The Tiger’s Nest is Bhutan’s most iconic monastery.

The pursuit of happiness

I thought Bhutanese the kindest, gentlest folks on earth — until our mountain-sickness medication went missing. Paro’s high altitude had hit me hard and I needed relief. We searched everywhere. Obviously, a hotel employee had rifled our room and stolen the precious pills. (Probably to sell on the black market, I reasoned.)

This is the second in a two-part series on travelling in Bhutan.

I thought Bhutanese the kindest, gentlest folks on earth — until our mountain-sickness medication went missing.

Paro’s high altitude had hit me hard and I needed relief. We searched everywhere. Obviously, a hotel employee had rifled our room and stolen the precious pills. (Probably to sell on the black market, I reasoned.)

Our guide Tsewang, before retiring for the evening, told us to call him if we had the least concern. It was late but I indignantly picked up the phone and began to dial . . . I paused. Was I really prepared to accuse these lovely people of theft?

“Wait a second,” said Florence, “here’s the tablets — right where you packed them.”

In the morning, I couldn’t look Tsewang in the eye. He mistook my embarrassment for discontent.

“Be open to change,” he said, quoting Paul Thoreau, “a trip creates us.”

“I hope so,” I thought. Perhaps I’d finally recognize that not all people of modest means are inclined to pilfer.

Bhutan was never colonized. Landlocked and isolated The Hidden Country managed to sail through the 20th century — and two world wars — blissfully ignorant of the carnage man could wreak upon his fellow man. Tourists were not permitted entry until the mid-1970s.

As a stranger in this strange land I felt an obligation to understand the Bhutanese world-view, bring some Canadian perspective to our hosts — and try not to be an idiot. Accusing our hotel maid of theft would have made for an inauspicious start.

The Bhutanese have not adopted the western capitalist ideal. Instead, they have embraced something called Gross National Happiness. To Westerners, GNH is a laughably naïve idea: an entire country dedicating its resources to making people happy. How quaint.

But Bhutan is not trying to make people happy. Rather, it is committed to creating a happy people. GNH advocates a higher aspiration for human development than simple materialism. The fourth King Jigme Wangchuck introduced this lofty goal as a “slow, cautious path to development.” Bhutan’s intention is to focus on environmental and cultural protection, good governance and an end to “spiritual hunger.”

The Bhutanese are not naïve. They realize the appeal of the modern world to impressionable youth. Their approach is not to restrict or censor access to television, the Internet or social media but to seek a balance between these “destructive” influences and Bhutan’s cherished, ancient beliefs.

One afternoon, we spotted three young monks engaged in the age-old task of hauling water. Abandoning their humble duties, they stood on tiptoe peeking through a window staring at a blaring television; the epitome of picturesque juxtaposition.

The Bhutanese refer to their home as Druk Yul, Land of the Thunder Dragon. But their dragon is not fire-breathing — as in our fairy tales. Rather, this benevolent serpent’s job is to proudly guard a secluded people from an inhospitable world.

In Nepal, Bhutan’s better-known neighbour, mountain climbing is a growth industry that has brought tourists, wealth and — inevitably — environmental devastation.

Oxygen bottles and dead climbers litter Mount Everest.

In the Hidden Country, where religion and economics are inextricably intertwined, mountaineering is forbidden simply because mountain peaks are the exclusive abode of holy deities.

The Bhutanese honour many customs but formal marriage is not critical. In this matriarchal society, when a man and woman have been living together for a period of time, it is understood that the young man will begin working in his mother-in-law’s field. And that’s that.

Courting often begins with “night hunting.” Young men and women, working from sunrise to sunset, have little time for dating. Instead, a man may ask a woman as she passes his field after a long day threshing rice, “Will you be home tonight?” If she replies in the affirmative, the presumption is that he’ll drop by later and crawl through her bedroom window. Bingo, marital bliss.

A father must be particularly vigilant if his daughter offers to stand guard at night in the rice-field hut. There’s likely a future son-in-law lurking in the dusk.

