Read this If You're Going to Bhutan-- or not.

I've had so much fun emailing back and forth with people who have written to say they are traveling to Bhutan. They ask my advice! I am so thrilled to give advice. I've put some of the things here that I am most often asked and I've included visuals so you get the full effect.

Namgay's uncle Leki

Namgay's uncle Leki

1. Get ready to have your mind blown. The flight into Paro Valley is phenomenal. You'll notice a perceptible difference before  you get off the plane in Paro and take in the magnificent landscape of mountains, pine trees, picturesque farmhouses, and temples high up on the sides of mountains. Everything is intensely green. It doesn't look or smell like any other place on earth. The airport terminal looks like a temple. The air is fresh, clean, dry, and thin. Take big gulps of it. Breathe in and out lavishly and take it a little easy at first because you are very high up in the mountains-- about a mile high. Drink lots of bottled water. You can get it anywhere. At this time of year there will be bright blue skies and it will be cool but sunny. You'll see Bhutanese men in gho and women in kira and they will all be smiling. If they're not smiling it's because they're busy stamping your passport. Smile at them and they will smile back.

Bhutanese hand made embroidery

Bhutanese hand made embroidery

Weekend vegetable market in Thimphu

Weekend vegetable market in Thimphu

2. Wear easy, uncomplicated clothing that's comfortable and that you can layer. Wear nice, sturdy shoes. Peel off sweaters, jackets, and shawls during the day and pile them on in the afternoon when the sun goes down. I like to wear black long pants and skirts, and black or dark colored tops, and then buy colorful shawls and jackets and bags as accessories. There are lots of colorful Bhutanese-made things in the markets. And jewelry! They are unique and beautiful and more expensive than things you get in India. That's because they are hand woven and it takes a long time. Things are less expensive the farther away from Thimphu and Paro you get. Dress nicely when you visit temples. The Bhutanese will appreciate your effort.

Taktsang in Paro Valley during reconstruction.

Taktsang in Paro Valley during reconstruction.

View of Thimphu Valley from Talakha.

View of Thimphu Valley from Talakha.

Brokpa children near Jumolarhi.

Brokpa children near Jumolarhi.

Let sleeping dogs lie.

Let sleeping dogs lie.

3. This is the way the dogs look in Thimphu during the day. At night they are awake and running around and making lots of noise. Bring earplugs if you think you might not be able to sleep with dogs barking incessantly. It you spend more time in Thimphu, eventually you won't be able to sleep unless the dogs are barking.

View of Thimphu from Sangaygang

View of Thimphu from Sangaygang

 4. I love the walk up to Sangaygang above Thimphu. It's also called BBS tower. You can see the Takins on the way up and get some magnificent views of the valley. I guess I don't really need to tell you, but take lots of pictures.

Tashichhodzong at night.

Tashichhodzong at night.

 5. In Thimphu  tell your guide to arrange a visit to the private Choki Art School in Kabesa, which is a 20 minute drive north of Thimphu. Insist on it. Excellent guides will know how to do this. It's a gorgeous place and you'll enjoy the setting and meeting the students. It's also a great place to buy gifts like wood carvings, embroidery, weaving, and thangka paintings. Prices are reasonable and 100 percent of what you pay goes to the students. And most of them will send it home to help support their families. The school is for "disadvantaged youth," and they learn a trade and it is a gorgeous place to visit. Talking and engaging with the students is great fun, and you'll get a good idea of how Bhutanese young people from the villages think and act. They are charming. Visit the Post Office in Thimphu and get stamps. In Punakha besides visiting the Dzong, go to Nysegang Chorten at the other end of the valley and Dojaga, a private temple. If you have the time I highly recommend visiting Bumthang. The walk to Taktsang in Paro is amazing. If you don't want to walk the whole way, stop and have tea at the cafeteria half way up.

A wood carving student at Choki School.

A wood carving student at Choki School.

Thang Tong Gyalpo's bridge near Paro.

Thang Tong Gyalpo's bridge near Paro.

 7. Bring cash or travelers' checks as many places still don't accept credit cards, and you'll get a better deal on things you buy if you pay cash. There are a few ATMs, but they don't always have money in them.

Kinlay and friend on the trail.

Kinlay and friend on the trail.

8. I wear a transdermal patch traveling long distances because I get motion sickness. You can get Dramamine at the local pharmacies. The roads are winding and east of Thimphu there are many potholes because of all of the heavy trucks plying them to supply the numerous hydroelectric projects being built in the country. Travel can be uncomfortable, but you'll be glad you endured once you get to where you're going.

Trongsa Dzong

Trongsa Dzong

Namgay and me at Punakha Dzong.

