I am writing this in the Haa Valley, high in the Himalayas, in Druk Yul — the land of the peaceful thunder dragon (its name in Dzongkha the national language of Bhutan) — and known to the rest of the world as the Kingdom of Bhutan. The name alone captured my imagination, and as we explored the country we found nature at its most spectacular, welcoming, generous, and kind people, and a government that takes seriously, in both word and deed, its obligation to move the nation forward while preserving and encouraging its national culture and preserving its natural splendor.
Bhutan is a unique country, both culturally and environmentally. It is the world’s last remaining Buddhist Kingdom, although, since 2008, it has been a constitutional monarchy. Culturally, Bhutan is predominantly Buddhist with a national dress worn by everyone when they are at work or going to school, and a required, traditional architectural style that limits how buildings are designed and constructed.
Last week we were overlooking the Tang Valley. Imagine the vast expanse of a long wide valley, nestled high in the Himalayas, surrounded by towering mountains with their forests of Himalayan blue pine and rhododendrons. Farms with their bright green fields dot the valley floor as do terraces up the mountainsides. Houses and villages and temples and an endless number of schools are nestled on the valley floor and into the steep slopes. Add a raging river and a landscape filled with prayer flags and water driven prayer wheels, and you have a scene that takes your breath away.
But words can’t articulate (although I have written thousands of them during our visit) nor photographs capture (although we’ve taken hundreds and hundreds of them) the experience of viewing the spectacle beneath us. It is incomprehensible in the same way the vastness of the Grand Canyon is — too big and too majestic to grasp. Describing our experience as we looked over the valley is like trying to describe the feelings you get from a poem, or a great piece of music, or any work of art that wraps its arms around you and won’t let you go. But I’ll do my best.
On the way here, around every corner a new breathtaking vista unfolded, and while I hate being in a car (and on the sometimes brutal roads), I kept hoping we weren’t there yet.
This morning we hiked an ancient trail that has been used for more than a thousand years between Bhutan and Tibet. At our back was a snowcapped mountain, the border with Tibet.
Alongside the rock strewn river there were beautiful flowers, and we saw and heard birds I never knew existed. As we walked we came across two Bon (an ancient religion still practiced in this valley) shaman rituals — one dedicating a new alter and the other to drive away the evil spirits that were making someone sick. The latter included a Buddhist monk who had been meditating high in the mountains and had come down to the valley to visit his family. At the end of the ceremony there seemed to be a scuffle between the monk and someone who had been at the ceremony. Our guide explained that the man wanted to pay the monk, but the monk was adamantly refusing the money.
Later that day in a 16th century temple, we watched a ceremony where monks were chanting and playing horns for this auspicious month (the fourth month of the Bhutanese lunar calendar) — the birth year anniversary (Year of the Fire Monkey) of Guru Rinpoche who brought Buddhism to Bhutan from Tibet in the eighth century, the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Zhabdrung Rinpoche in 1616 from Tibet, who went on to unify the country, and the birth of Bhutan’s new baby prince in February.
And this was just one day of our trip.
But the Tang and Haa valleys are just two of an extraordinary number of deep mountain valleys in Bhutan. And as we traveled from the low valleys at 1400 meters through the passes at 4000 meters, the mountains were covered with untouched forests of chir pine and indigo; and Himalayan blue pine; and maple, hemlock, spruce, and juniper — depending on the altitude — with rhododendrons everywhere.
But there is more to Bhutan than its spectacular natural beauty.
As we learned about the culture and history of Bhutan, we met its people in national dress and jeans, and sweet children who would smile and wave when you said “Hello”, and would say “Hello” right back. We had tea and cookies and a bit of homemade distilled grain spirits (found in every village household and we were even given a bottle to take with us) with our guide’s wife and her mother in a small village in Tshangkha, and we did the same with our driver’s mother and brother in the Gangtey Valley, where the government is working to protect the black neck cranes that migrate here from Tibet to spend the winter. When they brought electricity to this valley, they buried the wires so as not to interfere with the cranes’ flying.
Then there was the cobbler we met when one of Linda’s shoes fell apart, and the local restaurants that got us away from the typical tourist fare, not to mention the pizza and salad (that tasted so good after 5 months in Southeast Asia) that we had with the owner of the tour company and his wife and baby.
Our guide was a devout Buddhist, and whenever we visited a temple he would walk around the temple spinning the prayer wheels, and after a while we found ourselves following along. He then would pray and make a donation, which we also ended up doing (the donation part). As we learned about the culture and religious practice in Bhutan, I began to understand that for the Bhutanese, Buddhism is not simply a religion, but a way of life. And what that evoked in both of us was a sense of calmness, tranquility, and peace — a feeling that all was right with the world.
