Tiger’s Nest

Silence except for heavy cold breaths. Lindsey and I sit meditating cross-legged in the upper sanctuary of Tiger’s Nest in front of the great Guru Rinpoche. I focus on focusing. Feeling my breath, hearing my breath, controlling my breath. Then my mind wanders, and I return back to breathing, back to focusing on focusing. No one disturbs us. We are the first up to Tiger’s Nest in the morning and we get to savor this moment. Here we are at one of Bhutan’s most sacred sites in a country where most if not all sites are sacred in some way. The air is cold enough to freeze parts of the 50 foot waterfall we pass along the trail. The sun is still hidden behind clouds and fog. Our shoes are outside the door. Our toes freezing. Focus on focusing. The land is quiet save the occasional wind through trees and prayer flags. And the temple in which we stand is secured in a mountain face close to 1000 meters above the valley floor. It’s our last day in Bhutan. It’s magical in almost every sense of the word.

We’ve been in Bhutan for over ten days, and every day it’s been clear blue skies as far as we can see. On this particular morning, we start the day unable to see ten feet in front of us. Google Bhutan and all you see is pictures of Tiger’s Nest. It is unique, beautiful, iconic, and the single activity that’s been met with the greatest expectations. Our guide quells our anxiety after breakfast, assuring us we’d just started the day at an early hour and that surely this will clear. We hike quickly, a pack of stray dogs trailing us, then leading us all the way to the mid-point, a cafe. We sip tea and ask again for assurance that it will clear. This time, Sonam isn’t so sure.

We know we’re in the land of contentment where hope is believed to be a cause of suffering, but for Tiger’s Nest, we’re willing to wait all day if it comes to it. As we continue on the hike up to Tiger’s Nest, still led by our pack of dogs, we see a small patch of blue sky. We see the fog starting to thin in the distance. And finally, we see the outline of Tiger’s Nest hidden behind the sheet of white. Our disappointment turns to optimism and we hike on. Being able to see the Tiger’s Nest revealed behind the fog as the morning continues is a memory we will never forget. But of course, the better pictures come with blue skies, so after a Coca-Cola at the cafe, we decide to scurry back up the mountain to capture the magical monastery in the sun, one last time. Our journey is complete.

Officially obsessed with happiness

We are.  Obsessed with happiness.  Maybe that’s the problem.  We define happiness as pleasure and triumph, and unhappiness as the lack of those things.  And it turns out, we don’t skip down the street in complete joy all the time; in fact, we don’t do that most of the time, even in the metaphorical sense.  Does that make us unhappy?  Depends who you ask.  In America, it kind of does.  In Bhutan, it doesn’t.  Bhutan’s happiness centers around a peace that comes form a state of well-being and contentment.  Few people are in poverty.  The children that are abandoned are placed in monasteries and nunneries and then elevated in social status as a result.  Few are hungry.  Education until university is free.  Healthcare is free.  Its landscape is beautiful; over 70% of the country is covered in trees.  They’re proud of their country.  Having only 700,000 people is helpful in all of this, but it really doesn’t seem too complicated.

When we ask Sonam why the country is so peaceful, he says it’s because people are content with what they have, and they do not envy each other.  (Side note: this is partly achieved by aggressively kicking out the Nepalese back in the 80’s and by trying to postpone the inevitable invasion of western culture.)  The grass might be green on the other side, but they’re also watering the grass that lives on their side.

And for one more insight on Bhutanese happiness, we turn to Eric Weiner in his book “The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World“.

“I would not have done anything differently. All of the moments in my life, everyone I have met, every trip I have taken, every success I have enjoyed, every blunder I have made, every loss I have endured has been just right. I am not saying that they were all good or that they happened for a reason…but they have been right. They have been okay. As far as revelations go it’s pretty lame, I know. Okay is not bliss or even happiness. Okay is not the basis for a new religion or self-help movement. Okay won’t get me on Oprah, but okay is a start and for that I am grateful. Can I thank Bhutan for this breakthrough? It’s hard to say … It is a strange place, peculiar in ways large and small. You lose your bearings here and when that happens a crack forms in your armor. A crack large enough, if you’re lucky, to let in a few shafts of light.”

Flight cancelled, rough road ahead

I think we’ll sum this road trip up as an adventure in a country that is still developing its infrastructure.  It was exciting, frustrating, comical, beautiful, and eye-opening all at once.