Namgay and me at Punakha Dzong.

 

Jambo's Questions

These are some great questions from Jambo, my friend on the Internet. When I'm back in Bhutan I'm going to invite him over, or make a point to meet in person, because it seems like from what he's asking he's got some things to say.

1) while u were in Bhutan, have you ever felt that you should meet some of the spiritual masters, the masters of Buddhism?

Yes, I've met several. You can't be a chilip in Bhutan and not meet after some time. I am pleased to say I received blessing from Je Khenpo several times, standing on the road when he was on his way to or from Punakha, and at a Wang. I have met others, but I don't want to be someone who talks about this. My spirituality comes out in how I act, not in what I say or who I claim to have met. I've learned more about kindness and compassion from people living in some villages in Bhutan than from anyone else.

2) what do you think of Buddhism's role in the so called Happiness? The true essence of Buddha's teachings and Happiness?

I don't claim to be Buddhist so I can't really write too deeply about Buddhist doctrine and the Dharma. But I know the Four Noble Truths, that life is suffering, that we suffer because of desire, that we can get out of suffering and the seemingly endless cycle of rebirth, and that we can do this by following the Eightfold Path. I do believe that as close as I can get to right understanding, thought, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration, then the closer I come to being happy, and who knows, I might stumble on enlightenment. But for me that will be the way it has to be-- stumbling or backing into it. Or maybe I'll get hit by a thunderbolt.  I just wrote a whole book about happiness, and a lot of what I think about happiness and how to be well touches on these things. Compassion, kindness, and love are the instruments of happiness. So this is sort of Buddhist, no? Except, like I say, I am a terrible dilettante. I am very happy in Bhutan, and when I'm away from Bhutan I can keep that feeling of well-being with me. That's the gift Bhutan has given me. The world is a chaotic place full of suffering, and I think the Bhutanese have a lot to teach the rest of the world about being calm and kind, and manifesting compassion. 

3) Does your love and appreciation towards Bhutan still remain the same compared to how you felt 17 years ago?

That's a good question. Now I'm in the U.S. and I'm always thinking about when I'll get back to Bhutan, and when I can walk down Norzin Lam and take the steep short cut to Sangaygang that scares me and wears me out. Or go to the subje market and smell rotting meat and vegetables. Or when I can go back to Bumthang and visit the temples and walk around. Or travel on that crazy road. Or have a nice Caesar salad at Seasons. Or coffee at Karma's. 

If anything I love it more than I did when I first came. I was so clueless. I wanted to be there so badly because I felt kind and happy when I was there, and I could do some good with not much effort and even less money. I was operating on some kind of instinct that it would be a great place to live and that it would teach me important things. It felt like the center of the universe. I am so lucky that Their Excellencies Jigmi Y. Thinley, Dawa Tsering, Sangay Ngeedup, Nima Wangdi, and others showed me compassion and let me be there, even though they hardly knew me. I feel like I owe everyone in Bhutan a lot. Bhutan and the Bhutanese have surpassed any expectations I had. I have enormous respect and admiration for the sense of community, the strong faith,  the humor, and the unique way people live and think. There are always problems, but surprisingly few when all is said and done. I feel grateful to my core. So the short answer is I love it more. It's even better than it was 17 years ago, and so am I.

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Questions from Iza

I wrote this blogpost about a year and a half ago in response to questions from a woman named Iza. They were great questions and she's gone on to write a dissertation and is doing well. I know because I got a lovely message from her recently. I went back and looked at this and it still holds up.

Photo by Dr. Will Frey. A field in Punakha.

Photo by Dr. Will Frey. A field in Punakha.

 

I get e mails sometimes from people interested in Bhutan, which is great. I love to answer questions and talk about Bhutan. Here are some interesting questions from a woman writing a dissertation. They made me think. I hope she'll visit Bhutan some day.

 

Q: I am really curious about Gross National Happiness. Is Bhutan's government really so concerned with its people's well-being, or it is just a catch for tourists?

 

A: There are about 700,000 people living in Bhutan. It’s 200 miles from east to west and 100 miles from north to south, so it's small. Almost half the population are sustenance farmers living in isolated villages. They need roads and electricity and infrastructure. Almost half the population is under 15, so everyone is scrambling to educate and train and generally occupy these kids and make them contributing members of society. Bhutan is an ecological hotspot, home to thousands of endangered species of plants and animals including tigers, elephants, cranes and monkeys. They've done a lot of things right to preserve their culture and environment. If the government doesn’t concern itself with the people's well-being then everybody knows. No government is perfect, but I believe Bhutan's is less corrupt than any in Asia and many around the world. The country is going through a lot of changes, because it is trying to develop as a democracy. It’s not Shangri-La. It’s better than Shangri-La because it’s real.They have some good ideas about measuring prosperity and there is a general debate about exactly what prosperity is, and they are interested in exporting these ideas. Check out the article I wrote about this for Mandala magazine. I don’t think it’s for the tourists. Bhutan is nothing like Disneyland.

