Travel and Tourism

Experiencing the happiness of Bhutan

Hayden Kho - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - Every time I tell people of my trip to Bhutan, the first question I always get before I get lost in my reverie is “Where the heck is that?” For most people, all they know about Bhutan is that it’s a Buddhist country and that it’s the only nation in the world that uses as measurement “Gross National Happiness” as part of the country’s performance indicators.

It’s no surprise that only a few know of “the Land of the Thunder Dragon.” The Bhutanese lived in relative isolation for several centuries. In fact, our local guide, Phub Dorji, told us that Bhutan was oblivious that two world wars had already occurred.

Bhutan is a landlocked country situated in the eastern tail of the Himalayan Mountains. To the north is China and to the west, south, and east is India. Both surrounding countries have over a billion people. For a medieval kingdom of only about 750,000 people, one wonders how this tiny nation would escape being conquered.

When I posted this question to our guide Dorji, whose name in Dzongza (the national language of Bhutan) means “strong,” his answer brought me back to a mystical tale of a legendary “Unifier” who arrived in Bhutan astride his flaming tiger and who brought Buddhism into the country. It is believed that it is their devotion to the teachings of this “Unifier” that calls on his spirit to protect and sustain this country of small needs.

And small needs they have indeed. In our stay in Bhutan, I did not see any tall buildings, traffic lights, escalators, BMWs, or Starbucks. In contrast to us, we, as people of a more “advanced civilization,” have accustomed ourselves to want and get more in order to “be” more. Not the Bhutanese. They prefer their lives to be simple. In fact, as we were hiking up the Tiger’s Nest,  a temple hanging on a cliff where the flaming tiger was believed to have landed, Dorji shared with us that the King of Bhutan specifically ordered that the tracks up the cliff should not be made for easy climbing. “The journey upwards should never be expected to be easy,” according to the 32-year-old king.

Simple.  But powerful, don’t you agree?

It was EF Schumacher who said, “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage — to move in the opposite direction.”

I wonder if our so-called “advanced civilization” really advances humanity or does it accomplish the opposite? When I look at the majestic valleys, serpentine rivers and the general sense of “happiness” in Bhutan, and compare them with the traffic, pollution, dirty politics, and general sense of “stress” in our cities, the answer seems obvious.

But for now let us return to the trip.

Amala Destinations, operated by our now very dear friend Ee-cheng Tseng from Singapore, prepared for us an excellent itinerary of Bhutan. We went to three cities, namely, Timphu, Punakha and Paro, and stayed at the very homey villas of the Uma resorts. I tell you,  if you ever plan on going to Bhutan, call Amala Destinations (+659-115 3288). They will not disappoint.

Among the three towns, the favorite of Vicki (Belo) is Timphu, Bhutan’s capital. Timphu is beautiful because of the visual feast it presents. The landscape is captivating — valleys covered with lush green pines, lined by crystal-clear rivers, and warmed by the amazing hues of the sky. The people are very warm and welcoming. We were told that the Bhutanese in general do not harm anything. They don’t harm their forests or living things that are in those forests. They are simple people ruled by peace and by love.

This makes me ponder: What’s ruling us?

I apologize if I sound sentimental when I relate the details of our trip. I can’t help it. Bhutan has that effect on me. I can tell you how the people in Paro are the “happiest” in Bhutan because cannabis sativa (yep, marijuana) grows wild on their fields (wink,) but I’d be doing Bhutan an injustice if that’s what my readers will remember Bhutan by after reading this.

So let’s focus on the essential messages that resonated with me:

One, life is simple. Don’t make it complicated, nor should you obsess in making it simpler.

Two, focus on what or who’s in front of you. Ditch your phones when you’re talking to someone. Stop bombarding yourself with anxious thoughts of the past or the future. Be present. Focus on the here and the now.

Three, treasure God’s gifts. Bhutan’s blend of pristine nature and social harmony provides us a reference of what the world should look like.

And lastly, love. It is this essence, regardless of religion, that keeps the sanity of this world intact and it is what will move us forward to a new earth.











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