Bhutan: A quest for the se­cret to hap­pi­ness

Bhutan Times - - Editorial - By Yeoh Siew Hoon

Isup­pose it is fit­ting that I write my first post­card for you from Bhutan, Land of the Thun­der Dragon. It is, af­ter all, the least vis­ited des­ti­na­tion in Asia (only 100,000 vis­i­tors in 2013) and pos­si­bly the most as­pired to by the grow­ing le­gions of trav­el­ers in my part of the world.

I was told that Amer­i­cans are one of Bhutan’s big­gest cus­tomers, as are Euro­peans (Ger­mans, French, Swiss), and it’s now begin­ning to see more vis­i­tors from Asia, par­tic­u­larly from coun­tries with Bud­dhist pop­u­la­tions. While I was there, I saw tourists from Malaysia, Sin­ga­pore, In­done­sia, Thai­land and, in­creas­ingly, China.

Be­cause it’s a lit­tle land­locked place be­tween In­dia and China, you’d ex­pect that Bhutan might feel a bit lost be­tween its two gi­ant neigh­bors. I live in Sin­ga­pore, and that’s a lit­tle place sand­wiched be­tween two big neigh­bors, Malaysia and In­done­sia, so I know what that can feel like.

But I have to say that in all my trav­els, I have not come across a place that has as strong an iden­tity, and that, I think, is the root of why Bhutan is how it is to­day: a place of grace, dig­nity and -- let’s not for­get -- hap­pi­ness.

This is the place, af­ter all, that gave the world the con­cept of Gross Na­tional Hap­pi­ness, the no­tion that a coun­try’s devel­op­ment should not just be mea­sured in terms of eco­nomic growth but should take into con­sid­er­a­tion four fac­tors: gov­er­nance, cul­ture, so­cioe­co­nomic devel­op­ment and the en­vi­ron­ment.

Bhutan cer­tainly scores high in cul­ture. When you visit vil­lages and monas­ter­ies, noth­ing is put on for the sake of tourism. You see monks go­ing about their daily rit­u­als, med­i­tat­ing, tak­ing mu­sic classes, break­ing for lunch, recit­ing their chants. And you can move freely among them as long as you re­spect the bound­aries. For ex­am­ple, once you re­move your shoes, no more pho­tos. And you should be dressed ap­pro­pri­ately.

It also rates well for en­vi­ron­ment, scor­ing among the top 10% of high­est species den­sity in the world. About 26% of the land is des­ig­nated as na­tional parks. This has very strong ap­peal for those of us who live in an in­creas­ingly ur­ban­ized Asia, where peo­ple are be­ing moved, in one gen­er­a­tion, from vil­lages to high-rise build­ing blocks.

You see and feel the na­ture as your plane ap­proaches Paro Air­port. That tight squeeze be­tween the moun­tains, the green val­leys spread out below you, and that land­ing in Paro Val­ley, which sits at 7,382 feet. Wow!

The air is fresh and thin. It can take some ad­just­ing to. You def­i­nitely feel breath­less the first cou­ple of days, and walk­ing up monastery steps can be a bit of a chal­lenge. But in Bhutan, life is lived at a slow pace, so no need to hurry, just take your time and go at your own pace.

As some­one who’s used to liv­ing life at a fast pace -- I lived in Hong Kong for a decade, and let me tell you, Hong Kong can make New York seem slow by com­par­i­son -- I con­stantly had to re­mind my­self to slow down. Breathe. Wait. Re­lax.

If any­thing, Bhutan re­minds you to do all that. And, oh yes, eat! Food is a big part of our cul­ture in Asia -- if we are not eat­ing, we’re talk­ing about food -- and as I was trav­el­ing with a group of Malaysians and Sin­ga­pore­ans, that sub­ject was a con­stant.

The food vis­i­tors are served in Bhutan is gen­er­ally bland, but there’s one thing I learned: In South­east Asia, we eat ev­ery­thing with chilies; in Bhutan, they eat chilies with ev­ery­thing -- that is, chilies are their main in­gre­di­ent. So if you want spicy, ask for their side dishes. A chili cheese dish called amar­dachi can get your taste buds soar­ing to Ever­est and back.

And here’s some­thing else I learned in Bhutan: They have the world’s high­est vir­gin moun­tain -vir­gin be­cause a few years ago, the king de­creed that no one should climb their moun­tains be­cause once, a long time ago, a team of Ja­panese scaled a Bhutanese peak and so much bad luck hap­pened to the team and the vil­lagers that they be­lieved the spir­its were dis­turbed.

So, if you like sto­ries of spir­its, love na­ture and meet­ing peo­ple with “good at­ti­tude” (I give their peo­ple top marks for sin­cer­ity, hos­pi­tal­ity and sense of hu­mor), head to Bhutan. This is a place the world has much to learn from, and who knows? You may even find the se­cret to hap­pi­ness.

Yeoh Siew Hoon, editorial direc­tor of North­star Travel Me­dia Asia, is the founder and edi­tor of Web in Travel, a con­tent and com­mu­nity plat­form for on­line travel pro­fes­sion­als in the Asia-Pa­cific re­gion. At heart a trav­eler and writer, her blog on www. we­bin­travel.com is a pop­u­lar ag­gre­ga­tion of her ex­pe­ri­ences on the road and is­sues fac­ing the travel busi­ness. She will write a monthly col­umn for Travel Weekly.

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