Gross National Happiness
What happens when you decide to go to a country where no one really knows where it is? “Bhutan?…Africa, I think.” “Bhutan…lemme see, somewhere near Malaysia isn’t it?” Well – no! It actually is just above India on the eastern edge of Tibet and Nepal.
About half the size of Indiana, there are 700,000 people total in the country with 20,000 of those Buddhist monks and nuns. One airport, not in the capital city, has two flights a day; one from Calcutta and the other from New Dehli. Paro, where the airport is located is 65 km from Thimphu, the capital; is also home to the king and his 4 wives. Paro may top out at 4-5,000 residents if I include the surrounding mountainsides, while Thimphu is by far and away the Big Apple with maybe 100-125,000 distinctively garbed Bhutanese.
The king has declared he is not interested in Gross National Product but is much more concerned with Gross National Happiness. And that sentiment runs down through the last yak herder we ran across. The Bhutanese intensely follow the teachings of Buddha and are happy to discuss how good their lives are and how they have no worries about what they might be missing. Sounds just like our fellow Yankees at home in the US doesn’t it? Traditional clothing, a knee length wrap-around robe for men with dark knee socks and a floor length, beautifully woven sarong type garment for women, must be worn until 5:00 p.m. each day by law. There is no smoking outside anywhere at any time. In fact, in 9 days, we saw one cigarette only.
The houses are intricately carved wood and stucco/mud walls, with the wood beautifully painted and the flat walls whitewashed. It makes for wonderful vistas of stark mountains, running rivers, green paddies and these houses with distinctive white walls offset with vibrant, multi-colored eaves, windows and doors – a visual treat. Most of the traditional farmhouses are four stories. The first floor is where the animals live. The second floor where you store supplies and implements and the third is where the people actually live. The fourth floor is about half the height of a normal story, usually open around all sides and is where the grain and foodstuffs for the animals is kept.
Not only is Bhutan hard to find, you can’t hardly get there from anywhere. We had to go through Bangkok; an evening flight from Tokyo put us into Thailand just south of midnight. Since we had to get up at 4:30 a.m. we chose a nearby hotel, the Comfort Suites as our bivouac for the night. The term “comfort” turned out to be somewhat exaggerated but only when compared to Japan standards. We had to overnight at the Comfort Suites again on the way back and after the wooden planks and dirt we slept on in Bhutan, the Comfort Suites became beds of bliss. Our taxi driver, hotel shuttles being non-existent at midnight, couldn’t find the place so we had an interesting tour of the frontage roads and freeways surrounding the Bangkok airport. I perhaps should have had an inkling when we finally turned into an air cargo area that turned out to be a long driveway to the hotel.
The Comfort Suites may not have been directly underneath the flight path of departing jets, but it was at least under the right wing-tip with maybe 200 foot vertical clearance. Anyone who has ever seen the movie “My Cousin Vinny” has an idea of loud, I mean loud, noise all night long. We seriously laughed about the movie the entire trip as it got even funnier once we hit Bhutan.
The following morning found us winging our way to Bhutan with a quick stop in Calcutta. Jess and Claudia made a quick sprint down the rear stairs to touch the tarmac. I suppose they have really been “on” India while Jake and I were merely pretenders. The flight attendant wasn’t quite as amused as we were with the effort but hey, no one ever said Druk Air had a sense of humor.
From Calcutta to Paro is about an hour depending on the weather. It does give one pause for reflection when the pilot comes on the intercom and says, “Please don’t worry about the sharp turns and changing attitude of the airplane and those mountains you see rather close to the wingtips are nothing to worry about.” The Paro airport is located in Paro Valley, accessible only by Nintendo type moves flying in and through the valleys and mountains. If the weather drops in at all, there are no flights into Bhutan…it can’t be done.
Meeting just outside the airport door was our guide, commentator and ultimately new friend, Kephel Dorji. Not only was Kephal extremely knowledgeable about Bhutan, all the deities and demons in all the temples, but also he turned out to have a great sense of humor and understanding of our usual need to do different things. Unfortunately, he also had legs of steel and lungs like airships, which put the sea-level gaijins at somewhat of a disadvantage as we made our various hikes and treks.
Paro is four blocks long and three blocks wide, one of which is the big open market. The main street has the general stores; not really aimed at tourists but all with a collection of everything. One interesting aspect of the Buddhist religion is the sanctity of all life including bugs, cows, flying things and dogs. In Bhutan, dogs, if they don’t rule the land, certainly have a major say in the daily routine. Everywhere you look there are all shapes and sizes, mangy and bedraggled. We’re convinced they sleep all day because they definitely bark, yowl, growl and howl all night long – so much so that the guides and guidebooks suggest bringing earplugs for your evening hours.
