If I’d had time to plan ahead, I wouldn’t have found myself in Bhutan during the long holiday in late April to early May. Bhutan’s requirement that foreign tourists book through a government-licensed tour operator (exempted from this are citizens of Bangladesh, India, and Maldives) makes it a level playing field for Vietnamese, who need visas to travel to most parts of the world and thus always have to plan way in advance. At the same time, the starting rate of US$250 (VND5.6 million) per night for peak season (US$200 or VND4.5 million for off-peak) — even though it covers accommodation, food, a guide, and transportation within the country — is affordable only for travellers with deep pockets.
But I recall the advice of Karma, my colleague from the Bhutan Royal Police: Travel is only going to get more expensive, so now is always the best time to go. The upside is that if you travel in your own group of three or more people, you can choose your own itinerary and — as in our case — demand to eat somewhere else when you can’t handle another bite of cheese (a favourite Bhutan food that seems to feature in almost every dish).
Dubbed the happiest place on earth, Bhutan has every right to preserve its land and people from the damaging environmental and social effects of mass tourism, and it’s not hard to see the benefits of its restrictive tourism policy. Weeding out the backpackers who scrape by on US$20 (VND450,000) a day (or less) in neighbouring India and Nepal, frees up Bhutan’s hotels for older, richer travellers. (These travellers are also better behaved — at least, they don’t talk too loud or drink too much.)
We booked our tour through an agency owned by a Bhutanese man with a Vietnamese wife named Ha (who turned out not to be the only Bhutanese-Vietnamese husband and wife travel agents in Bhutan!). Ha was able to give us a better discount than other agents thanks to her side business of exporting cordyceps sinensis (a rare fungus which is a highly prized remedy in traditional Oriental medicine retailing at a minimum of US$40,000 or VND900 million per kg) to Vietnam. The collection and sale of Bhutanese cordyceps, often called the Gold of the Himalayas, is strictly regulated and controlled by the government. Thanks to her husband’s connection to the royal family (his late brother was a teacher to the princes), Ha has gained access to a very lucrative business.
The Royal Family
It is evident that Bhutan’s kings and royal family are worshipped like gods. (We’re inclined to think it’s because all five kings look so good and smart.) Their photos can be seen everywhere. A billboard-sized photo of the fifth king and his queen, Jetsun Pema, stared into our eyes as we stepped down from the plane at Paro airport. (It looked like a poster of a couple from a Chinese martial arts series.) Pictures of the kings hung on the walls of restaurants and on the altars of the houses where we home-stayed. We saw people wearing badges with the royal couple’s photo (you can buy one at virtually any souvenir shop) on their bag or their national dress (the kira for women, the gho for men). You might think this was some kind of personality cult, like the Kim dynasty in North Korea.
The reality is that the kings have done a lot for the country. The fourth king, the most revered of all five, came up with the great concept of Gross National Happiness, an alternative to Gross National Product that has captured the interest of the United Nations and which aims to balance the necessary pursuit of economic growth with the fundamental values of kindness, equality and humanity.
Happiness is not Simple…
While the concept of happiness sounds very subjective, as I learned from the handbook our tour guide was carrying, Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index is rigorously developed from 33 indicators categorized under nine domains of equal weighting. Questions used to measure levels of happiness range from During the past few weeks, how often did you experience jealousy? (psychological well-being) to How would you rate your knowledge on how HIV/AIDS is transmitted? (education) to Do you feel like a stranger in your family? (community vitality).
Under this holistic approach, four levels of happiness are identified: deeply happy, extensively happy, narrowly happy, or unhappy. (The last two groups form a category of ‘not-yet-happy’ people). Contrary to the popular myth that the majority of Bhutanese are happy, by these standards, in a 2010 survey, only 41% of the population scored “happy” (i.e., deeply happy or extensively happy). This shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering how thorough and comprehensive the index is. Currently jobless and husbandless myself, I found the charts on happiness by occupation and marital status very comforting. The unemployed are happier than corporate employees, housewives, farmers, or the national work force; and unmarried people and young people are among the happiest.
But the Lifestyle is…
While Bhutan turns out to be less isolated and Shangri-La-like in reality than in my imagination, the country can still teach us a powerful lesson about life. Bhutan was the last country on earth where television was introduced (1999). Except for the smart phones that everyone seems to have — including the engrossed young monks in front of the Punakha Dzong — the majority of people have no idea about luxury brands or consumerism.
