Pondering Happiness in Bhutan
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Story and photos by Laurie Gough


On the second day of the trek, after climbing all morning through forests of rhododendron and along steep ridges with staggering views of the snowy Himalayas, we passed into high alpine meadows. Somewhere around 11,000 feet, we came across a young boy yak herder. He was sitting by himself on a rock, smiling at us, and holding a puppy beside a makeshift shelter of branches and tarps—his temporary home. I wondered where his parents were, how he could be so content to just sit there alone all day with nothing but his puppy. It occurred to me that I myself would love to sit there all day surrounded by views like that, but people are inured to the beauty they've grown up with, even to views of the Himalayas. I asked the boy if I could take his picture and he eagerly nodded. Sadly, we couldn't converse. Bhutanese children learn English in school, and most Bhutanese are fluent in several languages including English, but this boy was one of the few unschooled. With the new policy of every child going to school, I wondered how his life will change and if he'd be happier at school.

I also wondered how life will change for the Bhutanese with TV and the internet. When I lived in Fiji in the early 90s, TV didn't exist and Fiji seemed like the happiest place I'd ever been. Women were proudly big, and kids sang on school busses and entertained themselves by climbing trees and swimming. Since television's introduction in the late 90s, not only are Fijian girls and women now diet-crazy for the first time ever, they also suffer from eating disorders. When I was there, dieting was unheard of—there wasn't even a word for it. As for Bhutan, even with their policy of banning certain TV stations, keeping out modern images is nearly impossible. I saw a Thai music video in Thimpu where a Britney Spears Thai-lookalike was gyrating in a barely-there outfit while smoking. It made me cringe for all those sweet young Bhutanese girls wearing their traditional national costume every day. Can watching a video like that lead to happiness?

Bhutan woman

Not long after the young yak herder, we were almost stampeded by a herd of 50 yaks thundering down a steep rocky brook. From over a ridge came along a young woman yak herder who beamed at us as she laughed about the stampede. She had a beautiful Bhutanese face, aristocratic, with high cheekbones and almond-shaped eyes. I wondered if she lived as simply as the little boy. The faces of the two of them—rosy cheeks, bright eyes—revealed not a life of hardship but of something else. I couldn't help but catch an unmistakable flash of the human spirit in their faces that said they were entirely happy in their world.

Life Without Saturday Night Live
Near the end of the third day of the trek I was beat. We'd begun climbing early that morning through an eerie Wizard of Oz forest of moss-covered trees before reaching a remote glacial lake, then higher still onto a rocky moonscape above the trees. Through the long hours of walking we passed the time by singing Neil Young songs and discussing every movie, SNL sketch, and long-forgotten TV show we could think of. "Haven't you seen that? You should Youtube doorit," was often called out. Tshe Tshe would shake his head, aghast at the amount of accumulated pop culture in our heads. I was the lone Canadian in a group of four Americans but it didn't matter. We were all raised on the same airwaves. Do we lose something when we're all culturally uniform?

No wonder Tshe Tshe was baffled. When he grew up, he told us the people in his valley were completely different from the people in the next valley where he went to school, a five-hour walk away. But with more and more young Bhutanese becoming educated, they're leaving their villages behind for cosmopolitan Thimpu. So far though, McDonalds and its ilk are banned in Bhutan, and traditional architecture is enforced by law.

After reaching the third and highest pass of the day, we stopped to rest. Tshe Tshe pointed to a rocky hill beside us and explained its significance. "If a baby dies, the family brings the dead infant to the top of these rocks so vultures can take the body away. It's called Sky Burial."

Sky Burial: horrific and heartbreakingly beautiful at the same time, much like the world itself—a thankfully multifarious world still apparently full of surprises. I gazed out at the mountain ranges all around us that with the fast-moving clouds, appeared and reappeared by the second, revealing secret peaks and shimmering valleys for an instant before disappearing again. I wondered how different I'd be if I'd grown up in Bhutan with the Himalayas under my feet, perhaps herding yaks, walking from one green valley to the next, drinking yak butter tea (the most vile concoction I've ever pretended to drink), knowing nothing of Google or Seinfeld or Springsteen concerts. It would be a different kind of happiness no doubt, and I'd be a different person.


Wordsworth wrote that, "Pleasure is spread through the earth, in stray gifts to be claimed by whoever shall find." Kant's rules for happiness were: something to do, someone to love, something to hope for. As each day passed in the wilds of Bhutan I could feel my old self coming back, my anxiety about my hometown's problems lifting, and something replacing it: happiness. Perhaps it was the heart-stopping reality of the natural world around me, those yak herders up in the mountains. Just knowing they were there, that people still happily live like that, I found comforting.

Something else that always gladdens the heart are penises painted on houses. All over Bhutan, male genitalia are painted on the outside walls of people's houses and on storefronts—they really stand out, so to speak. The Bhutanese find it hilarious. This isn't pornographic but a reference to Bhutan's 16th century popular saint, the Divine Madman. He felt people couldn't learn true Buddhist teachings with such an uptight clergy, so he deliberately acted outrageously, his sexual antics provoking people to lighten up. We saw examples of his influence painted on buildings all over the country. One night, for a joke, Tshe Tshe carved our wooden walking sticks outside our tents so the tops looked like penises. Surely carving penises onto sticks or displaying giant penises dolled up with bows on your house is an act only cheerful people would engage in.

On our last day in Bhutan, we passed a meadow filled with wildflowers by a river. Thousands of prayer flags floated in the breeze like rainbows at a party. Tshe Tshe said families had picnics there and tied prayer flags in the trees before leaving. Yes, I thought: families having picnics together: so timeless, so basic, so fun.

prayer flags

Maybe the source of true happiness lies in the celebration of our fellow humans. Maybe we should all have more picnics and like Bhutan, find happiness in the simple things—streams, mountains, smiling at strangers, painting penises on our houses. Maybe nothing is more important for our happiness than interacting with the ageless realm of things. If I had my own prayer flags, I'd pray that Bhutan can hold onto its happiness as it joins the rest of us. So far, they seem to be doing a remarkable job.

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Lauded by Time magazine as "one of the new generation of intrepid female travel writers," Laurie Gough is author of Island of the Human Heart, Kiss the Sunset Pig, and Kite Strings of the Southern Cross, shortlisted for the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award, and silver medal winner of ForeWord Magazine's Travel Book of the Year in the US. See more at www.lauriegough.com

Related articles:

Sacred and Profane: Tantric Buddhism in the Land of the Thunder Dragon by Tony Robinson-Smith
Divine Bhutan and the Well-hung Lama by Beth Whitman
Breakfast in Bhutan by Michael Buckley
Humble in the Jungle: Exploring Guyana's Rainforest by Laurie Gough

Other Asia travel stories from the archives

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