Trips to Bhutan are all inclusive. Currently they are allowing a limited number of visitors each year. Pretty smart really, as it keeps the character of the country more intact and the locals aren’t quite as jaded as we’ve seen elsewhere. The schedules in country are heavily weighted toward visiting every temple, monastery, nunnery, dzong and religious outbuilding in Bhutan. We laughed at every stop but each one was unique and very interesting.
Prayer flags are everywhere and come in two basic types; one being small one foot square multi-color flags – red/fire, green/earth, blue/sky, yellow/earth and white for other creatures. The other group is larger, white banners maybe 1 foot wide and 25 feet high attached to 30-40 foot poles. Each represents a family member who has moved on to the hereafter. They’re everywhere; in the city, remote mountaintops, backyards, etc. The greater number of flags in your yard shows how long the family has been there, how prolific grandpa was, etc.
Our first full day centered on the Tiger’s Nest Monastery. Local legend has the Guru Rinpoche riding in on the back of a tiger only to land on a cliff outcropping 900 meters above the valley floor. It is literally built on the side of a cliff, 3000 feet straight up. It took us about 2.5 huffing and puffing hours to climb the neighboring ridge and then make a narrow bridge crossing to finally reach the monastery. The monks do it every day with loads of firewood, everything they need to exist, on their backs. The Tiger’s Nest is one of those memorable pictures everyone has seen on post cards but when you’re standing there, looking at it, it is really amazing.
Returning to lesser altitudes, we visited Kyichu Lhakhang, one of the 108 temples, all of which, according to legend, were built in one day some 800-1,000 years ago. Time takes on new dimensions in Bhutan. Something as old as our home country has hardly begun to weather in Bhutan. Eight hundred, nine hundred, thousand-year-old buildings are the norm and while I’m sure they have been redone in all or part during the last millennium, they are in remarkably good shape.
Each temple has its own dee-mons that needed to be subdued at some particular point. (Dee-mons as opposed to our common pronunciation of “demen”) And depending on who the white knight was, each temple has large, some up to 15-20 feet high, statues of the feuding deities. To enter a temple, shoes come off and you must step over a large lower doorjamb timber. Most of the rooms have only smaller windows, no artificial light and so are very dark and ethereal. The interior walls were covered with incredibly intricate and complicated paintings of the various gods, Buddha’s, demons, wars, purges, whatever. Interestingly, most are covered with a specific yellow fabric to prevent sun damage and natural fading. Bright, bright hanging fabrics of red, blue, green, yellow create a symphony of color in direct contrast to the gloom and heaviness of these old sanctuaries; very interesting places!
The original plan was to spend the next four days and three nights trekking from Paro to Thimphu, the nation’s capital. Trekking in Bhutan is not a simple backpacking excursion. We had Kephal, a cook, an assistant cook, two horsemen, nine ponies and the Werlin gang. Seven or eight of the ponies would go on ahead with the cooks and minders so the camp would be set up and ready when we arrived at the designated spot. Camp was in yak pastures, easily recognizable by the aroma and recycled flora and accentuated by the occasional pass-through of a yak herd. The walks, climbs, scrambles and hikes were great; wonderful fresh air and stupendous vistas. The legs grew very tired but then we would watch Kephal and crew easily stroll up the trails and so continued as though we were fresh on the trail and the aching pins were of no consequence.
As it turned out, we were two days in advance of spring and beautiful sunny days. We caught the tail end of winter marching most of the second day through a graupel (snow) storm and waking up the third morning to three inches of snow, softly covering the meadow, tents, horses, gear, et al. Graupel is not quite hail and certainly not soft flakes but cold and wet none the less. We spent most of our time around 11-12,000 feet topping out at about 12,900 at the highest point.
One of the tents was reasonably sized and kept the forces of nature pretty well at bay. The other however, was good for hobbits and dwarves. Jessie could just fit with head and toes touching either end while Jake and yours truly either did the fetal snooze or went corner to corner. The little tent also had weather systems and atmospheric conditions of its own as drafts, wet walls and floors all contributed to a less than comfortable night’s sleep.
The three inches of accumulation forced us to cut the trip by one day. The ponies were unable to climb the next pitch with the snow covering (joy as our legs had their own misgivings) and we turned down the canyon and walked out to the trailhead. Panjo, our taciturn driver, was faithfully there through the wonders of cell phone technology, to greet us and haul our tired selves to Thimphu.