We had an itinerary planned when we started the trip, and some of it we modified as we went along. A few days before we arrived, it was announced that the Tamshing Terton Pema Lingpa festival would be held at the newly completed Dordenma Shakyamuni Buddha (at 51.5 meters it is one of the largest Buddha statues in the world), overlooking the southern approach to Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan. It would be a celebration of the birth year anniversary of Guru Rinpoche, the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Zhabdrung Rinpoche from Tibet in 1616, and the birth of their new prince. One might notice a pattern here.
Because the royal family was there, no photos of the festival were allowed. Interestingly enough, we also have no photos of the magnificent interiors of the temples and monasteries we visited (you’ll just have to take our word for how beautiful they are, or better yet, see them for yourself) because they aren’t allowed either. Instead of photos to remind us of what we saw, we had to indelibly imprint our impressions in our minds. And while I admit that Linda and I have taken photos inside temples in other countries, personally I like the idea of prohibiting photos in temples. I have always found it somewhat disrespectful when hordes of tourists invade a temple, take photos, and then disappear back into their busses.
At the festival, the first ritual dance was asking the Earth Goddess for permission to hold the festival and to protect all the people in attendance. This was only the beginning of what I realized was Bhutanese Buddhism’s deep connection to nature. And later, overlooking the Tang Valley, I was struck by how its terraces and buildings nestled in the valley or on the steep slopes were in harmony with the land, and revealed the story of the intimate connection the Bhutanese have with nature. Later, in that same valley, we saw a woman, after milking her cows, make an offering of milk to the earth goddess.
But what also amazed me was the connection that the Bhutanese feel toward each other. Tibetan prayer wheels are devices for spreading spiritual blessings and well being. Inside each cylindrical container, rolls of thin paper are imprinted with many, many copies of a mantra, in ancient Indian or Tibetan script, and wound around the axle. Buddhists believe that saying this mantra, out loud or silently to oneself, invokes the powerful benevolent attention and blessings of Chenrezig, the embodiment of compassion, not just for the individual, but for the family, community, and all sentient beings. Spinning the written form of the mantra around in a prayer wheel is also supposed to have the same effect, as do the prayer flags, which we hoisted at Chellela pass at 4000 meters. As the flags are blown by the wind, the prayers take flight and spread good will and compassion for us, our family, our friends, and all sentient beings.
At our guide’s mother-in-law’s house we met her uncle, who was going through the ritual of reading the sacred Buddhist texts, not only for him and his family but for the community as well. And while people own their land, it’s about the community, with everyone helping each other as needed.
As we traveled, we found that sometimes, after a while, we became acclimated to the place where we were, and its uniqueness and features tended to fade into the background. In Bhutan, both the culture and the landscape got deeper and richer the longer we were there. And the deeper and richer our experience became, and the more vivid the illustration of how disconnected Western culture has become from nature, and its people from each other. Technology has allowed us to distance ourselves from other people (texting and email and even telephones and video calls replace being with someone), and industrialization and urbanization have disconnected us from nature (with western religion no help here).
Bhutan has only recently moved into the 20th century, much less the 21st, and is still thought of as a third world country. Until 1961, because of the lack of paved roads, travel in Bhutan was by foot or on muleback or horseback (even the king traveled that way to visit places in the kingdom), but an extensive road building project was started then and is still underway to connect all the parts of the country.
However Bhutan is moving forward and beginning to face the same challenges many developing countries face, but facing them a bit differently than other developing countries we have visited.
You can’t talk about Bhutan without talking about Gross National Happiness, but we found that most people miss the point. The phrase Gross National Happiness (GNH) was coined in 1972 by Bhutan’s fourth Dragon King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck (the father of the current king). He had been educated in India and the UK, and despite that, realized that economic success did not necessarily translate into a content and happy society. The point though was not about making everyone deliriously happy, although that would be nice. The point is determining the right way to guide, and measure, economic progress.
So while economists the world over argue that the key to happiness is obtaining and enjoying material development, the leaders in Bhutan do not believe that amassing material wealth necessarily leads to happiness. Bhutan is now trying to measure progress, not by the popular idea of Gross Domestic Product, but through Gross National Happiness with its four objectives: to increase economic growth and development, preserve and promote the cultural heritage, encourage sustainable use of the environment, and establish good governance. It recognizes that development of human society takes place when material and spiritual development occur side by side to complement and reinforce each other.
