It’s a land of blue poppies, mountains, forests, Buddhist philosophy and more than two thousand monasteries. Called the Land of the Thunder Dragon, Bhutan has been able to withstand the press of the modern world, yet be with it, while maintaining her traditions, culture and Gross National Happiness, keeping intact her integrity and distinctive way of life.
Celebrating one hundred-plus years of monarchy, this tiny country has a visionary and dynamic democratic leadership where the happiness of her people is paramount. More than half of her total land area is set aside as national parks, sanctuaries and reserves, as she maintains an enviable stance on environmental conservation and stewardship.
Leaving behind her self-imposed isolation of the 1950’s, she welcomed tourism in 1974 and has since maintained a system of “high value, low volume tourism” in order to protect her rich traditions and cultural heritage. This makes her a very special place to visit – fast becoming modern while living her ancestral world.
Prayer flags flow freely from mountain tops as the wind-blown prayers spread goodwill and compassion. Their colors of blue, green red, yellow and white represent the five elements of water, wood, fire, earth and iron.
Still actively practised, her thirteen traditional arts and crafts show a strong sense of morality, values and beliefs: phalluses painted on exterior walls ward off evil spirits; the Guardians of the Four Directions (west, east, north and south) guard the entrances to the Dzongs (fortresses); and the Four Harmonious Friends (elephant, money, rabbit and bird) are a reminder to respect the elders.
This land of stupas, prayer wheels and butter lamps, land-locked in the Himalayas and with formidable geographical borders – China to the north and India to the south – showcases five famous Dzongs dating from the 1600’s.
Also showcased are her happy people, one of whom is my driver/guide, Sonam. His gentle face glows with contentment. He wears the required national dress for men, the “gho”, a plaid, knee-length robe with knee high socks and very shiny shoes. His manner is impeccable and he is a world class archer, featured on the Bhutanese stamp that I buy.
Every morning his greeting of “Are we all fit and fine?” brings such joy, as this is the only way you can possibly be in a country that espouses a development strategy to cause no harm to future generations or misery to other sentient beings. It is easy to love this Buddhist Bhutan full of smiles and respect.
I am warmly welcomed as we take tea at Sonam’s mother’s home, then head to the country to enjoy a centuries-old tradition: bathing in a long wooden tub, heated by stones from a fire. We then shared lunch, dinner and many laughs. Today we share messages on Facebook.
The last line of the Bhutanese National Anthem sums up the whole experience of the Bhutan lifestyle: “May the sun of peace and happiness shine over all people.”
Peggy Wright, CTC, CITM, CATS is ‘The Travel Agent Next Door.’