Bhutan bans Traffic
What a country, the government promotes "Gross National Happiness", and we've just heard that the King, who loves cycling, has banned all private traffic around the capital of Thimpu, on certain days so locals can cycle with no hassles! Where else in the world would this happen?
Bhutan's Enlightened Experiment by Brook Larmer
Thimpu is the capital of the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan. For more than a thousand years, this tiny realm-known by locals as Druk Yul, "land of the thunder dragon"-has survived in splendid isolation, a place the size of Switzerland wedged into the mountainous folds between two giants, India and China. Closed off from the outside world both by geography and deliberate policy, the country had no roads, no electricity, no motor vehicles, no telephones, no postal service until the 1960s. Even these days, its mesmerizing landscape evokes a place that time forgot: ancient temples perched high on mist-shrouded cliffs; sacred, unconquered peaks rising above pristine rivers and forests; a timbered chalet inhabited by a benevolent monarch and one of his four wives, all sisters. No wonder visitors can't resist calling Bhutan the last Shangri-la.
But even Shangri-la must change. When King Jigme Singye Wangchuck ascended the throne in 1972, Bhutan suffered from some of the highest poverty, illiteracy, and infant-mortality rates in the world-a legacy of the policy of isolation. "We paid a heavy price," the king would say later. His father, Bhutan's third king, had begun opening up the country in the 1960s, building roads, establishing schools and health clinics, pushing for United Nations membership. King Jigme Singye Wangchuck would go much further. With the self-confidence of a ruler whose country has never been conquered, he has tried to dictate the terms of Bhutan's opening-and in the process redefine the very meaning of development. The felicitous phrase he invented to describe his approach: Gross National Happiness.
For many Bhutanese, this idea is not merely a marketing tool or a utopian philosophy. It is their blueprint for survival. Guided by the "four pillars of Gross National Happiness"-sustainable development, environmental protection, cultural preservation, and good governance-Bhutan has pulled itself out of abject poverty without exploiting its natural resources (other than hydropower, sold to India as Bhutan's main source of foreign funds). Nearly three-quarters of the country is still forested, with more than 25 percent designated as national parks and other protected areas-among the highest percentages in the world. Rates of illiteracy and infant mortality have fallen dramatically, and the economy is booming. Tourism is growing too, though strict limits on new construction and a daily tax of up to $240 a visitor keep out the kind of backpacking hordes that have trampled Nepal.
Now comes the daring culmination of Bhutan's experiment: the move to democracy. Never before, say Bhutanese officials, has a beloved monarch voluntarily abdicated his throne to give power to the people. But in 2006 King Jigme Singye Wangchuck did just that, setting up an unusual convergence of events in 2008: a coronation (the fourth king ceremoniously hands over the raven crown to his 28-year-old son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who will serve as a constitutional monarch); a centennial celebration (the monarchy's hundredth birthday was in 2007, but a royal astrologer deemed this year more auspicious); and, most important, the formation by this summer of the country's first democratic government.
The real test of Gross National Happiness, then, is just beginning. Bhutan's new civilian leaders will face a raft of challenges, not least of which is a public that remains enamored of its kings and skeptical of democracy. The outside world peers in, wondering if this once forgotten Himalayan nation might help answer some of humankind's most vexing questions: How can a society maintain its identity in the face of the flattening forces of globalization? How can it embrace the good of the modern world without falling prey to the bad? And can there ever be a happy balance between tradition and development?