Bhutan; perhaps best known as the little landlocked country that made waves in international media for being known as the happiest country in the world. Happiness is a simple concept yet highly elusive from most people in the big cities. How did the Himalayan kingdom, so seemingly deprived of all things material, clinch the title for highest collective happiness? I finally had the chance to visit the supposed last Shangri-la last December to see for myself.
To begin with, Bhutan is a stunningly beautiful country. Deep valleys, endless rolling hills, meandering rivers, lush greenery. The perfect recipe for gorgeous landscapes. The uniformly traditional architecture across cities and villages perfectly preserves the religious and historical integrity of the country. While the aesthetic appeal is no match for the intricate carvings in European cathedrals, the sprawling views from their precarious locations up in the mountains more than make up for it. Furthermore, traditional Bhutanese garb is seen on almost every local in the city. Its as if walking through a museum snapshot of the cities in all its ancient heritage and history.
The country is steeped in religious values and beliefs, and you can see the influence Buddhism has on the people, laws, and ways of life. Monasteries and Dzongs (fortresses) make up the key landmarks of every town and city. Their chief abbott is regarded like royalty. Signboards with religious teachings replace road signs, scattered across the wild and charming hillsides. At each turn in the mountain road, prayer flags in every colour billow with the wind. In each corner, the silence is punctuated by the music of prayer wheels; the people believe that the soft chimes spread blessings and cleanse the souls of all who hear it.
The conscious effort that goes into keeping Mother Nature untouched and unpolluted is admirable to say the least. Valley views are not interrupted by towering skyscrapers, nor are hills lined with manmade concrete pavements. The rivers are clear and free of plastic and debris. It is even illegal to climb some mountains in Bhutan because they are regarded as the holiest sites, closest to the heavens. At the famous Tiger’s Nest, many tourists moan about the 6 hour arduous hike and lack of a mass transportation device (i.e. cable car). Personally, the beauty of the monastery is amplified by the effort that takes to reach it, and that there is scarcely any sign of man’s interference on the frequently trodden path is truly amazing. When you stop, out of breath from climbing, it gives you a chance to breathe in the fresh mountain air and appreciate the surrounding views.
And the greatest attraction of all, the people.
After centuries of self-isolation, Bhutan was only opened up to the rest of the world in the past few decades. Television and the Internet were foreign concepts, and so was tourism. When you take a long hard look at the cities’ amenities and standard of living, it is evidently lacking in comparison to what we are used to. The essentials we take for granted are greatly appreciated in Bhutan, and the people love life regardless of what they have. Take a hot cup of tea on a cold winter day. They do not berate the weakness in taste or lacklustre milk. They relish the heat that spreads through their bellies and warm their hands. Wealth is not a marker for happiness, nor is it indicative of one’s success in life. The kind and devout are seen as the richest for they are closest to the heaven, where money and material things cannot cross over and remain in the mortal realm along with pain and suffering.
In other words, they are contented, a state harder to derive and maintain than happiness. In our present society with all its digital connectivity, it is painfully impossible to stay contented with what we have when social media is constantly telling us how much better someone else has it. Even the happiness of personal achievement such as a new purchase or a job promotion will be fleeting when faced with comparison, because there will always be a more expensive car/handbag/house or a bigger promotion happening to someone else. Yet by some miracle, the Bhutanese people have surpassed us all in this aspect.
So will I recommend Bhutan as a travel destination?
Do not go to Bhutan if you are out to relax and unwind like you would at the beach or a spa vacation. The bumpy roads will add more knots to your back. Do not go to Bhutan if you expect to be wined and dined. Limited local produce and the “no killing” rule mean that the quality and freshness of food is rather limited. Do not go to Bhutan if you want to feel comfortable and pampered. Even the main street of the capital city gets blackouts. Do not go to Bhutan if you want world class amenities for the price you pay, because Wi-Fi is really bad there and lets face it, Bhutan is expensive. Do not go to Bhutan if you are lazy, because only hiking will give you the best views.
Go to Bhutan, if you want to experience Mother Nature in her purest form. Go to Bhutan, without expectations of any kind. Go to Bhutan, with an open mind and heart. Go to Bhutan, for amazing panoramic views of the Himalayan range. Go to Bhutan, for an immersive pilgrimage experience if you are a Buddhist. Go to Bhutan, for a First World experience in a Third World country. Go to Bhutan, if you want to meet some of the warmest welcoming hearts of the world. Go to Bhutan, if you are curious about this bizarre little country that has so little and so much. Go to Bhutan, if you wish to be humbled.
Last but not least, go to Bhutan soon. Perhaps I am just way too jaded, but from what I can observe, the effects of globalisation have seeped into the Bhutanese society, especially the younger generation. The world out there is a large juicy oyster, and as much as they love their country, personal dreams and aspirations are not so easily quenched when comparisons and temptations enter the equation. By external exposure, the innocence and naivety that make Bhutan so precious will start to crack. The development that ensues will derive greater economic disparities, and social problems will start to surface like in every other country in the world. The concept of contentment may cease to exist. Change, in this case, is imminent but not ideal to the selfish outsider that I am who wants the country to remain as is.
Bhutan was the perfect way to end my 2016. The trip shifted my perspectives, to fully appreciate what I really had going for me, derive joy out of the things that I always took for granted, and understand contentment. I am also thankful that I was able to bring my mother on this trip, an item on the bucket list for both of us. My sense for adventure comes from her, and I am glad we could tick it off together.
I will go back to Bhutan, perhaps for a solid hiking trip or to see the even more untouched Eastern side of the country. More detailed posts about Paro, Thimpu, Punakha, and the famous Tiger’s Nest will follow, but for the meantime, I hope this satisfies the general curiosity!