Header image courtesy of David Yeung
Filled with untouched landscapes and shrouded in magic and mystery, this 14,824 square mile nation sits in between two giant superpowers, China and India, but it is regarded as one of the greenest and most peaceful places in the world. Bhutan is a society that follows traditional Buddhist practices and philosophies, which began during the twelfth century with the establishment of the Drukpa Kagyupa school. This small nation was never conquered, occupied, or governed by an outside power, making it an independent country throughout its history.
Since its inception, Bhutan has been ruled by a monarchy but later shifted into a constitutional monarchy. As a country, Bhutan has always been cautious about opening up and accepting what the rest of the world had to offer. One such example is the television, which was only introduced to the general public in 1999.
Modernisation and development in Bhutan only began during the early 1970s. In 1972, at age 16, Jigme Singye Wangchuck ascended the throne and highlighted the importance of modern education, decentralisation of governance, the development of hydroelectricity and tourism, and improvements in rural developments.
Above all, he was most famous for developing the philosophy of “gross national happiness.” It is a philosophy that guides the government and society in Bhutan, which includes an index used to measure the collective happiness and well-being of a population. Crucial to Bhutanese society, it recognises that there are many aspects to development and growth, and economic goals alone are just a tiny fragment of a greater sociological system.
Ever since I was young, I have been intrigued and fascinated by this place. I first heard of Bhutan in my ninth-grade geography class when we looked at how the country manages its tourism. The Bhutanese government enforces a unique “High Value, Low Impact” tourism policy where intrepid travellers who wish to visit Bhutan are subject to a daily fee anywhere between US$180 to US$290 per day, which covers touring and hotel accommodation. With its high cost, it’s not the most viable tourism option to the masses, making Bhutan an unreachable destination for most travellers.
However, two years ago, I had the privilege of travelling to the Kingdom of Bhutan for a school service trip which lasted around seven days. The purpose of my visit was to immerse myself in Bhutan’s local customs and the way of life of the Bhutanese people. I also had the opportunity to learn the art of meditation and Buddhism with Khenpo Phuntshok Tashi, the director of the National Museum of Bhutan.
Our trip started off flying from Hong Kong to Bangkok, Thailand, where we stayed for a night before catching an early morning flight to Paro, Bhutan. As soon as I stepped out of the plane, I was baffled by the lack of development and how simple the airport was. Immediately, I registered was how crisp and fresh the air was. I later found out that Bhutan is one of the few countries in the world that is carbon negative, which in essence means that it takes in more greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere than it emits—an incredible feat in today’s world.
Walking down onto the tarmac, I realised that the airport was nestled in between a valley full of trees and vast woodlands. At the arrivals hall, two tour guides in vibrant traditional gho robes welcomed us to their homeland. We spent a couple of days travelling around cities and villages, visiting monasteries and landmarks, and trying unique dishes such as ema datshi, Bhutan’s national spicy dish consisting of large, green chilli peppers in a cheesy sauce.
Every morning, for two hours, we would practice meditation and learn about Buddhist teachings with an articulate master. As the author of Mindful Living in Bhutan and the director of the National Museum of Bhutan, Khenpo Phuntshok Tashi has been instructing meditation and Buddhism for more than 17 years. He taught us the philosophy and the importance of the seven pillars of mindfulness, enlightenment, and happiness.
Over the course of his lessons, what struck me the most was his comment about having materialistic thoughts. In Buddhist philosophy, one seeks enlightenment by freeing one's mind from such thoughts of physical possessions, as it is believed that material things only provide physical comfort, not mental comfort. Therefore, he and many other Buddhist scholars believe that being mindful and compassionate, through the practice of meditation, is the best medicine for good health. This is not only reflected through the khenpo’s teachings but is prevalent all over the country. When interacting with locals, their humble and joyful acts, such as modest and respectful greetings, resonate with what the khenpo has taught us during his morning sessions.
On the final days of the trip, we had the opportunity to meet with some kids at a local high school. To this day, I still remember the sheer joy the students have just going to school. The smiles they present radiate through their teeth, each of them greeting us with respect and benevolence. We ended the school visit on a high note, by playing a match of football with their school’s football team, which we lost in a respectable fashion.
The day after, we visited one of Bhutan's most well-known landmarks—The Tiger’s Nest. Paro Taktsang, also known as the Tiger’s Nest, is a Buddhist temple situated on a cliffside overlooking a valley of lush forests. The temple complex was first built in 1692, around the Taktsang Senge Samdup cave where Guru Padmasambhava is said to have meditated for four months in the eighth century. It is believed that Padmasambhava introduced Buddhism to Bhutan and is the tutelary deity of the country.
Bhutan is a picturesque country; the sounds of the prayer wheels, powered by the mountain streams, clunk gently by the roadside, and prayer flags can be seen throughout the land. The images of Buddha and other figures in Buddhism remind visitors that an important aspect of life in Bhutan is shaped by Buddhist beliefs and aspirations. Before heading to Bhutan, it was difficult for me to fathom what kind of society and values the people hold in this country. However, this trip made me reflect on my own values as a human being, and also the things I can improve on, through the newly acquired knowledge of Buddhist philosophies.
Having been raised in a city and a society that highly encourages capitalist activities and interactions, hearing Khenpo Phuntshok Tashi speak and seeing the way the local people interact was really powerful and unique. I was not accustomed to this kind of living and environment. All of my life I have been living in a world so much different from the one the people in Bhutan were living in. My trip to Bhutan has left a huge impression on me and has inspired me to live life by being as free from materialistic desires as possible, and being compassionate to everyone, including myself.