I just spent nine days in Bhutan learning everything I could about what makes this place the Land of Happiness. What I found was an amazing place full of warm people, rich culture, and beautiful valleys.
However, I saw something more. I saw a younger generation growing up with mixed ideals, living in two very different worlds. To understand this better, you need to know a little bit about an 1800s English writer and gangsta rap.
You probably know of Aldous Huxley as the English writer who wrote Brave New World. While being his most well-known novel, he wrote many others of debatably greater significance.
The one that you need to know about is his last novel Island. Unfortunately, Island is the greatest book I'll never recommend to anybody. The ideas in it are beautiful, but his execution as a fiction writer is strained. His dialogues are laboured and characters weak. Prose aside, the Island is a masterpiece and an extremely important one in today's world.
We often think of the modern world as having reached a peak in human progress, having attained the pinnacle of good living. However, this is really far from the truth. While technological advancements have been great, anyone who has read some ancient stoic writing will quickly realize that mankind as a society has progressed little in the last few thousand years. Sure we've refined the processes of democracy and international trade, but other than that, we function very much similar to how the ancient Greeks did.
More importantly, we suffer the same pains as they did. The same problems of education and morality are still as pertinent today as back when tablets were made of stone.
This pain is exactly why Huxley's Island is so important. It's an ambitious attempt at describing what an ideal, and plausible, society could look like.
Pala is the name of the utopian island in which Huxley's novel is set. It's a small island closed off from the outside world ruled by a constitutional monarchy.
The pillars of Palanese society are rationality, self-exploration, mindfulness, fertility control and reduced consumerism.
While this may make Pala sound like some sort of sterile land of faux-humans, it's quite the opposite. The essence of Huxley's society is to raise "fully human beings", to develop in people both a scientific rational understanding of the world, as well as a spiritual "human" point of view. To not merely create economic automatons or mindless consumers, but fully developed people that live rich and fulfilling lives.
A core part of what makes Pala "work" is that as a society they have drawn the line in the sand for what is enough. They don't live with insatiable greed, but rather have created a system that provides all the real needs of humans; physiological and psychological.
The Palanese are not perfect people, they still have egos, they still feel jealousy, however, what is different about people on Pala is how they deal with these things. Huxley believed that effective emotional intelligence could be taught to all members of society through a common-sense education. This emotional intelligence, coupled with self-knowledge and efficient ways of responding to adverse emotions, would allow people to see past their petty egos and act on a more rational level.
Huxley was firmly against dogma, knowing that any fixed rule made today would likely be unsuited to the people of tomorrow. Instead, the people of his society were expected to rationally challenge everything and to learn through experience.
The island of Bhutan
I'm obviously drawing some sort of connection between Pala and Bhutan here, but let me just say that Bhutan is not Pala. It is not the ideal state where people become "fully human beings". However, Bhutan is doing a pretty good job at trying to reach that ideal.
Bhutan is a small landlocked country nestled between Tibet and that little part of India that you didn't know existed. It's government is a democratic (recently) constitutional monarchy. What this means is that there is a body of people elected to create laws and policy, but above everything sits the royal family.
Travelling in Bhutan for nine days, I got the sense that the people there are very content. Crime is low, corruption rare, and the basic needs of living are easily met. The communities have a rich history that is shared and cherished, and the people are closely connected. Sure life isn't perfect, but people feel involved and optimistic about the direction which things are going.
Bhutan is small, both in terms of geography and populace. It's 800,000 inhabitants occupy a country not much bigger than Hawaii. The cold climate and mountainous land is great for growing rice but little else. This small agriculture industry means they are dependent on foreign trade for many of life's necessities such as meat, vegetables, etc. This trade is predominantly done with India and they even have Indian companies build their roads and large infrastructure since they lack the expertise themselves.
It is a deeply religious country, with Vajrayana Buddhism being rooted in everything from policy to city planning. For example, in Bhutanese Vajrayana Buddhism everything is done clockwise. If you are walking around a shrine, it should be clockwise; spinning a prayer wheel is only spun clockwise. This belief is so ingrained in the people and culture that roads in Thimphu run one-way clockwise around a large memorial shrine.
Well-being over progress
The main reason why people know about Bhutan is its focuses on Gross National Happiness as a primary indicator of progress rather than the standard western metric of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This is more than just a tourism catchphrase, reading the newspapers while there you get a sense that the government and people have a strong focus on well-being, it's in their vocabulary and thoughts.
This isn't to say that they are rejecting western progress, rather it means they don't focus on economic growth for growth's sake, but rather as a means for greater well-being. Consequently, they are happy to be small and insignificant on the world scale, if it means better living for the Bhutanese people.
This prioritization is easy to accept in theory, but much harder in practice. Western history is a monument to the countless times when we have chosen progress over well-being; when we have destroyed the environment, and our long-term health, to reap the rewards of some natural resource.
Bhutan is acutely aware that in order to ensure long-term well-being, everything you do must be sustainable. Every quick win has its cost.
This is applied to everything from tourism to the environment.
