Bhutan: The Ultimate Himalayan High
"Are you happy yet, Mr. Platt?" asked my guide, Tshering Dorji, as our Toyota Land Cruiser careened around mud slides (beware of active rolling boulders, one sign read) and death-drop turns on our way to the Phobjikha Valley, 9,800 feet above sea level, in the center of the Kingdom of Bhutan. Happiness is a prized local commodity among the Bhutanese, and since arriving the day before, I had been asked by my hosts about the state of my general psychic well-being many times. But for a neurotic Western lowlander, the mountain roads in Bhutan aren't conducive to happiness of any kind (the roads are considered so treacherous, foreign visitors aren't allowed to drive on them). When I'd told Tshering about my fear of heights, he'd suggested I cultivate a sense of Buddha-like calm. "I tell my American friends to meditate around the curves," he said as we swerved through a switchback. "And if the ladies scream, I put them in the middle of the bus." I was glad to have my bottle of Valium.
There are still leopards and wild tigers high above the Phobjikha Valley, and every fall, flocks of black-necked cranes fly over Tibet's snowy peaks to winter there. There is no electricity to date in Phobjikha (plans are under way to introduce it). The former king Jigme Singye Wangchuck—the fourth Druk Gyalpo, or Dragon king, of Bhutan—had worried that the excess light and commotion would disturb the happiness of the cranes. So the birds exist in peace with the local farmers, the monks in the famous nearby Gangtey Monastery, and a thin stream of resolute travelers.
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I was supposed to share a cup of tea with Lama Kunzang Pema Namgyal, the ninth bodily reincarnation of Terton Pema Lingpa, a wandering Tibetan Buddhist master and saint whose ancestor built the Gangtey Gompa, or monastery, in the sixteenth century. The Lama of Gangtey is an influential figure in Bhutan's theocratic circles. He has his own MySpace page, and followers as far away as Colorado. But the Lama was away when we arrived that afternoon, and so I was shown around by a young monk named Tobgay. Tobgay wore crimson robes over his thick wool sweater, and when I gave him my business card he studied it quizzically. From the gates of the gompa, you can see down the length of the valley, which is flat as a bowl and fringed along its rim with stands of blue pines, and the only sound is the cackling of crows and the whispering of wind through the trees. In my dreamy, addled state, I asked Tobgay if the monks of Gangtey had any words of wisdom for strung-out visitors from the West, in this time of global turmoil, recession, and general psychic distress.
Tobgay contemplated my question for a time in polite, even saintly, silence.
"Please explain the meaning of this word recession," he finally said.
Wander among the hidden valleys of this insular little Hobbit kingdom and you will experience similar moments of blissful misunderstanding. And why not? There are only three movie theaters in all of Bhutan, a country roughly the size of Switzerland, and only a few swimming pools. Smoking tobacco is illegal in Bhutan, and the wearing of Western-style T-shirts and baggy blue jeans is discouraged in favor of a native kimono-style costume called a gho. There are no tall buildings in Bhutan, no superhighways (the country, famously, has no traffic lights), and no overpriced gourmet restaurants ("Pork fat is a popular dish," according to one of the guidebooks I consulted, "although Westerners find it inedible"). There is negligible unemployment in Bhutan (workers from Nepal are imported to do the hard labor), negligible pollution and crime, and no grim talk of toxic mortgages, cataclysmic real estate bubbles, or crushing national debt.
Tiny backwater nations tend to apologize for this lack of development. But the Bhutanese have always coveted their church mouse status, and over the years have turned it into a kind of governing philosophy. Instead of standard economic statistics like GDP or GNP, the country famously charts its progress according to Gross National Happiness, a nebulous measurement that Bhutanese officials often talk about but rarely define. "It's not happiness in a Westernized, Disney way," one of them told me. "It's contentment, which is a deeper, much more Buddhist interpretation of things." The government likes to cite a 2006 study by sociologists at the University of Leicester that ranked Bhutan eighth out of 178 countries in a psychological metric called "subjective well-being" (Denmark is No. 1, the United States No. 23, and Burundi brings up the rear at No. 178), making it the happiest nation in Asia and the most cheerful low-income country in the world. "The big house, the big flat-screen TV, these should not be a yardstick for happiness," the official said with a happy smile. "The Western world has got it all wrong. That's why Bhutan is laughing now."
And these days, not many people in the bankrupt West, or the smoggy, rapidly overdeveloping cities of Asia, are laughing at Bhutan. Aside from being maddeningly happy, the Bhutanese are also admirably spiritual (the vast majority of Bhutanese practice some form of organized religion), politically pragmatic, and enviably, even annoyingly, green. Most of the kingdom's foreign income is from clean hydropower sold to India, and by law, sixty percent of the country must be covered in forest at all times, which means if you cut down a tree, you must replace it. Unlike in neighboring Nepal, few of the tallest mountain peaks in Bhutan have ever been climbed, and many of them don't even have official names.