From that approach has emerged a set of policies and government projects.
Bhutan now is the world’s most eco-friendly and carbon-negative country, and the Bhutanese constitution requires a minimum of sixty percent of Bhutan’s total land to be maintained under forest cover for all time (although we were told that the target is now 70 percent).
The goal for development is not simply industrialization and factory farming, as it is in many of the countries in Southeast Asia that we visited.
The government wants to be self-sufficient in agriculture and completely organic by 2020. To deal with urban migration, there are policies and development projects that encourage farmers and their children to continue farming. The government is building roads, bringing in electricity, providing safe drinking water, making low-cost loans to farmers, building schools, and as we found in the Tang Valley, even providing electric fences to keep out the wild animals that destroy the crops. The current generation receives free education, and all citizens have access to free medical care. The sale of tobacco products is banned, and smoking in public areas is an offense punished with fines.
We couldn’t help comparing this to what we found in Laos, where the government is selling land to the Chinese and is damming its rivers, with no regard for the impact of its actions on the people who still live in nature.
The government is also doing what it needs to do to maintain the culture.
Traditional indigenous medicine and western medicine providers are co-located in hospitals and work together. And since, historically, people would first try a religious approach when they were ill, monks are now part of the three-pronged approach to treating illness.
We visited a government sponsored art school (The National Institute of Zorig Chusum) that is virtually free, and saw students in the 4 to 6-year programs in the traditional Bhutanese art forms of drawing, painting, wood carving, embroidery, and carving of statues.
Major sources of income for the kingdom are tourism, hydroelectric power, and agriculture, and development projects of all kinds are heavily regulated to ensure they conform to the goals of Gross National Happiness.
Tourism in Bhutan began in 1974 when the Government of Bhutan opened itself to foreigners, but the government realizes the potential environmental impact tourists can have on Bhutan’s landscape and culture, and visits are highly structured. Most foreigners cannot travel independently in the kingdom, and all tourists (group or individual) must travel on a pre-planned, prepaid, guided package tour or custom designed travel program. Unfortunately the tour packages are quite pricey, and start at about 250 USD per person per day which does include lodging, transportation, meals, and the Tourism Council of Bhutan’s sustainable tourism policy fee of 65 USD, which goes directly to the government and used to fund social welfare projects such as free education and healthcare.
And while I hardly ever recommend providers or tour companies, if you decide to go to Bhutan you should contact Namgay at Illuminating Tours. Our trip was virtually flawless, and we were able to make changes on the fly. Our guide was the best we have ever had, and probably the best we can ever hope to have. Both he and our driver were the nicest, sincerest, kindest, and most authentic people we have met on our travels. Illuminating Tours is the best travel provider I have ever worked with.
If you are a typical westerner, you might see all sorts of red flags violently waving in the winds of change. People’s freedoms are being curtailed, you might argue. But on the other hand, this is not a Western culture. In Bhutan, unlike the West, it is not solely about the individual — it is about the family and community. People live in extended families, with the family being the most important social structure in Bhutan. If they aren’t living in the family home, everyone crowds into the family home for major events. And while villagers own their land, everyone in a village helps each other as needed, and we found they often create co-ops to sell their agricultural products. Prayer wheels and flags and ceremonies benefit not only the individual and family, but the community and all sentient beings.
But whether Bhutan can handle the western influx wrought by the internet remains to be seen. One night we were in a bar when a young Bhutanese man started talking to me. He complained especially about the high taxes on cars and how hard it was to find work. Bhutan is not Shangri-La, with everyone deliriously happy, and the government is not populated by saints. There are serious social, economic and political issues that I’ve glossed over because this is not a political or economic analysis of a country, but rather our experience of Bhutan.
On our last day in Bhutan, we hiked up to the Tiger’s Nest, the monastery built into the side of a mountain. It was Linda’s birthday, and it turned into a special day for both of us, especially for her. On the hike up to the monastery, I started talking to a fellow climber who worked in the gift shop there, and I have never heard anyone speak in such glowing terms about their government. The king, he said, is the poorest person in the country (probably not true, but then again the royal residence is a modest bungalow) and how much the people love him (and his father is spoken about in even more reverent tones). He told me that Bhutan is carbon negative, and the king and government are very serious about doing what needs to be done to increase gross national happiness.
Bhutan is more than just another spectacularly beautiful place. It has a lot to teach us about living life with grace and joy. While we’ve been to many places we have loved in these ten months of travel, and previous travels over the years as well, Bhutan is the place we are sorriest to leave, and will miss the most when we are gone.