ON the 10th anniversary of the unhappiest day of my life, I am flying to Bhutan – the Happiest Country on the Planet. It’s been 10 years to the day since my marriage suddenly shattered and I was left to carve out a new life, with a splintered compass. I have spent the past decade travelling the world, for my work and my wellbeing, part story-teller, part marathon runner from myself. And I am exhausted, fuelled only by the irony of this date and the promise of the destination ahead.
The Bhutanese baby is roaring like the engine of the plane on which I am travelling, and the acrid stench of stale cigarettes, cloying to the clothing of my fellow passengers, burns my nostrils. The soothing sounds of the sitar music being piped through the cabin do little to salve my mental malaise. I am enroute to Bhutan, the Kingdom of Happiness. My current happiness level: 5/10. Yet I remain optimistic, even when we stop at the remote Indian airport of Guwahati, more bare paddock than runway, which is shrouded in mist and mystery. Some passengers disembark. Those of us who are flying to Bhutan’s Paro International Airport are instructed to stay on, and identify our cabin baggage. I am the only white person on the plane.
Drukair, Royal Bhutan’s Airline, ducks and weaves around the mighty Himalayan ranges, before gliding to a halt in what has to be one of the most visually spectacular and technically difficult landings in the world. My tour guide, Chimmi, 51, happens to be Bhutan’s first female tour guide, appointed in 1997. Now, around 400 women are guides in a country which boasts around 3000 tour guides. My driver is called Karma. I take both as a good sign. The 1.5 hour drive to Thimphu, the Bhutanese capital is gnarly, all twists and turns, flanked by gushing river on one side, and looming mountains on the other. I scribble furious car-sick inducing notes, as Chimmi attempts to explains the concept of Bhutanese happiness.
“We don’t have any enemies, we have nothing to take. We live in a very poor country surrounded by mountains. We are the Hidden Kingdom,” she says.
“Until the 1960s there were no cars in the country and until the 1980s no planes. We were isolated and cut off from the rest of the world. We didn’t have TV and internet until 1999.
“Before 2004, the village I lived in had no electricity. It was such a beautiful life.”
Chimmi believes it is isolation which made it easy for Bhutan to be the first country to conceive of the idea of Gross National Happiness (GNH), which was introduced by the country’s beloved King in the 1970s.
“GNH is a very basic idea to provide basic necessities such as education, a transparent government, a pristine environment and to preserve culture and tradition,” she says.
“It is something very simple, very basic, and if people focus on that it can be achieved.”
I check into charming, colonial-style Hotel Druk in the centre of the capital. Even my WiFi password is “happy”.
On my second morning, I have a much-anticipated interview with GNH Director Sonam Tsoki Tenzin, in a bid to scratch the surface of Bhutan’s happiness. Tsoki sits behind a desk in front of a blank, white wall, and sniffles. She’s suffering from allergies on this unexpectedly hot day, yet she’s all smiles when I ask her about what makes Bhutan so happy.
“We are not talking about that feel-good when you go shopping or get a promotion. We are taking about authentic happiness. It is a collective happiness for the whole country and people and society,” she says.
“It is more about feeling satisfied and content. Happiness can be fleeting.
“Of course we have social problems but we are quite blessed to manage to survive without things such as terrorism. I know that Denmark, Sweden and Belgium score higher than us but that’s related to economic issues.
“Our quality of life and human relationships are better. It is not about money.”
Tsoki, who has a Masters in Management from the University of Canberra, says there are three agencies dedicated to happiness: The GNH Centre, which is hands on, running programs and workshops; the Government’s GNH Commission, committed to bigger projects; and the Centre for Bhutan Studies, which conducts a survey of Bhutan’s people every three years. Interestingly, the survey found that single women were happier than married women but men overall were happier than women. 91.2 per cent of Bhutanese reported they were overall “very happy”.
“I don’t feel sorry for people in the west because you are better educated and have a better lifestyle. But maybe you haven’t used it in the best of your interests,” she says.