The excitement is like driving along the highway above the Amalfi Coast.  The views from the road are incredibly beautiful and distracting as it winds it’s way hugging the mountain on one side and a cliff on the other.  Since it’s the main road, all forms of transportation are present – large construction vehicles, trucks, buses, motorbikes, walkers, and us.  All these transportation modes go at different speeds and take up different amounts of space on the road, which many times isn’t wide enough to pass let alone accommodate two-way traffic.  We try not to look down, but sometimes the temptation to know how far down really is gets the better of us.

The frustration is like driving through the Colorado Rockies only to find out that the one airplane that flies to and from Denver is out of service for the next week and the one road that took us there can at times barely be called a road.  We drive through numerous switchbacks punctuated by mountain passes.  We pass and get passed seemingly based on some system depending on size of car and comfort with the road.  The scenery continues to change, the mountains in the distance continue to tower, and the road continues to wind.  We are hoping this is going to be a one-way journey as the plan is to fly back, but alas, the flight is cancelled in the middle of Bhutan where the only way back is the way we came.

And the comedy is like riding an amusement park ride.  One of those rides where you get into a vehicle that doesn’t move but only jostles around, and there’s a screen in front of the car to simulate forward and backward movement (see: Back to the Future, the ride).  There are so many degrees of freedom as we drive along this newly expanded road, which is unpaved and has so many potholes that I think calling them potholes would be generous.  We sway left to right, front to back.  We bounce up and down.  We accelerate and break.  And often, we seem to bounce up, break and sway left all at the same time.  Great for a 60 second ride, but a little less friendly on the lower-back for a many hour car drive.

In truth though, this is part of traveling in a country with few tourists.  Bumthang maybe had a dozen tourists there.  The monasteries, temples, restaurants, and streets were full of locals but no tourists.  And we treasure this even if it means a slightly more painful journey back.

Bumthang, Bhutan’s Switzerland

Famous for producing honey, cheese, and yak textiles, the region of Bumthang continues to surprise us.  The weather is as crisp (read: cold) as any place we’re visiting, but the air is incredibly clear letting us appreciate the mountains that climb on all sides of the very narrow valleys.  Adding to the scene, we are two of maybe ten tourists in this eastern Bhutanese town.  In fact, we are the only two in our Mountain Lodge.  As a result, it takes a little while to warm our room, but once we do, it’s quite cozy.

We walk from monastery to temple to monastery to dzhong.  Although small, because it is the religious center of Bhutan, the temples and monasteries abound.  In between, the houses are all made of only stones and wood.  As we learn, traveling out to this far destination is not easy; thus, using the local building materials is not only the most beautiful option, but it is also the most convenient.  The architecture and the geography make Bumthang look like Bhutan’s Switzerland.

We head out to Bumthang’s Burning Lake, which is neither burning nor a lake.  It is a very a cold, wet river.  But similar to the rest of Bumthang, it’s religious significance is vast.  According to legend, to prove that an ancient Guru (specifically Guru Rimpoche, who is very famous in Bhutan) had hidden treasures in this water, a monk jumped into the water holding a butter lamp.  After some time, the monk returns with treasure in one hand and the butter lamp still lit in the other.  The importance of this site was heightened when our guide mumbled several prayers and threw in a couple Nu (Bhutanese currency) into the lake.  Again, Lindsey, myself, and a handful of locals enjoyed this site all to ourselves in a peaceful moment.

For lunch, we stop at one of our guide, Sonam’s favorite restaurants where we all have a bowl of homemade fresh noodles complete with chilis and a type of pepper that makes our mouths slightly numb.  We know our guide is enjoying himself when he orders a second bowl.  We walk off our lunch by going up and down the main drag of Bumthang several times because the main drag is maybe two blocks long, and then we continue to our final stop of the day.  One other product that Bumthang is famous for is it’s Red Panda beer.  After tasting some local cheeses, we continue down the street to Bumthang Brewery.  In this small brewery that distributes beer to the whole nation of Bhutan (only ~700,000 people), we take a tour and enjoy a couple beers to cap off a very peaceful, beautiful day in what feels like rural and authentic Bhutan.

Photo shoot dressed in gho and kira

The gho and kira are the traditional and national Bhutanese dress for men and women respectively.  Until very recently, it was legally required that all Bhutanese citizens dress in this style all the time.  Today, this style is considered formal wear to be worn for business and special occasions, as well as anytime one enters a religious or government building.  In addition, all children must wear this to school.  Requiring the gho and kira we believe helps maintain a national identity and national pride.