It’s cool in Phobjikha. At three km above sea level — and despite Bhutan’s near-tropical latitude — the town gets frosty at night. Our room at the Dewachen Hotel was equipped with a fireplace. When we turned in after an evening of hearty food, drink and camaraderie, a roaring fire greeted us; as did a foot-warming hot water bottle beneath the yak-wool blanket of our bed. As the man of the (hotel room), it was my job to keep the fire stoked — a task I failed at miserably.

In the morning, Tsewang, dressed as always in his traditional Bhutanese gho, joined us for breakfast. I told him about my fruitless fire-tending duties. He looked round the table, “In Bhutan we say that a fire constantly stirred will grow cold … but a kindled thunderbolt will stay hot.”

Ganesh, our painfully shy driver, nodded imperceptibly toward the floor.

I was beginning to think the Bhutanese were preoccupied with matters of the flesh.

Bhutan is a constitutional monarchy with three levels of governance: the monarch, who has a nominal veto over all matters; the legislature (created in 2008 when the fourth king abdicated in favour of his son, the fifth King Jigme Wangchuck); and the monastic branch, presided over by a chief abbot — the equivalent of Catholicism’s Pope. Monks do not vote and remain silent on political matters. Buddhist teaching is so pervasive and persuasive in Bhutan that were the abbot to weigh in on the candidacy or views of a politician, the people would follow without hesitation.

For Buddhists, there is no creator and no soul. Time does not pass; it stands still while we — and everything around us — change, a collection of transitory experiences. Tsewang told us each action has a reaction; so even bad thoughts can invoke negative karma. (I abashedly recalled my near-accusation of hotel thievery: not good karma.)

Concern for all sentient beings is a Buddhist priority — so the dogs that politely attended the perimeter of our every picnic were well attended to. Tsewang ensured no leftovers went to waste. After lunch, he parcelled out the remains to village strays. (No one seems to own the ubiquitous dogs that overrun Bhutan — yet everyone takes ownership of them.) Consequently, like their human friends, the animals of Bhutan are — with some growling exceptions — patient and civilized.

In 747 AD, Guru Rimpoche, the founder of Bhutan’s school of Buddhism, climbed on the back of a tiger and flew from Tibet to a mountain precipice overlooking the City of Paro. Taktsang Monastery (the Tiger’s Nest), Bhutan’s most iconic edifice, was built on this revered site in the 17th century. (Coincidentally, Paro is still the only landing spot in Bhutan.)

At sunrise on our last day, we hiked up the serpentine trail to the Tiger’s Nest. I didn’t buy the story about the flying monk. But one had to marvel at the architectural wonder Tsewang’s forefathers had miraculously appended to the sheer face of this mountain three centuries earlier. We were the first visitors of the day so, after we removed our shoes at the temple door, Tsewang suggested we end our Bhutanese experience with a few minutes of quiet meditation. Enhancing our final contemplative moments, burning incense — intermingled with the fragrance of steaming rice — drifted hazily through the dim doorway.

Tsewang is concerned when his five-year-old son surfs the Internet. But he remains optimistic that the torch of age-old custom and tradition can withstand the blowing winds of modernization and global influence. We’d be hypocritical — and blissfully ignorant — were we to deny the same hopeful intention for our youth.

The van was silent when Tsewang drove us to the Paro airport. We were sad to be departing — reports of record November snowfall in Red Deer had crept halfway round the world. But giddiness also prevailed, partly from the high elevation but mainly from the fresh memories flying home with us to the frozen West.

His duties were finished but Tsewang did not abandon us. Until we boarded, his unmistakable gho-clad silhouette was visible through the terminal window. (If I ever again accuse a genuine, gentle, welcoming, accommodating, unassuming, gracious and polite people of theft … please give my head a shake.)

Hopefully some day, when he’s old enough to appreciate the ancient earthly wonder that is Bhutan, Tsewang’s son will point upward from Paro to the Taktsang Monastery and tell a doubtful tourist, “that is the place where Guru Rimpoche and the tiger landed.”

Then he’ll fold his arms around his gho — and smile happily.

Gerry Feehan, QC, is a retired lawyer, avid traveller and photographer. He lives in Red Deer. For more of Gerry’s travel adventures, please visit www.gnfeehan.blogspot.com.

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