Bhutan: Hap­pi­ness on the roof of the world

Bhutan Times - - Editorial - Ciara Fer­gu­son

Colour­ful prayer flags flut­ter in the wind like whis­pered prayers in re­mem­brance of de­parted souls. In front of us are the dark green forested moun­tains and val­leys of lush bright green rice fields mir­rored with sil­very wa­ter glint­ing in the sun. In the far dis­tance are the pur­ple and white-topped peaks of the mighty Hi­malayas. This is the tiny king­dom of Bhutan.

We have walked far and up­wards in the in­tense heat. We re­move our shoes and cover our arms as we step in­side the colour­ful cool in­te­rior of a golden tem­ple. We are not Bud­dhist, but we are wel­come. In­side, but­ter lamps burn as of­fer­ings. It is oth­er­worldly. In such pris­tine peace all is not lost. In­deed, noth­ing seems lost here.

There is noth­ing or­di­nary about Bhutan. Not even un­hap­pi­ness. It is the last great Hi­malayan king­dom, a mys­te­ri­ous and mag­i­cal place where a de­vout Bud­dhist cul­ture care­fully opened its doors to the world in 1974 and, as a young democracy took de­ter­mined con­trol of its fu­ture in 2008. It would seem vul­ner­a­ble, a small moun­tain­ous coun­try of only 700,000 peo­ple, a land­locked mass of crum­pled rock sur­rounded by the giants of Ti­bet (China) on the one side and In­dia on the other. Some peo­ple call it the last Shangri La.

Out­side the tem­ple young teenage Bud­dhist monks - boys dressed in red and yel­low robes - are, hap­pily it seems, study­ing scrip­tures and in their down­time play­ing Candy Crush on their smart­phones.

Sonam Tsh­er­ing is the prin­ci­pal of this monastery in Pu­nakha to which we have trekked, and he gra­ciously offers us tea and snacks. We don’t need sym­pa­thy. Not while we are here. There is na­ture all around. It is ut­terly quiet. Clouds lie be­neath us. Per­spec­tive takes a shift.

The Bhutanese are best known for their hap­pi­ness. Ev­ery­thing is mea­sured in Gross Na­tional Hap­pi­ness (GNH). The gov­ern­ment sur­veys its peo­ple ev­ery year with ques­tions re­lated to the state of their hap­pi­ness.

The peo­ple cer­tainly ap­pear easy go­ing and they smile a lot. They don’t have a lot, but they do have enough. Of prime im­por­tance is that ed­u­ca­tion and health­care are free for all.

The coun­try is aim­ing for com­plete self-suf­fi­ciency. Tourism and hy­dro­elec­tric power, the ex­cess of which is sold to In­dia, are the main source of in­come.

Depend­ing on the al­ti­tude, an abun­dance of crops are grown. Red rice which forms the sta­ple diet at one level, po­ta­toes at an­other, or­anges and chill­ies ga­lore. Peo­ple make their own milk, but­ter and cheese from their cows and yaks. They weave yak hair into clothes and bags. They grow all sorts of veg­eta­bles, or­gan­i­cally, nat­u­rally, not as an added bonus. They do eat meat on oc­ca­sion, but never kill or eat their own an­i­mals.

Much of their hap­pi­ness seems to stem from their de­vout Bud­dhist learn­ing that all things stem from a clear mind. Even the wild dogs’ in­ces­sant bark­ing at night don’t dis­turb the peo­ple as they are said to be chas­ing away evil spir­its.

The Bhutanese pride them­selves on a sus­tain­able ap­proach to tourism in line with their GNH pol­icy. They have opted for a high-end, low vol­ume tourism. For­eign vis­i­tors fa­mously pay a min­i­mum tar­iff of around €200 a day mak­ing it seem an ex­pen­sive desti­na­tion. But the fee is all-in­clu­sive of ac­com­mo­da­tion (at 3-star level or sup­ple­mented for higher), all food, trans­port and an of­fi­cial guide. You do not need to go in a group and you can or­gan­ise your own itin­er­ary. It’s a brave move by a coun­try in­tent on the long-term view.

Hav­ing flown dra­mat­i­cally over Mt Ever­est with Drukair into the val­ley of Paro at 2,280m we have six days in which to cover West­ern Bhu- tan. It is quite enough time.

The car jour­ney isn’t hard if you don’t mind driv­ing along wind­ing moun­tain roads - most, but not all of them, re­cently widened and up­graded, with sheer drops and mag­nif­i­cent views. We have a ca­pa­ble driver called Gangla (who, in­ci­den­tally, has two wives, as polygamy is ac­cept­able in Bhutan) and a warm, at­ten­tive guide called Drakpa Dorji. Both are car­ing for us courtesy of Blue Poppy Tours, one of the old­est and one of the best agents op­er­at­ing in Bhutan with an of­fice in Lon­don.