Getting into Bhutan will cost you at a minimum $200 USD per day. This includes everything from food, to a hotel, to a driver, and tour guide. The towns you visit are fixed and approved by the government before your arrival. Bhutan's internal catchphrase for tourism is "low volume, high value".
"Tourism can ruin a country," said a newspaper article talking about potential changes to their tourism policy. The government and people are acutely aware of what has happened to many other SE Asian countries who have opened their doors to mass tourism. While tourism brings in a lot of money for these countries, the environmental, cultural and social problems that arise from these are massive. Bhutan thinks it can be done better.
To achieve this sustainability and well-being, life in Bhutan is regulated by some tight policy. For example:
- smoking tobacco is banned in the country (you need a license to do it)
- meat is banned for two months of the year (all meat imports stop during that time)
- political advertising is banned (including liking political posts on facebook)
- alcohol is banned on Tuesdays (bars close for the day)
- the traditional robe (Gho for men and Kira for women) must be worn in all ceremonial, professional, and sacred areas (fines for those who don't).
You get the point, they have a specific idea of what good living looks like and create tight policy to achieve it.
To keep control over this tightly regulated economy, Bhutan is relatively disconnected from the rest of the world. Their currency, the Ngultrum, is only in circulation within the country and cannot be taken out. Most businesses within Bhutan are locally owned, with foreign investment being restricted (the exception being their close tie, India).
My first reaction to this was repulsion, the limiting of freedom seemed unjust. But as time went on my opinion softened, ultimately this is the sole purpose of a State; a set of laws and customs that prevent us from doing things that are harmful to ourselves or the whole.
The feeling I got was that most Bhutanese didn't mind the strict policy, and the ones who did, knew how to get around it. In the same bar that was displaying a notice warning about the increase in smoking of banned tobacco, there was a door with a handwritten sign on it saying "smoking room".
The darker side of Bhutan
As I said, Bhutan is not perfect, but is anywhere? While much of the policy and governance in Bhutan does create greater well-being for the Bhutanese, it's not all roses and sunshine.
The Bhutanese economy is growing rapidly, but it's most prosperous sector is hydro-electricity which it sells to India. While this is booming with many new plants being created, it creates very few jobs for the local people.
Besides working on the roads, which most young Bhutanese don't want to do, this leaves tourism and agriculture to be the main sources of employment. However this isn't enough, despite low national unemployment rates (2.5%), youth unemployment is rising in the cities as graduates are entering a small economy that can't provide enough work opportunities. This unemployment leads to an array of social problems, including depression and suicide.
I briefly mentioned the minimum tour price for entering Bhutan. Well, that's pretty much the only way to get in. Bhutan has a strict visa and immigration policy. They do this for multiple reasons. One is to stop mass tourism from destroying their country (cool, sustainable), the other is that like Japan, Bhutan is very homogenous; they want to keep Bhutan solely Bhutanese.
Minorities, like the Indian population in Bhutan who work on building roads, live very different lives to the Bhutanese and there is very little, to no, social and cultural mixing.
To make matters worse, twenty years ago there was a mass deportation of an estimated 80,000 Bhutanese minorities of Nepali ancestry who had been living there for generations. At the time this was 1/6th of the population. Fearing a dilution of Bhutanese culture, a "One Nation, One People" policy was created to remove Nepalese language, people and culture from southern Bhutan. While many of these people have emigrated elsewhere thanks to the United Nations, there are still thousands of people in refugee camps that the Bhutanese government refuse to repatriate.
Free speech in Bhutan is not entirely free. Criticizing the thrown or royal family is taboo, as is talking about the above deportations and other hush topics. One must take into account that Bhutan is a deeply religious country where customs and dogma encompass all parts of their lives, so a restricted ability to criticize the crown doesn't appear to be stifling to them.
Enough of the grim, let's get high... Well, that's what I would say if I was a gangsta rapper at least.
Rap music was a big part of my upbringing. It influenced me from an early age when I first listened to the popular songs from Eminem, and then later expanded out across the whole rap genre.
Nowadays, rap and hip-hop are deeply ingrained in pop music. Further, young kids grow up listening to everything from soft hip-hop to violent trap music.
And it's not just the music that gets proliferated, but the greater rap or thug culture; everything from clothes to attitudes to social norms.
So how does a privileged white kid growing up in Australia share social norms with a genre originating from ghettos across the Pacific in America? The internet.
The internet has becomes a universal melting pot of culture. People from opposite ends of the world meet on the internet to share, consume, and create modern culture. You can live physically in one world while sharing more affinity, social norms, and customs with a group of people somewhere completely different.
The internet was introduced in Bhutan in 1999, but didn't really gain mass usage until the last 10 years. Now all youth are connected with mobile internet and accessible wifi.
For a country like Bhutan with tight policy aimed at preserving their historical culture, this presents a challenge. You can deport a minority because they risk diluting your culture, but you can't stop culture from seeping in through the internet.
Coming back to Huxley's Island, let's meet Murugan. He is the Prince of Pala, and when he turns 18 he will become the next Raja and have complete control over the country.
Murugan wants to bring Pala forward into the modern world. He wants to sell Pala's oil reserves to a nearby dictatorial Colonel to make Pala a financially prosperous nation and use that wealth to modernize all aspects of the island.
