Measuring My Happiness In The World’s Only Wholly Buddhist State

The mountain kingdom of the thunder dragon, Bhutan, might very well have some of the happiest people in the world. But that doesn’t mean the people of the world would be more happy if they lived in Bhutan.

Take me, for example. I’m a Daoist (It says so on my Instagram account) and I have some Buddhist leanings and I carry around a meditation bell, so eastern cultures appeal to me. I also enjoy Himalayan mountains, South Asian jungles and nature in general.

But on the other hand, I’m an anarchocapitalist. While there is some capitalism now in Bhutan, there isn’t anarcho-anything going on.

In the land of the thunder dragon (Bhutan’s national symbol), Gross National Happiness (GNP) serves as a GDP alternative that is the guiding philosophy of the Bhutanese government. GNP is a top-down policy. By the way, at the top of the Bhutanese hierarchy, is the Druk Gyalpo, or dragon king — the ruler of the country.

People in Bhutan do seem to genuinely be happy. But they are also required to be happy. In my case, someone forcing me to be happy does not make me happy.

Being a Daoist and occasionally doing Buddhist things — on my own terms — makes me happy. So does touring this mountain kingdom of the thunder dragon. Let’s get started…

Arriving in the dragon kingdom

What you didn’t find out from reading about my recent trip to neighboring Nepal was that my stay in Nepal was split in two — with three days in Bhutan in the middle.

Taking a break from the Himalayan peaks and the deadly jungles of Nepal, I ventured over to Bhutan, also a country of Himalayas and jungles. Despite these similarities, Nepal and Bhutan have profound differences. Urban air quality is certainly one.

The flight from Nepal to Bhutan – or vice versa – is incredible, if you are sitting on the correct side of the plane. I was not while traveling to Bhutan. I was while traveling back to Nepal. If seated next to a window on the correct side of the plane, you get excellent views of the Himalayas, including Mt. Everest. After making the adjustment to the appropriate window seat on the way back to Nepal, I realized that my Yeti Airlines venture to toast champagne to the top of the world was unnecessary. I could have just brought some champagne on the Nepal-Bhutan or Bhutan-Nepal flight, sat back and enjoyed the view of the top of the world.

Anyway, after flying by the Himalayas for the third time of the week, I landed at Paro International Airport. Apparently, it is one of the most dangerous airports in the world.

On the way into Paro, the plane flew low over mountains and made a sharp curve just before landing. Sounds scary? It really wasn’t. Take a look:

 

It’s not often that you get a decent feel for a country as soon as you land. But it happens occasionally. When I landed in Tahiti (French Polynesia), I was immediately greeted with Polynesian song and dance.That was one case.

After landing in Bhutan — which has very strict visa rules — I was greeted by my guide and some other very friendly people. I had a guide, not by choice, but by law. Other than Bhutanese citizens, only Indian, Bangladeshi and Maldivian passport holders can travel freely in Bhutan. Everyone else must go around with the country with a government-approved tourist guide.

My arrival in Bhutan went smoothly. The visa procedure was straightforward. The air was much cleaner than in Kathmandu. Everything was regimented yet everyone was joyous.

Temples and penises

I wasn’t very well prepared for the regimented part of Bhutan. On day 1, I went with my guide and our driver to the Bhutanese capital of Thimphu. There we visited the Tashichho Dzong, a fortress that houses the dragon king’s throne room, as well as the Bhuthanese government. I believe the country’s religious leader was living inside the complex when I visited. Also, the Tashichho Dzong is a Buddhist monastery.

A view of Thimphu

Wearing just a t-shirt, I went to visit the monastery. I was lucky to get in. I was not conforming to the dress code, but the guards made an exception for me. Inside, I saw men sitting, chanting and praising Buddha — something that would become a common phenomenon over the course of my Bhutan trip.

Tashichho Dzong

Sightseeing in Thimphu, a tiny capital city, includes a large stupa (meditation temple… remember from Nepal?) and a giant 51-meter-high Buddha statue that is sitting on top of a golden temple. Inside the Buddha Dordenma statue there are more than 100,000 smaller Buddha statues.

Buddha Dordenma

The Memorial Chorten Stupa

Inside various temples I visited I got to learn about Bhutanese Buddhist rituals. For instance, when children are born, they are not immediately given a name. Rather, they are taken to the local temple where the head Buddhist priest gives them a name — which is usually associated with the local deity. Then a horoscope for the child is generated. The horoscope maps out when various rituals must be performed throughout the child’s life.

For women who are struggling to produce children, there is the opportunity to come to the temple and run around with a phallus or get hit on the head with a wooden replica penis. Actually, phallic symbols appear just about everywhere in Bhutan. Phalluses appear in paintings on the exteriors of homes and buildings, as well as in shops, restaurants and holy temples. The phalluses are meant to not only impregnate the infertile, but protect common Bhutanese folk and ward off the evil eye and gossip.

This belief that the phallus wards off evil spirits is an element of Tantric Buddhism. Bhutanese culture, which is intertwined with Tantric Buddhism, views sexuality as a means toward enlightenment. I celebrated Buddhist attitudes toward sexuality by buying phallus postcards. They go well with my Nepalese singing bell. In all seriousness, though, this openness toward sexuality is an element of Bhutanese society that I appreciate.