 

Q: Are there very poor people there? Do they know hunger? Do they have any social care system? Benefits?

 

A: Yes, people are poor. Current UN statistics indicate about a quarter of the population has food insecurity. But there aren't any beggars. The government subsidizes with food and land. Bhutan is one of the few countries in the world with free healthcare and free education.

 

Q: Are people truly happy there? What's the source of this happiness? What about you, you are an American, put into this spiritual development-concerned nation, straight from the society of consumption. Do you miss something? Are you happy there? If yes, what makes you happy?

 

A: I can't speak for the Bhutanese. I'm happy in Bhutan. It's easier to be kind in Bhutan. Life is way less stressed. I can feel it as soon as I get off the plane and smell the clean air. Have you ever smelled pristine air? I feel balance there. I feel healthier. This is satisfying in the extreme. I love the mountains and the feeling that while the rest of the world goes on, I’ve found the center of my universe. Also, it's a really quirky place. That’s fun. Every day I’m surprised. And mostly I love the people. I don't recommend Bhutan for everybody. It's isolated, and life can be harsh. But everyone should have something that makes them happy.

 

Q: Do you miss things?

 

A: I miss nice plumbing. I miss a few comforts. But it’s amazing what I don’t miss.

 

Q: Does it change anything?

 

A: No, it doesn’t change anything. Being happy doesn’t mean things are perfect. It means you are in balance. If I miss things then other things take their place. I read an interview once with Ken Kesey, who said about years of taking LSD "you gain some things and you lose some things." For me, that also applies to living in Bhutan.

 

Q: Could you also ask your husband what he thinks about this?

 

He's pretty self contained no matter where he is, and his well being isn't tied so much to his environment. He's a good Buddhist. He's happy in Bhutan because it's his home. When we're in the US he's preoccupied with figuring things out, driving, getting around. He thinks we move really fast and we are all stressed out. He thinks Americans are really smart.

 

Q: Could something be designed to make you happier there?

 

A: I can’t think of what that might be. Satisfaction and well being comes from getting things right in your life. That’s an internal thing, and it’s personal. And also-- and this is important-- well-being comes from taking things out of your life, not putting things in.

 

Q: Could something be designed to make your husband happier there?

 

A: People say that you don’t have to have it all. You just have to have enough. He’d like to have more money so he could spray it around to people he knows who need it. There’s a lot of need. His uncle has a shedra, a school for monks. We wish we could do more.

 

Q: And one more question to your husband. In the last several years a lot has changed in Bhutan, TV, internet, western brands. How did it all affect his life? Is he happier now with all that than he was before?

 

A: No. Some of those things improved his life, but they didn't make him happier. I asked him once what he liked about living in the US. He said he liked the ice and water that come out of the doors of all the refrigerators. His needs are simple.

 

 


 

 

 

 

What is Happiness?

Lately I've thought long and hard about happiness and what it means. I've even written A FIELD GUIDE TO HAPPINESS which is coming out October 1st this year. I'm pretty happy about it. First of all, it's hard to write happy books, that aren't particularly sensational, that don't have the traditional three act arc-- situation, climax, denouement. You have to write so people won't put the book down or throw it out the window, or trash it on Amazon, or use it as a door stop. So although there are no fires or ambulance chasing or horror stories, there's a little sex and sensationalim. I couln't help it. But mostly it's what I learned living in Bhutan, a pretty happy place, and how I translate it when I come to the U.S.-- or go anywhere, really. Happiness resides inside of me/us. You can train yourself to be happy. Really. We can all be happier.

Bhutan is always held to a higher standard because of that quote by the fourth king about how he'd rather have gross national happiness than gross natuional product for his people. I think he was being ironic, but also serious of course. It's a brilliant way to run a country, thinking about the well-being of the people who live in it. Let's think about this for a minute. But poor Bhutan is always getting poked and scrutinized and called out. it's not Shangri La. It never has been. It's a beautiful place. The people dress funny, though.

                                                           Punaka Dzong by Dr. Will Frey.

                                                           Punaka Dzong by Dr. Will Frey.

Most of all, it's not a perfect place. It has problems like any other place. But what I learned living there for seventeen years taught me a lot about how to live simply, how to manifest compassion, how to have fun with no money, how to be kind, and how to wake up-- in short, how to be happy.  Bhutan is changing so fast. It's the way of the world. But I think I will never forget what I learned there or the things that happened.