On the surface, this sounds right and per-sé "normal". But really what Murugan wants is to put progress before well-being. The island of Pala is already an ideal place where fully human beings can prosper. But what it isn't is modern. It doesn't have the "luxuries" of modern consumerism.
“He looked again at the picture of the motorbike and then again at Murugan’s glowing face. Light dawned; The Colonel's purpose revealed itself. The serpent tempted me and I did eat. The tree in the midst of the garden was called the Tree of Consumer Goods, and to the inhabitants of every underdeveloped Eden, the tiniest taste of its fruit, and even the sight of its thirteen hundred and fifty-eight leaves, had power to bring the shameful knowledge that, industry speaking, they were stark naked. The future Raja of Pala was being made to realize that he was no more than the untrousered ruler of a tribe of savages.“ – Huxley
In Huxley's era, the best he could imagine for this temptress was a "thirteen hundred and fifty-eight page" mail-order catalogue of western goods. That was the pinnacle of accessible consumerism.
Forty years later when the internet in its current form came to be, that catalogue just got infinitely bigger and more accessible.
Because of the internet, youth in Bhutan grow up in parallel contradictory worlds. There is the simple world of daily life in Bhutan. The focus on well-being before progress, on restricted consumerism, on common-sense policy.
And then there is the online world, the world of gangsta rap, of unrestrained free speech, of porn, and every consumer good you could ever dream of. "The serpent tempted me and I did eat."
After night falls the Bhutan that you read about in travel brochures sleeps too.
In its place, you get a slightly different Bhutan. The street of its two biggest towns, Paro and Thimphu, become littered with groups of young boys. The Gho and Kira that made its heavy appearance during the day are replaced with ripped jeans, baggy hoodies, baseball caps, and bandanas.
I pass by a fashion store with the tagline, "Dress like who you are." The irony of individualism hits home for me. For the Bhutanese youth who, like the rest of us, are acting out of a desire for individualism, to be free, unique, and in control, all that is really happening is that they are following a larger dogma that they are unaware of. They are following a predefined ideal from the West, an ideal set by Kanye West and Italian fashion designers thousands of miles away.
"As a country we are developing, but as a people, we are already developed." – Zangpo, Bhutanese Tour Guide
Strolling around the ill-lit streets alone, I had to remind myself a few times that this is the land of happiness, that you're not going to get jumped by these guys in baggy clothes looking at you. As the large group walk past me, one of them kicks a street dog in an attempt to aggravate it, and the whole group erupt in laughter and flee the snapping dog.
I go inside the only open bar I can find. The inside is adorned with Beatles posters and caricatures of football superstars. They have a local craft beer on tap made from Bhutanese red-rice that tastes delicious. Behind me onstage three Bhutanese guys are setting up their guitars for a performance. The chalk art on the wall reads, "Sorry no wifi. Talk like it's 1999." That's the year the internet was introduced in Bhutan, the first time they got a glimpse of the Tree of Consumer Goods. The band kicks off with western love songs in flawless American accents and I drink my beer.
The next 10 years
I'm not quite sure what it all means, whether the individualistic consumer culture that is coming in over the wires will be good for Bhutan. But that's probably not the point. The point is that it is coming, that it's already come. More importantly, is how the Bhutanese youth deal with it as they grow up and go into business, politics, and start families.
Despite the xenophobic smear in Bhutan's past, as a country, it's doing a really good job. The whole time I was there I was searching endlessly for the caveat, for the hidden slums and broken homes, but all I found was what you can only expect when looking at any large group of humans; some unemployed, some alcoholic fathers, some rebellious youth.
What I also found was a lot of people living very connected and enriched lives. People who spend hours daily chanting prayers for the inner peace and tranquillity. Who take pride in their cultural heritage and sit for days with family at a simple festival watching spiritual dances being performed.
Is it the land of unrestrained freedom? No. But should it be? I don't know. My trip there exacerbated my uncertainty for the unequivocal goodness of freedom. It's essential, sure, but how much do we really need to be happy as a species?
Looking back to Pala
Let me ruin the ending to the best novel you will never read. Murugan wins, Pala is "sold" to the Colonel and the road to Progress is opened. The end.
Huxely's ending seems inevitable. The forces of excess capitalism are strong and the desires of consumerism stronger. After tasting the fruits the young Prince wanted more.
More importantly however, Huxley hints that it isn't all over. The wisdom that produced Pala still lay peacefully waiting for someone else to pick up the thread, for the next generation of Palanese to find a balance between the two worlds.
So herein lies the challenge.
As the rest of the world continue to climb the profitable ladder of mindless consumerism what will the next generation of Bhutanese do?
They are going to be the ones moving into positions of political power, but having tasted the fruit from the "tree of consumer goods" will they chase after it? Will they look to imitate the rest of the world, the world they see through social media and the internet. The world of Donald Drumpf and Kim Kardashian.
Or will they look to continue the legacy that was started many years ago, a focus on well-being above all else, and find a form of consumer capitalism that better balances desire and progress, with the need for greater well-being.