An enlightening trip to Bhutan
by Chin Saw Sian. Posted on June 17, 2012, Sunday
A LANDLOCKED country underneath the Himalayan range, Bhutan only opened its doors to the outside world in the late 60s.
Then came an unusual king, who created the Gross National Happiness index and prioritised it over Gross National Product (GNP). While we have all said: “Money won’t buy us happiness”, how many of us actually really practise this? How unusual for the King of a tiny and poor country to actually make happiness a national goal.
Having been dubbed the ‘last Shangri-La’ and the ‘Land of Eden’, and featured in news reports internationally because of its royal wedding, Bhutan does indeed seem like a faraway kingdom of fairy tales. I just had to conduct a reality check.
On arrival at Paro, the traditional-style buildings set against the backdrop of the snow-capped mountain instantly took my breath away. There were cars on the road, but traffic was much less when compared to the buzzing Kathmandu, which I had left earlier. The road surface was smoother and cleaner.
All the buildings have a traditional square design and are built of earth or stone combined with timber features. The doors and windows are decorated in elaborate designs reflecting Buddhist traditions. A law for cultural conservation dictates that all buildings must be constructed in a traditional way and preferably in harmony with nature.
As we passed a stone bridge to the hotel, I was amazed by how clear the river was. My guide explained that the river originates from Mount Jumolhari, which is the second highest peak overlooking Paro. Fish could be seen clearly in the river, as it is considered a sin to kill any living being in Bhutan – nobody fishes or hunts. All meat is imported from neighbouring India or Nepal, and vegetarianism is encouraged.
My five days in Bhutan were spent hiking and sightseeing. For Bhutanese, trekking or hiking means a trip to their home village, a pilgrimage to a monastery on a mountain, placing prayer flags on mountaintops or a visit to the market. Hence most trails are respected and kept litter-free with rubbish bins made of tin almost every 200 metres. This includes the top tourist spot, Taksang Palphug Monastery, popularly known as Tiger’s Nest Monastery, which was built at 10,200 feet on the side of a cliff. Legend has it that Guru Rinpoche, who brought Buddhism to Bhutan, arrived on the back of a flying tigress. It is considered the most sacred place in Bhutan, and Bhutanese were among the tourists making their way up to the monastery.
“We like to build temples and monasteries in high places with beautiful views, so that everyone can go there and pray. In this way, prayers and blessings can be carried by the wind to all the places beneath,” explained my guide.
Upon hearing that I felt a sudden pang in my heart because in many other countries, casinos or five-star resorts are built in beautiful places so the very rich can indulge in luxury.
My subsequent hikes involved talking to local farmers and seeing four generations of a family under one roof, the young looking after the old, and the old passing their wisdom to the young.
The social and environmental harmony is best explained by the popular wall painting of Thuenpa Puen Zhi (four harmonious friends), which tells the story of a bird, a rabbit, a monkey and an elephant working together to enjoy the fruits from a tree. The bird planted the fruit tree from a seed, the rabbit watered it, the monkey fertilised it and the elephant protected it. As the tree flowered and bore fruits, the four friends stood on each other’s shoulders to obtain the fruit for sharing.
“This is a tale told to every Bhutanese child to remind us of the law of interdependence in this life and how we must respect every living being on earth,” my guide explained. During my very few shopping trips, the shops gave me paper bags, and I was even asked if I preferred to put the souvenirs into my backpack. Recycling is part of the strategy towards the country’s goal of achieving better Gross National Happiness.
This does not mean Bhutan is totally cut off from the rest of the world. I was pleasantly surprised that I managed to stay in contact with my friends and family as all my hotel rooms had WiFi, and some Bhutanese guides have the latest smartphones and tablet computers.
“We also like the latest technology, but we use it to accommodate our needs and culture,” one guide said as he showed me his latest tablet.
On my last day, I said goodbye to the common hoopoe (a type of bird) outside my hotel window. It showed no fear of me, like the Bhutanese, who welcomed my visit and hoped the trip would have more impact on my life than theirs.