There are many other examples of this kind of ecofriendliness. Plastic bags, the bane of the developing world, are banned; so are two-stroke engines. And the government has recently introduced tough fuel-quality laws. Fishing in most rivers is prohibited, as is hunting. Cattle grazing, which has so devastated the American Midwest, is restricted. Logging is limited, and mining is strictly controlled. June 2 is Coronation Day, but the king has discouraged pomp and parades, declaring the holiday Social Forestry Day and asking schools and communities to plant trees nationwide. At least 60 percent of Bhutan remains under forest cover, and a quarter of the land area is protected—including vast migration corridors, which allow wildlife to pass unimpeded from the Indian state of Assam into China.
"These efforts we are making at environmental protection are not a new thing," Sonam Kinga states. "They are not borne of the latest fads or concerns of destruction. They have always been a part of Bhutanese social life and behavior, interwoven with the influence of Buddhism in our society. It is an integral part of Gross National Happiness.
"For example," he explains, "we do not look at trees or rivers as mere biomass. We see them as living entities. Rocks are the abodes of certain deities that guarantee the protection of a community. Some animals, like the stag or tiger, are the mounts of local deities. So the influence of Buddhism has always been a key factor in conservation here. And not just of flora and fauna but even of nonhuman spirits. Our concept of protection extends beyond the physical biosphere."
An intense unity with the Buddhist homeland seems to define the Bhutanese personality. One evening, I stop in for a shot of "Dragon's Breath"—a local rum infused with Bhutanese chilies—at the popular Benez bar. There I meet Tshewang Dendup, a young Bhutanese journalist who has recently returned from 18 months at the University of California, Berkeley. When I ask Dendup if he was tempted to stay in America, he gapes at me in disbelief. Like nearly every Bhutanese who is educated abroad, Dendup flew home the moment his studies ended. "Standing in César Chávez Park, with San Francisco across the bay and the Berkeley hills behind me, I knew I was in a power place," he says, nodding. "But it never, ever tempted me to stay in the U.S.A. I was continually longing for a dose of Himalayan sanity."