous places in Bhutan such as the Tiger’s Nest and partake in the Paro Tsechu spring celebrations, where we met and spoke with the King by chance. And by chance, I met members of both Singapore families living permanently in Bhutan (I was told only 2 Singaporean women are currently married and living in Bhutan). It was a tiring and action-packed 5 days.
A few things struck me about Bhutan:
1. The challenging geographical terrains of winding mountain roads, occasional landslides during summer monsoon rains and rolling valleys. The country is mostly agricultural in nature and the kingdom is committed to maintaining at least 60% of its land in its natural state. The love for and protection of the environment is a big thing in Bhutan, and one of the core four pillars of its Gross National Happiness philosophy.
2. The peace and genuine happiness of people here, despite the relative lack of monetary wealth. Happinesss is a function of contentment, not of absolute wealth. There’s relative peace all around with low crime rate. Actually, Bhutan is not as backwards as I had in mind, as I had been to remote villages in Cambodia, Sumatra and West Kalimantan (Indonesia), where conditions are much worse.
3. People speak English well. English is taught in school as the main language. Even at the village school, we took a look at essays written by grade 7 students and the standard of the language is good. This augurs well for the country, as its people will be able to plug into the world through English.
4. The quaint buildings and clothing styles of the people are from centuries ago, but Bhutan is undergoing change that is hitting just about every country in the world. They get access to Internet and international television. A visit to a local pub with our tour guide drove home the point. The modern Bhutanese songs have strong western and Bollywood influence. Many young Bhutanese love to hang out in pubs, dancing and listening to live music.
5. The people have strong respect for the king (see my other blog posting), respect and interest in the political process (see other blog posting) and for one another.
6. Strong influence from India. India supports Bhutan in its army, in infrastructure development and in business. This is inevitable given that India is neighbour with Bhutan and both see each other as a good way to keep China in check, especially after neighbouring Tibet became part of China. It is wonderful then to see that despite being so far away, Singapore too has started to make its presence felt in Bhutan by supporting actively in education and community projects.
7. Many people are deeply religious in this strongly Buddhist country. It’s Buddhism is the same as that of Tibet. Its unique culture and beliefs have been transmitted down for centuries.
8. Bhutanese are deeply loyal and connected with their country. While many Bhutanese now study and work abroad, they aim to be back to Bhutan rather than migrate permanently. In today’s highly open and mobile world, such deep attachment to country and culture is something many places including Singapore need to learn from Bhutan.