We have a chance to borrow the clothes one evening while in Gangtey and the results are as follows:


Before arriving to Gangtey, a three-hour drive from Punakha, our driver pulls over and our guide asks if we’d like to hike the rest of the way. It’s a welcome retreat from the bumpy dirt roads that takes us within feet of many yaks, grazing on the hillside. “Do people ever milk yaks?” we ask. “Yaks are quite difficult to milk,” Sonam tells us without a bit of mockery in his voice. We laugh, because of course they are. They’re huge animals with difficult temperaments. He tells us the fur from their underarms is soft and cut to make scarves, and the fur from their bodies is thick and coarse and used to make tents. Occasionally they’re eaten, and we’re in luck because it’s yak season. We talk and talk, until the mountain opens up and we feel like we’re in Switzerland, high above the earth with a perfect view of the valley below. Sonam points out our hotel in the distance, and we continue to walk, passing nuns collecting juniper along the way.

We’re elated by the time we arrive, and the joy continues to grow as we’re greeted with white welcome scarves, warm towels, and a welcome song sung by the entire staff against the incredible backdrop of the Gangtey mountains. The hotel manager gives us an orientation over delicious, warm cider then two women from the spa give us a complimentary welcome massage. We walk into our room where everything has been set up and are asked what time we’d like for them to light our fireplace. This is a welcome like we’ve never had before, and it immediately makes Gangtey Lodge feel more like a home than a hotel.

The food here is wonderful, and a welcome respite from the bowls of rice, fried vegetables, mystery meat, Chinese noodles, potatoes, chili and cheese sauce, and sometimes, inexplicably, pasta with red sauce that we’re served almost everywhere else. We do eat yak, favoring the yak burger best.

In the morning we head out for the run we’d promised ourselves we’d take every morning and almost at once are followed by the pack of dogs that Sonam had warned us about.  We’re scared, slowing as to not antagonize them, knowing that the nearest hospital is over three hours away. As we approach the monastery, we consider climbing the steps to avoid them, but are happily surprised when they climb the steps instead, leaving us behind with the realization we have no rice to offer.

Outside, we try our hand at archery and darts. They’re impossible games, even with the shortened distance the hotel uses between targets. We hurl darts toward a tiny target and shoot an arrow toward a slightly larger board. We never make it, but our guides do. We later see a game of darts being played along the roadside and see the song and dance that both teams perform every time a target is hit. It makes us feel better about our lack of skill to know that a point is so valuable it deserves such ceremony.

Inside, we sit by the fire playing the cow and tiger game, a traditional Bhutanese game much akin to checkers played today only by farmers. We sip tea and wine and local craft beer and listen to the fire crack as we meet other friendly travelers.  New Years comes and goes quietly this year, a few couples gathered around the fire counting down only to ourselves. There is no TV. No ball drop. No fireworks. It’s peaceful and warm and the magic of Bhutan is starting to seep into us.    


Bhutanese happiness, getting closer

We still haven’t cracked the case: why is Bhutan widely considered one of the world’s happiest countries?  But we hope we’re inching our way forward.  Among many other things, Bhutan’s happiness (also interpreted as ‘contentment’) stems from its major religion, Buddhism, and its politics, a constitutional monarchy.

The Buddha said: `Contentment is the highest wealth’, meaning that when we are content we do not need to get anything, go anywhere or be anything to be happy because we already are.  This was again reflected in Madeline Drexler’s book “A Splendid Isolation”, where she is pressing several Bhutanese on what makes them happy.  In response, one Bhutanese woman explained, ‘I would say that what makes me happy is to understand things. There are always three truths: yours, mine, and the truth.  If I can get closer to yours, it’s interesting. If I can get closer to mine, it’s liberating. And if I can get closer to ‘the’, it’s enlightening.”  Even in this woman’s response, she returns to Buddhism for direction on what is most noble to seek in life.

Religion can play lots of different roles, and if one of those roles is instrumental in making us feel happy, making us feel content, religion may be serving its ultimate goal.

Along with religion, the constitutional monarchy also plays a central role in happiness.  Bhutan’s 1829 legal code declared that if the Government cannot create happiness for its people, there is no purpose for the Government to exist.  Drexler puts it succinctly in the following quote:

“Why did the concept of Gross National Happiness spring up in Bhutan? Because of an inspired monarch, uncommon political unity, and what many refer to as a ‘splendid isolation’ that enabled policymakers to learn from other nations’ mistakes.  But mostly because it is almost impossible to separate Bhutanese culture from the spiritual riches of Buddhism. Bhutan was a GNH country before there was GNH.”

