Bhutan in high spirits
Happiness Is A Place. At least that’s the official slogan of the Tourism Council of Bhutan; and I was determined to find out if it was merely hype and a clever marketing gimmick or truly a way of life in Bhutan.
As soon as you land at Paro airport, you know you’re in for something completely different. Even the ramp service agent waving the planes off is dressed in a traditional costume — basically everyone is.
Here’s what we know about the country: It is landlocked and located along the eastern end of the Himalayas and flanked by both China and India. It is relatively small in terms of its population (about 750,000) but its land space is roughly 38,000 sq km (about 50 times larger than Singapore). It gets approximately 50,000 international visitors a year (that’s about the number of visitors to Sentosa a day).
Bhutan is also popular for its Gross National Happiness (GNH) policy: It measures the nation’s success not by GDP but by the well-being of its people. Bhutan is sometimes referred to as the last Shangri-La, because it is said to be relatively untouched by modern culture and western influence.
There are some things to note before you fly off to Bhutan for a holiday. Firstly, you have to fly by Druk Air which currently has two flights from Singapore to Paro a week. Secondly, look for a reputable travel agent that specialises in Bhutan: He or she will be able to sort everything out, including getting visas and customising an itinerary. You’ll have to get a prepaid travel package (approximately US$250, or S$309, per person per night) and this includes a hotel room, a dedicated guide and driver, meals and entrance fees to attractions. So it’s kind of like a full board vacation.
Our two weeks there saw us travelling from town to town; through valleys, over mountains and across rivers. There are no malls, McDonalds, Starbucks, cinemas ... nothing that defines a modern city. There aren’t even any traffic lights — and hardly any street signs. If you do see one, it would just point you in the general direction of where the next town is. (I asked the locals how they would arrange to meet someone or find their way around. They said they would just describe it, accompany it with a familiar landmark and find their way, no problem.)
To fully understand Bhutan though, you should truly have a basic understanding of Buddhism. It permeates everyday life in Bhutan. The majority of its citizens are Buddhist and it is evident when you look around. Buddhist culture has penetrated into every aspect of their lives. Colourful prayer flags and prayer wheels and stupas (structures containing Buddhist relics) can be seen all around.
The lines between myth and legend are blurred. Listening to some of the stories made me feel like I was travelling through the pages of Journey To The West. One of the first sacred sights we visited was Chimi Lhakhang, or “the temple of the divine madman”. According to legend, Drukpa Kunley, aka the Divine Madman, subdued demons with his phallus — which is why you will see images of giant phalluses adorning the walls of building exteriors all over Bhutan: It is said to drive away evil spirits.