by Betsy Herbert
For years, I’ve been intrigued by the small Himalayan country of Bhutan, where the government measures its success by the “Gross National Happiness” of its people. So, naturally, Bhutan was near the top of my list of places to visit when I started my year-long trip around the world six months ago.
What's so special about Bhutan?
In case spectacular natural beauty is not enough reason to visit, I did some reading beforehand. I learned that “Gross National Happiness” as measured by the Bhutanese government is based on a scientifically constructed index that considers non-economic aspects of people’s well being, such as education, health, social relationships, environmental protection and cultural preservation. Imagine!
Since these are things that contribute to my own personal happiness, I was impressed that it was the king of Bhutan who coined the term "Gross National Happiness" in 1971 to officially measure of his country’s well being, and he did this when Bhutan was still an absolute monarchy.
After a little more reading I learned that this concept is rooted in Bhutan’s history. According to the Legal Code of Bhutan dated 1729, “… if the Government cannot create happiness for its people, there is no purpose for the Government to exist.”
The Kingdom of Bhutan, now a constitutional monarchy, is a tiny Buddhist country about the size of Indiana. Bhutan’s entire population is around 770,000, about the same as Birmingham, Alabama. But Bhutan lies within the Himalayas, sandwiched between India (population approaching 1.3 billion) and China (population around 1.4 billion). No wonder that Bhutan has engaged in some creative political thinking.
Bhutan opened its doors to tourism only 40 years ago, and keeps a lid on how many tourists it admits. While tourism is one of Bhutan’s two biggest industries (along with hydro-electric power), the government is determined to keep tourism from degrading the country’s environment (or its happiness), and avoiding the damage that happened in Nepal due to decades of tourism.
I have to admit I was wary of flying into Bhutan’s Paro International Airport, which is rated as one of the scariest in the world. So scary, in fact, that only eight commercial airline pilots are certified to land there. I had a few Lorazapam tablets in my carry-on, though, just in case.
Our Royal Bhutanese Airlines flight departed from Kolkata, India, early in the morning, lifting us above that sprawling city’s dense smog blanket into deep blue, clear skies. Soon, we were amidst wispy white clouds, snaking through the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas, and we knew we would soon start our descent into Paro airport. Amazingly, the flight from Kolkata to its parallel universe of Bhutan is only 45 minutes. “Beam me up, Scotty!”
There were only four people in my tour group. After we got off the plane, we weren’t sure we were actually in an airport because the terminal looked like a temple. As we made our way through immigration, we met our Bhutanese tour guide named Chen. His calm demeanor was immediately reassuring. We were in for a treat.
We traveled in a small van to Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, where we would spend a few nights. Thimphu is built along the banks of the Thimphu Chuu River, which runs crystal clear. Thimphu is a small, beautiful, and bustling city with no traffic lights. Police officers direct traffic in busy intersections.
Everywhere you go in Thimphu, you see spectacular scenery and wonderful art and architecture that seems to echo the surrounding natural beauty.
There’s a lot of construction going on, much of it high-end tourist hotels and restaurants.
Buildings everywhere are hand-painted with traditional Buddhist imagery by local artisans.
Tribute to a king
The National Memorial Chorten is a Buddhist stupa memorializing the third King Wangchuck of Bhutan, who died in 1972. (See photo at top of this blog.) He is credited with opening Bhutan to the rest of the world, as well as democratizing it. His son, the fourth King Wangchuck, who would coin the term “Gross National Happiness.” This very popular gathering place was spellbinding, with its prayer flags, prayer wheels, music and chanting.
Astounding Buddha Dordenma Statue
Another mind-blowing site was the Buddha Dordenma statue, which sits on the top of a mountain to the south of Thimphu. The site was just opened to the public the month before we arrived, so we were lucky to view and photograph it, with only a few other tourists around. At 169 feet tall, this gilded bronze figure is the tallest sitting Buddha statue in the world. The $100 million project was financed with the help of several Chinese individuals. I was overwhelmed by the sheer size and quality of construction of this statue, as well as the temple, which forms the foundation for the statue.