“You’ve made it very easy to get things done, but have forgotten to get along with people.”
Tsoki, who works with Australian organisations such as Melbourne’s Small Giants which looks at “sustainable human prosperity”, says the GNH model can be applied anywhere.
“You don’t have a choice, you have to be one global community,” she says.
“Bhutan is not going to stay isolated. In the past 50 years it has had the highest speed of development anywhere in the world.
“We see a lot of things on Facebook and TV that we might want but do we really need it? We are still quite practical people. We have a good respect for our spiritual connection, and practice compassion.”
I end the interview by asking Tsoki, who is 41, whether she is, happy.
“Yes, I’m single, I’m very happy,” she laughs.
I visit the Memorial Chorten in Thimphu, a stupa built in memory of Bhutan’s third king and the Father of Modern Bhutan. I pause to chat to a trio of elderly women, all widowed, who, like their peers, come here daily for social connectivity. I am captivated by Phudra Dema, 80, who lives with her grandson and his wife.
“They take good care of me and give me everything I need. They try to keep me happy,” she says.
“The most important thing that keeps me happy is to meet with my friends and to chant mantra.
“We are the happiest country because the King is there to take care of the people. It is as if we are living in paradise.”
Phudra and her friends tell me they would like to adopt me, and that I look 30 years old. My happiness level is rising rapidly.
At Anim Dratshang nunnery at Drubthob Goemba, in Thimphu, I meet 15-year-old nun Yanchen, who will be required to spend as long as three years in silent meditation, at the end of her teachings.
“Happiness is not about being happy myself, but I want to make everyone happy by doing some good,” she says.
“It’s natural, I don’t find any negativity, I’m more focused on religion and our practice.
“I want to spend my whole life here and teach other young nuns.”
Back in Paro, Chimmi and I wander the local farmers markets like old friends, pausing to admire organic fruit and vegetables, while chattering about our lives, and happiness. We talk about how little money actually matters, it’s about connecting to the world in which we live which counts. A Bhutanese and Brisbane woman, from two different worlds, finding common ground in the seasons of our souls. We taste beer at the country’s newest craft brewery and have long, philosophical chats over lunch. There’s penis paintings on the walls of houses in Bhutan, said to ward off evil spirits and promote fertility. We giggle like school girls. We wander into Bhutan’s oldest temple, in Paro, which dates back to the 7th century. So revered is this timber building, it’s said that every Himalayan Buddhist must set foot inside it, at least once in their lifetime. The monk inside allows me to enter, a rarity for a foreigner, and I am permitted to pray for good karma to erase negative energy. I pray for the world to find love.
Later, on my last night and high in the hills at a forest lodge overlooking the Paro Valley, I stand outside on the terrace and inhale the cool cyprus air, searching the surrounding Himalayas for answers to that big life question of happiness. The mountains mock me, relentlessly shouting the same message back at me until they can no longer be ignored. Look at the privilege of travel and the gift of the pen we gave you, they gently implore. You already have happiness. And it’s more than enough.
The Global Goddess was a guest of Wendy Wu Tours – https://www.wendywutours.com.au and flew to Bhutan via Bangkok with Thai Airways – http://www.thaiairways.com and Royal Bhutan Airlines https://www.drukair.com.bt
IT’S 3am at my present position on the world map, perched 40,000 feet somewhere above the Indian sub-continent. And I am sipping on Moroccan mint tea, replete with real mint leaves served on the side, and chewing on a sweet, sticky baklava. While the rest of the cabin still slumbers, I am dining at my own leisure, courtesy of Etihad Airways “Dine Anytime” menu. There’s about two hours left to go on this 14-hour flight from Australia, but this particular journey feels neither long, nor a haul. For I have the great fortune of flying in Etihad’s next-generation Business Studios. And yes, they are as sweet as the baklava upon which I am feasting.