   Happy boys with popcorn near Punakha.

   Happy boys with popcorn near Punakha.

 

We're so ramped up in the west, with sensationalism, with schedules, with expectations, and it seems like we need more and more stimulus to keep ourselves interested. But the opposite is really true. Happiness and well being, which are really one and the same, reside in those quiet moments, when you can get away and be alone, or with someone you like, and just relax. Happiness happens when you learn to be calm. if you can train youself to find and hold those moments, when you alone with or on a crowded train or in a stadium, or anwhere, then you can be supremely happy. 

Happiness is having a sense of well-being. Happiness is having enough. Enough water, enough food, enough to keep you going. After that, it's just icing on the cake. Living in Bhutan for so many years I've had less physical stuff-- clothing, cars, the things we surround ourselves with,  that I've ever had in my life. But I have more, if that makes sense. I have more of a sense of well being, a sense of myself and who I am in the world and a sense that I can accomplish pretty much whatever I set out to do. And if I can't I can still be happy. Being happy is grounding. I have more autonomy and freedom; I have more happiness. 

Yesterday was the U.N. International Happiness Day. Here's the resolution adopted by the General Assembly on June 28, 2012, and put forth by the then Prime Minister of Bhutan, Jigmi Y. Thinley. People in Bhutan worked hard for several years to get the U.N. to make this resolution, and whatever you think about the U.N. and its efficacy, this is a great thing. I wrote about it in Huffington Post.  It proclaims March 20th International Day of Happiness. It called for a balanced approach to economic growth, more equity in the world, sustainable growth and poverty eradication. 

If you say the word happy, or happiness, some people have a reflexive sneer. Why is that? Maybe they think you're going to show them a picture of a cute cat. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But happiness is really profound. Pharrell Williams knows this.

                Neighbors cat.

                Neighbors cat.

I take happiness seriously, and I've come up with the Four Truths of Happiness:

1.     Everyone wants to be happy.

2.    Happiness begins with intent.

3.     Happiness doesn’t just happen; it’s a result of conscious action (and sometimes that “action” is to do nothing).             

4.     This action involves doing simple things well.



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Dragon and Phallus

I'm reposting this most viewed blogpost from my old blog, MarriedtoBhutan.com. Not only is it the most viewed, it is the most shared, and it's a Wikipedia reference too. Not sure why. I guess it's because people REALLY like Bhutanese house painting! Scroll down for more images.

Here's a link to an interesting article about Bhutanese phallus.

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Thursday, February 25, 2010

A feature of Bhutanese architecture I love is the paintings on all the buildings. It's mostly religious iconography: stylized lotus, the eight auspicious symbols of Buddhism, tigers, snow lions, garudas and clouds. It's not completely clear what function phalluses have, painted on walls of buildings and houses, but you can see them all over Bhutan. Some say the are for "protection" and to "ward off the evil eye." They were a symbol of power and fertility in the Bon religion that predated Buddhism in the area, and some of the Bon practices meshed with Buddhism. Phalluses are also identified with Drukpa Kunley, a Buddhist saint from the 16th century, who used humor and sex to drive home the lessons of Buddhism. He could shoot fire out of his penis.This very nicely painted dragon with the penis is unusual. I like that it's entwined with the dragon, which is traditionally a welcoming symbol in Bhutan, a little bit of a mixed message. The dragon looks like he's riding it. Check out the hair. A lot of the phalluses have eyes and lips. I've even seen them with wings. The only consistency seems to be they're always ejaculating. It's like an institutionalized graffiti. I think it's just the Bhutanese having a laugh.

This photo by Joe Barker speaks for itself.

This photo by Joe Barker speaks for itself.

Another photo by Joe Barker.

Another photo by Joe Barker.

This is quadruple protection as the Garudas, the mythological bird/human creatures above the phallus, are also for protection.

This is quadruple protection as the Garudas, the mythological bird/human creatures above the phallus, are also for protection.

Phurba Namgay painted this. It's one in a series of Phallus Paintings he did in 2009 and in 2010 in the U.S. He thought we needed protection and I thought it was a bad idea to paint them on the house. So he used canvas. To me, these have personality. 

Phurba Namgay painted this. It's one in a series of Phallus Paintings he did in 2009 and in 2010 in the U.S. He thought we needed protection and I thought it was a bad idea to paint them on the house. So he used canvas. To me, these have personality. 

Another painting by Phurba Namgay. I like these dragon and phallus. It looks like they're having a conversation. This is small, 10 x 12".

Another painting by Phurba Namgay. I like these dragon and phallus. It looks like they're having a conversation. This is small, 10 x 12".