Bhutan – Should You, Shouldn’t You?

I alight from the DrukAir flight, at the Paro airport, in an oddly ambivalent state-of-mind not quite knowing what to expect of my host country.
Hailing from a developing country like India, a vacation in a fellow developing country isn’t exactly my idea of a fun holiday.

But Puja’s law of positivity states that a 5 night – 6 friends holiday package can turn even no man’s land into Disneyland. 

So last month, I found myself on a Bhutan-bound flight, playing scrabble with fellow pea-podders.

A peripheral and half-baked pre-Bhutan google threw up mostly non-exciting trivia that was insufficient to set my intrigue-chords humming.
Bhutan has been a late starter in practically all trappings of consumerism (electronics, hospitality, infrastructure).

To me, this country, initially, seemed pretty much like the proverbial economic back-bencher — a third-world caterpillar amongst nimble-winged economies surging across the globe.

I’m all but convinced that it ain’t a bucket-list destination for the likes of me.
What return-gift can I possibly expect, in terms of experience, from a country that lacked even basic infrastructure till the late 60s?
A country that decided to open its doors to tourism, only a few decades ago?
However, there’s one piece of information on Bhutan’s website,  that grabs my eyes by the balls. 

This pint-size nation, with a rather unhappy (read unimpressive) looking CV, apparently tops Asia’s happiness index

I’m stumped.

How on earth does this economically-challenged country, with the world’s lowest per capita income, manage to tip the global happiness scales?

Apparently, Bhutan has rejected GDP (Gross Domestic Product), a materialistic, yet universal, approach to measuring national progress; replacing it with GNH (Gross National Happiness) — a novel, homegrown concept that measures prosperity based on the spiritual, physical, social, and environmental health of its citizens in a productive, natural environment.

I say wow…isn’t that smart?

In one masterstroke… this nondescript country has carved a niche for itself in the world’s collective mind-space.

Like a breath of fresh air in a copious slum of pollutants… or a lone flower in an expansive concrete desert…  it has managed to make the mortal world seem like a materialistic monster paddling in an infinite pool of vacuous quests, chasing inconsequential agendas.

Who knows..for an evolved travel-junkie (unlike me), this country might turn out to be a joy-ride of discovery… a mine-field of enlightenment… a treasure trough of insight!

Who knows… it might even change my perception that life can be sunny only with loads of money tucked away in Swiss havens.
Anyway, what this google tip-off does tell me is that my 6 days in Bhutan won’t be whiled away in hedonistic pursuits alone.

But first..the hedonistic pursuits

Bhutan’s camaraderie with India is visible in the warmth with which we are greeted at the airport.

The nation’s core brand proposition, the GNH, smiles enigmatically from kiosks, billboards, and hoardings.

Driving from Paro airport to Thimpu, our van (sans bucket seats and shock absorbers) negotiates a bumpy ride across the voluptuous, curvy mountains.

Tenzing, a shy and soft-spoken local, is our ‘Raju Guide’ for the trip. He enthralls us with local nuggets and cultural trivia about Bhutan, en route.
Tenzing’s equanimity, in the face of our barrage of questions, is our first taste of Buddhist detachment and sangfroid.

It contrasts sharply with our own harried look as we are being precariously tossed around in the van — like ninepins in a bowling alley (the bumps on our heads stand alibi).

At Taj Tashi, our hotel in Thimpu, we are given a princely welcome. From the way the staff is bent upon spoiling us silly with a dozen-plus complimentaries, we suspect that they have mistaken us for the king’s personal guests.

Each meal is a royal spread, garnished with loads of hospitality. The hotel suites are like mini playgrounds.

In the evening, the hotel organizes a scintillating traditional dance for us and also loans us those one-size-fits-all traditional Bhutanese attires which set us off on a vanity-fuelled, selfie-clicking spree. 

We sip sud-ja, an exotic Tibetan-style tea, peppered with salt and butter, and join the dancers.

Dinner is served everywhere between 7-9 pm. No late nights please, we are the last Shangrila (an affectionate moniker bestowed upon Bhutan by travel literature).

The Thimpu valley is surrounded by steep mountains, dense with evergreen forests, rhododendrons and bamboo, rural villages, the ubiquitous monasteries, chortens (Lamaist monuments), and groves of colorful prayer flags fluttering on long poles, the wind carrying their entreaties up to heaven. We soak in the unhurried, unworried mood all around us.

The Bhutanese love chilies. Their mouth-scorching meals and chili-infused condiments can catch you by surprise. The local fare is likely to be the national dish, ema datse (chilies and cheese), and meat of questionable vintage.

2 days of food, revelry, and hedonism fly off in a jiffy.
It’s time for another bumpy ride. This time, to Punakha — our next stop.

Built into steep cliffs, the road from Thimpu to Punakha is subject to regular landslides.

