bhutan, land of happiness: what it means for the traveller


[My below post was later published in the Gross National Happiness Centre June 2016 Newsletter.]

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I have a quiet smile playing on my lips. My eyes are content. This is through a daily dosage of countless hours on the road, wake up alarms by wee hour sunrises, and often dodgy plumbing and basic meals. I am in the land of happiness.

Whilst the rest of the world chases gross domestic and national products, the Kingdom of Bhutan has veered towards the road less trodden, in every sense. It chose happiness. And somewhere along the way, this translates to happiness for those who travel through it. This I assure you is no marketing spiel by PR or advertising honchos. It is for real.

In 1972, Bhutan’s fourth King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck coined the term Gross National Happiness (GNH) built on the premise “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross Domestic Product.”

You may well ask what is GNH. I did. The King described it in 1972 as wherein “development should enable human beings to unfold their potential of becoming better human beings socially, economically and morally.” Bhutan’s fifth King calls it “Development with values.” Intrinsic to Bhutan, GNH is the core belief holding the Kingdom together and guiding it forward. It represents the country’s commitment to building an economy based on Buddhist spiritual values instead of material development.

Is it all subjective hogwash then? “Happiness” is different things for different people. It is also relative. I get happy looking at the sun set over the ocean. Another may get happy on a shopping binge. My happiness is low budget. A shopping binge needs loads of goodies and cash.

GNH, measured using the GNH Index, is a fine balance between economy, happiness and other key areas critical for overall well-being, and is based on nine indicators. These are: psychological well-being, health, education, time use, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standards. Psychological well-being is the only one composed of subjective indicators, namely, life satisfaction, positive and negative emotions, and spirituality. The GNH Index was first used as a measure in 2010 and, thereafter, in 2015.

2015 data showed 91.2 percent of Bhutanese enjoyed sufficiency in at least half of the nine areas. From a growth perspective, GNH increased from 0.743 in 2010 to 0.756 in 2015—the Bhutanese could, hence, be said to be happier today than five years back. Constantly monitored and evaluated, the GNH Index helps the Bhutanese government design its policies and better understand its populace’s needs.

Fortunately for the rest of the world, national, regional and international governments and agencies have not been impervious to Bhutan’s pioneering governance practices. Europe has established its “Beyond GDP” initiative and OECD is working on how to “measure what we treasure.” In 2012, the United Nations declared 20 March International Day of Happiness and adopted GNH (albeit without compulsion) in its draft Sustainable Development Goals in 2015.

So what does this mean for the traveller, such as you and me, who have Bhutan on our bucket list and take the journey to the Land of Happiness? Is it really any different from any other homogenised destination in this world? Is everyone one meets going to have a batty grin plastered on their faces? I took a nine-day road trip through Western Bhutan earlier this month and this is what I discovered:

1. 72.5% of Bhutan comprises forests, and not a single billboard mars the view

Located in the eastern Himalayas, Bhutan gets more rainfall than its neighbours to its west. The result: sumptuous forests of deciduous and evergreen trees ranging from tropical hardwoods to oak and pine. By law, 60 percent of the forest cover is protected and encompasses 10 national parks and sanctuaries. Currently, 72.5 percent of the Thunder Dragon Kingdom’s total land area is forested. The lack of a profit-driven culture facilitates the prohibition of billboards. For the first time in my life, I developed a relationship with forests and the trees spoke to me. I think it is also called being one with nature. 🙂

2. No hawkers, no to-and-fro bargaining, no insistent selling

I see a book I really like and ask the price. I am told, “Nu. 1,000, but for you, 700.” Take it or leave it is the unsaid expression. Or take this exchange I had with a cab driver. “How much?” “Nu 150.” I tell him, “That’s too much. Make it 100.” His response—a simple smiling, “OK.” And that is the end of the conversations. No sales person traipsing behind you. No intensive barrage of bargaining. No obsessive marketing. The underlying Buddhist belief is “whatever I have, is enough.” Street hawkers, by the way, are also banned throughout the country.