When we visited an ancient monastery near Thimphu, the resident monks were conducting a ceremony that happens only once a year; they were blessing the children of the region. People carried their babies and young children into to the monastery and monks chanted and performed ritual blessings. We were allowed to enter the space and observe the ceremony. The alter pieces were astoundingly ornate and yet somehow primitive. Some of the alter decorations werecarved entirely out of butter, according to traditional practice.
OM or OMG... a Buddhist nunnery
I handn't anticipated how captivating the Buddhist nunnery (Sangchen Dorj Lhundrup Choeling Buddhist College for Nuns) would be. On top of a mountain above Thimphu, the view was expansive. Inside the temple, we were delighted to sit along the walls, while hundreds of young nuns-in-training chanted in unison the lines to their Buddhist texts.
Heavenly Dochula Pass
From Thimphu you head up, up, up a winding pot-holed, and dusty road toward the Dochula Pass (elevation 10,000 feet), the site of one of Bhutan's most breathtaking views. The road was slow going thanks to some 50 road restoration projects in progress. Can you imagine? Road work in the Himalayas has got to be a civil engineer’s dream (or nightmare). Water roars down creeks at breakneck speed, even during the dry season, from the peaks above. Culverts under the paved roads get washed out repeatedly. The road is scheduled to be fixed in another four years, when, no doubt they will have to start all over again!
When we reached Dochula Pass, the skies were crystal clear, giving us a brilliant view of the snow-capped peaks along Bhutan's northern Himalayan border. The glorious view was graced by 108 Buddhist stupas, echoing the craggy tops the peaks.
The Divine Madman and the phallus symbol
Our next stop was the Chime Lhakang, a famous monastery where the Divine Madman, Lam Drukpa Kuenley practiced his “crazy wisdom” during the 15th century. According to the kiosk outside the monastery, this renowned Bhutanese monk was a social critic who practiced a non-conventional style of Buddhism that taunted the hypocrisy of the established orders. He portrayed himself as a vagabond, indulging in wine, women and song. He was so intent on breaking through society’s tabus that he displayed his phallus as a “flaming thunderbolt” weapon to challenge society to see beyond its tabus to the truth.
The phallus symbol has become the Divine Madman’s trademark, so to speak, and a thriving handicraft district in the village of Wangdue (?!) just below the monastery capitalizes on it. The shops sell all kinds of paintings, sculptures, keychains and t-shirts depicting and celebrating the phallus. I wondered if the Divine Madman and his philosophy of "crazy wisdom" had anything to do with the selection of the Gross National Happiness index for Bhutan? Fun phallus photos below.
The monks today in the Chime Lhakang monastery apparently no longer practice the Divine Madman’s teaching methods. When we arrived at the monastery, the monks in training were fully clothed in their traditional red robes, sitting out on the lawn around the monastery playing their temple horns. The only things flapping in the breeze were prayer flags, and we were allowed to photograph and record everywhere, except inside the monastery.
The strange and curious takin: Bhutan's national animal
On our last day we headed back to Paro, where we went to a national reserve to view Bhutan’s official national animal, the takin (Budorcas taxicolor). The takin looks like a cross between a goat and a moose. It is found only in Bhutan, Tibet, and parts of southern China. See picture below.
It turns out the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, was visiting the takin reserve the same day we were. As she and her entourage passed us on the path, our guide pointed her out.
Wow! Tiger's Nest
Saving the most iconic visit for end of our visit, our guide then escorted us to the Paro Taktsang Monastery, commonly known as Tiger’s Nest (elevation 10,240 ft.) which was built in the 17th century into the rock cliff face at an some 3,000 feet above the Paro Valley.
You can hike all the way up to the monastery or stop for a great photo op at the tea house, about halfway up. Since I had a chest cold, I stopped at the teahouse and took photos. See below:
Before going back to our hotel for our last night in Bhutan, our guide took us to an archery range where we practiced target shooting for about an hour. Archery was proclaimed as the national sport of Bhutan in 1971, and both our guide and our driver were quite proficient. I hadn’t shot an arrow since I was a camp counselor, but it was great fun and a great way to say goodbye to beautiful Bhutan.