Most people are clad in traditional clothes of fine-quality, expensive material, which are therefore durable and often passed down to younger generations. If you work at, or need to visit, any government office, or a cultural place such as a dzong or a monastery, you are expected to wear a kira or gho. So why bother to wear anything else? Especially if your traditional clothes are well-made, beautiful, and — we found to our surprise — not uncomfortable. In a village bar in Bumthang, where our guide grew up, we watched in awe some local girls singing and dancing comfortably in their kira, wearing shoes that looked like the platforms worn by the Spice Girls in the 1990s. Ha lent us kira to wear to the Domkhar festival in Bumthang and, playing with local children, we found we could move around more easily than we would have in our Vietnamese ao dai.
It may have been the spirit of the festival, or the sunny, cool spring weather, but the local people seemed very relaxed and happy to me. They were wearing their most beautiful kira and gho, and watched appreciatively as the dancers whirled around in their colourful costumes. A local woman readily let her kids play with the strangers (us) and even coaxed her son to smile for the group photos we took.
In the capital city of Thimphu, where, in Karma’s words, things happen at a faster pace and people are more stressed out, we still easily spotted people playing board games on the streets or otherwise enjoying themselves in the company of their friends. Even the kids walking to school appeared happier than their counterparts in Vietnam. They were carrying light bags and lunch boxes in their hands instead of struggling with heavy backpacks full of books. Bhutan’s “cities” appear to still enjoy the slow, deliberate pace of rural life.
If you retain only one word of Dzongkha (the national language of Bhutan) after your trip, it will probably be dzong, which means fortress. While some dzongs used to be residences of the royal family, most serve now as district administrative offices or residences for monks. There was at least one dzong every place we went, each one beautiful and impressive in its own way: Thimpu Dzong illuminating the skyline at night; Punakha Dzong at the confluence of the Mo Chu (Mother River) and Pho Chu (Father River) with its picture-perfect jacaranda trees blossoming purple against the backdrop of the dzong’s white walls; Trongsa Dzong standing proudly on the hills overlooking the Mangde River.
To be honest, looking at the few photos I took, I wouldn’t be able to tell the interiors of these dzongs apart without the location setting on my iPhone. Yet walking around their courtyards, it was impossible not to marvel at the fine craftsmanship of the paintings and carvings on the multi-coloured wood facades and doors and small arched windows. There was something impressively peaceful and serene about the young monks in their deep red robes going about their life in the dzong, undistracted by the curious tourists taking photos.
The Right Faith for Happiness?
When I asked him what was the secret of Bhutanese happiness, Karma attributed it to faith in the teaching of Lord Buddha and daily prayers for the peace and happiness of all sentient beings in this world.
A testament to this faith is the popular activity of spinning prayer wheels — as many as possible — we observed at the dzongs and monasteries. Spinning a prayer wheel is supposed to have the same effect as reciting the mantra Om mani padme hum which is printed on the wheel. Some elderly people we saw were sitting and spinning hand-held prayer wheels to avoid the effort of walking around from wheel to wheel.
The Bhutanese believe in karma, life after death, and reincarnation. Maybe it was no coincidence that my colleague was named Karma and so were two out of four authors of the Gross National Happiness book. Himalayan Buddhism seems to permeate all aspects of Bhutanese life.
In this Buddhist country, it seemed a bit scandalous to us to see phalluses painted artfully — and prominently — on walls or carved and hung proudly from the eaves of houses. They are thought to drive away evil spirits and bring good luck. There is a famous wooden phallus in residence at Chimi Lhakhang, a monastery near Punakha that was blessed by the “Divine Madman” Drukpa Kunley. The monastery is now a pilgrimage site where many Bhutanese and tourists come to pray for fertility. While most other monasteries we visited were ours to discover, Chimi Lhakhang was disconcertingly popular. The muddy walk to the entrance was crowded with giggling women of all ages, who I believe were not visiting for the fertility blessing so much as for the story behind the unconventional Buddhist master.
Drukpa Kunley, who migrated to Bhutan from Tibet in the 15th century, became famous for his irreverent practice of Buddhism, his unconcealed enjoyment of drinking and women, and for subduing a demoness with his “flaming thunderbolt of infinite wisdom” — which explains his popularity with laypeople. A poem he wrote hints at his formula for happiness:
The best wine lies at the bottom of the pail,
And happiness lies below the navel.
As someone who has read extensively on the topic of happiness, I came to Bhutan hoping to glean some new insights from the happiest people on earth. Leaving Bhutan, I realised that its people’s secret of happiness is nothing I didn’t already know. Live simply, consume less, engage more with the people around you, be outdoors, be active, and have faith. And enjoying a bit of sex might not hurt, either.