3. All of Bhutan is a Buddhist heritage capsule
Entering Bhutan is parallel to walking into a Buddhist heritage capsule—whitewashed dzongs, sacred lhakhangs, gold-rimmed chortens, erotic tantric art, and red-robed monks transpose the traveller to another world. The best part is this is not for show. A nationalistic and cultural purist, Bhutan’s heritage is woven seamlessly into its everyday life, with every Bhutanese a significant player in it. Despite earthquakes and fires, monuments have been painstakingly rebuilt on original lines. Modern apartment blocks use traditional design elements. Men, women and children wear national dress by law to work, and to school. This is what the world must have looked like before globalisation. Each country unique.

4. The Bhutanese are inherently a gentle race, devoid of aggression

Emotional intelligence and spiritual skills are part of the state-funded primary school curriculum. Nine days, and I, thus, did not hear a single raised voice or untamed negative emotion, whether it be in the “cities” nestled in deep valleys, or in the hamlets perched on towering mountains. Armed with soft voices, mild gestures, and warm smiles, I saw Bhutanese go about their daily tasks diligently, taking the weft and warp of life in their flow, unfazed. Every now and then they would break into a loud guffaw or muffled giggle, their response to pain a stalwart repose and resilience, that this too will pass.

5. Ribboned penises and dragons adorn the facades of homes and companies alike
Before you let your imagination go wild at the idea of erotic erect penises, replete with ribbons painted on facades of homes, relax! Esoteric symbols, their purpose are to protect, aid fertility, and drive away malicious gossip. Phallus painting in Bhutan traces itself back to its advocate, Lama Drukpa Kunley (15-16th Century). He is commonly known as the “Mad Saint” or “Divine Madman” for his unconventional, often bizarre and shocking—with sexual overtones—ways of teaching. Prior to the advent of Buddhism in Bhutan, the phallus was an integral part of the indigenous Bon religion as well.

6. Happiness goes hand in hand with low Internet data charges, non-existent traffic lights and awesome hot chocolate
Since one cannot live on emotional intelligence and god alone, the land of happiness throws in Internet at ridiculously low rates, streets without traffic lights, free health and education for its citizens, and 24-hour water and electricity supply. The Indian government supports over 3,000 projects in Bhutan, playing a vital role in the latter’s foreign policy, defence and commerce; Bhutan received US$ 985 million from India as foreign aid in 2015-16. Add a handful of charming cafes in the various cities, and Bhutan becomes the most chilled out, yet infrastructurally sound place to hang out at.

7. Low impact, high value tourism, except if you are an Indian traveller

All of the above, however, comes at a price. The minimum daily tariff for international tourists travelling in a group of three persons or more is USD$ 200 per person per night for the months of January, February, June, July, August, and December; and USD$ 250 per person per night for the months of March, April, May, September, October, and November. This includes all taxes, 3-star accommodation, meals, a Bhutanese guide, internal land transport and camping equipment. 4-star accommodation and individual travellers need to pay additional surcharges. Visas have to be applied two months in advance. Luckily for Indians, these rules don’t apply, leading to the predictable influx.

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The culminated whole, dear reader, is “Bhutan”. It invites you to just “be”—with yourself, nature, and god—and that is its biggest happiness quotient for the traveller in you and me. Would you not agree? 🙂


Note: My road trip to Western Bhutan was done with Doreen D’Sa, Doe’s Ecotours.

14 thoughts on “bhutan, land of happiness: what it means for the traveller

  1. Emotional intelligence taught in school? Wow, this is amazing! Majority of us learnt EI through life’s challenges, only if we are aware of it or only realised its importance much too late. Your description of Bhutanese reminds me a lot of Sikkimese – their gentle demeanour and love for the environment and nature. I visited Sikkim last year and was amazed how different it was from the rest of the country 🙂


  2. Well written Rama. Enjoyed reading it. Maybe you could say something about the resilance of the people e.g. the girl Rajini who worked at the house we lived in, whose husband had left her but she was determined to work and bring up her children and did not let the incident mar her happiness, or keep her from smiling or being kind and being attentive to our requirements as she served us at meal times. Just a thought – Carrol Martins


  3. It’s just wonderful how you uncover a land beyond the superficial. Shows the kind of traveler you are – sensitive, kind, astute.


    • Thank you, Savita, for your kind encouragement. Means a lot. There are so many layers to a place–unravelling its essence is part of the joy of travel, for me at least, for in the process I also learn about myself. 🙂


  4. Pingback: the secret, sacred wonders of paro valley | rama arya's blog


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