Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Happiness is a Place

A few months ago I went into a bookshop to pick up a guide to Nepal, which they didn’t have, and walked out with one to Bhutan instead. I didn’t know much about Bhutan, but I quickly realised I would be going. 
Bhutan decided long ago that we will never be a military power, we will never be an economic force, so to survive we must have a distinct identity. This is the identity you see; our clothes, language, the architecture. You look around and feel you are in a different world. This is not an accident. 
As if to prove it, the government has created its own criteria for measuring what it terms Gross National Happiness. It has spurned the pursuit of economic growth and favours preserving the fabric of society and the wellbeing of its citizens instead.

Then I read a bit more, and discovered that as part of their unorthodox approach to pretty much everything, they have a policy of "low impact, high value" tourism. This means a minimum charge for foreign tourists, which includes a guide, food, transport and accommodation. In peak season, travelling alone, the figure is 290 US Dollars. Per day. Should keep out the riff-raff....

Bhutan Immigration Form
It's an hour's flight from Calcutta and the last ten minutes are spectacular, as we bank our way left and right through the mountain passes on our descent into Paro, and I catch a first glimpse of white Himalayan peaks in the distance. Walking to the terminal building, I think this place is going to be very, very different.

Paro Airport
Waiting for me the other side of the friendly customs guys is Uygen Penjore, who is going to be my guide for the week. He is impeccably turned out in a black Gho, the traditional Bhutanese male attire. (Everyone is wearing one of these.) He offers me a white scarf by way of a welcome and we walk to the car and meet Chencho, my driver for the week. He doesn’t speak much English, but has a talkative face.

Chencho and Ugyen
We drive straight from Paro to Thimpu, the capital, through stunning valleys; the rugged, forested hillsides, dotted with traditional wooden houses, rising up from fast flowing rivers of the cleanest water I have seen for years. The air is crisp and clear, and I feel truly transported.

My hotel in Thimpu is right in the middle of town, and from my corner room, I look directly out on to Bhutan's very own Piccadilly Circus; the busiest road junction in the busiest city. The Bhutanese don't do traffic lights, so it is managed like this instead:

Piccadilly Circus, Thimpu
Uygen, who is from Paro, confessed to me that he doesn’t like Thimpu, because it is too noisy and crowded. 

I told him that never, under any circumstances, should he ever go to India.

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