Cynthia Kim Beglin

Culture Shocked

Are People Really Happier in Bhutan?

Find out what Gross National Happiness is all about.

Posted Mar 02, 2020

 Cynthia Kim Beglin
View from Dochula Pass, Bhutan.
Source: Cynthia Kim Beglin

The cabin erupted in applause moments after our plane threaded through the soaring mountains and touched down on the surprisingly short runway. Barely a handful of pilots in the world are certified to land at Paro, the only international airport in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. Despite our heart-pounding entry into this largely Buddhist country, I felt suddenly calm as we descended onto the tarmac in the thin mountain air, already warmed by the early morning sunshine. 

Perhaps it was the deserted runway–save for our plane and one other–or the breath-taking snow-capped mountains in the distance, or the genuine smiles on the faces of every local we encountered in the traditional Bhutanese style building that housed the airport terminal. Or maybe it was the gentle warmth of our guide Chencho’s greeting as he placed a white silk scarf around each of our necks to welcome us to his country. Or even the obvious contrast between Paro and the hectic city of Bangkok that we had just left. Or maybe it was all of these things that nurtured the growing peace inside me. The longer I remained in Bhutan, the larger it grew, even despite our grueling travel schedule.

As our quietly capable driver, Kenchen, negotiated the first of many winding mountain roads that we would travel together, Chencho began to impart his considerable knowledge to us, telling us the detailed history of Bhutan in measured tones, as if reading to us from a treasured book that we were already familiar with. At first, the myths sounded like fairy tales–monks with tongue-twister names and divine powers, spirits inhabiting the mountains, lakes and forests–stories too fantastical to be true. We smiled to ourselves at his earnestness. We would soon learn that most Bhutanese are well-educated and knowledgeable about current world events, yet they believe with a seemingly unquestioning certainly in the supernatural myths that are interwoven with their Buddhist traditions. (Perhaps they would say the same of our adherence to some of our beliefs–religious and otherwise.) 

Soon, we emerged from our van back into the brilliant sunshine to walk across a thousand-year-old bridge flying colorful prayer flags from its railings. Next, we walked up the dirt path toward an ancient stupa, trying to concentrate on Chencho’s mesmerizing voice as we took in the view, which included an enormous photo of the Bhutanese royal family. We were touched by his obvious devotion to the fifth king Jingme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, his beautiful wife Jetsun Pema, and their adorable toddler son. Over the next week, we would memorize the faces of this photogenic family, whose pictures graced almost all of the sites we would visit. We would hear how the king’s very wise father, the fourth king Jingme Singye Wangchuck, had given the people democracy, how education and healthcare were free–even for foreigners who fell ill in their country–how the king was most concerned about the welfare and happiness of his people. Surely some of Chencho’s emotions are exaggerated for our benefit, we thought to ourselves, until two different western managers of the boutique hotels we stayed at confirmed that most Bhutanese are moved to tears when they speak of their beloved king and queen.

Back in the van, we headed for the Jigme Dorji Memorial Chorten in Thimphu, the capitol. It was a holiday, and we had to step carefully around the many pilgrims of all ages who had come to worship at the temple. Throngs of people clad as always in traditional dress–kimono-like ghos for the men and long belted skirts called kiris, worn with colorful jackets for the women–sat contentedly along the walkways and paved open spaces, each of them holding a plastic plate, patiently waiting to be served by the nuns carrying large pots of rice and caldrons of chili sauce. “It is their duty to feed the worshippers,” Chencho explained to us over the rhythmic chanting, as we took off our shoes and entered the large white-washed stupa. A haze of burning incense hung in the chilly air, and monks in flowing saffron robes–many of them with cellphones–knelt before the alters, surrounded by mandalas, prayer wheels, and statues of divinities.

In this, the first of several temples we would visit during the next week, Chencho reverently explained its myths and history before politely excusing himself to bow repeatedly and pray before the giant altar. We, in turn, wandered amongst the pious monks and statues, the devout pilgrims, and the various offerings of fruit, flowers, and water in golden bowls. I don’t think we realized it yet, but the peaceful, happy nature of the people was beginning to seep into our pores, just as the slower pace of life around us had already begun to calm our goal-oriented, perpetually rushing American psyches.

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Instead of the GDP, the Bhutanese use the GNH, Gross National Happiness, as a measure of success. This measure is based on Buddhist values and takes into account the preservation of their cultural heritage and their environment, the health and general well-being of the people, education, and good governance. (Maybe that’s why Bhutan is the only carbon negative country on earth. With its abundance of natural forests full of countless trees, it absorbs more carbon than it produces.)