Six years ago, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck shocked his countrymen by announcing that he would retire and that he was introducing democracy to his autocratic land. Jigme Singye's son, Khesar, the current king, still makes annual trips into the countryside on foot to solve disputes among his subjects. But the young monarch, who was educated at Phillips Andover and Oxford, now governs the country in tandem with two newly elected parliamentary-style councils. And his father spends his days meditating above the capital in a simple wooden cottage.
Like increasing numbers of visitors from the anxiety-racked, information-obsessed, crisis-ridden Western world, I wanted to experience this curious national brand of psychic well-being firsthand. During the course of my breakneck ramble around one of the last truly happy nations on earth, I would meditate with monks in musty ancient temples, walk clockwise around stupas to obtain merits for my next life, hike through pristine forests untouched by chain saws and hordes of shaggy backpackers from the West.
Bhutan used to be famous for its fleabag hotels and its fearsome chili pepper and yak cheese cuisine, which food writer Ruth Reichl once called the worst in the entire world. But all this is changing. In the past decade, new hotels have sprouted around the country, including a discreet network of luxurious Aman lodges where you can relax in pine-scented steam baths after your temple visits and sip two-hundred-dollar bottles of imported Bordeaux. On the week of my arrival, the computer baron Michael Dell was being whisked from one Shangri-la valley to the next in a helicopter flown in specially from Kathmandu.
Dell arrived in Bhutan on his own private jet, but I arrived like most outsiders do, on board one of the two Airbus jets operated by the country’s only airline, Drukair. There were members of the royal family on the flight from Delhi, and a monk dressed in saffron robes carrying a shining twelve-string guitar. As we flew past the jagged needle top of Mount Everest, a stewardess handed out copies of the national newspaper, The Kuensel, which carried the story of a woman who’d been hung in a not too remote part of the country by villagers who suspected her of being a witch. (Maybe not everyone is happy.) The twisting, corkscrew descent into the narrow Paro Valley, in the western part of the country, is among the most notorious in the world, and Drukair pilots need years of training before attempting it. Calming flute music played over the cabin speakers as we spiraled gently down past gold-roofed temples and rocky hillsides covered in pine. When we were finally on the ground, the gentleman next to me, who was from Delhi, offered a little prayer of thanksgiving.
The name Bhutan means “End of Tibet” in Sanskrit, but the Bhu- tanese call their remote country Druk Yul, or “Land of the Thunder Dragon.” In the 1600s, Vajrayana Buddhist monks came over the passes from Tibet and built their fortresses in Bhutan’s great valleys. Their stern form of theocracy eventually gave way to the Wangchuck monarchs, who focused all of their energies, until recently, on keeping their subjects sheltered from the vagaries of the modern world. Few people beyond the Himalayas knew Bhutan even existed until the late 1800s, when one or two hearty Victorians trekked into the country’s remote valleys. Until the latter part of the twen- tieth century, there were no written laws in Bhutan, no electricity or telephones, no hospitals, no form of standard currency. Even today, dialects (there are twenty) vary from valley to valley, and landslides are so common during the monsoon season that travelers carry sticks of dynamite in their cars to blow rocks off the road.
On the way to the hotel from the little bandbox airport, we passed strings of ponies on the road and, at the bottom of a hill, a car that had flipped over and landed on its top. People were standing absently around the wreckage, and when I asked Tshering what had happened, he shrugged in karmic resignation and said, “He must have rolled all the way down from the top.” Farther on, we passed a mendicant monk crawling along with pieces of clapboard affixed to his hands and knees. This practice dates from medieval times, Tshering explained; monks crawl on their pilgrimages to holy shrines instead of walking, prostrating themselves before the Buddha in order to gain merits for the next life.
Monks are part of the ritualized tourist landscape in Bhutan, like cowboys in Montana or tulip girls in Holland. I encountered them on high mountain passes, in French-style pastry shops, and in the lobbies of newly built luxury hotels. At the Taj Tashi in Thimphu, a monk named Chhimi chants every morning for the tourists while they eat their breakfast. There were monks lounging around the lobby of the Zhiwa Ling Hotel when I arrived from the airport, and when I watched Bhutan’s lone television channel that evening, it featured monks chanting. The Zhiwa Ling has a beautifully appointed in-house temple on the third floor and a “meditation house” in the garden, which I visited after a fitful first night’s sleep, in an attempt to conjure up a sense of internal calm for our drive into the mountains.
