The Alchemy of Happiness Discovering Magic in Bhutan

I saw Mars with my naked eyes, flew past the peak of Everest, and met the happiest people in the world. I tasted fire, watched dancing dragons, and walked among the clouds.

Bhutan is a land of magic, where the seemingly impossible becomes reality. It's a land of fantastic legends and thrilling myths, where a monastery that clings to a cliff is believed to have been built with the help of a flying tigress, and Yetis are believed to roam free.

The Journey Here

Bhutan is not a place that's easy to get to or one that you can visit spontaneously. Foreign visitors (except those from India) must pay a mandatory minimum of $200 per day for a tourist visa, to align with Bhutan's policy of "high value, low impact tourism." The fee aims to keep Bhutan from becoming overrun with tourists, and to help preserve the country's way of life. The cost goes towards Bhutan's free healthcare and free educational system.

To reach the tiny nation—which is sandwiched between two giants, China and India—intrepid visitors must book a ticket to Bhutan's sole international airport in Paro. The airport is so challenging to land at that only about a dozen pilots in the entire world are qualified to fly there. The route dips dangerously close to mountains and ends on a short runway, so the weather conditions and visibility must be favorable to even attempt the journey.

I needed to see this legendary place for myself, and Exodus Travels' Bhutan: Land of the Thunder Dragon tour sounded like the best way to do it. Exodus Travels uses local guides and local crew, and makes it a mission to travel in an environmentally and culturally sensitive way. The trip would take me trekking through the hills and valleys of Bhutan, to the country's most important historical sites, and to local festivals to experience the culture.

The magic of Bhutan began before I even arrived. Gazing out the airplane window, I watched as our flight popped in and out of the clouds. Soon, some clouds began to look more solid than others. They weren't clouds at all, I realized as we flew closer, but the peaks of the Himalayan Mountains peeping through the clouds—their snowy white peaks blending in with the surrounding skies. The summits were so tall that they seemed parallel to our plane. And then, a distinctive peak emerged, right as our pilot announced that we were flying over the tallest of them all, Mount Everest. While I sat safe, warm, and comfortable in my airplane seat, I imagined what it would be like to be standing on the summit, on the very top of the world. You'd be watching planes fly past at practically eye level, taking in almost the same view. It's the closest I'll ever get to the achievement and it was a thrill just to fly by.

A World Apart But for How Long?

Although Bhutan feels like another world, elements of the outside have slowly seeped in since the country opened its doors to tourism in 1974. This slightly opened door has brought in currency (the country ran on a bartering system until the 1970s), television (it was banned until 1999), and the internet, which arrived the same year as the television. There were no paved roads until the 1960s, and even today, you won't find a single traffic light—just a lone sharply dressed officer directing traffic by hand in the capital city.

The Bhutanese are required to wear full national dress from 9 to 5 Monday through Friday, and while working in or visiting a government building. There are strict building codes that only allow for traditional architecture, which adds to the feeling of traveling to another world, as you'll see more ghos and kira (the traditional dress) than jeans and T-shirts. And you certainly won't see a skyscraper or a Starbucks.

Yet, despite all of these differences, Bhutan can be very similar to the rest of the world. Yes, you'll see teenagers wearing monks' robes, but they're playing on the latest iPhone in the monastery. Shopkeepers wear the national dress, but they're giggling over their phones while they wait for the next customer. Couples live together before marriage and put off tying the knot until they're in their 30s. The Bhutanese vote in elections and travel outside the country. Things have changed quite a bit since the arranged marriages and full monarchy of not so long ago.

Happiness Above All

If you've even heard of the tiny Bhutan before, it's probably because the country measures the Gross National Happiness (GNH) of its citizens, and prioritizes that over the Gross National Product (GNP). But what does that actually mean? Are the Bhutanese truly happier than everyone else in the world, or are they equally as sad or happy as the rest of us, just dressed up in traditional clothing?

I spent nearly two weeks with my local Exodus Travels guides, both of whom had been born and raised in Bhutan, and had plenty of time to ask them about the concept of GNH.

Norbu & Tshering, my Exodus guides

Tshering Yesi grew up in Bhutan, but lived in India for his university education. He'd traveled around plenty—did he really think that the Bhutanese were happier than the rest of the world? "Yes," Tshering told me, as if it wasn't even something to be questioned, but just a fact of life. "Our culture brings us together here. We have such small communities that everyone knows one another and looks out for each other. No one is alone. Other cultures are too disconnected from each other, where you don't even know your neighbor. We also enjoy our free healthcare and free education and don't have to stress about how to pay for those things."

It’s not just close-knit communities that foster contentment in Bhutan, but a sense of benevolent leadership. "We have faith in our leader, the king, so we don't have to worry about what's going to happen 10-15 years down the road because we believe that he will handle everything in a way that's best for our country."

I saw Tshering's words reinforced throughout my visit. The Bhutanese are extremely devoted to their kings (Bhutan has two living kings, and they give them the nicknames "K4" to denote the fourth king, and "K5" for the current and fifth king). After all, K4 came up with the idea of gross national happiness. The concept is even written in to Bhutan's Constitution, which was only inked in 2008 when the country became a democracy. The leaders are directed to always put the four pillars of Gross National Happiness (good governance, sustainable development, preservation of culture, and environmental conservation) at the forefront of their decisions, to keep the best interests of their citizens in mind.

The current King of Bhutan. (Photo: Wikipedia)

To measure the happiness index, an unusual nationwide census of the estimated 800,000 citizens is conducted every year. The Bhutanese are asked questions like "Have you ever been angry in the last six months?" and “Do you own a smartphone?" It's unclear whether owning a smartphone is a point for or against happiness. The happiness index is strongly correlated to average income, and both wealth and happiness are increasing every year in Bhutan.

Norbu Tshering, our lead Exodus Guide, told me that to him, Gross National Happiness means "being content with what the government is providing. The government brings everything the people need to our doorsteps. Yes, people are happier here."

After spending nearly two weeks in Bhutan, I agree. In one just one visit, I flew past the world's highest peaks to arrive. While camping in the foothills of the Himalayas, I walked out of my tent and looked up to an unpolluted sky full of stars, illuminated by brightly glowing Mars. I tasted fire in the form of Bhutan's national dish, ema datshi (incredibly hot chili peppers in a cheese sauce). I watched dancers dressed as dragons and beasts dance at festivals, and I hiked among the clouds on the foggy Druk Path. And above all, I met the happiest people in the world.

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Caroline Morse Teel is Senior Editor at SmarterTravel. Follow her adventures around the world on Instagram @TravelWithCaroline


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