Other Buddhist tenets include compassion, self-control, non-violence, mindfulness, and the importance of overcoming anger, greed, and ignorance–all desired traits that must be mastered if one is to reach the ultimate goal of enlightenment.

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When we opened our curtains to find that our hotel room overlooked Punakha’s stunning river valley, the wispy morning mist still floated below us over the golden terraced rice paddies dotted with traditional Bhutanese farmhouses. We had arrived after sunset the evening before, after having survived the somewhat harrowing trip through the Dochula Pass, where we were treated to a spectacular view of the snow-capped Himalayan mountains. We checked into our hotel and enjoyed a delicious, albeit not very Bhutanese meal, before we fell into our beds, still ignorant of the glorious view that unfurled like a richly woven tapestry from somewhere just below our balcony. 

We had been touring the cultural sights for days–impressive fortress dzongs, where Chencho respectfully donned his mandatory traditional ivory shawl, the equivalent of a jacket and tie in the West; an enormous golden Buddha multiple stories high on a hillside above Thimphu; craft fairs filled with colorful native carvings, weavings, and paintings; a textile museum; a interactive cultural center, where we tried out the national sport of archery; several ornately decorated stupas; two monasteries and a nunnery, where we purchased friendship bracelets from the shyly smiling nuns, who told us in broken English about their work. There wasn’t a single sight I would have wanted to skip, but once I opened the curtains, I could have sat there all day, reading and soaking in the view, basking in the utter peace that saturated the valley. 

Instead, I followed Chencho, my husband, and our friends down the worn dirt path that wound through the sun-kissed paddies below to where it climbed up the opposite hillside to the Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Stupa. On our way, we nodded pleasantly at the rice farmers, as well as other foreigners and their Bhutanese guides. Locals bent over with age and the weight of their heavy baskets laden with delicate kumquat-like fruits greeted us with toothless smiles that were so joyful you’d think we were related to the royal family. At last, we reached the roof of the temple, where we were rewarded with such a stunningly beautiful view of the entire river valley, I had to drag myself back down the narrow stairs when finally my hunger forced me to abandon my perch at what felt like the top of the world.

In the days that followed, Chencho led us through many more adventures, imparting his encyclopedic knowledge in his constant, gentle, endearing manner so like the other Bhutanese we met (although he and Kenchen were extra special). We hiked through sun-dappled forests of pines and hillsides covered with rhododendron trees, imagining how glorious the latter must look in the full bloom of spring. We visited a fertility temple where couples came from around the world to be blessed by the monks (more about that in my next article). We marched across the Gangtay Valley floor in search of the elusive Tibetan black-necked cranes that had arrived only the day before for the winter. We stood on remote bluffs among seas of white prayer flags that truly made us feel connected to heaven. We picnicked at the top of Chulela Pass (3988 meters/13,083 feet) on a secluded outcropping perched like a bird’s nest about the valley below, pinching ourselves at the surreal view of the distant Himalayan mountain peaks. We rafted down the gentle rapids of the pristine Mo-Chhu River and braved still more harrowing drives where Indian trucks carrying loads of potatoes and belching clouds of black smoke forced us to within inches of certain death on the perilous mountain roads. Yet even though I’m known in my family as a back-seat driver and an annoying “safety-first” mom, I never once felt scared–at least for more than a moment. You could argue it was because I was carsick a fair amount of the time or because Kenchen was such an unflappably skilled driver–he truly was–but really it was that I was filled with such an overwhelming sense of peace and contentment that there wasn’t room for fear

By the time we hiked for hours up the winding mountain path to the 10,232-foot high Taktsang Monastery, aka the Tiger’s Nest, I could almost believe that Padmasambhava, aka Guru Rimpoche–who is said to have brought Buddhism to Bhutan–really had flown on the back of his concubine-turned-tigress in the 8th century to the caves of Taktsang Mountain, where he then subdued the mountain’s evil spirit before spending three years in deep meditation. Once we finally arrived at the ancient mystical monastery, hanging precariously off the side of a mountain, the views were so absolutely indescribable that it all made sense. Any less magical of an origin story would have sounded unbelievable to us. 

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Before we went to Bhutan, I had heard from friends that it was a tiny magical kingdom where they had found indescribable peace and a true feeling of contentment. Now that I know first-hand what they were talking about, I find myself at a loss of how to accurately describe it, except to say that you have to go there and experience the country, its culture, and most of all, its people to fully understand. Maybe that’s because it’s the only place on earth that values its people’s happiness above all else.