My main takeaway from this one step closer to understanding happiness is that happiness is a team sport.  The coach (Buddha), the team captain (government), and all of the players (citizens) need to buy in for winning (‘happiness’) to be possible.  Even with all the right pieces, however, the team still might not win, but I feel at least the fundamentals are there.

Link to the Madeline Drexler’s book: A Splendid Isolation: Lessons on Happiness from the Kingdom of Bhutan

Happiness is a place

Thimphu is littered with dogs, high off the knowledge that no one will do them harm. “That dog”, they say, “could be your mother from a past life.”

Bhutan is a deeply Buddhist country, with an unapologetic tie between church and state. Urbanization is moving people from the countryside into the overcrowded and rapidly developing city of Thimphu, now the size of Burlington, Vermont. The city itself is very safe, far more than San Francisco. We don’t clutch our bags or eye every stranger. In Bhutan there is only petty theft, one of the few countries in the world with no US State Department warning. Here, the police don’t carry guns. Those who own a weapon own a compound bow, but it’s not a weapon any more than a hockey stick in Canada; Archery is the national sport. There is free healthcare for all, free education for all, and any semblance of a foster care system is replaced by government-funded monasteries and nunneries. Surely it can be argued that it’s wrong to force religion on children, but instead of being passed from home to home until the age of 18, Bhutanese children are given a purpose, a means of making money, and a deeply respected place in society. There are road signs that curiously read “Thanks”. Just thanks, without explanation. Even the more threatening signs about drinking and driving or speeding are transformed into cutsie one-liners. “If you’re married, divorce speed.” It’s not naiveté; it’s that there’s no need.

Bhutan is a communal culture where that, perhaps because of the strong Buddhist influence, people have seemingly silently agreed to respect one another. As a sign of unity, Bhutanese people wear a national uniform. There’s an attitude that life isn’t to be won; it’s to be lived together. But with TV, Internet and a currency (all new for Bhutan), the major city in the land of happiness is no longer free from the trappings of the modern world. As our guide explained to us, Buddhism teaches contentment and the idea of enough, but of course it’s only human to want what others have. Bhutan, we realize, is stuck between the desire to preserve a culture and identity, and the desire to benefit from the modern world, even when the two seem to stand in stark contrast with one another. As we reflect on what Bhutan used to be – something perhaps more closely resembling the happiness for which they’re known – it’s important not to idealize the past. The “good old days” brought with it its own set of problems. And so we move through Thimphu, visiting chortens where people endlessly spin prayer wheels and then get back into our car while the Thimphu City Thugs play on the radio.

“And if you hit upon the idea that this or that country is safe, prosperous, or fortunate, give it up, my friend… for you ought to know that the world is ablaze with the fires of some faults of others. There is certain to be some suffering… no safe refuge can thus be found in the world.” – Buddhist scriptures

Dry Tuesdays

We land in Bhutan on a Tuesday, and although we are not ones to seek out lots of drinks when we travel, I do appreciate a local brew and Lindsey a specialty cocktail.  However, because it is Tuesday and therefore a legally enforced dry day of the week, we’ll have to wait.

Naturally, we wonder why there is such a seemingly arbitrary law.  We ask around, and as we suspect, alcoholism is a serious problem.  In 2017, alcohol became the top killer in Bhutan.  The highest numbers of hospital cases are alcohol related, and many more of those who lose their lives because of alcohol are undocumented in rural villages.  This leads to another question that we can’t yet answer: why in a country known for being so happy is alcoholism such a problem?

On a lighter note, as part of alcohol/bar culture, the Bhutanese play Snookers.  There are places to play throughout Thimphu.  Our guide challenges us to a game, we can’t refuse and find ourselves in a basement bar being heckled by 10 year olds who aren’t impressed with our abilities.  Having played pool before, playing snookers feels like playing basketball with larger balls and smaller rims.  In other words, it feels like I should be better, should know what I’m doing, should have some technique down, but nothing seems to work because the game is just no longer as forgiving as it used to be.

Tuesday does eventually become Wednesday, and on Wednesday, we head to Mojo Park just down the street to taste some local classics like Druk and Red Panda (a wheat beer), both satisfying.  Lindsey tries a local vino called Vintria – turns out Bhutanese wine is just okay, but we still appreciate that they have the option.