The trek took us up through pine-covered mountainsides that reminded me a lot of higher altitude forests in Colorado or the Sierras. Once we climbed up out of Paro Valley, we spent most of the time on the northern exposures of the mountains. Tall blue pines and cypress were dripping with huge globs of dark green moss. More than once we commented on this being a great location for shooting Lord of the Rings sequels. No orcs that I saw but who knows. The mountainsides were quite steep, dark and quiet. The forest had soft edges with all the moss hanging from the branches and covering the ground. Cascading, glistening creeks accentuated the dark green and brown pines. Offsetting everything were spectacular, 20-30 foot high rhododendron trees bursting with bright red and dark pink flowers. The contrast was really something and all of us were pulling out cameras as we rounded the next corner.
Thimphu, while only 40 miles from Paro, takes about 2 hours driving. Bhutan’s interstates are barely one lane wide total, have no straight stretches over 20 yards long and are usually bounded on both sides by one rising cliff face and a freefall into a valley floor on the other. While we never kissed another vehicle, there did seem to be an effort from opposing drivers to keep both wheels on the paved portion, which made for some quick intakes of breath, at least in our wagon.
Thimphu is home to the king and the national government, one golf course, the national soccer, cricket, badminton and archery stadium plus 9 million dogs. Archery is the national sport and local ranges were everywhere. Most of the Bhutanese sport compound bows and judging from the arrows sprouting from the targets, were pretty darned good at what they do. Kephal agreed to give us a go but insisted we use traditional bows to get a better feel. A better feel did not entail hitting the target but was great fun in any case. We ended up with a gallery of Bhutanese watching our efforts, particularly those of Jessie. Apparently women do not participate in archery nor any of the other sports as far as I could see.
Not far from our archery range was an enclosure of the national animal, the Golden Taskin. Take the rear end of abighorn sheep, add in the body of a cow and then top it off, so to speak, with the head of a goat and you’ve got the Taskin. They roam free in the higher areas of Bhutan, although we didn’t see any sign of them on the trek. They’re a very odd-looking animal, especially with their multiple personalities, but seemed pretty docile and easy-going.
Prior to heading back to Paro for our final night, we climbed up to the Tango Buddhist University, only an hour up the trail. It apparently is one of the most prestigious universities for extended studies anywhere in the world. It was maybe the best example of Bhutan architecture we saw on the entire trip. We visited the main shrine as well as one of the smaller mediation rooms. To reach the meditation room we had to climb two sets of steps chiseled out of the cliff’s face, then up two wooden ladder-steps through holes carved in the overhanging rock. I’d meditate on a lot of things if I had that as my commute every morning.
Arriving back in Paro, we had just enough time to grab our suits and head for a traditional hot stone bath and farmhouse dinner. Those of you who have visited Japan know our complete devotion to onsens and ofuros, the hot baths of Japan. Needless to say our hopes were high but our expectations were set reasonably lower. The tub is wooden planks with one third of the interior separated by a wooden barrier. One the short side of the divider, hot rocks, right out of the fire, are placed in the water, which immediately heats the whole thing. Very efficient but not quite as comfortable and relaxing as our homegrown products.
Dinner was the ubiquitous red rice, noodles, scalloped potatoes (a Bhutanese specialty) and truly little black chunks of mystery meat. Jake and I couldn’t quite get through our meat portions and as we were sitting on the floor, set our plates down in front of us. Immediately the family cat was on the go and nabbed both our entrees. Other times one could get a bit testy…in this case it was pure relief that we didn’t have to finish up. The Bhutanese have a cultural proclivity for butter. Butter is used extensively in their cooking. They make butter sculptures for the interior of the temples, use butter for all their small candles in the temples and homes and the high point – butter tea. Most easily described as melting a pound of butter, tossing in a few herbs for seasoning, into the teacup and “Here’s to your health.” It must be an acquired taste as I could not get through more than a lip touch, even with the addition of puffed rice said to ease the taste…just couldn’t do it.
Even with the mystery meat and butter tea, the family was exceedingly gracious, warm and hospitable. They had an older Japanese couple staying there and Jake was able to exercise some of his Japanese lessons. From the farm it was back to the hotel and then down to the aerodrome for our roller coaster ride out of Bhutan in the morning.
Even with the butter tea, it was a great trip. We understand they limit the number of foreign visitors each year in an attempt to let the outside world in slowly and minimize the impact on the people and culture. You can see Western influences in dress, cell phones, automobiles and televisions, but they remain a unique and wonderful people and country. It may be getting repetitive, but Bhutan is another one for your list of must do’s. After all, who’s to argue with Gross National Happiness?