“…you are invited to transform the outland to become your homeland”
– these were words shared by Alfred ahead of our departure. And he shared another quote by Simone de Beauvoir with us – at that time totally unaware, how intense the sense of these would become for us later: “Maybe only the very engaged or ambitious people know about these breaks, in which the time all of a sudden stands still and the individual being meld with the abundance around”. With this warm dedication in mind the group of 7 travelers met early March 2020 in Bangkok to fly over to Paro in Western Bhutan.
Bhutan, an emerging nation with quite simple life-standards, squeezed between the giant nations of China and India, has been a small 700 000 people kingdom for a bit more than 100 years now. The 4. King retired in 2006 – not only to hand over to his son, the current 5th King. It was an act to kick-off a process of democratization for a sustainable governmental growth process in country, a constitutional monarchy since then. Already in the 70s of the last Century the young 4th King had created a vision, which has been implemented in the constitution since 2008: The core idea is a wellbeing-oriented model of society. The main aim and measure to track growth is the “Gross-National-Happiness-Index”, measured on a regular base among the population and replacing the usual monetary oriented GDP rates in global economies. Our group was ready to dive into the reality of this country on a 7-days-trip in order to experience the essential four pillars of this model named “Gross-National-Happiness” (GNH):
1st pillar: Sustainable and Equitable Socio-Economic Development
Two good tempered employees of our Tour Operator “MyBhutan” welcome us after our landing in Paro. Tourists are not allowed to travel on their own through the country. The daily Visa fee covers a full care package including: Personal Guide, transport and driver, all entries for touristic hot-spots, three daily meals and accommodation. We feel the strong commitment of the people in Bhutan to care for their country and the tourists, driven by the simple motto: “High value, low impact”. The hotels show a modern, comfortable standard, the food is copious and delicious (with a bit less Chili than the locals normally consume). Tourism is a main economical driver, the 2nd biggest national source of income. Choki, our tour guide, is passionate to share with us the rich culture and nature. Kunzang is a kind and silent bus driver, fully concentrated to bring us safely across the mountainous curves and passes on the 2-lane “Highway”. Choki makes us understand, that a meaningful time use is essential for Bhutanese, respecting the individual needs. Time-use is as well one of the questions in the Happiness-Survey conducted every 5 years in Bhutan: How much time do people spend for work and economical income, for social life in family and in the community, even how much time is spent for sleep. Punctuality and efficiency are not necessarily worthwhile values in Bhutan. The purpose in every moment counts, as like for the wellbeing of the tourists – and we feel happy and satisfied.
2nd pillar: Preservation & Promotion of Culture
On the way towards the impressive fortress in Punakha we can feel the vibration: People in festive and colorful local dress – very often hand-woven by the woman – are walking on the street or are crammed together in cars and small vans, all heading for the same spot. The Tsechu in Bhutan, a spiritual dance- and mask festival taking place at auspicious places like temples and fortresses,is a very important social event where people come from remote valleys and mountains. The dance-choreography represents with colorful costumes and impressive masks both, historical conquests and spiritual myths conserved in Tibetan writings from the early Buddhist times. Families and friends come together, well equipped for a picnic. They socialize, enjoy the community, kids cavort across the courtyard or look with unearthly amazement to the dance-scenes. Girls are getting teased by red-faced figures in devil masks or brave worriers – the phallic Symbol is in general a very common icon across the country, and especially in Punakha, where the Bhutanese have built a temple of fertility to honor the most sexual active Yogi in Tibetan Buddhism in the 15th century. No one needs to explain to us the theory of Buddhism: We feel, how the people celebrate faith and spirituality in all day social life genuinely. The ambiance on this Tsechu is maybe comparable with the joy on local Wine- or Music-Festivals in our country – furthermore enriched by the colorful splendor of traditional decors and centuries-old rituals not only celebrated to entertain the tourists.
3rd pillar: Conversation of the Nature
The town of Punakha is a place where 2 main rivers meet – the Male and the Female river. Punakha is the place for river rafting in Bhutan. All rivers in Bhutan emerge from the high Himalayan mountains, delivering the first and most important national and carbon-neutral income source, hydropower. Bhutan is the single country on the globewith a carbon-negative footprint. Air pollution is low due to low industrial engagement, strictly administrated by the GNH Commission. Furthermore, 60 % of the forest land as tracked in the 90s of the lastCentury is protected. We experience a very magic moment while hiking througha dense forest of moss-grown Rhododendron trees, which grow mainly just below the timberline and transform into a country-wide sea of blossoms between March and April annually. We are blessed to see the first blossoms to emerge.
4th pillar: Good Governance
Since the 3rd day of our stay, our group and the whole country has been affected by the now omnipresent impact of the epidemic spread of Covid-19. An American Tourist tested positive as the first case in the country, in the night from 5th to 6th March. The Government, the administration and tourist companies are well prepared for this moment: No further tourist has arrived since then and schools have been closed, followed by restaurants and shops. Quarantine-centers were ready to isolate people tracked to be in close contact with the 1st patient.
It is very impressive and touching to experience the mindfulness and peaceful commitment for the government and especially for the 5th King. Our Tour Operator-Team, the hotel teams and other services in tourism stay focused without frustration to provide the remaining tourists a safe and comfortable stay – despite the tremendous economical loss they have faced since then. In all media – Bhutanese are very active on facebook and WeChat – we experience that the population enable each other to enforce the solidarity and the responsibility of individuals for the ecosystem.
In the 2 remaining days on our tour we meet in wisdom-sharing appointments with one representant of the governmental and with a Buddhist Teacher: Former Lyonpo Norbu Wangchuk (Minister for Education 2013 – 2018) and Khedrup Rinpoche. In both conversations we learn, that the Bhutanese do definitely face significant challenges and crises (not yet considered the impact of the pandemic) and they do not live in a magic new age “Shangri-La”. We experience though a mindset defined by Buddhist values, driven by conscious leadership and the love for all sentient beings which lead to a welfare attitude and down-to-earth realism which is a refreshing, promising contrast to the chauvinist attitude of Global giant governments.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead is a central theme of the spiritual mask-dances in Bhutan – called the Bardo Thödol. “Bardo” marks the time of transition between death and rebirth, which last 49 days according to the Buddhist teaching. In the weeks since our return from Bhutan all the Globe has come to a standstill and we find ourselves in a kind of Bardo – coincidently matching as well with the paschal celebration of Death and Rebirth in Christianity. I wish for all of us, that we will learn from the deep spiritual roots and the in modern-times anchored resilience of this small country up in the Himalayan mountains, once the fog of the Corona pandemic will lift.