THE HAPPY KINGDOM OF BHUTAN
If we were making a ‘places to visit next’ list then Bhutan would definitely be near the top for most intrepid travellers.
Whether it's because of its perfectly preserved Buddhist culture, the unique architecture, the off-the-beaten-track Himalaya trekking or the colourful festivals, there are endless reasons that make a journey to the Land of the Thunder Dragon so desirable. So it was no wonder I was incredibly excited to be one of the privileged visitors to this beautiful kingdom and it didn't take long to understand that my trip wasn't going to be like anything I experienced before.
The flight to Paro itself was certainly the most memorable journey on a plane I have ever taken. My anticipation was building as I admired the magnificence of mighty Himalayas and the unmistakable shape of Everest from above. The beauty of the snow-capped peaks from the plane is simply overwhelming. If that wasn't enough to make the flight remarkable, landing at what is considered one of the most challenging airports in the world, surrounded by impressive mountain peaks, was certainly quite an experience. I felt incredibly thrilled and perhaps equally relieved as we touched the runaway!
I was immediately struck by the diverse atmosphere of the country, as if I had just landed on another planet. However, we all agreed it didn't take long for us to get accustomed to it, as if we had been pervaded by a very positive, happy vibe as soon as we got the enviable stamp on our passport.
There is a calmness to Bhutan, a sense of intrinsic spiritual beauty which can be instantly perceived and partly explains why this is considered one of the happiest countries in the world. Perhaps the stunning Himalayan setting of the country helps; however it seems to be the wise attitude towards life that is the winning recipe against stress and allows people to be satisfied with what they have.
The Gross National Happiness, implemented by the previous King, is based on the assumption that the happiness of a country doesn't only depend on economic factors but on both material and spiritual development. The four pillars of GNH are the promotion of a sustainable development, preservation of culture, conservation of natural environment and good governance. The benefits of this philosophy seemed tangible as we visited the country. Tourism is regulated and because the number of visitors is strictly limited, the friendly locals, whose English is impeccable, were happy to interact with us and to tell us about their lives and traditions.
It is certainly remarkable that, despite the pressure coming from globalisation, the Bhutanese culture has preserved its unique identity. There doesn't seem to be any strong cultural influence coming from western or neighbouring countries and people still wear their colourful traditional dresses every day. The houses, decorated with wood and bamboo, are still built according to the Bhutanese traditional style and the countless Dzongs (Buddhist monasteries as well as military fortresses) dot the landscape and often dominate the hills, giving a distinct character to the surrounding landscape.
Visiting or I should say hiking many of them and learning about the Buddhist religion from our expert guide Kunzang was the perfect introduction for the highlight of our trip: the Paro Tsechu (Paro Festival). Every Dzong hosts a festival, which is a sacred religious ceremony as well as an unmissable social event for the community. People arrive here from all over the country, wearing their colourful silk dresses, beautifully embroidered. It is a blaze of colour and I felt incredibly privileged for having the opportunity to be a part of it. With the Dzong as a background, the rituals alternate from a sort of theatrical comic pantomime to sacred masked dances, culminating with the holy ceremony of the unfurling of the giant Thangka, a giant sacred painting. As well as a special occasion to be blessed, the festivals are an opportunity to reinforce social relationships and a form of entertainment, where the sacred and the profane seem to happily coexist. Each masked dance has a specific meaning and through their synchronised movements, the repetitive music and the colourful costumes, the monks enter a trance, hypnotising the crowd and dispensing their blessing.
It is an inexplicable joy for the eyes as well as the soul and although I can’t say I achieved enlightenment, this positive energy still pervades me every time I think about my days in this mountain Kingdom.
Daniela Pontis travelled on Festivals of Bhutan (Trip Code: AIB).