THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS
Sunday, June 8, 2008;
Reporter: Liam Bartlett
Producer: Jonathan Harley
It's the last Shangri-la - probably the happiest place on earth.
Perched high in the mighty Himalayas, for centuries Bhutan has been locked away, untouched by the outside world.
But now this magical little kingdom is taking it's first tentative steps into the 21st century.
And it's a shock to the system.
You find remote medieval villages suddenly have electricity.
There are mobile phones, designer jeans and television.
It's a delicate balancing act.
Accepting the present, while preserving the past. An ancient culture that is mystical, mysterious and, sometimes not for the faint-hearted or the prudish.
PHOTOS: Liam Bartlett experiences the last Shangri-la
BLOG: Liam Bartlett on Bhutanese fertility ceremonies
Getting there: Jojo's Adventure Bhutan: www.jojos.com.bt
INTRODUCTION LIAM BARTLETT: It's the last Shangri-la - probably the happiest place on Earth. Perched high in the mighty Himalayas for centuries Bhutan has been locked away, untouched by the outside world. But now this magical little kingdom is taking its first tentative steps into the 21st century. And it's a shock to the system. You find remote medieval villages suddenly have electricity. There are mobile phones, designer jeans and television. It's a delicate balancing act - accepting the present while preserving the past. An ancient culture that is mystical, mysterious and, I have to say, sometimes not for the faint-hearted or the prudish.
STORY LIAM BARTLETT: Here in the shadow of Mount Everest, in Bhutan, the Land of the Thunder Dragon, I find myself presented with an honour as rare as it is challenging.
JIGME THINLEY: So pull once.
LIAM BARTLETT: I've been recruited as head-striker on Prime Minister Jigme Thinley's personal archery team.
JIGME THINLEY: ..and then you release.
LIAM BARTLETT: Why is everyone vacating the mound?
JIGME THINLEY: They know you are going for the target but they don't know which target you are going for.
LIAM BARTLETT: Wise people, Prime Minister.
JIGME THINLEY: Release, release! You hit something! The archery ground has now become a hazardous zone.
LIAM BARTLETT: He's laughing too hard! And if it all looks like a lot of fun well, that's no accident. Happiness here is actually official Government policy. And it's called Gross National Happiness.
JIGME THINLEY: Gross National Happiness is essentially about pursuing the single most important dream of any human being. And happiness is sustainable only when the people around you are happy.
LIAM BARTLETT: Are you happy?
JIGME THINLEY: I am happy.
LIAM BARTLETT: For centuries, what made this idyllic kingdom happy was its splendid isolation. Ruled by a benevolent Royal Family, insulated from the outside world by geography and not unreasonably in this neighbourhood, fear of invasion. Imagine a country almost the size of Tasmania. Chuck in an extra 200,000 people and sandwich it between the two giants of Asia. China is just over there, India, just a tiny way behind me. It's no wonder that for centuries this country has survived by keeping the world out. Even now, roads here are little more than yak tracks. So, the best way to see the country is by river - Bhutan's version of a freeway.
BHUTANESE MAN: Everybody forward!
LIAM BARTLETT: My guide on this rollicking white-water journey is Megan Ritchie.
MEGAN RITCHIE: Are you paddling?
LIAM BARTLETT: She grew up in country NSW, came here four years ago and got swept up by its beauty and wonder.
BHUTANESE MAN: Relax.
LIAM BARTLETT: Honestly. Do you pinch yourself when you look around?
MEGAN RITCHIE: I still do. Almost every day, in fact. I still see something or hear something that moves me to think - "Yeah, could I really be here and is this really my home?" And it is.
LIAM BARTLETT: Aussie Bhutanese shiela.
MEGAN RITCHIE: Aussie Bhutanese shiela, yes!
LIAM BARTLETT: The Bhutanese live in an almost feudal existence barely changed for thousands of years. It's a pretty tough life. Guided by a strict Buddhist faith. They don't fish.
MEGAN RITCHIE: They don't fish.
LIAM BARTLETT: There's no one anywhere on this river fishing.
MEGAN RITCHIE: No, because they're Buddhist and to fish you have to kill a fish, so ah...
LIAM BARTLETT: And yet it's full of brown trout.
MEGAN RITCHIE: It's full of trout, the rivers are full of trout, yeah.
LIAM BARTLETT: I'm almost crying. It is such an ancient country, you really appreciate it when you look around here.
MEGAN RITCHIE: It is ancient and, I think, what makes it feel even more ancient is the fact that so little has changed. It's an ancient way of life, as well as an ancient country.
LIAM BARTLETT: But in this, the world's newest democracy, rapid change is on the way. Television arrived just 10 years ago. Electricity is now reaching what are some of the world's most remote villages. And not far behind, the ultimate accessory of the global village - mobile phones. It's almost as if they've leapt from the middle ages to 2008.
MEGAN RITCHIE: And that is exactly what they have done. This country is ah, 50-years out of feudalism, but they've skipped the part in between that we all went through. They've jumped straight from that to this, to this modern technology with mobile phones, with electricity.
LIAM BARTLETT: Leading this charge from feudal monarchy to modern democracy is my archery instructor and Bhutan's first elected Prime Minister, Jigme Thinley.
