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A Traveler In The Land Of Gross National Happiness

By Mary Anne Reardon

Week two of the Village Shalom resident blog takes us to the small Asian country of Bhutan, as resident Mary Anne Reardon introduces the “My Travels” series.

In a country about the size of Switzerland lives a population of fewer than a million. The countryside is a mosaic of Buddhist monasteries (often clinging to mountain cliffs), terraced hillsides, and Dzongs (castles). It is ruled by a king who is well-loved. He works tirelessly to bring peace, justice and happiness to his people so that they can fulfill their hopes and ambitions. He has stated that the measure of his success is not to be found in the country’s gross national product, but rather in the gross national happiness of the people.

As a first-time traveler to Asia, I chose a tour which included the Kingdom of Bhutan, a small landlocked country in the remote Himalayas. It is surrounded by Tibet on the north and India on the south. By pure chance I chose a trip that would expose me to the extreme conditions of life halfway around the world.

Due to the unreliability of air travel to Bhutan, we traveled by road through India, in a minibus. The traffic and scenes along the Indian road must have been seen to be believed as I can find no words to adequately convey the experience. The bumpy road, full of potholes, was jam-packed with busses, trucks (all old and vastly overloaded, some teetering precariously, some lying on their side), bikes, rickshaws, pedestrians, cows, goats, and an occasional dog. All of these were traveling in either of the two lanes in any direction some on the road, some off. Driving was done by horn (most trucks posted “Horn Please” signs). Vehicles continuously changed lanes in order to pass or to avoid bikes, pedestrians, cows, potholes, or head-on collisions (which seemed imminent about every five minutes). No one on our tour was brave enough to sit in the front seat.

After six hours of this hot, dusty, bumpy ride, we mercifully reached the gateway to Bhutan at Phuntsholing. The change in tempo was dramatic – from chaos to serenity. No one was rushing about. The Bhutanese welcomed us with smiles. The few vehicles were mercifully quiet. Everything appeared clean and well-kept.

Gateway to Bhutan

In a country about the size of Switzerland lives a population of fewer than a million. The countryside is a mosaic of Buddhist monasteries (often clinging to mountain cliffs), terraced hillsides, and Dzongs (castles). It is ruled by a king who is well-loved. He works tirelessly to bring peace, justice and happiness to his people so that they can fulfill their hopes and ambitions. He has stated that the measure of his success is not to be found in the country’s gross national product, but rather in the gross national happiness of the people.

Blessed as it is with stunning natural beauty, when Bhutan opened its door to tourism in 1974 it might have been flooded with visitors. From the beginning, tourism was strictly regulated to protect the culture and the pristine environment. In 1991, the year of my visit, only 4,000 visitors were admitted. All tours are strictly controlled and independent travel is not allowed. I was surprising to see the almost complete lack of tourist amenities. The few hotels were rather basic, with clean, simple rooms. Television had not been introduced. Stores were small, few in number, and catered to the needs of the people – none carrying souvenirs for tourists.

The traditional way of life remains unchanged and by law all Bhutanese must wear the traditional clothing dating back centuries. Men wear a gho - a knee-length robe tied at the waist. Women wear a kira – a colorful long dress.

Buddhism plays a central role in the life of the people. On the mountain sides prayer flags flutter in the wind, sending prayers to heaven. At places where high lamas stopped to meditate, chortens or stupas have been erected. These are found throughout the country.

Nepalese, Tibetan & Bhutanese chortens protect area from evil spirits.

National Parks or preserves protect 35% of the heavily forested land. Mountain ranges split the country into a series of steel valleys cut by numerous streams, providing an ever-changing panorama of scenic vistas.

Driving was often perilous, as the road winds around mountain after mountain. The main road was built only in 1962, obviously not with tourism in mind. It was very narrow, sometimes reduced to one lane, and lacked guard rails. Blind curves were another danger. Landslides and cave-ins were not infrequent. Signs warned motorists to drive carefully.

Vegetation was lush and tropical – stately teak trees and ficas with orange/red blooms. Orange and banana trees grow at the lower altitudes. There were several gardens along the roads, and on the terraced hillsides rice paddies and other crops were growing. Near villages women could be seen washing dishes or clothes in the clear mountain streams. Others were sweeping the highways with brooms of tree branches tied to sticks. The roofs of several houses were covered with peppers drying, and hay was stored beneath the roof. At places on the road, farmers were threshing buckwheat. A passing vehicle might help them with the chore.

Small family farms are the way of life for most people. We stopped to visit a farmhouse in a small village. By law all farm houses must be built in a traditional design, and they resemble a small manor house. Usually they house an extended family. As in every Bhutanese home, the largest room was a chapel. A meal was being cooked in several pots on top of a wood stove. The family was very pleased to see us and told our tour guide that they were honored by our visit.

Bhutanese home near Paro.

We also visited the village school. In each room the children rose, bowed and said “Good Morning, Miss”.

All the classes were taught in English. The class rooms were small and crowded, but the children were very well-behaved. The library was confined to three small bookcases.

When we reached the capital city, Thimpu, we were surprised to find ourselves in a city not much larger and scarcely more crowded than other cities on our tour. Bhutan had no traffic lights – in Thimpu three traffic circles were manned by policemen. The commercial area was somewhat larger, and post cards were available. There was a state craft store. A trip to the central Post Office was a must as Bhutan is famous for its large, colorful stamps. Thimpu had an indigenous medicine hospital where they dry numerous types of native plants for medicinal use. Hot solid gold needles were used for acupuncture. The effects were immediate but lasted only a few hours. The capital even had a nine-hole golf course, though none of us could identify it as such. Cows were grazing on what I presume was a fairway.

Thimpu traffic circle

Before our departure we were treated to a performance by native dancers in exotic costumes with fierce-looking animal heads. All too soon we had to leave this happy country where harmony appeared to prevail. I cannot recall one other country where not a single person voiced a complaint against the government.

Today, 21 years later, I still cherish fond memories of that trip. Now, settled in a secure and happy environment, I am looking for opportunities to bring happiness and opportunity to others. Recently opportunity presented itself. To further educate myself I read extensively, making constant use of public libraries. This year, to honor the memory of our son, our family hopes to build and equip a library in a country where libraries and books are scarce. Hopefully we can introduce the joy of books to children who have none. Thus, in a small way, we can make the philosophy of Gross National Happiness our modus vivendi.