Now, measuring the happiness of an entire nation might sound about as feasible and worthwhile as conducting a census of the fairy population, but it’s the analysis of these countries that makes the annual report valuable. It seems that what keeps the Dutch grinning from ear to ear, year on year, is their strong sense of community.
And there’s no greater example of this than the country’s Four Days Marches, or Vierdaagse, a long-distance multi-day walking event that has brought the Dutch people together since 1909. Back then it was largely a military affair, with some 306 participants, 296 of them soldiers, who marched with the aim of promoting sport and exercise to the masses.
In the proceeding 110 years, popularity grew and the ratio shifted: now the event welcomes 40,000-plus participants, largely civilians, from around the world.
It’s earned the tag line ‘The Walk of the World’ because of its status as the world’s largest walking event and because of the diversity of its participants. The event attracts friends, families, couples, colleagues, neighbours; children, teenagers, adults, pensioners; Nigerians, Taiwanese, Nepalese, Chileans, Kazakhs and more.
This year saw a Thai participant: 12-year-old Natthaphon “Phum” Sanguannarm from Phuket. Not only was Phum the only Thai participant – out of 44,702 – he was also one of two children to walk 40 kilometres each day, while most walked 30. Participants walk 30, 40 or 50km daily depending on their age and (somewhat controversially) gender, but Phum went up a category so he could experience the walk with his father, Steven van Leeuwarden.
The walk is often underestimated and a few thousand participants drop out each year. Sometimes it just takes a little perspective to appreciate the distance. Phum and Steven walked 160km in total, which is close to four marathons and the equivalent of walking from Kata to Phuket International Airport and back twice. Military participants also walk 160km but face the added challenge of wearing full uniform and carrying at least 10 kilograms.
Training began in earnest for Phum and Steven in January with early morning strolls from their home in Rawai to the family business, Phuket-Scuba.com, in Kata and regular laps around Bang Wad reservoir in Kathu. As well as building their fitness and improving their pace, the walks gave Phum the opportunity to decide whether walking was something he enjoyed and whether he was up for the challenge of his first Four Days Marches.
Steven had some idea of what was to come, having lived and studied in Nijmegen, where the walk takes place, and taken on the 50km route four times previously.
The Four Days Marches takes a different route each day, through the rural landscape of Gelderland, Brabant and Limburg provinces and through the city of Nijmegen and its outskirts. Walkers mingle with fellow walkers and onlookers who turn out to show their support – whether that’s enthusiastic jeers at 5am from partygoers on their way home as the walkers set off, or locals handing out drinks and snacks in front of their homes. Spirits are high and the community buzz reverberates around the narrow suburban backstreets and the country hills.
Phum and Steven walked hand in hand, distracting themselves from their blistered feet and sore muscles by joining in with the soldiers’ songs as they marched by and spotting supercars. Wide-eyed, Phum recalls the Porsches and Ferraris he passed en route, and was chuffed to see that his name appeared in the Four Days Marches official programme under the number 33, the number of his racing hero Max Verstappen who competes under the Dutch flag in Formula One.
Phum is similarly pleased with his Cross for the Four Day Marches, or Vierdaagsekruis, a decoration awarded to participants who complete the walk. Resemblant of a war medal, Dutch soldiers often add the royally-approved decoration to their military uniform.
And participants are certainly made to feel like returning heroes. As walkers approach the finish line on day four, spectators hand them gladioli, sword-shaped flowers that were thrown over victorious gladiators in Roman times and are immortalised in the Dutch saying ‘death or the gladioli’, meaning ‘all or nothing.’ The final stretch, St. Annastraat, is even renamed Via Gladiola every year for the event.
Phum and Steven shed some tears as they walked along the Via Gladiola – tears of exhaustion but mainly of joy and of pride. And who could blame them? I think I would too if my country made me feel like a triumphant gladiator, and perhaps that same country would fare a little better in the happiness stakes…