The Kingdom of Happiness. Or so they claim. A bold proclamation, and one that certainly caught my full attention. Being inherently confrontational, and often uncontrollably contradictory, at some vaguely remembered point in time a few years back while reading some random – and I seem to recall rather bland – magazine article, in Wanderlust, I believe, I encountered this rather unlikely moniker and almost immediately found myself obsessed with the need to test it for authenticity, or possibly irony, the difference being the whole point, I assumed. Ever since then, throughout scores of “Best of”, “Next great”, “Last remaining”, “Travel trends” and “Delusional government” articles, we have had our eyes on Bhutan as one of the unusual, presumably less touristy, places we would need to experience eventually. Now, that first article was well back, so what exactly took us so long you might be wondering? Was it finding a spot in our hectic schedule that requires home visits every Christmas, several consecutive months spent vegetating at Lake Atitlan each one and a half years, and getting obscenely drunk and passing out in Hale’s basement the third weekend of every August? No. Or our strangely proprietary relationship with Nepal which makes us oddly hesitant to betray them with visits to other beautiful Himalayan regions like Northern India, Bhutan or the place they make Darjeeling tea and are famous for their funny old trains? No. Was it the silent “h”? Sort of. But in the end it mainly came down to money. As in, Bhutan asks for a lot of it, while we prefer to keep most of it. It was a bit of a stalemate. $US280 per day, per person, to entitle two people a small chunk of their infamous “Gross National Happiness”, just enough to swirl around in our mouths and check the taste, or roll around in for a while to see what happens, and whether or not those stains might be permanent. In fairness, that $US560 per day (roughly $1 million Canadian dollars these days, if my math is right) covers everything: hotel, food, transportation, guide, trekking gear, pack animals, personal camp cook, mobile tea porter, history lessons, complimentary gift bag and, of course, the opportunity to have our car door quickly and awkwardly opened for us each and every time we enter or exit the vehicle throughout our 10-day stay. Although it does not include water with lunch, that was somehow just a little beyond the scope of our tour experience, requiring us to carefully budget an extra couple dollars to handle these uncomfortably small invoices twice per day. Interestingly, especially since we voluntarily chose to include a 5-day camping trek through the mountains as part of our tour, you pay the exact same thing whether you are staying in nice hotels in the city or freezing your various reproductive organs off in a tent at 4,000 metres, something that seemed substantially more incongruous before considering that not only were a guide and equipment provided, but also a whole herd of pack animals, a helper and a horseman. Only one of whose name I could pronounce properly (Dole, and to be honest for the first 2 days I kept calling him “Dory”).
So, to the trip itself. Is Bhutan really the last bastion of selfless existence to be found? Have they perfected the art of self-righteous democracy? Could the traditional outfits they make their men wear be any less practical? Well, the answers to those questions are actually fairly complex and constantly changing as the result of increased tourism and technological exposure to the outside world, and deserve something far more intricate than a yes/no answer. Well, except for the short smock/high sock/dress shoe ensemble the men wear (mandated in the tourism industry, government offices and schools) – those are ridiculously inappropriate for a country where during high season there is frost on the ground every morning, and cold mountain breezes head up under those robes as easily as a hand up a cheerleader’s skirt.