I have boarded the B787 aircraft in Brisbane the previous night, bound for Abu Dhabi and am greeted with mystical Middle Eastern music. Inside, it’s part gentleman’s club, part plush Arabian tent with soft lighting and gold trimmings. The seats, said to provide 20 per cent more space than the airline’s current Business Class seat, are designed in a 1-2-1 forward and backwards “dovetail” configuration. With sliding screens between seats, it feels more private jet than commercial airline.
The Studio features its own steady, large solid table, ideal on which to work inflight, but unlike some other airlines, there is no free Wi-Fi. Depending on your point-of-view, this could be an enforced digital detox, or you can pay a nominal fee to stay connected. For those who wish to relax, there’s an 18-inch touch-screen TV. For those who wish to work, there’s power sockets and USB ports at every seat.
What sets this airline apart from many others is its superior service. At the Business Traveller Middle East Awards 2018, Etihad Airways was named “Airline with the Best Economy Class”; “Airline with the Best Frequent Flyer Programme” and “Airline with the Best First Class”, and it’s easy to see why. Hot towels are not clumsily handed to you with tongs, but served on individual silver platters, before you are presented with a glass of signature champagne – Piper-Heidsieck Cuvee Brut. International newspapers are delivered and from the “Dine Anytime” menu you can select from the likes of a steak sandwich, lamb and rosemary pie or a Gruyere cheese frittata. There is also a diverse a-la-carte menu from which to choose, boasting western and Middle Eastern starters such Arabic mezze; mains of chicken kasba and basmati rice cooked with Gulf spices; and deserts of chocolate lava cake served warm with pistachio anglaise. Sip on a New Zealand sauvignon blanc or South African chenin blanc, or for red lovers, a Barossa Valley shiraz or Chilean maipo. The beer selection includes Stella Artois and Peroni.
Sated, rummage through your Business Class amenity kit to apply your Scaramouche + Fandango facial moisturiser and lip balm, before donning a plush, large eye mask and ear plugs. The airline has collaborated on its amenity kits with luxury travel brand LUXE City Guides which are inspired by five cities on the Etihad network – Abu Dhabi, New York, Melbourne, Rome and Bangkok. There’s even a city guide in each kit, but it’s a slightly curious addition to be given a Rome city guide when you are flying to Abu Dhabi.
The seats recline to 6-foot, 8-inch fully flat-beds and the pillows are plump and a decent size, adorned in all the colours of the desert to which you are flying with browns, tans, ochres and golds. The doona has a gorgeous plush underside. All of this ensures you’ll arrive at the other end as fresh as possible. And I do. In the rare event you don’t, there’s even an Arrivals Lounge at Abu Dhabi Airport where staff will press your clothes while you shower and shave.
Leaving Abu Dhabi is even more spectacular, as this is their signature airline. At Abu Dhabi Airport, First and Business Class guests have their own private entrance and there’s even free porters to assist you with your bags, as well as private check-in. Both First and eligible Business Class guests also have access to a free chauffeur service within the UAE and upon arrival at the airport, both classes boast day spas in their lounges. While First Class guests can enjoy a complimentary spa treatment, Business Class guests pay a nominal fee for a treatment such as a Jet Lag massage, which is a welcome addition before a long flight.
2018 has been declared the Year of Zayed, celebrating 100 years since the birth of Sheikh Zayed, the Founding Father of the UAE. And Etihad is devoted to honouring Zayed’s core values of respect; wisdom; sustainability; and human development. The airline is offering complimentary cargo flights to UAE charities, bringing aid and relief to people in need around the world in a bid to spread Zayed’s humanitarian message. At the same time, 1000 selected guests from around the world are being invited to experience Abu Dhabi’s cultural attractions; and Etihad is also collaborating on the Abu Dhabi Birdathon, a race which celebrate’s Zayed’s passion for conservation. Etihad is also renaming its training buildings the Zayed Campus and launching Young Aviators in a bid to inspire the next generation in the UAE. If you can judge a country by its flagship carrier, then Abu Dhabi is in great shape indeed.
