Wednesday 30 December 2009


Since ever I can remember I have been told that Scotland is too small to run its own affairs. Perhaps as a result of this I have always been interested in small countries that do manage to make their own way in the world. Add to that that I’m a great fan of railways.... (I love travelling by train...I’m not a train spotter!!!), and you'll see why I couldn’t resist this story which I found in The Times.

Bhutan is to have its first railway after the King agreed a plan with India to build an 11-mile link between the two countries. It will mark the country’s boldest step yet into the modern world. The Buddhist kingdom had no roads or telephones until 1960 and no television until 1999. The new track will offer one of the most breathtaking rail journeys in the world across the foot of the Himalayas.

An agreement was signed last weekend when Bhutan’s 29-year-old monarch Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk, visited India on his first official trip abroad since he formally assumed the crown last year.

King Jigme, who was educated at Eton and Oxford, is keen to expand trade links with India, which accounts for 98% of Bhutan’s imports and about 90% of its exports — mostly hydropower.

Bhutan held its first parliamentary election last year, transforming itself from an absolute monarchy into the world’s youngest democracy. The new Government is under pressure to develop the fledgling economy. India, on the other hand, is trying to stop China challenging its status as the dominant economic and military power in the region. Bhutan has close cultural ties to Tibet, but its relations with India are underpinned by a 60-year-old friendship treaty that grants Delhi a say in Bhutanese foreign and defence policy in exchange for financial aid.

The new railway will use the same broad gauge as most others on the Indian sub-continent, as opposed to the narrower standard gauge used in China. India also offered to build new railway links to Nepal this year after China was reported to have proposed extending its new trans-Tibet railway to the Nepalese border and building an entire domestic rail network for its impoverished neighbour.

Bhutan has a population of 635,000, 60 per cent of whom survive on subsistence farming; 15,000 to 20,000 of them are monks. Archery is the national sport. Smoking is illegal, as is felling a tree or killing a fish. Bhutan caps its number of tourists at 10,000 a year — fewer than Antarctica. Every house is built in traditional style and most people wear national costume: for men, a wraparound robe worn with knee-length socks; for women, an ankle-length dress with jacket.

Despite, or maybe because of its isolated situation in the world, it is the eighth-happiest country in the world, according to a 2006 survey conducted by the University of Leicester.

There may be a lesson for Scotland there......


  1. Danny, 1st Earl of the OzarksJanuary 01, 2010 11:15 am

    Tris....really a very interesting article. But as you know, I can never resist a smart a** comment.

    As for the happiness bit. I suppose it's not possible to prevent university academics from doing surveys and studies about things which have no conceivable objective meaning.....e.g. "happiness."

    That aside, just what were all those subsistence farmers of Bhutan all that happy ABOUT anyway? No money and not much food.....but nothing much to buy anyway I guess. And maybe there are not all that many PO'd smokers and fisherman in country to answer those survey questions.

    Anyway, off topic, but I had to find out more about that happiness list:

    The 20 happiest nations in the World in the 2006 study were:

    1. Denmark
    2. Switzerland
    3. Austria
    4. Iceland
    5. The Bahamas
    6. Finland
    7. Sweden
    8. Bhutan
    9. Brunei
    10. Canada
    11. Ireland
    12. Luxembourg
    13. Costa Rica
    14. Malta
    15. The Netherlands
    16. Antigua and Barbuda
    17. Malaysia
    18. New Zealand
    19. Norway
    20. The Seychelles

    Other notable results include:

    23. USA
    35. Germany
    41. UK
    62. France
    82. China
    90. Japan
    125. India
    167. Russia

    And the three least happy countries were:

    176. Democratic Republic of the Congo
    177. Zimbabwe
    178. Burundi

    I see that the USA beat out Germany and the UK by a bit.....but all three were happier than France. As for Bhutan, the scenery looks great, but I bet the night life really sucks. :-)

  2. Danny:

    The thing that bothers me is that we pay for these academics to do these surveys.

    I remember watching a documentary a few years ago about a tribe of people in the Amazon jungles. Even in the early 21st century they still had no consumer goods at all. The were nomadic, making their houses of leaves and they ate berries and sometimes animals if they could catch any. They had nothing at all. Yet they were incredibly happy. They smiled all the time.

    For a while afterwards I wondered about the fact that on my way to work I never saw anyone smile. People worried about money, jobs, houses, kids' drugs/girlfriends/boyfriends, missing favourite tv programmes... all things that would never bother these people, and I wondered who has got it right.

    I'm surprised to see the UK above France. Having lived in both I would have to say that the French appear to have a 'joie de vivre' completely lacking here.... But we must believe the academics....

    I'm guessing that the Icelandic figure may have dropped a little since 2006!!!

  3. Danny, 1st Earl of the OzarksJanuary 01, 2010 3:29 pm


    Like you, I was surprised at America and the UK positioned above the French. Maybe an artifact of certain assumptions underlying the study.

    And your point is very well taken about what might legitimately constitute personal happiness in vastly differing societies and cultures. How can I say that the subsistence farmers of Bhutan should not be truly happy because they don't have the material goods that I have? Like you, I've certainly seen all those people going about in "advanced" western cultures with hardly a smile on their faces.

    That said, I'm always suspicious about the motives of Kings and politicians. And it seems that the former King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck (ruled 1972-2006), personally coined the term "Gross National Happiness (GNH)" as an alternative to Gross National Product (GNP) or Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a key development indicator. Kings being kings, I have an idea that the peasants were told to be VERY happy when western academics came poking around with those happiness surveys. No doubt that the old king wanted his GNH number to stay very high....LOL.

    While I haven't been able to locate an internet source to confirm it, I have a clear recollection of reading about an incident which had occurred at the coronation of Jigme Singye as King of Bhutan in 1974. US President Nixon's diplomatic representative to the coronation was the then US Ambassador to India, Daniel Patrick Moynihan (later four term US Senator from New York). He was invited to participate with other members of the diplomatic delegation in an archery contest....archery being very big in Bhutan. Well, one of Ambassador Moynihan's arrows went astray and struck one of the Bhutanese. The man was not seriously hurt, but shooting a member of the host country with an arrow, during a coronation ceremony, is nevertheless considered something of a diplomatic faux pas. Moynihan (impeccably attired in his morning coat) was obviously greatly embarrassed. But his hosts were really very nice about it. Although I suspect that the guy with the arrow in him was not at that moment one of the happy people of Bhutan.....LOL.

  4. Danny,

    What a fantastic story. I can't begin to imagine the embarrassment of the poor envoy hitting that poor Bhutanese whilst taking part in the archery competition. Good one. I like the fact you always have a tale to tell. Very entertaining!!

    I suspect you are right though. I wonder how reliable any of these figures are about happiness, especially when the King wanted you to be happy!

    I'd still like to take a ride on that train when it's finished though. Imagine the scenery.

  5. Danny, 1st Earl of the OzarksJanuary 02, 2010 3:52 am

    Yes Tris.....what a wonderful train ride that would be. The awesome scenery of the region would be breathtaking....not to mention the traditional architecture and the people in national attire. The picture you posted is something right out of Shangri La.

  6. Danny: When I win the lottery I'l invite you to join me on the train journey... Date?