In Bhutan from Far Away – Troy Wilkinson


The first thing to understand about a foreigner’s (or at least an American foreigner’s) basic perceptions about Bhutan (if they know of it) is that it consists of a simple trifecta. The three key points are that it’s supposed to be extremely happy due to Gross National Happiness (GNH), have the most environmentally loving culture due to its carbon negativity, and one of the most spiritually healthy communities in the world.

At least those were my perceptions/expectations when I first heard about Bhutan.And of course, those expectations haven’t matched my experience in Bhutan so far, which is fair. It’s quite unreasonable to hold Bhutan to that standard. I can’t think of many nations that’d be of such a caliber.

I come from the U.S.A., which has its own set of expectations and realities that likely clash for foreigners. I currently study at Royal Thimphu College and have learned a great deal about this country from conversations with my peers such as Kezang.

I’d like to detail a bit of the dissonance between my expectations and contemporary Bhutan. It might do some good for both parties, those looking to come to Bhutan and those looking to make their nation better as one of its citizens.

On the global stage I do think that Bhutan is, at a glance, seen as some champion of happiness. Which due to the adoption of GNH makes sense, but from what I’ve seen on the ground is not at all a fair label. Bhutanese people are very generous, at least to western “chillups”, but I don’t feel like the happiness is significantly higher than the many other parts of the stable, developed world.

There are still problems of divorce, alcoholism, mental health, physical health, etc. that weigh somewhat heavily upon many Bhutanese. And those are normal problems, but there’s not a clear support system, so far as I’ve seen, to get help regarding these aspects.

There’s an immensely deep importance regarding family in Bhutan, which I find a bit refreshing after coming from a culture where you leave living with your family right at the age of 18. This I think helps find a sense of place in the country, which might provide support, but also may mean less freedom for one to express themselves.

As GNH continues to be critiqued and implemented in its myriad of domains, I’m curious to see how these societal problems/aspects will be altered.

To me, Bhutan’s nature is a great promoter of happiness. I think it’s quite hard to argue against this country’s natural and cultural beauty.

I have fallen in love withThimphu’s surrounding mountains as well as the Bhutanese architecture. The buildings are just enough aesthetically while not being too complex to be distracting. The monasteries, such as Taktsang, make me humble in their almost magical stature. I’m left wondering how such buildings were ever created.

And while, yes, the environment is pristine and such a wonderful change from the concrete jungles of back home, I’m unsure if there is a genuine care for it. The legislation of 60 percent forest coverage is commendable, and no doubt a far more impressive policy for environmental protection than many other nations, but how will we know how strict or real this policy is until we rub against that lower limit? I haven’t seen the kind of care necessary to retain the health of vulnerable ecosystems in many of my Bhutanese peers. The impacts of waste, electricity use, water use, etc. don’t seem to be big on many Bhutanese minds.

When Bhutan reaches 61 percent forest coverage I want to see what happens. Will the lifestyles bend or will the environment and law? When the trash is scattered throughout the hiking trails of Thimphu, I want to see how quickly people fight to clean their natural world. I need to see the proof of this love of nature if this nation wants to claim it exists.

But to answer the frequent question I get which is, “am I enjoying Bhutan?” I would confidently and enthusiastically say yes. This country has been a loving and deep environment to me, one that has made me reflect upon my own values and identify ways I want to live my life more confidently and some ways live entirely differently.

Bhutan is a wonderful country, but it’s no exception to the woes of a developing nation. There are positives and negatives in every nation that we should acknowledge and consider. Problems of implementing laws and rapid development are going to boil in this nation for decades to come, but that’s simply a normal challenge for a country trying to make something amazing of itself.

Whether the policies of GNH and the like translate to real life, I’m nevertheless inspired by Bhutan’s ability to be different. I thank any Bhutanese reading for having me in their country, one of ambition and generosity as well as literal and figurative mountains to overcome.

(This is a guest post by Troy Wilkinson. Troy is an exchange student at Royal Thimphu College. He is from the U.S and studies Journalism at Colorado State Universtiy. He blogs at A Further Shore.)