The Global Goddess flew to Abu Dhabi as a guest of Etihad Airlines in one of their world-class Business Studios http://www.etihad.com/en-au/
She stayed as a guest of Abu Dhabi Tourism https://visitabudhabi.ae/au-en/default.aspx
THE apricot sun is setting over a dusty desert sky and soon, the hauntingly beautiful Muslim call to prayer, which lured me outside the previous evening under a pregnant moon, will punctuate this balmy evening. It is Ramadan in the Middle East and I am on my way to an iftar, or breaking of the fast feast, at the sparkling Emirates Palace Hotel in Abu Dhabi and its grand “tent”, renowned as the best in town. There are dashing Arab men dressed in their crisp, white dish dashes and exotic Emirati women, all designer clothing, glossy, black hair and kohl-rimmed eyes.
I didn’t plan to travel during Ramadan, it’s just the way things fell, and before arriving, I am intrigued about what to expect. I am told I can eat, but not in public. I can drink water, but not in public. It is 40 degrees Celsius and I am running around in the heat, chasing stories. Luckily my private driver, Majith, is empathetic and behind the blackened windows of my vehicle, pours me water and sympathy. He even offers to buy me “best biryani” should I feel hungry. But I need not have worried, as while devout Muslims observe the rules of Ramadan (no eating or drinking before sunset), non-Muslims can eat and drink in designated areas, such as hotels.
Majith collects me for my final assignment, the iftar at the Emirates Palace and tells me I look like a Syrian woman in my long black dress with attached cape. Again, what to wear as to not offend? I need not have worried as the Emiratis are both modest and modern. I do, however, make one gaffe. I am at the feast, awaiting my host, and there is water on the table. Without even thinking, with one hand I am writing up some notes of the day, and with the other, I take a sip. A waiter hurries over and in a kind voice tells me I cannot drink until 7.05pm. Ashamed, I apologise profusely and grasp for the time. It’s 6.57pm.
On my flight to Abu Dhabi with Etihad Airlines, an article inside the inflight magazine Atlas catches my eye. Food & Travel Arabia editor Anisa Al Hawaj argues that Ramadan is the best time to travel to the United Arab Emirates as long as you observe the basic rules of not eating and drinking in public during daylight hours, and dressing conservatively.
“To paraphrase an edict from the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, ‘If a non-Muslim gets it wrong and no offence to the faith was intended, let it go’,” Hawaj says.
“Come sunset, everything comes alive: the streets, restaurants, malls, night bazaars – the atmosphere is incredible. So, too, is the food. You’ll have as much fun as anywhere and at any time in this part of the world at one of the grand Ramadan tents in the UAE.
“Not just for the cooking, but the service, the people, the whole vibe. I like to say it’s Arab hospitality at its best. And it comes but once a year.”
Inside the Emirates Palace “tent” – it’s more of a grand ballroom designed to fit 800 people in one sitting (and to think I was worried there may not be air-conditioning) – I realise that Hawaj is right. Abu Dhabi has been sublimely sanguine over the past few days, the roads are quiet, the beaches are empty and there are no great crowds at many of the tourist attractions. And yes, the food is fabulous. I wander the buffet, there’s hummus and prawns and beef, salad and lamb. But it’s the dessert table with which I’m most intrigued. Apart from baklawa, I recognise nothing but wrap my tongue around the exotically-named sweets…Assafiri, Atayef, Mafrokeh, Shebiyat…they sound like destinations I should visit.
I am dining with Emirates Palace Public Relations and Communications Manager Mohammed Alaoui, who is pragmatic about Ramadan and the subject of fasting. While my plate is piled high with fabulous food, I watch as Mohammed partakes in his first meal of the day, breaking his fast with a few dates, followed by soup and salad.
