Tigers Nest Bhutan Sam Power

Pursuing happiness in Bhutan

Is it possible that happiness is a place? The world’s last surviving Buddhist kingdom thinks so. The majestic Himalayan nation of Bhutan is the only society that officially measures the collective happiness of its people instead of emphasizing GDP. The tiny country uses Gross National Happiness to prioritize sustainable development and preservation of nature and culture over the economic aspects of wellbeing.

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Unlike the rest of Asia, Bhutan has avoided the scourge of over-tourism

Nowhere is this more clear than in Bhutan’s “high value-low impact” tourism policy. With only about 150,000 tourists coming through each year, Bhutan comes in just under Mali in the number of international visitors, ranking 156 out of a total of 188 countries. Unlike the rest of Asia, Bhutan–a stunning land of virgin forests, dramatic valleys and towering peaks–has avoided the scourge of over-tourism. How? By marketing to discerning tourists and banning independent travel. This means Bhutan is not a cheap place to travel and visitors must take a guided tour. If that sounds extreme to you because you consider yourself an independent traveller, that’s understandable. However, consider the payoff. You will not be barraged by tourists with selfie sticks. Nor will you find a jaded citizenry wearing blue jeans and chasing the almighty dollar. What you will encounter is a remote, authentic place with its cultural heritage and natural environment supremely intact. Bhutan has steadfastly avoided becoming a vacation destination and instead fashioned itself as a place for travellers on something akin to an emotional pilgrimage.

Bhuddist Monks Bhutan Lightscape

Photo: Lightscape

The four pillars of happiness, Bhutan style

So, what would a trip to Bhutan look like if you went there to explore happiness? Since there are four pillars in the Gross National Happiness index, we had some fun putting together an itinerary of four places, each embodying one of Bhutan’s tenets of happiness–preservation of cultural and spiritual heritage; conservation of the environment; equitable socio-economic development and good governance. Because you will have to do an accompanied tour if you chose to travel to Bhutan, we chose an upscale outfit that has lodges scattered across the Kingdom for the simplest logistics and most varied experience possible. The Amankora is a cult favourite amongst those who opt for exclusive properties run by the famed luxury hotel group, Aman. Travellers can opt for one of Amankora’s set itineraries or create bespoke trips tailored to their wishes.

Gangtey Goemba Monastery Bhutan

Gangtey Goemba monastery

Happiness stop 1: Gangtey Valley

Spiritually and culturally, Bhutan’s culture is rooted in Buddhism, which values tenderhearted compassion and the acceptance that nothing in this world is permanent. Culturally, Bhutan is one of only a handful of countries in the world that’s never been colonized. It’s also one that opened cautiously to the outside world. No international travel was permitted to the country until the 1970s and a ban on television wasn’t lifted until 1999, making it one of the last nations in the world to get TV.

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You can join the monks at the Gangtey Goemba monastery for morning and evening prayers or experience a spiritual cleansing ritual

To explore Bhutan’s spiritual and cultural heritage, Amankora’s Gangtey Lodge is located literally at the foot of a 16th-century monastery in a region that is fittingly referred to as the ‘Shangri-La of Bhutan.’ At Gangtey Lodge, which overlooks a scenic valley in a wildlife reserve, you can join the monks at the Gangtey Goemba monastery for morning and evening prayers or experience a spiritual cleansing ritual. You can also browse books on Buddhism in the library, take a traditional outdoor hot-stone bath with views of the countryside and enjoy a traditional Bhutanese meal in a potato hut lit by hundreds of candles and warmed by a Bukhari stove. Amankora also periodically offers spiritually themed retreats, the Meaning of Life Retreat and the Amankora Monks at Prayer Experience.

Happiness stop 2: Punakha Valley

In terms of conservation of the environment, Bhutan has taken a remarkable initiative by protecting 51 per cent of the country—the largest of any country in all of Asia. Bhutan is one of only two nations in the world that has achieved net-zero greenhouse gas emissions because the minimal amount of pollution it produces get absorbed by the vast forest cover.

Amankora’s Punakha Lodge is literally built of the earth with natural raw materials. The property incorporates a traditional Bhutanese farmhouse built by the former Chief Abbot of Bhutan. Set in a valley with a sub-tropical climate, Punakha is surrounded by biodiversity. The lodge can only be reached by traversing a suspension bridge covered in prayer flags that sways over a roaring river. Treks from the lodge range from short valley walks to rigorous daylong hikes. Traverse orange orchards, rice terraces and pine forests or simply admire them from the outdoor terrace or infinity pool.

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To get closer to nature, Amankora organizes a yearly Poppy Trek tour of the dazzling floral displays high in the mountains. If you prefer to get your nature on whilst practising an extreme sport, look into the Tour of the Dragon Cycling Adventure. And if you like Mother Nature mostly for the bounteous cornucopia of food she provides, there’s Amankora Matsutake Season Tour when the prized mushroom delicacy comes into season in the countryside.

Punakha Bhutan

Punakha Valley | Photo: Darpan Dodiya

Happiness stop 3: Paro District

Equitable and equal socio-economic development is another spoke in the wheel of happiness in Bhutan, which places emphasis not just on work but leisure time to commune with loved ones and nature. While Paro is not exactly a thriving commercial metropolis, it is an urban centre where you can see how modernity has manifested amongst the traditional. Paro is the site of Bhutan’s sole international airport, which, by the way, is considered the world’s most challenging landing strip because it’s lodged between a pair of 8,000-foot snow-capped peaks. It’s so difficult, in fact, only a handful of pilots are certified to land there. Once you get over the natural high of merely landing safe and sound in Bhutan, there’s lots to see.

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The Paro Lodge is the jumping off point for one of Bhutan’s most iconic sites, Tiger’s Nest Monastery

The Paro Lodge is shrouded in thick pine forest with views of the 9000-foot snow-covered Jhomolhari mountain. This is the jumping off point for one of Bhutan’s most iconic sites, Tiger’s Nest Monastery, which clings to a mountainside cliff face, a place modern technology cannot help you get to. If you can’t hack the four-hour trek—the last half-mile of it a sheer climb—a mule can help you get most of the way to the 7th-century monastery. Every Bhutanese will try to make a pilgrimage here at least one in her lifetime. Guru Rinpoche is said to have brought Buddhism into Bhutan to this very spot, arriving on the back of a tigress. Unlike him, after the arduous climb, you can rest your weary but more enlightened soul at the Paro Lodge’s two-story spa with a sauna and a steam room followed up by a herb-infused hot stone bath and traditional massage.

Taktshang monastery Paro Bhutan

Taktshang monastery Paro

Happiness stop 4: Wangdichholing Palace

Good governance is a pillar of happiness because enlightened leadership can help create the conditions under which Bhutanese can thrive. So we’ve chosen Wangdichholing Palace as the place to pontificate about it. The palace is the birthplace of the first king of Bhutan and the first palace in the entire country that was not designed primarily as a fortress. This is symbolic because the country underwent reforms that reduced the king’s powers in order to become a constitutional monarchy. The palace, built in 1857, is a supreme example of traditional craftsmanship. However, its magnificent carvings and murals are in dire need of restoration. Thankfully, plans are afoot to turn it into a national museum.

Bumthang Lodge, shaded by fruit trees, overlooks the palace and courtyard. The area is home to 29 temples and monasteries, including the ancient Jambay Lhakhang. Legend has it that the temple was constructed by the king in 659 AD to tame a demoness threatening to annihilate Buddhism, which we think is a good example of government in action. Another unforgettable experience is lighting 108 butter lamp offering at Taktsang Monastery, a ritual said to eradicate ignorance.

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