That morning, on my first day on the road in Bhutan, we witnessed all sorts of strange wonders. Trucks painted with dragons and thunderbolts reared up in our windshield, then miraculously disappeared. Forest fires obscured the sky low in the valley, but high over the Dochu La Pass, which leads to the eastern part of the country, the air cleared and you could see the bottoms of huge snowcapped peaks in the distance. We stopped at a temple where monks had been reading from Buddhist scriptures nonstop for two weeks, and chewed on a truckers’ snack called chugo, made from calcified yak cheese. At the top of the pass, travelers were huddled around a wood-burning stove, sipping hot cups of salty yak butter tea, but when we began our slow, winding descent into the next valley, called the Wangdue, the air warmed up, the car filled with the smell of tropical flowers, and it seemed as if we were passing into another world.
Because the country sits at the same latitude as Florida, the different valleys begin to feel like little Polynesian islands separated by mountains instead of miles of open sea. With their stolid, square-roofed houses surrounded by piney forests, the villages in Paro had reminded me of the Alps. But the lower Wangdue was a temperate place, covered with terraced rice paddies, fringed with cactus and tall plumes of bamboo. The main tourist attraction here is a temple founded five centuries ago by Drukpa Kunely, a ribald Tibetan monk whose favored symbol for depicting the ecstasy of religious enlightenment was the erect penis. “Our polite phrase is dorji, which also means thunderbolt,” said Tshering.
On the way up to the temple, we passed groups of Japanese tourists studiously snapping photos of giant pink dorjis painted, like Italianate frescoes, on doors and farmhouse walls, and soon I took out my iPhone and began snapping pictures of giant dorjis too.
We slept by a rushing river that night, in an empty guesthouse surrounded by gardens of bougainvillea, and in the morning we climbed up to the Phobjikha Valley for our appointment with the monks of Gangtey. There were wild animals wan- dering along the precipitous, crumbling road (foxes, barking deer, packs of black-faced langur monkeys), and at the top of the mountain pass, we stopped to observe a herd of shaggy yaks grazing on hillsides covered in fields of dwarf bamboo. After touring the monastery with Tobgay, Tshering and I went on a hike on the rim of the valley. Walking through the still, primordial forest, we saw more deer, and pheasants with iridescent, bottle-green plumage, and when we came out onto a village road, a group of children approached us, then ran away laughing. “They think you look big, like a giant yeti,” Tshering said.
The Bhutanese maintain a good-natured sense of xenophobia—no doubt one of the keys to their carefully cultivated happiness. The government keeps the border closed to only the richest tourists, who are encouraged to spend their money as quickly as possible and then leave. As good Buddhists, the Bhutanese believe in the endless wheel of reincarnation and aren’t afraid of death. But they rarely emigrate from their valleys (the law discourages it), and when they do travel, they are famous for getting sore throats in smoggy foreign countries and fleeing back home. Tshering’s father had been a bodyguard to the royal family, and during the course of Tshering’s own travels, he’d visited Texas, among other places, and attended hotel management school in Salzburg. But when I asked him to name his favorite foreign city, he said he didn’t have one. “I’m happiest in my travels whenever I come back to Bhutan,” he said.
That evenIng, with other yeti-like foreigners at the Amankora lodge in the valley, I began to see what Tshering meant. The luxury eight-room lodge sat at the foot of the monastery, obscured, like a bunker, in a stand of pine trees. As the sun disap- peared over the mountains, candles flickered in the farmhouses along the valley floor, and you could hear the faint chanting of monks, mingled with the sound of bells, drifting down from the courtyard on the hill. Over a dinner of yak stroganoff and oolong tea, I met an entrepreneur from Singapore, a learned gentleman who appeared to travel the world collecting exotic experiences. The best pomegranates were grown by the Sultan of Oman, he told me, and the best mango was the alphonso, grown on special plantations south of Bombay. But for a sense of pristine, otherworldly calm, there was no place in the world like Bhutan. “This really is as close to Shangri-la as you can get,” he said as we watched a sliver of moon rise over the dark valley floor. “It will be interesting to see how long it lasts.”
I slept a dreamless sleep in a feather bed the size of a flatbed truck, and when I woke in the middle of the night, the valley was quiet, like a cathedral, and covered in a scrim of starlight. According to a brochure in my room, there are hermit caves up above the hotel where monks sit meditating in silence for three years at a time. But when I hiked up to find them early the next morning, I got lost among the trees and boulders, so I sat down for a time in a stand of pines and attempted to meditate on my own. I listened to the wind and the twittering of birds in a kind of jittery, suspended silence for half an hour, maybe more, and on the way back down the hillside, I felt a tentative calm—Buddhist, perhaps?—descending for the first time on my journey, a sense of everyday cares and anxiety quietly dropping away.