JIGME THINLEY: The corner tower is where the throne room is.
LIAM BARTLETT: But Jigme is acutely aware of the dangers of too much change too quickly. Prime Minister, what is the one single thing you don't want?
JIGME THINLEY: The belief that the individual is more important than anything and everybody. The excessive importance that is given to the self and the individual.
LIAM BARTLETT: Trying to hold back the tide is going to be difficult?
JIGME THINLEY: It is going to be difficult but then on the other hand we do have a population that believes that consciously pursuing happiness is important.
LIAM BARTLETT: Before Jigme Thinley took over, Bhutan was one of the world's last true kingdoms, ruled by the Fourth Dragon King. He masterminded the country's move to democracy, voluntarily abdicated, and sent his subjects to the polls. (Karaoke singing) But as I discovered, no one wanted to lose their king even Bhutan's smart, young set. # And I will always love you # Would you rather have your king?
BHUTANESE WOMAN: Yes, completely.
LIAM BARTLETT: Really?
BHUTANESE WOMAN: Yes, I would love ah, our kings and what they have done. We like the Western clothes and all those things but at the end of the day we are still Bhutanese and we love our tradition and culture.
LIAM BARTLETT: There are big changes on the way, aren't there?
BHUTANESE WOMAN: There are a lot of changes. So we're just hoping and praying that everything will turn out good.
LIAM BARTLETT: And everyone will stay happy.
BHUTANESE WOMAN: Everyone should stay happy I'd say.
LIAM BARTLETT: So far, it seems like a pretty happy mix of the old and the new. In the capital, Thimpu, for every designer T-shirt there's four more in traditional dress. Michael, there's traditional costume, Monks in robes, go-fast gear, the jeans and designer T-shirts. It's a fascinating mix isn't it?
MICHAEL RUTLAND: It is indeed and the kids in the go-fast designer jeans - tomorrow morning you'll find them in their National dress school uniform looking as neat and tidy as anything.
LIAM BARTLETT: Michael Rutland first came here in 1970. Since then, he's watched first-hand Bhutan's battle to become modern and prosperous without becoming western and heartless. Have they ever thought about replacing this fellow with modern electronics?
MICHAEL RUTLAND: You must be joking, this is Bhutan. Once, some 15 years ago, they put up a set of traffic lights here and they didn't last. They were here about three days And then it was decided we don't need traffic lights in the middle of Thimpu. This is a small country, we all know each other, we like to see people doing things not machines.
LIAM BARTLETT: You know, this is probably the only capital city in the world that hasn't got a set of traffic lights?
MICHAEL RUTLAND: No matter how modern the place gets, there is a particular character and style of the Bhutanese people. And ah, I think they will try to keep that for a long, long time.
LIAM BARTLETT: And that's what you hope most when you come here. That this tiny country can build its future, without selling off its past and all its eccentric customs. A large part of life here revolves around the legend of a 16th century wayward monk. The story goes that he would roam these hills on a sexual rampage delivering enlightenment to the young village maidens. They call him 'The Divine Madman' and this is how they worship him. It is no place for the prudish or those easily prone to blush. These things are absolutely everywhere. Its a bit off-putting, isn't it?
MEGAN RITCHIE: The phallus is everywhere, but it's not off-putting.
LIAM BARTLETT: It's not?
MEGAN RITCHIE: Every building, every house, they have them hanging from the ceiling, hanging from the roofs on the outside. It's a source of protection, not at all off-putting.
LIAM BARTLETT: Well n-not that that's a bad thing. This is the 'Divine Madman' monastery - Bhutan's answer to a fertility clinic. Where with due reverence and ceremony men and women come to be blessed by you guessed it - a giant 'Johnson'.
MEGAN RITCHIE: It's said that couples who are having trouble conceiving can come to this monastery and be blessed by ah, the phallus.
LIAM BARTLETT: So when you were donged with the donger, that's a fertility thing.
MEGAN RITCHIE: It's, it's definitely a fertility thing. It's a blessing. It's a pretty magical place. The Bhutanese often say that you should suspend rationality and see where it takes you.
LIAM BARTLETT: I wouldn't call this incredibly secure.
MEGAN RITCHIE: Oh, it's very secure.
LIAM BARTLETT: Are you just saying that to make me feel better?
MEGAN RITCHIE: You should have seen what they had before they replaced it.
LIAM BARTLETT: After spending time here, I can't help but want this amazing national experiment to succeed. After all, Bhutan's got an enviable opportunity to decide what it wants from the west and what to reject. Not one single McDonalds store here? How long can you hold out?
JIGME THINLEY: There are certain aspects of 'McDonaldisation' that we will welcome. The hamburger is not one of them. You can almost feel this nation's eyes widening as it looks out on our world. A world kept out for so long. What the Bhutanese want most, though, is to hold on to what they already have. And what all of us really want - quite simply - to be happy.
JIGME THINLEY: We have the strength I believe to preserve, to keep what must be kept and to change what must be changed and to throw away, discard, what no longer proves useful for our own advancement.
LIAM BARTLETT: I admire you for trying but it's... ..a big, big challenge.
JIGME THINLEY: It's a big challenge but then, on the other hand, we are a peaceful country, we are a stable country. In many ways we are unique.