I am sur­prised by how fer­tile and pris­tine the land­scape is, forested and far greener than I imag­ined for a moun­tain-scape, with sweep­ing val­leys and snow-topped peaks. By law, 60pc of the coun­try must re­main forested for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. At the mo­ment it is 70pc.

Our first stop is Thim­phu, the cap­i­tal of Bhutan, and an hour’s drive from Paro air­port. Here there are no traf­fic lights, no fast food joints, no ad­ver­tis­ing (apart from posters of the king), no smok­ing (despite the fact that mar­i­juana grows wild), no rob­bery, no beg­ging, no build­ings over six storeys and all built to a strict code of the beau­ti­ful tra­di­tional Bhutanese-style ar­chi­tec­ture. Ev­ery­one, in­clud­ing school­child­ren, wears the colour­ful wo­ven tra­di­tional dress, the Gho for the men and the Kira for the woman.

One of the high­lights of Thim­phu is vis­it­ing the School of Tra­di­tional Arts. Bhutan has, amaz­ingly, re­tained its 13 indige­nous arts and crafts in­clud­ing paint­ing, sculp­ture, em­broi­dery, met­al­work, and wood­turn­ing, and they are all still ac­tively and se­ri­ously taught to stu­dents over a four to six-year pe­riod.

In Thim­phu we spent the first two nights at the Norkhil Bou­tique. It’s a beau­ti­fully de­signed lo­cally owned new hotel with large modern rooms over­look­ing the moun-

tains, ever pleas­ant staff, and a fan­tas­tic In­dian chef in the restau­rant. Owner Chuni Dorji ex­plains that the king gave her father the land as a gift for his mil­i­tary ser­vice and she spent 10 years per­suad­ing him to let her build a hotel, which was de­signed by her ar­chi­tect hus­band.

Our sec­ond two-day stop is the val­ley of Pu­nakha, three hours’ drive from Thim­phu. On our way we as­cend to 3,050m via the Dochu La pass where 108 stu­pas (Bud­dhist med­i­ta­tion/me­mo­rial shrines) over­look the most per­fect view of the vast blue tinted Eastern Hi­malaya range.

In the af­ter­noon we walk across the ter­raced rice fields to Chimi Lhakhang (Tem­ple of Fer­til­ity) built in the 15th Cen­tury by the Di­vine Mad­man who was said to bring Bud­dhism to Bhutan - and to use his gi­ant pe­nis to clob­ber the demons into sub­mis­sion. For this rea­son, phal­luses of all shapes and sizes greet us in the vil­lage - free­stand­ing wooden va­ri­eties and painted on the walls of ev­ery house to ward off evil. Quite.

Pu­nakha Dzong - the largest and most beau­ti­ful fortress on the river - is shared by the monks and the gov­ern­ment ad­min­is­tra­tion. Our guide re­counts Bud­dhist his­tory sto­ries of fly­ing tigers, drag­ons and demons, tales of magic and myth told in real time. He doesn’t dif­fer­enti- ate be­tween the nat­u­ral and the su­per­nat­u­ral. It’s a liv­ing Bud­dhist his­tory and a kind of mag­i­cal think­ing that is quite breath­tak­ing.

In Pu­nakha we are stay­ing at Amankora, a beau­ti­ful modern eight-room lodge de­signed by the late well-known ar­chi­tect Kerry Hill. The rooms are built around an old farm­house once in­hab­ited by the abbess and later the queen mother.

Amankora (mean­ing cir­cu­lar jour­ney) is part of the Aman luxury chain with five lodges lo­cated all over Bhutan. The novel idea is that you travel from one to the other on your jour­ney through Bhutan.

We spend the next two nights at Amankora Paro, iden­ti­cal to Pu­nakha in its min­i­mal­ist de­sign of wood and nat­u­ral fab­ric in­te­ri­ors but big­ger with 24 rooms set amid a for­est of blue pine.

Paro is our fi­nal desti­na­tion and the main rea­son to stop here is the fa­mous Tiger’s Nest Monastery.

It is an im­por­tant pil­grim­age site for the Bhutanese and tourist alike. A breath­less two-hour hike up 900m to the un­like­li­est tem­ple in the world that hugs the side of the moun­tain like a nest, it doesn’t dis­ap­point.

There are so many rea­sons to visit this unique and spe­cial coun­try.

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