Anyway, on to some more factual occurrences. Our first couple days were part of our “cultural tour”, visiting a museum, seeing both streets in the ramshackle town of Paro and exploring the local “dzong”. Dzongs are impressive and unique buildings scattered throughout Bhutan that were originally built as fortresses but have now mostly been converted to monasteries, temples and occasionally office buildings filled, just like any other, with ancient desktop computers covered in outdated and irrelevant sticky notes and bored-looking men and women who stagger home in rumpled dress clothes with defeated looks. The big highlight, though, was the trek up to Paro Taktsang, known as Tiger’s Nest Monastery, a brilliant, beautiful temple built high up on the edge of sheer cliff, and the most famous landmark in the country. It took us a couple hours of steadily uphill hiking to reach the temple, where it was bathed in the light of magnificent, clear blue skies, but where we were not nearly alone, as there were already of plenty of tourists pretentiously pretending to meditate inside while numerous guides explained history, then questioned why we weren’t meditating, then starting talking some more. But thankfully we made it to the top well before the bulk of the rather less-than-athletic tourist crowd. Then there was the added bonus of exploring a narrow cave that led to a ledge where we could peer out the side of the cliff and the hundreds of metres down to the valley floor, and where a cat sunbathed lazily on the edge of the drop, all of which nearly caused our protective guide, Sonam, an untimely aneurism, and then there was the rampant stroll back down the hill past all the straining, sweating faces still trudging upward, and clearly struggling with the idea of maybe just asking us to email them our photos. All told, an incredibly scenic location, and a staggering architectural accomplishment in any age, let alone one that presumably still cut their lumber by hand and made their walls using a large helping of animal dung.
Fully half of our visit to Bhutan was taken up hiking the Druk Path (translates to Dragon Path, yo), the most popular trek in Bhutan involving 5 days and 4 nights (possibly less, or more, depending on the level of ambition vs. desire to spend afternoons sleeping in a warm tent) traversing spectacular ridges between 3,500 and 4,200 metres altitude, with inspiring views of distant peaks and lush green valleys. Despite some concerns about traffic on the trail, we soon learned that the term “most popular trek” means something much different in Bhutan than in other, far more crowded, trekking destinations. From start to finish we encountered roughly 20 to 25 other trekkers which, sure, is way too many if you are on the run facing extradition for attempting to genetically splice a Rottweiler with a talking cockatiel, but is not nearly enough to cramp your feeling of isolation on a 60-kilometre hike.
We were provided with a somewhat unreasonably large crew consisting of a guide, cook, helper, and horseman, plus 6 mules and 1 horse which were packed with all our baskets of gear including tents, mats, sleeping bags, table, chairs, propane tanks, food. In fact, every crew we saw had exactly one horse, and nobody seemed to be able to explain why (no, it was not used as the lead animal). One can only assume some sort of species equality agreement, or that these horses were actually working deep undercover and we were the only ones onto them.
Having such a large group attending to our every need and want (well, every want except for temperatures that remained above 0 at night) was actually fairly uncomfortable for us, especially at first, although as time went on we got more and more accustomed to this strangely rustic life of leisure we were leading, and ultimately it became hard to give up the morning tea delivered to our tent, the afternoon bowls of popcorn, the hot water bottles provided for our sleeping bags at night, or the way Dole always hiked just a little bit ahead of us, just out of sight, carrying tea and our lunch, ready to stop and serve us whenever our mood struck. Our camp was fully equipped, our tent always set up by the time we arrived, along with a small camp table and chairs, plus a separate cooking tent, dining tent and latrine tent which, while providing much better privacy than the waist-high canvas we had in Western Mongolia, remained lacking in any further amenities, being essentially just a 6-inch deep hole in the ground, with even the removed dirt, which inevitably comes in handy, you know, afterward, mysteriously absent from the entire vicinity.
While the scenery was beautiful, and the days uniformly sunny, clear and warm (as in 5-10C warm, not Phil Mickelson’s under-boob warm), the nights were bitterly cold, and correspondingly long. From the time the sun dropped behind the hills around 4:30 or 5, until it returned to slowly melt the frost from our tent around 6 or 7 am, we fought a constant – and generally losing – battle to stay warm. Even though we had all our warm clothes and it was probably only -5, or maybe -10 in the depths of night, sitting around outside and sleeping in a thin little tent are a fairly different proposition to walking from a warm house to an idling car. I rented a sleeping bag, in hopes it would be warmer than my 0-degree bag, and was originally pleased when the “label” on the “NorthFace” bag claiming it was good to -20, but needless to say we soon learned the answer to the question “How much different, really, are these cheap Asian knock-offs than the real thing?”. The answer: “Completely and totally different, as in, more or less unrelated”. Luckily Laynni was wise enough to have brought her real sleeping bag (-5 rating) along just in case, and it ended up working out fine, and I was able to awkwardly squeeze two of the crappy rented bags together into one unwieldy mess, which, along with my fleece liner, the generously provided hot water bottle, toque, gloves and nearly all the clothes I had with me, kept me at a semi-reasonable temperature through the night. Of course, rolling over required Mensa-level planning, exiting the tent for my inevitable midnight urination was a chore on par with high level sudoku, and I spent each morning completely encased in feathers like I’d spent the night at an 80’s teen slumber party. But we managed, and the days were incredible.