Instead of much-needed guardrails, there are whimsical road signs  ‘It’s Not a Race Or Rally, Stop And Enjoy The Thimpu Valley’. And, every few miles, a simple: Thanks.

The serene and fetching Denisa Resort in Punakha applies a visual balm to our creaking sides and aching derrieres.

What it possibly lacks on the service-front (if pitted against Thimpu’s Taj Tashi), makes up in the freshness-factor.

My friends, of course, make up for everything else. Meeting a honeymooning couple from India further sparks up the evening.

Some more food… some more revelry… some more hedonism… and we are off for one more bumpy ride to Paro, the last leg of our journey.

Paro’s air is thin and pure, the sky a brilliant blue, and the surrounding mountains dotted with prayer flags, dramatic.

We start our day by pledging a trek to Tiger’s nest but chicken out after covering barely one-third of the mule dung-dotted path.

Scuttling back to the base camp, we decide to shop at the roof-less stalls put up by the locals who seduce us saying ‘Madam, thora shopping lelo… discount milega’!

Trekking done with, we drive up to the Paro Dzong, a combination of monastery and district administrative center, that resembles a medieval fortress in both construction and location. We are there to have our sins expunged. 

A swarm of monks suddenly appears from the courtyard as we stumble over each other to get a picture with the ascetics.
Then, as suddenly, the flock dissolves in a saffron blur at the far end of the dzong.

Lunch at Uma, the purported Ritz of Bhutan, doesn’t quite match up to the resort’s classy ambiance, or its inflated bill.

However, ogling at the rugged hunk sitting at the table next to ours partly makes up for the dent in our wallets.

The hunk is none other than Kellie Dorjee — Lara Datta’s ex, for the uninitiated. Now don’t ask me who’s Lara Datta!

Our last evening at the Neksel Resort, Paro, is marked by champagne-popping and emotional-bonding with Tenzing and a few hotel-guests.
At the airport, Tenzing bids us a warm farewell, as we tip him liberally and gift him bagfuls of excess goodies picked up by us.

So now, what’s special about Bhutan?

Well, Bhutan’s mountains are alluring; but nothing you haven’t seen during your treks in Manali and Darjeeling. 

Its scenic beauty is captivating, but I’m sure you’ve sampled beauteous parity on Kashmir’s travel menus. Poverty is omnipresent, peeping from every crevice and corner of the country, from Thimpu to Paro.

But even this holds a sub-novelty quotient for us Indians because we witness dearth and destitution daily on our country’s streets.

It doesn’t turn us on, as it would, say a westerner whose intrigue-quotient goes up at the sight of poverty-porn… perhaps because it’s a rap on their moral shoulder, telling them just how much they have to think and thank about.

On the other hand, our reaction to indigence is meh; because we live it, every day of our lives.

Bhutan is impoverished, no doubt. But Bhutan’s indigence is slightly different from ours… even special. It is not in-your-face.

It does not reek of squalor or arouses compensatory compassion. It does not make you turn up your nose or turn your back.

In fact, it impacts you by quietly, simply, and seamlessly merging with the mountains… completing a picture-postcard look that tells you a story about the beauty of minimalism. Of how less can sometimes be more.  

Stirred in a mild brew of culture and heritage, wrapped gently in the silk of tradition, Bhutan’s landscape is seductive in its simplicity. 

Expensive and arrogant buildings would have ruffled that serene look, robbing this petite Himalayan country of its tranquil charm… making it look like yet another obscene concrete forest, that most ‘once-tranquil holiday destinations’ across the world have morphed into.

Nepal is one example that comes to mind. Large chunks of it now look like concrete vomit spewed atop the mountains.

Or our own Shimla, that has transmogrified from a picturesque green mountain to a hideous grey mound of plaster.

The Bhutanese, besides being good-natured and good-looking, is charmingly eccentric. We are intrigued to learn about Bhutan’s penile proclivity.
Mammoth penises painted nonchalantly, almost wantonly, on the façades of many houses make for an incredible sight.

Tenzing informs us that these paintings are considered auspicious because the Divine Madman, a libertine monk and one of Bhutan’s most beloved figures, vanquished a terrifying female demon by dragging her clear across the country with his you-know-what. 

As tourists, we find this exotic, romantic and of course … special.
Bhutan’s men wear a traditional, kimono-like gho, hiked up to the knees and worn with high socks and Western shoes. It’s goofy but endearing.

The cute, chubby-cheeked toddlers… the pretty, lustrous-haired lasses in ankle-length Kira’s… the saffron-clad monks wearing a halo of renunciation… all collectively create a special vocabulary of charm and enigma.

And if like me, you are a sucker for cultural set-aparts, you’re hooked.
Bhutan’s architecture is also special. It’s one of the most striking features of the country.

Massive dzongs (fort-monasteries), remote goembas (monasteries), and lhakangs (temples), as well as the traditional house, all subscribe to a characteristic Bhutanese style. By law, all buildings must incorporate some element of traditional architecture.