“It’s a matter of conviction. It’s not about food. There’s a lot of people in this world that don’t eat. It reminds you that it is very good for the body. The fact that you fast, purifies your body over a month,” he says.
“A lot of people, when talking about Islam, go to the extremes. There is a lot of ignorance. There are political reasons and cultural reasons for this.
“The west has a total ignorance of our religion because people don’t read and the perception is that Islam is a violent religion. This just gets you afraid. We want to educate these people.”
On my flight to Abu Dhabi, I read the Gulf News and a headline catches my eye “Understanding the Right-Wing Mindset”. But they are not talking about Islam, but the United States. Author Taria A. Al Maeena is writing about the recent school shootings and an argument he had with an American who claims the war on Iraq was “necessary to protect America”.
On the Texas high school shooting, Maeena writes: “It was a tragedy that had no political or religious undertones, I told him, and there were certainly no Islamists involved to the disappointment of many Western pundits who are quick to malign an entire religion based on the dastardly actions of a few deviates.
“Making America great again is a noble thought, but it will never come through the barrel of a gun or expulsion of all non-whites.”
During my short time in Abu Dhabi I find the Emiratis courteous, contemporary, kind, entertaining and educated. Abu Dhabi is dry desert days and warm Arabian nights. It’s blue beaches, white sand, mesmerising mosques and amazing art galleries, high-end hotels and five-star spas. It’s salty black olives, smoky, smooth hummus, plump dates and fresh figs. Abu Dhabi is Arabs who roll their “r’s” when they talk in English and speak with you with an intense interest through dark and mysterious eyes. It’s full moons, full stomachs and full minds. Whether you go to Abu Dhabi during Ramadan or not, you will find a land that will challenge your perceptions of the Middle East and shift the sands of your soul.
The Global Goddess flew to Abu Dhabi as a guest of Etihad Airlines in one of their world-class Business Studios http://www.etihad.com/en-au/
She stayed as a guest of Abu Dhabi Tourism https://visitabudhabi.ae/au-en/default.aspx
This year’s Ramadan runs from May 17 to June 16 – the dates move forward by 11 days every year
MY face is encrusted with sea spray and my lips are salty and swollen in what can only be described as botox beauty. People pay big bucks for this, I think, smiling slyly to myself as we surf the waves back from Great Keppel Island, my hair all messy and full of mischief. A sneaky south-easterly, east coast Australia’s archetypal trade wind, has whipped right up the coastline, swirling all the way north to Capricorn. It’s a bit of a bumpy ride. But on this fair day out on the Southern Great Barrier Reef, if the Keppel kiss is my only problem, I reckon I’m doing OK.
I’ve launched my day at the Keppel Bay Marina feasting on a heart-starting Cowboy’s Benedict including Banana Station beef at The Waterline Restaurant. Turns out, it’s one of the best brekkies I’ve ever had. Then, it’s a wild catamaran ride out to the island and a glass-bottom boat tour of the reef. One little girl on the boat claims she can see Frozen’s Elsa lazing along the Great Barrier Reef. Her older sister loudly proclaims that “sand is boring” as we cruise to the reef drop off, through this tiramisu ocean, spotting staghorn coral and giant clams. There’s few fish today in this windy weather but it doesn’t matter. Great Keppel Island is a bold beauty.
I’d arrived in Rockhampton, and the northern point of the Southern Great Barrier Reef, the previous day, engulfed in a flurry of interviews and activities. So much up here has changed. There’s a new riverfront precinct in town, the Yeppoon Lagoon is set to open, and there’s craft breweries and uber cool cafes galore. Like a character out of an Enid Blyton novel I do something I haven’t done in 40 years…sit in the crook of a tree, where I just happen to admire some street art. There’s plenty of that here too.
