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
LONG after the humidity, dust and noise have reluctantly retired for the night – or at least taken a brief reprieve – it’s the stench of poverty in Cambodia that remains etched beneath your skin. Beneath the chorus of whirring fans and clucking geckos, images of the limbless, the orphaned and the blind coil, like an endless movie reel, around the mind.
Somewhere around the bewitching hour – about 3am when the mosquitoes chopper in – arrives the rude realisation that almost the entire Cambodian population is under the age of 30…a deep and brutal scar of the Khmer Rouge regime. And most of its people are dirt poor.
I penned these words several years ago, after my first trip to Cambodia and Siem Reap and after I had visited the Sunrise Children’s Village where beautiful orphaned children had been taken under the wing of big-hearted, flame-haired Australian Geraldine Cox. One little girl was suffering from foetal alcohol syndrome. A little boy in the orphanage had seen his father killed by a land mine, and was too frightened to even step on the ground, so had to be carried everywhere. Other little girls and boys had been sold by their starving families across the border into Thailand’s sex trade.
About a year later Cox was in Brisbane addressing a business women’s lunch, when she described one of the most horrific images I will never forget. She talked about how she was in the Siem Reap markets and there was a baby orphan boy, who kind of belonged to everyone and at the same time, no one. Cox looked into his big bright eyes and told him that when she returned from her latest trip to Australia, she would take him into the orphanage. She did return and what she found sickened her to the core. Someone had cut out the baby boy’s eyes and sold them on the black market. I defy anyone who travels to a place like Cambodia not to be moved by its story. Australian photographer Danielle Lancaster, who owns Blue Dog Photography, is another person touched by Cambodia’s soul.
Lancaster first started travelling to Cambodia about seven years ago prompted by an interest in history, Buddhism and a bewilderment at how someone like Pol Pot could kill his own people.
“How can someone walk one million of his own people out of a city in one night and horrifically torture them? Nearly every monk was killed and there were about 4000 doctors at the start of the Pol Pot regime, and only 4 left at the end,” she says.
“Friends of mine had worked as war photographers there and I started to go back every year. I met a tuk tuk driver who was a young fellow who took me to his village and I got to meet his family. We became good friends and I met more Cambodian people but at that stage you hardly saw a girl in secondary school because selling girls into prostitution was so big.
“I met a lady whose daughter was working in hospitality and she was paid $2 for her. Yes, her daughter was working in hospitality but she was not serving tables. I started to look at the high school and said ‘where are the girls?’.”
So struck was Lancaster by this beautiful country and its story she started buying basic goods such as underwear and books for the children and talking to the community about the importance of educating its children. Lancaster, who also privately sponsors two girls and works with a local orphanage, gained sponsorship in 2011 to produce a calendar, the sales of which meant they could build two new class rooms and desks with a white board. In 2012 Blue Dog Communities was formed.
“Last year I was just like ‘bring it’ and we had the school full of girls. They clasp the chalk like it’s gold. Last year I realised this is working, we are getting the girls into school and they are staying at school,” Lancaster says.
“From the sales of our 2012 calendar we are replacing the palm frond class rooms with cement so the kids don’t have to sit there with mud on their feet. It is a big project but our foundations are down.
“The community needs to be able to see the business happening. This is a population that has had a lot of promises of aid, they’ve got no natural resources. It was so torn apart by Pol Pot and the arms’ trade during the Vietnam War and everybody just has forgotten about it.”
But not the likes of Lancaster. As part of her commitment to the community, Blue Dog runs an annual 7-day Photography & Cultural Workshops journey to Siem Reap. The tour includes experiencing a Cambodian floating village; temples; Angkor Archaeological Park; schools; silk and lotus farms; a private monk and private traditional dancer photo shoot; photography workshops; and grassroots activities such as helping villagers build chicken pens and dig vegetable gardens.
Along the way, this professional and passionate photographer will critique your work and assist you in getting the best photographs possible, such as those shown in this story. At the end of the week, not only will you have done something amazing for your fellow humans, but will have some terrific pictures of your journey.
“When I go there I have this wonderful sense of calm that comes over me. It is just an extremely rewarding experience,” Lancaster says.
“In Cambodia, there is just something that got me in my heart and soul. I believe it is a life-changing experience.”
The next Blue Dog Photography & Cultural Workshop to Cambodia will be from June 30 to July 7. To book a tour or simply donate to their community work in Siem Reap, go to http://www.blue-dog.com.au