After thankfully being driven a good part of the way up the hill, Sonam started off leading us on “a very easy hike”, his definition of which apparently being to walk straight uphill 950 metres, starting at the already thin air of 2,650 metres. This would become a theme for the entire hike, while his weary gait, ragged gasping and flushed complexion told one story, his infectious smile and optimistic wording kept us steadily confused and repeatedly surprised at the gruelling and endless series of ascents and descents. While the terrain was challenging, however, the days were relatively short. It would be entirely reasonable to finish the trek in 4 days instead of 5, or possibly even 3 if you were less interested in enjoying the scenery and solitude and more in punishing your naughty thighs for all those lazy days lounging on the couch this summer.
Our first 3 campsites were uniformly spectacular, being located at the top of a valley down the hill from a famous old dzong, on top of a picturesque ridge, and next to a placid, reflective high alpine lake, respectively. Our last night was still nice, if a little less isolated, being just up the hill from Phajoding Monastery, with a distant view down over the capital city of Thimpu, and butted nice and tight up against an abandoned old building behind which our crew could urinate in peace. Incidentally, that was interesting, pissing in public, I mean. In general, basically anywhere we’ve been outside the main developed countries of North America and Europe people, and by people I mean almost exclusively men, of course, have absolutely no qualms pissing almost anywhere, especially when a bathroom isn’t convenient, and certainly are less modest than I when it comes to being discreet about it. Not the case in Bhutan where, it slowly dawned on me, I was in fact the uncouth one, pissing just feet off the trail, right along the side of the road, even somewhat inexplicably right next to the toilet tent (why do all that opening, closing and ducking when there is perfectly good grass right over there?). Meanwhile, we eventually realized that we never once saw a Bhutanese man going to the bathroom. Obviously they must have done, somewhere, at some point, but they didn’t use our toilet tent, we never saw it happen, and a number of times they seemed a touch shocked, and maybe just a hint scandalized, when I suddenly stopped short to take care of business in full view of everyone around, even if I considerately turned my back to those closest and always, obviously, did my reasonable best to cushion the stream on some standing vegetation so as to keep the splash factor and puddle noise to a minimum, being the thoughtful, and vastly experienced, public urinator that I am. Either way, I don’t think they loved it. Sorry, Canada, it’s possible we’re known as those people around Bhutan now. For their part, though, which I find similarly embarrassing for them, Bhutanese men absolutely love bursting into song, completely randomly and inevitably off-key, are clearly baffled that we don’t, and seem almost embarrassed for us like we must have lost our vocal chords in some humiliating sexual mishap, or maybe some misfortune involving an unwise number of cherry tomatoes.
One thing worth mentioning is that the food while trekking was outstanding. Boiled eggs fried in butter were nothing short of a revelation, although the local favourite, “chili cheese”, literally hot chili peppers in cheese sauce, unsurprisingly proved unpalatable to our tender Western oral cavities. Despite technically living rough, we were usually provided with at least 4 different dishes to choose from/combine weirdly, at least one of which was always rice, and another inevitably some type of vegetable nearly unrecognizable under a thick coating of delicious cheese sauce (how I will ever eat naked vegetables again I do not know). All in all, quite impressive 3 days walk from the nearest road.
Unfortunately, Laynni was battling a chest cold/infection the entire trek, leading to a steady stream of annoying coughing and occasional weakness which left her at, in her words, “about 80%” most of the time, a number which once dropped to 70% briefly, returning to 80% again later, all with no explanation.
