In Bhutan, Gross National Happiness supercedes GNP, cigarettes are illegal, murder is unheard of and no one smashes a bug because it could be their grandmother

My stomach turns to soft Jell-O as I catch a glimpse of earth’s highest peaks through the cloud cover. I quickly take a photo from my window seat hoping it doesn’t disappear just yet. The clouds are fluid this February morning. A soft voice on the PA announces our descent into Paro Airport. The pilot maneuvers the Airbus along a deep, narrow valley, banking crazily near precipices close enough to touch. I hold my breath. The landing strip is nowhere in sight.

Suddenly, the airport appears, much to my relief, and the plane lands gently on the tarmac. I espy from the window a red carpet quickly rolled out, and a frail, elderly lady with cooing attendants is escorted from the aircraft. There is much bowing and affectionate hugging by the welcoming assemblage. Someone onboard whispers “the Queen Mother” with deep reverence. The royal posse is hurriedly whisked away while the rest of us commoners disembark from the Drukair jet – the only international airline operating in the country. We are in the Kingdom of Bhutan, where Gross National Happiness supersedes GNP; where the monarchy is benevolent and enlightened; where cigarettes are illegal; where murder is unheard of and no one smashes a bug because it could be their grandmother; where all produce is organic; and where there is a heavy tariff on tourists to keep riffraff out.

Welcome to Shangri-La.

After landing formalities, we are off to Thimphu, the nation’s capital. Along the way, we stop at an extraordinary structure, a suspended iron chain bridge built by a 14th century Tibetan saint. Uncertain of its strength, we gingerly step on the ancient bridge festooned with colorful prayer flags. It sways with each of step. I avert my eyes from the raging river below. Crossing the bridge is clearly not for anyone
with acrophobia.

It is nearly twilight in frigid Thimphu and there is much to see and do. We pay our respects at a small temple. A young nun shows us how to offer gifts to Buddha and demonstrates the fine art of Tibetan long horn blowing. We go take a look at Bhutan’s national animal, a weird moose-gnu-goat creature called the takin. We stroll through the darkened streets, and from a promontory, we are shown the city’s great fortress monastery, the Thimphu Dzong. We then have a Bhutanese dinner of ema datshi, an intensely spicy yak cheese stew poured over everything, giving sparkle to otherwise bland fare. Our first night is filled with amazement at the strange sights and sounds of this magical Himalayan city.

The next day, before heading to Punakha Valley, we circumambulate the National Memorial Chorten along with hundreds of devotees, who start their day walking round and round this holy site. The walk is meditative. There are old men with prayer beads enjoying the sunshine; women out on the lawn cleaning brass oil lamps by the hundreds; children chasing pigeons. There are colossal prayer wheels off to one side of the pagoda that whirl at the slightest touch.

Driving on the twisting, dusty national road, we climb higher toward the snow-covered Dochula Pass, 10,000 feet above sea level. We stop on the chorten-covered summit (110 to be exact) to admire the view. In the distance are the mighty Bhutanese Himalayas. These towering massifs are sacred and said to be the thrones of the gods. It is off limits to climbers, leaving them pristine and unblemished by the footsteps of man.
Everyone on the tour bus is dopey from the altitude, and on the way down to the valley, we are quiet. Lunch in Sopsokha quickly revives us, enough for a 30-minute walk through small villages and rice paddies to visit Chime Lhakhang monastery. This tranquil monastery, dedicated to the mad monk Lama Drukpa Kunley, is quite astonishing. Life-like phallic symbols representing this beloved saint are everywhere. It is sold at handicraft stores in all sizes. It is painted on the sides of houses throughout the village to ward off evil. Many childless women come here to be blessed by the abbot with a tap on the head with a wooden dildo. No need to be shy here. It’s part of the tradition.

The weather is balmy in Punakha, a lush, fertile valley embraced by a vast mountain range. The magnificent Punakha Dzong sits on the confluence of two rivers, the Mo Chu (Mother River) and the Pho Chu (Father River). It was the seat of government for 300 years until it was moved to Thimphu not too long ago. It is springtime and it is lovely. We are here for the yearly Tshechu, or the festival that recreates triumph over a Tibetan invasion in the 17th century. It is a 10-day event where hundreds of villagers from all over come in their ceremonial gho (men’s robes) and most elegant kira (women’s dress) to take part in the festivities. Monks entertain crowds with colorful costumes and masks, sacred dances, singing, music, wild running and shouting, mimicking the battle over the Tibetans. It is noisy, dramatic and mesmerizing.

The following day is a sweaty, uphill hike to a small monastery north of Punakha valley. A suspended pedestrian bridge crossing the Mo Chu River and up a footpath by the side of the hill leads directly to the Khamsun Yulley Chorten. A friendly monk, his mouth red from chewing betel nut, serves as the guide and resident comic. He shows us relics and memorabilia. He blesses each of us and gives a grand tour of the chorten replete with silly antics that make all of us laugh, and posing gamely for photographs. The view from the tower is breathtaking. Punakha valley and the surrounding snow-capped mountains unfold before our eyes.

Back in Paro, it is a frosty dawn. My joints creak from the cold. I do some stretches, readying myself for the arduous three-hour climb to Tiger’s Nest. Known as Taktshang Goemba, it is the most revered pilgrimage site in Bhutan. Perched perilously on a steep, rock-faced cliff, it rises 3,000 feet from the valley floor. In total, Taktshang Goemba’s elevation reaches 10,000 feet counting Paro’s 7,000 feet above sea level. It is enough to make breathing especially difficult. Everyone is anxious. We are given some climbing tips that prove invaluable. The path is tortuous with icy, slippery portions. The switchbacks are nearly vertical.

Thankfully, there are numerous young pilgrims who readily assist tourists. They are chatty and laugh readily; they make us forget some of the obstacles along the way. We encounter Bhutanese youths carrying heavy construction material and supplies for the monastery. We are told this is entirely voluntary and altruistic.

Finally, after a grueling trek, we reach the monastery. An impressive frozen waterfall by the entrance startles us. It is concealed from the path and the valley below. A constant wind sings a soft melody through the crags. There is peace and solitude; the view is sublime. Pity, photos are forbidden here.

On the way back to the hotel, there is an archery contest in a large field. We stop to watch. The target is impossibly tiny and nearly invisible in the distance. The arrows whiz by and most, if not all, are accurate. Nearby is a colorful tent where there is much laughing and drinking. There are traditional dances and music around a roaring bonfire. The Bhutanese are passionate about archery, much like the Brazilians are passionate about football.

Compassion, the cornerstone of Buddhist teaching, is embodied in the Bhutanese way of life. Everywhere, locals are open to our strangeness, patient with our lack of understanding and helpful to a fault.

Happiness, as decreed by the Fourth Dragon King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, is the most important measure of productivity, and not material success. They jealously guard their way of life from the foibles of the modern world. Thimphu is renowned for being the only capital on the planet without traffic lights. Where are the fastfood joints, the ATMs, the malls?

It is unlikely Bhutanese are missing any of this. A famous line from James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon comes to mind: “If we have not found the heaven within, we have not found the heaven without.” Clearly in Bhutan, they have found the heaven within – and without.