What’s with the Gross Happiness Index?

Well, Bhutan as a nation exudes an uncommon air of contentment. In a world racing on the economic treadmill, it’s a tad strange to see people whose demeanor seems to be an extension of the serene mountains that embrace them: contented with their lot; clinging ever so softly to their traditions; moving toward progress, one baby-step at a time; trying to preserve what makes them unique ; taking care not to snip their cultural roots. 

They shun brute ambition, and savage competition (traits that are markers of global unhappiness), perhaps at the cost of being labeled unambitious and unassertive, by the uncharitable.

It is easy to misinterpret Bhutan’s quest.

The Fast and Furious would see it as a conglomerate of lazy, unambitious people who missed the developmental flight and are in no hurry to catch the next.

Others, with a more evolved world-view, would think of it as an unembellished nation of uncomplicated people… a soft whisper in a sea of cacophony… a global oddity…a nation that dwells in the womb of nature surrounded by an oasis of human harmony  … where satisfaction is a credo, and greed, a four-letter word.

Spirituality and pietism are inextricably enmeshed (almost a default setting) in the lives of the Bhutanese.

They are prompt to attribute every fortunate happening to blessings by the supreme power. 

So, a hill is not just a hill, it’s the hump of a demon’s back. A lake is not simply a lake, but the trough of a holy treasure.

A temple is not merely random architecture, but a structure to nail down the head of a giant mythical serpent.

Religion defines the country’s landscape; and vice versa. Keeping on the right side of spirituality also contributes to its happiness quotient, I’m sure.
The presence of monks everywhere adds to the mystique of the country.

Despite recent technological progress, most people’s lives have barely changed in rhythm or habit since the Middle Ages: they pray at home altars; plow with oxen; grow their own food and cook it on wood-burning stoves in dark, chilly, smoky rooms; and walk for hours, or even days, on-mountain footpaths just to reach the nearest village.

Bhutan’s common dress code is again one less reason for heartburn and unhappiness.

It obviates the likelihood of sartorial one-upmanship. Each Bhutanese is a charming cultural ambassador of their country.

Bhutan: A Higher State of Being

Green schools teach children basic agricultural techniques and environmental protection. A new national waste management program ensures that every piece of material used at the school is recycled. Daily meditation sessions rein-in the mind and soothing traditional music replaces the clang of the school bell.

Bhutan is one of the few places on earth, so far untouched by the goblin of globalization; where compassion still trumps capitalism.
At an ecological level, it is far more evolved than its global cousins.
It has given the world, a blueprint on environmental sustenance and cultural preservation.

Every development project is scrutinized and may be slowed, or stopped if it affronts religious faith or adversely affects the environment.

In a world beset by collapsing financial systems, gross inequity, and wide-scale environmental destruction, this tiny Buddhist state’s approach is attracting a lot of interest.

It is an illustration of how humans can curb their parasitic proclivity and co-exist with nature in happy symbiosis.

Bhutan – Should you, shouldn’t you?

You shouldn’t — if you haven’t yet had your fill of the epicurean side of the world… the Cannes and the casinos, the Cruises and the Tomatinos

You should — if you need an actual break from the materialistic to rat-race and not some synthetic euphemism of a spa for the mind and soul.

Spend a few days away from the excesses of materialism to re-instate your belief in the old adage, simple living, high thinking. And, in the bargain, enhance your personal gross happiness index.

Bhutan Trivia :

  • Nobody celebrates birthdays in Bhutan.
  • Time is still measured by sunrises and seasons, not by dates, in many parts of the country.
  • Until the early ’60s, there were no roads, postal systems, telephones, hospitals, or schools outside of monasteries.
  • Until the early ’70s, there was no currency, no phones—and no tourists.
  • Until mid-’70s, the only foreigners allowed in were guests of the royal family.
  • Even now, very limited and carefully controlled tourism (with no brazen commercial thrust) is permitted.
  • The world’s first country to ban not only smoking in public places but also the sale of tobacco.
  • The world’s last country to introduce television (fearing erosion of traditional Bhutanese values at the hands of a wanton medium).
  • Wrestling and MTV are still banned, as are western-style advertising billboards and plastic bags.
  • Despite the abundance of hydroelectric power, a large proportion of Bhutanese doesn’t have access to electricity or running water.
  • Despite its focus on national wellbeing, Bhutan remains one of the poorest nations on the planet.
  • A quarter of its 800,000 people survive on less than $1.25 a day, and 70% live without electricity.
  • The Land of the Thunder Dragon, as it is known in Bhutanese, is also seductively monikered ‘the last Shangrila’ by travel literature
  • The country has pledged to remain carbon neutral and to ensure that at least 60% of its landmass will remain under forest cover in perpetuity.
  • It has banned export logging and has even instigated a monthly pedestrian day that bans all private vehicles from its roads.