Bhutan, a sure bet for any baby boomer’s bucket list

Travel! And all its ups and downs. Late last month, BoomerCafé co-founder and executive editor Greg Dobbs wrote from Asia about a 36-hour travel nightmare getting there. Today, all he can say is that it was more than worth it, and that he would have traveled twice as far if he had to for the fulfillment he got when he finally reached his remote and novel destination. For baby boomers who ache for adventure, this definitely deserves a place on your bucket list.

Visiting the minuscule mountain monarchy of Bhutan, which is not much larger than Maryland with a population roughly the size of Seattle’s, is a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. It only recently emerged from its centuries-long isolation. It didn’t even open to foreign tourists until the mid 1970s. No wonder. It was never colonized and it is in the Himalayas, squeezed between the world’s two most populous nations, India and China.

I have takeaways from my almost two weeks there that I’ll never forget.

Like the commanding complex of temples known as the Tiger’s Nest.

It is Bhutan’s most famous site, clinging to a cliff chosen for meditation in the 8th Century by the “Guru” who brought Buddhism to Bhutan. It also is Bhutan’s most breathtaking place and how could it be otherwise?

A steep three-mile hike (on my iPhone I measured portions of the path as precipitous as 42-degrees) beginning at 9,200 feet and cresting at 11,200.

As I got close, supported by a collapsible hiking stick and warmed by a modern fleece, I had to ask myself (as I have about the pyramids in Egypt and the Great Wall in China), how did they get this done, so many centuries ago?!?

Another takeaway: the roads. Which also cling to cliffs.

Slim margin of error.

Not just rural roads but the country’s main (and only) cross-country highway. It clings, except when it stops clinging…

Slowly, the nation is paving the whole highway but some parts aren’t done yet and often two lanes of dirt narrow to one. It reminded me of a road I once took in the Bolivian Andes called “El camino mas peligroso en el mundo”…

Bolivia: “The most dangerous road in the world.”

… which translates to “The most dangerous road in the world.” Whether you risk plunging into the Amazon jungle or a Himalayan valley seems kind of moot.

Then, there is Bhutan’s Buddhism itself.

The nation’s religion defines the nation’s virtues. As a monk put it to the group representing World Denver with which I was traveling, “We are not a nation with material wealth but we have peace in our hearts and contentment in our minds.” Or as a friend in the group put it, “The spirituality of Bhutan is palpable. In the people, in the air, in the land, in the food, in each footstep.”

Apparently an astonishing 30 percent of the population become monks or nuns.

Monks telling a story of ancient times.

For centuries the clergy have celebrated their sacred spirit in technicolor. But such religious devotion means no more general education (and no burgeoning population); they devote their lives to a quest for “enlightenment,” which to them means love and compassion to the exclusion of everything else… which extends to killing any living thing… which means wherever we go, we share the space!

But there is another, more unconventional kind of celebration also attached to Bhutanese Buddhism, a celebration … of the phallus.

It is an oddity dating back to a 15th-Century monk known as “The Divine Madman,” who wanted to shock the prudish clergy. It must have worked on them because it sure worked on us. Ever since, he has been worshiped for it.

Hotel staff turns out to say goodbye.

But more meaningful for me than any of this is the constitutional mandate for which Bhutan today is best known: the “Gross National Happiness.” Only ten years ago, the progressive fourth king of Bhutan — so progressive that he abdicated to his son when he was 65 — created a constitutional convention. From it came a democratic parliamentary government, and the mandate that with every piece of legislation must come consideration of its impact on the Gross National Happiness. It isn’t just about making everyone smile. To the contrary, I saw people working in wearisome ways that have long since disappeared from our new-fashioned fast-paced lives.

No, the “GNH” is about making everyone secure, and it is founded on four principles: good governance, economic and social sustainability, cultural conservation, and environmental preservation.

Simply put, the Gross National Happiness is about measuring success by something other than economic expansion, which was refreshing. It is about preventing the negative effects of runaway development (the constitution requires, for instance, that 60 percent of all the land must always be forested) …

… or the erosion of cultural values (urban men and women, while working, wear their ancient national costume) …

Our guide Tashi, dressed for work.

… or even the impact of too much tourism, which therefore is limited. It is about promoting universal education (the literacy rate was just 3 percent in the 1950s), and universal health care. It is about family planning, to keep the population from mushrooming beyond the capacity of the land — only 2 percent of which is even arable — to support.

And in the familiar spirit of “All men are created equal,” Bhutan’s monarchy ended the feudal system of farming, which had defined the nation into the 20th Century.

Serfs no more.

One day, we met a princess on top of another mountain (today a writer of English-language children’s books). Her principality is now just history but she still feeds the descendants of her family’s feudal serfs.

The beauty of Bhutan is that while it has emerged into the world, it is doing its best to be what it always has been: a nation more attuned to reflection than to speed, more focused on community than on possessions. For a country where TV was only introduced in 1999, a country with no fast food, no traffic lights, no economic or industrial or military power, it is a fine line. But Bhutan has one great asset: the power of its culture. And one great goal: to protect it.

A few helpful hints if you ever decide to go there yourselves:

1. Our chief tour guide could not have been more qualified yet down to earth: Karma Dorji. One reason: he was born and raised in Bhutan, went to school with many of the nation’s civil servants and democratically elected leaders (part of the definition of “good governance” in Bhutan is that its political leaders must have an internationally accepted graduate degree), and comes from a family that has served its kings for generations.

Another: he fell in love with an American woman doing her medical mission there many years ago and now, married to her for 20 years, lives in Los Osos, California, not far from San Luis Obispo. So he relates perfectly well to western tourists. Karma makes three or four trips each year to Bhutan, leading groups from the U.S. A great sense of humor, a great team on the Bhutan end of the trip. His website is https://www.bhutanhimalaya.com/. Take a look at this dude, who is serious about his Buddhism but equally serious about surfing when he’s home in California.

2. Don’t just stick to the two biggest places, Paro (where the int’l airport is) and Thimphu, the capital. They’ll open your eyes, but not nearly as much as places farther east in Bhutan. If you have a yen for adventure, let yourself be driven at least as far as Bumthang by road. If you have some form of acrophobia, you can fly. But then, you’ll miss some of the fun.

3. Take shoes with good tread on the soles. Sometimes (but not always) you’ll be walking a lot up hills. Steep hills. A collapsable hiking stick would help too.

4. Maybe carry along some electrolytes — you’ll be tired after the long trek getting there — and some pepto-bismol, not because the food is bad (to the contrary, it’s good, if limited), but because it can be spicy.

Lots of rice.

5. Memorize a handful of words, which I used to do in every nation where I covered the news. Money can’t buy the goodwill it will earn you, and in Bhutan, the smiles that add to its Gross National Happiness.

Thank you: Kah-Deen-Che-LAH
Hello: Koo-Zoo-Zang-Poh-LAH
Goodbye (actually:“See you again”): Log-Jay-GAY…
… or as an alternative, “Good luck”: Tah-Shi-Day-LECK

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1 Comment

  1. What a wonderful journey you had Greg. One thing I noticed is that in all those photos, almost everyone was genuinely smiling. Not because there was a camera and someone said ‘cheese’, but because they were genuinely happy and thus smiled from the heart. The positive energy emanating from that place is amazing. If the people in this country were as happy, it would be paradise.

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