For a more detailed, factual description of the trek and the services provided by Keys to Bhutan, you can go to https://www.lonelyplanet.com/thorntree/forums/asia-indian-subcontinent/bhutan/trip-report-druk-path-trek. For a while you could see it on Trip Advisor as well but it was removed without explanation, I assume as part of their drive to increase censorship.
On the road
We spent just the one night in Thimpu, visiting the national chorten where large crowds repeatedly circle it clockwise in hopes of improved luck and exciting new blessings, then the not yet fully complete 51-metre gold-plated statue of Buddha, reputedly on its way to being the largest likeness in the world and “perhaps will be the 8th Wonder of the World”. Or perhaps not, just saying. We also could watch amateurs playing soccer in the national stadium from the window of our hotel room, although we were one day too early to see the king get his dribble on as he apparently does every Friday afternoon (not sure I want to know the punishment for a bad tackle or “accidental” toe stomp). In this country still innocently free of Western fast food we were surprised to see the Taco Bell symbol proudly hanging outside a nearby restaurant, although less surprised and more bemused when we realized that while the logo was the same, the name, and I assume the menu, were changed to “Momo Bell”.
After that we were off to warm, fertile Punakha valley, where we visited Bhutan’s most impressive dzong, and the location of the most recent Royal Wedding (and probably the next one, too, which may be soon considering 4 years have passed and still no little princes or princesses have arrived to proudly watch dad break up a rush with a heroic slide tackle, or ignore the nation’s hunting laws with a cheeky smirk). It is truly huge, and fittingly magnificent, located in a picturesque spot at the confluence of two rivers (the “male” and “female”, the “male” always ending up on top, ha ha). From there we continued on to Phobjika Valley, home to Gangtey Gompa, the seasonal return of the black-necked cranes, and terrific views and easy hikes in the wide green valley. Even the drive there was fairly scenic, if excessively rough and painfully slow. There is basically one “highway” in Bhutan – rough, narrow, winding, and running entirely along the edge of high steep cliffs – with the entire thing apparently completely, and very inconveniently, under construction (“widening”) all at the same time. Well, all ripped to shreds at the same time, anyway, only small sections are actively being worked on, creating numerous long waits while bulldozers clear the way and backhoes perch halfway up the side of hills churning away at their precarious ledges in attempts to eventually make the road wide enough for two small Hyundais instead of just the one.
We also learned a lot about Bhutan, its people, and its particular version of Buddhism. Such as:
Key tenets of their religion are the avoidance of ignorance, anger and greed. I don’t know exactly how that massive daily fee fits into the last, but they certainly seem knowledgeable and patient.
It is not only blasphemous to slaughter animals, but actually illegal (based on what we were told). Eating meat is also against their religion, yet this seems a rather loosely-held belief, and plenty of meat is brought in from India “for the tourists”. And many others, as long as they happen to eat it out of sight of the tourists. Yet we heard it suggested that Nepal’s misfortune probably stemmed from them “eating too much meat”. Overall, they are a very superstitious people, most of it seeming to involve food. Some feel that cooking things improperly will cause it to rain – for good or bad I can’t be sure, but I assume they were referring to steaming things, because that is always the worst way to cook something.
They also seem to explain away most forms of success or happiness as some factor of luck, as opposed to education, business sense or hard work, and apparently yak herders occasionally burn down large trees because they believe if foxes see a tree burning they immediately think “hey, that must be people doing that, let’s beat it”, and give up their favourite pastime which, as everyone knows about tiny foxes, is attacking yaks. My point is, we don’t always see eye to eye with the Bhutanese people.
Dogs are apparently just one small step away from being reincarnated as people, which means it is important to be nice to them and basically leads to them having the run of the place. Luckily, their ambition is limited to making people drive around them while they sleep in the road all day, eating shit when afforded the opportunity, then barking pointlessly all night, so at this point the dangerous power they wield has resulted in little more than a few sleepless nights and some irritatingly soiled sandals.