Late on my first afternoon I wander Yeppoon Main Beach, in a bid to catch the dying shards of sunlight and some feet-in-the-sand spirituality. Time to catch my breath, gather my thoughts, and admire the intricate Aboriginal art-like patterns the soldier crabs have crafted in the sand. There’s a lone jogger, a couple of fishermen, sea debris, shells and driftwood. It all smells sublime.
I head south to the Town of 1770 and Agnes Water, pausing for a cheeky crab sandwich at Miriam Vale. It’s early and I’m hoping to catch a LARC tour of the region in these perky pink amphibious army vehicles. We drive through creek crossings and along remote stretches of sand, learning about the area’s history and looking for wildlife. The LARC does the impossible and climbs a steep hill to the Bustard Head Lighthouse. I fantasise about becoming a lighthouse caretaker for a month, wondering whether I could embrace the soul-searching solitude.
The next morning, I tip-toe over the carefully plonked stepping stones in the Paperbark Forest, determined not to lose my balance into the wetlands below. I pat one of the trees, drawing on its strength and energy. Later, I visit a remote beach and remember the days I would plunge into rock pools such as this and swim with the crabs. I walk the 1770 headland and try to catch a beautiful butterfly, but only end up capturing it on my phone. I feast on fish and chips at a beachfront café, daydreaming about a return visit where I will learn to surf on this tame wave on what is Queensland’s most northerly surf beach.
On my penultimate afternoon, I paddle out on a kayaking adventure which starts with my guide pointing out deep rivets in the sand. Turns out they’re holes made from stingrays in the shallows. We head out of the harbour and towards a sandbar where we pause to catch our breath. Onwards we paddle towards the ocean, in hunt of jumping eagle rays and dolphins. But not today. Never mind, we surf the waves back into shore and Butterfly Beach which is awash with oysters. If only I had a sharp knife and a glass of champagne. My guide produces a knife and some cask wine. It’s good enough for me, who has found the best dining destination in town. We glide back into the sunset.
It’s my last day and I can’t resist another peek at the beach before heading south. Cattle country eventually concedes to cane country as I head over the Burnett River bridge into Bundaberg. I was here the same time last year, watching the turtle hatchlings emerge from their shells at Mon Repos Beach, feasting on regional produce and snorkelling Lady Musgrave and Lady Elliot islands. It’s hard not to be a parochial Queenslander when the Southern Great Barrier Reef sits on your doorstep. Back in Brisbane I sip on a Billy Goat’s gin, gifted from a new brewer in Rockhampton. It could just as easily be a Bundaberg Rum or a Baffle Creek beer. The Southern Great Barrier Reef is alive and thriving, but don’t take my word for it, go and see for yourself.
The Global Goddess travelled as a guest of Southern Great Barrier Reef Tourism http://www.southerngreatbarrierreef.com.au
•Try the award-winning Banana Station beef dishes at The Waterline Restaurant, Keppel Bay Marina – http://www.thewaterline.com.au
•Gladstone’s Lightbox Espresso and Wine Bar serves a colourful charcuterie menu along with French champagne, bespoke cocktails, premium wine and spirits and local and imported beer. http://www.lightboxgladstone.co
•Join Suzie Clarke, a former commercial cook, on one of her three Taste of Bundaberg food tours of the region. So successful are these tours, that Suzie has recently added a Drinks Tour to showcase the innovative drops, including that world-famous Bundaberg Rum, which are being produced here.
•Freedom Fast Cats to Great Keppel Island – https://freedomfastcats.com
•Keppel Connections from Great Keppel Island – http://www.keppelkonnections.com.au
•LARC! Paradise Tour – http://www.1770larctours.com.au
•Liquid Adventures kayaking tours – http://www.1770liquidadventures.com.au
•Mon Repos Turtle Encounter – https://www.bundabergregion.org/turtles/mon-repos-turtle-encounter
•Bundaberg Distillery Tour – https://www.bundabergrum.com.au/distillery?gclid=EAIaIQobChMIi5mnp6762gIV1QorCh1fegFUEAAYASAAEgKsFfD_BwE