Getting high in Bhutan, the happiest country in the world

I love travelling for many reasons – recharge, refresh and generate new ideas and plans; have my perceptions of the world changed; meet new people (many who become great mates with whom I reconnect time and time again via Facebook and in the “real” world) and see interesting things; learn – about places, cultures, traditions but also myself; be challenged; think … and more. My trip to Bhutan with three good mates in November/December 2015 provided all of this.

I had heard vaguely about Bhutan over the years, but it was not until I read a Time article in 2012/3 that I seriously decided I wanted to visit. A small country (roughly the size of Switzerland) with around a mere 700 000 inhabitants, many people know it as the Country of Happiness, the Last Shangri-La or similar descriptors. For me it held major appeal as tourism is limited, controlled and as someone who had considered themselves well-travelled, a place where many people have not yet gone (I say “had” as I read “Around the World in 50 Years” by Albert Podell whilst in the trip … he has travelled to all 196 countries on earth. I am only on about my 81st!)

This short blog is not a definitive account of my travels in Bhutan (for that we need to get together over a meal!) but rather an attempt to give you a taste of a few of my personal highlights. As always, travel is gloriously subjective and what one person loves, another never saw.

bhutan1Travelling to Bhutan requires you to deal with a registered government tour operator who charges a (legally set) daily rate. $65 of this rate goes to the government as a levy (tourism, alongside hydro-electric power – mainly for India – are the two biggest income generators in a country where around 80% of the population are still farmers and make modest subsistence farming livings).

The tour operator arranges visas, plans your itinerary and flies you (with the excellent national airline – Druk Air) from either New Delhi or Bangkok to Paro in Bhutan (about an hour’s drive from the capital, Thimphu).

I was rather excited about the flight. As many of you know, if I could choose the manner of my death it would be in a plane crash – or at least “doing’ something, “rage, rage against the dying of the light” and all that. And so I was slightly disappointed when we actually landed! Paro airport did not live up to its reputation as one of the most difficult commercial airports for take-off and landing – only a few pilots are cleared to do so – owing to the many hills. Our pilot was obviously highly experienced as there was very little drama, despite the runaway only appearing a few seconds prior to touchdown.

During our two weeks in Bhutan we visited many monasteries. These ranged from the very famous Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest) perched high above Paro on a rock face and taking many hours to reach (it was our acclimatisation “walk”) to the oldest monastery, which was built in the seventh century. In between there were the big, the small, the one where the Divine Madman imparted his wisdom and the one beneath the world’s biggest Buddha. I particularly enjoyed the ones where I could make a small donation and throw the dice. In short – you get three chances to throw three dice and if you get the “right” number, the question you asked or the wish you made will have a positive outcome. Naturally I got the “best” number every time, satisfying my competitive nature and boding well for those of you who were in my wishes!


In one temple – known for helping sick kids, and also where many parents go to have their kids named – I was intrigued to find that most children are named by the Buddhist priest – hence the domination of Sonam as a name for girls and boys. Perhaps it’s time for the monks to consider Peter, Koos, Josephine, Mandla or Carel as a way of introducing some diversity. The day we visited this temple was also the day we visited an incense “factory”, which was no more than a huge home run by a matriarch. My eyes were popping at the hand-made, skill required to in produce the pungent incense. I brought some home – so when next you pop by, be sure to take some. And also check out the hand made paper I bought at the paper factory J

Throughout the capital there are a number of Cum Bars. Coupled with the huge number of phalluses painted on and hanging from homes, my western sensibilities were intrigued. Let’s just say the Divine Madman imparted Buddhist wisdom via other parts of his body … and the cum bars come from the Latin “with” – many of these cum bars comprise a restaurant and bar “with” something else attached.

Bhutan is a country of much greyness – which I love. In other words, not black and white. Whilst very underdeveloped, it is developing with a specific, unique plan. Even though it’s very Buddhist, it manages the sexual and sensual phalluses. Whilst being small, it maintains pride. Whilst being poor, it has wealth in pockets and ways I was humbled by. And my iPhone had a cracked screen fixed quicker and cheaper than when I was in New York.

A highlight of the trip was our hike. It was physically strenuous and I really struggled to breathe at times – our highest point was about 4 800m. It was also very cold. Normally treks aren’t done this late in the year, but I called in a favour or two the hike was beautiful. Constitutionally, Bhutan must remain around 70% forested, so nature abounds. Camp areas are extremely littered and need attention … although that being said, the poo-holes were a saviour for those of us who go regularly once a day. I was immensely proud of our little group for not only doing the hike, but dominating it with much good humour. Michael (McCann, a dear friend and one of my travel mates on this trip) took 8 789 photos on three different devices, so you’ll be able to see the full trip in the near future. Let’s just say that the definition of Bhutan as one giant staircase is very apt. It’s no wonder nobody ever invaded – they weren’t physically able to!

bhutan4The Happiness Index

I went to Bhutan (naively) expecting everyone to be smiling. But, like any place on earth, Bhutan clearly has its challenges. The Happiness Index, however, is a genius idea of the fourth king’s. As the name implies, the index measures the nation’s happiness. It is based on the Gross National Happiness (GNH) philosophy, introduced in 1972, which simply states that the happiness of a country, communities and individuals cannot – and shouldn’t – be measured merely in economic terms. Money is important, but so is social identity. Wearing the national dress is compulsory for many Bhutanese and we saw many Bhutanese in national dress wherever we went. The Happiness Index also considers family relationships, community building, natural resources and more. Like Sa’s National Development Plan, therefore, the Bhutanese Happiness Index works hard at driving economic AND other development. Fascinating, and a blue-print for many to explore….

I am not a big royalist and so it was challenging to see pictures of the king in EVERY building and in many cars and many other places. The fourth king abdicated in favour of his son (the current king) and relinquished absolute power to an elected parliament. The royals are genuinely much loved and I am still exploring my views on this. England’s Queen Elizabeth turns 90 this year, so I guess now is as a good time to ponder the question as any 🙂

Smoking in Bhutan is banned and has been since the late 90s. A great experience to be in a place where the citizens are healthy owing, among other things, to the lack of tobacco. With neighbour China staring down the barrel of hundreds of thousands of deaths from lung cancer every year, the foresight of this Bhutanese law will be clear for many years to come.

I will leave the telling of the hot-stone-bath naked escapades, singing Karaoke (I did a very poor rendition of On Top of the World, because that literally where I felt we were) and the very many other extraordinary experiences up to Michael, Rikus and Denis to tell. For me, I conclude by saying thank you the Land of the Dragon. You made me feel at home, you gave me rest and you inspired me to make 2016 and all the time I have left, count, with compassion.

Trip arranged through the Bhutan Tourism Corporation Limited (BTCL) and their excellent team spearheaded by Sonam Tashi and our guide Thinley Namgyel. If you need any help in visiting Bhutan, contact them – the best in the game! My superb companions were long-time travel partner Michael McCann and newbies Denis Desjarlais and Rikus Kok. If you want advice on how to survive a trip with me, where Michael put the Go-Pro or where to find alcohol where there is none, hit me up for their contact details. For an excellent read on the country, try “Treasures of the Thunder Dragon: A Portrait of Bhutan” by Ashi Dorji Wangwo Wangchuck, Queen Mother.

Carel is an investor in people and businesses, believing that 1+1 = (at least) 22. Working with a few basic concepts – best encapsulated in his believe that unless we are dead, anything is possible – Carel aims to build long-term sustainable value with like-minded individuals and companies, while having (a lot of!) fun.