Possibly their greatest national hero is called “The Unifier”, a man who unified the warring factions of the area in the early 17th century, creating a national Bhutanese identity separate from Tibet, and who looks very menacing in paintings. The story, as we heard it anyway, goes that he was in Tibet, stole some priceless artifact and fled across the mountains to Bhutan. Once there he consolidated power, built fortresses all over the place, and waited for the Tibetans to come knocking. Then when they did he pretended to throw the artifact in the river, at which point the Tibetans apparently said “Oh well, that’s that, I guess”, and headed home. But really he had thrown some other piece of crap in the river and really had the artifact all along. And everyone lived happily ever after. How this affects me, in particular, is that said “Unifier” is always depicted as having an impressively full beard, which seems strange as, from what we’ve seen, all the men in Bhutan combined probably couldn’t piece together a respectable goatee, let alone a cheesy hipster beard. Of course, that hasn’t stopped anyone from trying, with most men sporting some version of 2 or 3 long, straggly hairs from their chin like unhealthy pieces of grass pushing up through a crack in the pavement. Needless to say, my otherwise unusually bushy and unkempt trip beard, normally so unattractive and off-putting to those who actually pay attention to personal hygiene, suddenly began to draw plenty of attention, and even its fair share of wholly unwarranted admiration. I’m always reluctant to use the word “demi-god”, but if the beard comb fits…
All hotels for package tourists, like us, must be “tourist-approved”, presumably meeting a certain standard for the comfort of us esteemed guests, and to maintain the country’s reputation among its visitors. Now, if only they were as concerned with serving meals filled with dangerous shards of wildly cleavered chicken bones, he said while coughing and choking. The point is, the hotels were nice. No complaints there (they had my head at heated bathroom floor, then won my heart with Deep Blue Sea on cable).
So, there you have it. Ten days in the Kingdom of Happiness. Was it happy? Sure, you bet. Does Gross National Happiness seem like a real thing? Well, that depends how you define “real”. Real, as in the power of positive thinking, or the way an old banana is much easier to swallow if you picture it as mashed potatoes, then sure, it’s real. Real, as in a quantifiably extraordinary increase in the satisfaction and contentment of the people, well, that’s pretty hard to know. But a catchy slogan, no denying that. As for their controversial policy on tourism, well, while we certainly understand the goal (backpackers are big volume, small profit, and are only a boon to a country and culture insofar as they tend to pave the way for the later arrival of more affluent, and ultimately more profitable, tourists), there is one major flaw in the system, as far as we are concerned. Many tourists, us included, are eventually willing to pay the heavy cost of visiting this little-known nation in large part due to the expectation that such steep fees will lead to a rare exclusivity, something almost unheard of in today’s increasingly accessible travel climate. However, something we did not realize (but should have, being as it is fully common knowledge) is that Indian tourists (or “tourists from India”, if that sounds more palatable to the most politically correct of Canadians) are not subject to any of the same fees, restrictions or requirements as the rest of us. In fact, they can come and go visa-free, eat where they choose, stay wherever will have them, and, most importantly, pack the overcrowded tourist sites unchecked and unguided with reckless, and often raucous, abandon. So, take that, so-called “exclusivity”, then multiply the tourist numbers by 150%, and give those travelling for free the run of the place, while the rest, already carefully divested of a kingly sum of cash, are restricted to a carefully scripted roster of polished tourist attractions, and accompanied at all times by a hovering, if smiling and friendly, chaperone. Needless to say, some aspects of this system can start to chafe a little, like a pair of jean shorts on the beach.
So is Bhutan a picturesque, enthralling destination? Absolutely. But is it worth the price, and the restrictions? Well, that all depends on your particular budget, your opinions about travelling on tours, and how much that daily fee makes you grind your teeth in your sleep, if at all. But whatever your feelings on the cost, it is important to set reasonable expectations for a country that continues to promote itself as an untouched Shangri-La, but in reality is modernizing just as quickly as any of its Asian neighbours. It is still a beautiful, fascinating, welcoming country with a unique culture and incredible scenery, just don’t expect “Nepal 30 years ago”, “untouched paradise”, or “a place where they don’t give you weird looks when you piss across the street from an elementary school”.