Phallus postcards

The gem of the country

Enough talk about penises. It’s time to take a trip to the country’s foremost landmark.

The gem of Bhutan is the Tiger’s Nest Monastery. Wedged high up into a Himalayan cliff, Tiger’s Nest is incredibly picturesque. Tiger’s Nest is what everyone who visits Bhutan is drawn to seeing and photographing. Fittingly, it is strictly forbidden to take photos of the monastery while on the inside. I actually had to check my phone and camera at the entrance. But, from the outside I got some good shots.

Tiger’s Nest Monastery

Tiger’s Nest again

You might be curious why the monastery is called Tiger’s Nest, considering that it’s located up in the mountains, not down in the jungles, where the man-eaters roam (Nepal reference).

Legend has it that in the 8thCentury a tantric master, Guru Padmasambhava, flew to the location on the back of a tigress. Guru Padmasambhava then meditated for three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours. After meditating, Padmasambhava emerged in eight incarnated forms. Padmasambhava is now credited with introducing Buddhism to Bhutan.

Tiger’s Nest is built around the cave, or caves, where Padmasambhava is said to have meditated. The monastery is dedicated to Padmasambhava, and it contains the caves where he supposedly meditated. They are now called the “tiger lair” caves.

Construction of the monastery complex began in 1692 with the building of a temple devoted to Padmasambhava. The monastery later expanded, and more recently, it was restored after being damaged in a 1998 fire.

When I went inside Tiger’s Nest, I saw some puppets, paintings a lot of praying monks. I got to visit a Buddhist temple within in the complex.

Frankly, I think the hike up to Tiger’s Nest is as interesting as the monastery itself. The monastery is situated about 500 to 1,000 meters above the floor of Bhutan’s Paro Valley. It is a very steep incline to get to the monastery, and the hike takes most people 3 hours.

A steep climb

At the bottom of the hill, my guide, my driver and I were offered mules to take us up. We turned them down and started walking. Given that my guide was a young man and I had recently embarked upon a viewpoint hiking fitness program, we made it up to Tiger’s Nest in just 90 minutes. I think that shows my fitness routine has worked. 😊

Organic farming and archery

Down in Paro, a town that is not only home to Bhutan’s lone international airport but also sacred sites, I visited more temples. I also stayed in a hotel on top of a hill with a nice view of rice paddies. Bhutan is known for its red rice.

Bhutanese Red Rice

Agriculture in Bhutan is something else about the country that is quite unique. All of the produce grown in the country is grown organically. This is, of course, a result of government decree. Five years ago, the Bhutanese government announced Bhutan would become the first country in the world to make its agriculture completely organic, banning pesticides and herbicides. This goes along with a nationwide smoking ban.

I must say Bhutan has an impressive variety of organic produce. When visiting a market, you can find just about every type of fruit and vegetable in the world. But the Bhutanese produce is quite expensive.

Inside a Bhutanese market

In general, Bhutanese products are quite expensive. Within Bhutan there is some competition, though. People from India come to Bhutan to sell their Indian products, which are much cheaper.

Speaking of competition, Bhutanese people are not very competitive. Bhutan rarely sends any athletes to the Olympic games, with one exception — archers. The national sport of Bhutan is archery, and it shows when you watch Bhutanese men handle bows and arrows. I watched some Bhutanese archers shoot at a 200 meter range. They are quite accurate. If I were to guess, I would say all the meditation helps. 😉

The national sport

Have I been converted?

To sum things up, Bhutan is beautiful. It has incredible nature and architecture. I like Bhutanese friendliness, cheerfulness and openness toward discussion and display of sexuality.

But I’m sticking with Daoism over Buddhism. And I’m sticking with anarchocapitalism over government-imposed happiness.

Nonetheless, I can see myself returning to returning to Bhutan, exploring some of the remote areas of the country where tourists don’t go and working on my mountain meditation practice. If I’m feeling very inspired, I will paint a giant phallus. The phallus will ward off any evil spirts I may encounter on my journey to every country in the world.

 

Stay: Apart from 2 Le Meridien luxury hotels in Thimphu and Paro, many smaller hotels abound. The standard is pretty high and internet was good. The Mandala Resort in Paro offered excellent views over the valley.

 

Eat: Typical local fare, Chinese-inspired, but with lots of organic vegetables next to the rice.

 

Drink: Bhutanese beer is drinkable. Other than that, Bhutan certainly is not a party country.

 

Connect: While Google Fi did not work, the local broadband was working much better than in Nepal.

 

See: You are required to have a guide – who shows you virtually everything around Paro and Thimphu. I was happy with my guide from the agency Tashi Travel. It  costs 250 USD a night – the minimum cost of the visa also covering a basic tour.

 

Do: Hike up Tigers Nest and enjoy the beautiful mountains. Although part of the Himalayas, it is rather big hills grown with cypress trees fully over.

 

Go there: Drukair and Royal Bhutan Airlines fly from Delhi, Nepal, Singapore, Bangkok and Bangladesh. The notorious Paro Airport is not that bad – but still an exciting arrival.

 

Go next: You are very close to Bangladesh, separated by a small piece of India. I rather chose to return to Kathmandu, Nepal, with my flight just shortly touching down before continuing to Delhi.