“I think we are feeling better, today, la!” said Tshering, as we drove back down into the Wangdue Valley, on the road to Thimphu. We passed children singing in the backs of trucks on their way to school, and a caravan of Land Cruisers carrying the Queen Mother of Bhutan, Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, who reclined in the backseat of her car, behind a pair of impressively large Chanel sunglasses. We toured the grand Punakha Dzong, which sits at the confluence of two rushing rivers in the country’s former capital, Punakha, then stopped in the late afternoon at a temple outside a town called Khuru,where a chanting of mantras was under way. Food was being cooked in the temple courtyard, and villagers were gathered around it dressed in their formal ghos, like Iowa farmers at a church picnic. Inside the temple, monks chanted the famous mantra of Tibetan Buddhism over a loud microphone again and again, and in my newly attuned, beatific state, it wasn’t long before I was chanting too. “Om mani padme hum,” I heard myself say. “Om mani padme hum.”
In Thimphu, I bought a string of prayer beads carved from yak bone and wandered the tidy streets of the capital, which were filled with communal prayer wheels instead of ATMs, and sturdy whitewashed buildings made with rafters cut from logs of pine. I dined on a traditional meal of chili peppers and melted yak cheese with Dasho Kinley Dorji, a learned government official who had studied at Stanford and once ed- ited The Kuensel.
Far away, in the wide world, all sorts of chaos was breaking loose. Bombs were exploding in Baghdad. The economies of the West were spiraling further into debt. Dasho Kinley shrugged. “In the West you spend your lives chasing money and chasing time, but as Buddhists we know that this is just one life and that time is limitless.” His government, he noted, believes that contentment is an internal pursuit, not an external one. “It is our responsibility to make our people look inward,” he said. “We don’t need everyone going around in baggy blue jeans, or hooked up to the TV. Needing less, rather than wanting more. That’s the key to happiness.”
On my last full day, I listened to the sonorous chanting of the monk over breakfast in the grand, conspicuously empty dining room at the Taj in Thimphu, then toured the perimeter of the royal family’s walled compound, called “The Meadow of Pearls,” which sits in a hillside neighborhood on the western side of town. I launched golf balls into the thin, alpine air at the Royal Thimphu Golf Club for an hour or two, then walked quietly with Tshering and a mob of pilgrims around the towering, whitewashed National Memorial Stupa in the center of town. I asked Tshering if he’d ever contemplated living the holy life, and he smiled and shook his head. He’d had an uncle who’d lived in a monastery once, but the uncle had eventually returned to his village to raise a family. “Even in Bhutan,” he said, “there are certain challenges to being a monk.”
I finally put away my Valium tablets as we drove on the road back toward Paro that afternoon, and sat fingering my prayer beads in a peaceable, trancelike state as the car zipped around the death-drop turns. In the late afternoon, Tshering and I climbed up to the Taktsang (“Tiger’s Nest”) Monastery, where, according to legend, the father of Tibetan Tantric Buddhism, Guru Rinpoche, ascended on the back of a flying tiger in the eighth century. Taktsang is cut into a rock cliff three thousand feet above the floor of the Paro Valley, and because of its proximity to the airport, is usually the starting point for foreigners beginning their magical mystery tour of Bhutan. But my guide had scheduled it as a kind of grand finale, a last, picture-book view of the wonders of his hidden little kingdom, before I jetted back to the jangly world of blue jeans, bankrupt skyscrapers, and careening traffic.
On the way up to the monastery, we passed pilgrims with betel-stained teeth coming down the wide dirt path, and groups of well-fed Western tourists picking their way among the rocks with sturdy walking sticks. From the valley floor, the building looked like a tiny speck sitting on a vast gray elephant-hide of rock, but as we crept slowly up the hill, the clouds cleared and you could see the gold-rimmed roof glinting through the trees. After an hour’s walk, the path leveled off to a wooden tea house on a rocky ledge and then, across the ravine, a panoramic view of Taktsang itself.
I got a pot of tea in the guest house and sat on a bench under a pine tree, admiring the view. Fluttering prayer flags were strung among the trees, and in the distance you could hear the faint sounds of water falling. It was not for the first time during my brief trip, it occurred to me, that I’d traveled vast distances to see great sights. Tshering said we could climb higher for a better view, but I told him I was content to sit there for an hour or two. “This is the end of our journey,” I said. We sipped our tea in silence, as racing clouds sent patterns of light and shadow across the valley. “If you’re happy, then I am happy,” Tshering said.
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