I have arrived in the Land of the Thunder Dragon. High in the Himalayan Mountains, where the peaks are so tall their summits seem to get lost in the heavens, I have come in search of peace and oneness with nature.
Many years ago, I read that the Kingdom of Bhutan had adopted a novel policy: the government chose to make Gross National Happiness (GNH) — not economic growth — its focus. They recognised that the pursuit of wellbeing, education, strong communities, cultural diversity, and high living standards are much more important to happiness than money. I wanted to see how this is put into practise, how it compliments the Buddhist philosophy which most of Bhutan’s population follows.
What struck me first on arriving in Paro is the scale and majesty of the mountains. Environmental conservation is a key pillar of GNH: communities here recognise the importance of living in harmony with the natural world, protecting the landscape, resources, and wildlife.
Six Senses has recently opened four extraordinary new lodges in Bhutan, and one of the things which has impressed me most is how light their environmental footprint is. Sustainability is key to their design: the government has mandated that 60% of land remain covered with forest, the lodges had to be architecturally in keeping with indigenous buildings, and energy, water, and waste must all
be actively managed to ensure they don’t have an adverse impact.
I asked specialist tour operator Journeysmiths why Bhutan was such a unique destination for their guests, and the first thing which they said to me was “blissful solitude.” It’s true: looking out from my balcony at Six Senses Thimphu, along the Thimphu Valley, I can hardly see another building. It is the trees, the clouds, and the shapes of the mountains which dominate the scene.
Each day that I have been here, I’ve had the opportunity to explore the surrounding wilderness a little more. I have hiked along mountain trails through the forests, pausing now and then to admire the neatness of a paddy field, or the colourful Buddhist prayer flags fluttering in the wind. The rivers swollen with glacial meltwater have carved the scenery over millennia, and when you stand on a bank, or on a wooden bridge, you can feel the power of the water as it rushes by.
I have been lucky enough to see black cranes. This species of bird is globally threatened, but comes here each year from the Tibetan Plateau. The monks in the nearby monastery celebrate their arrival with the annual Tsechu Crane Festival, dressing up in elaborate traditional costumes replete with dramatic masks, and dancing to the drums with such fervour you would almost think they’ve been possessed. What I liked most about this festival was that although myself and a few other tourists had turned up for the spectacle, the vast majority of people in the monastery courtyard were locals, pilgrims for whom this was as much a religious experience as a thrilling form of entertainment.
In any community in Bhutan, the monastery is the physical and social heart. The buildings are large and imposing, and often heavily fortified. It’s a reminder that though invaders are now (hopefully) a thing of the past, the monasteries’ power and wealth always made
them a target. Today, the monks live a safer existence, but still a significant one. They are important educators and preservers of indigenous culture, as well as spiritual figures.
Buddhists aspire to reach a state of Nirvana, and it does seem that some of these monks are almost there. I’ve never seen such a look of serenity on someone’s face as when they chant their prayers at dawn. This trip has already given me much to reflect on. It has
taught me the importance of being better connected and protective of the natural world, and that this starts with connecting with myself.