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
I REALLY should be cranky with Brisbane, yet I’m not. On the one weekend when I’m out wandering my hometown, foraging through her secret nooks and crannies in preparation for the Brisbane Festival, my sassy city decides to rain. Not just little kittens and puppies, but big cats and dogs with a bit of a windy whip in their tail, just for good measure. But being angry with Brisbane when it rains is like losing your cool at your well-behaved child when they act out of character. You know, the one who almost always is lovely, but every now and then Satan makes a surprise appearance. And so it is with Brisbane on this weekend, our thirsty city hasn’t seen a drop of rain in months, so it would be churlish of me to punish her for that.
And what that rain means is that when the Brisbane Festival bursts into bloom for three weeks from September 6, this pretty city is going to be so green, it will make every other Aussie capital emerald with envy. My wanderings begin at Fortitude Valley’s Alpha Mosaic Hotel, the latest entrant in Brisbane’s vertical community. Urban chic meets retro here with splashes of orange chairs and purple walls and, a rarity for Brisbane, a stone fireplace in the lobby. But the real treat here is on the rooftop of this hotel/apartment complex which not only has its own herb garden for residents, but 360 degree views of the city, an ideal vantage point for the culmination of the Brisbane Festival with Riverfire’s fireworks.
On towards New Farm and Jan Power’s Farmer’s Markets I tumble, where the weather may be wet, but the stallholders’ wits are dry and the produce crisp. The Powerhouse will host some of the Brisbane Festival’s key performances including The Shadow King, an Indigenous slant on Shakespeare’s King Lear, and Monkey…Journey to the West, a take on the 1970s cult classic Monkey Magic.
While surprise events and pop-up performances will be detonating all over the city, the leading lady of the Brisbane Festival will be South Bank in what is Australia’s only custom-designed cultural precinct. Among the many restaurants and bars poised to embrace the festival, Champ Kitchen & Bar will be one of the heroes, with specially-designed cocktails such as The Green Martini made from absinthe and Bacardi (a major festival sponsor) and served with green apple jam; as well as The Royal Bellini, built on strawberries, wine and Grand Marnier to tie in with the burlesque theme of the nearby Spiegeltent.
Brisbane Festival Artistic Director Noel Staunton says around 82 performances will be staged around the city during those three weeks in September, with many of them free. The cheapest ticketed performance starts at $15 with the most expensive at $180, making the festival accessible to everyone. And half of the festival tickets have already been sold.
“Once the festival starts there is the impetus to go and see shows. For me it is about creating debate. It is not about a show being good or bad. It is about seeing things that people normally wouldn’t see for the rest of the year,” Noel says.
“We employ hundreds of local artists and have a policy where we involve every arts organisation in the city. It’s about a party. It’s about having a go and having a good time. Not every show is about high-end culture.
“For me, it’s about a city having a different feel for a three-week period that is nice and easy and just fun. I very much like to see this city up late because this city goes to bed so early.”
One of the most ambitious festival highlights will be when 100 light horsemen ride across the city’s iconic Story Bridge, a cultural clip clop to the Black Diggers performance at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre, which pays homage to the Indigenous Australian soldiers who fought in World War One. At the Courier-Mail Piazza at South Bank, Soap will be a contemporary circus, comedy and cabaret and will involve seven bathtubs, while at the Queensland Conservatorium, an opera will explore the city’s 2011 deluge with Floods.
It’s the last festival for Noel, who has been at the helm for the past five years, and cites a performance in 2010 in which festival-goers were invited to attend a giant sauna theatre performance – buck naked – as his most audacious event. Perhaps that’s the year that Brisbane really learnt to let its hair down, so to speak. Who knows? But on this wet weekend, when Noel sits in a noughts and crosses collared shirt and talks about the entertainment game, one thing is perfectly clear. You can’t guarantee the weather, but Brisbane is in for a blast.
STAY: Alpha Mosaic Hotel Brisbane – http://www.alphamosaichotelbrisbane.com.au
SEE: Brisbane Festival (September 6 – 27) – http://www.brisbanefestival.com.au
EAT & DRINK: Champ Kitchen & Bar – http://www.champkitchenandandbar.com.au; Newstead Brewing Co – http://www.newsteadbrewing.com.au; Green Beacon Brewing Co – http://www.greenbeacon.com.au; Tipplers Tap – http://www.tipplerstap.com.au; Gerard’s Bistro – http://www.gerardsbistro.com.au
DO: Brisbane Greeters offer free guided tours of Brisbane’s precincts – http://www.visitbrisbane.com.au/brisbane-greeters
The Global Goddess was a guest of Brisbane Marketing. For a comprehensive calendar of events and things to see and do in Brisbane go to http://www.visitbrisbane.com.au
MID summer and Thailand’s mounting humidity is threatening to chuck a torrential tantrum any day now. And I’m traipsing around the country’s only organic resort in search of a salacious story, one which will take my taste buds from paddy to plate. Curious about the tropical property on which I find myself, I ask my guide whether there are any snakes here: “Of course,” he says with trademark Thai honesty. “Are they poisonous?” I tip toe my thonged feet tentatively through the cackling grass. “Of course,” he replies.
I recently travelled to Thailand’s Sampram District, 45 kilometres west of Bangkok, the kind of country where bare-chested men crack open coconuts plucked fresh from the tree with their huge hands. (OK, he may have had a big knife, and was actually wearing a shirt, but a girl can daydream). On this occasion, I’m exploring the organic farm of Arrut Navaraj. Like so many of the best ideas, this concept was born of one simple action. Fifty-two years ago, Arrut’s grandmother was travelling through this district, when she saw an old bullet tree which needed saving from falling into the river. She ended up buying the 0.4ha of land on which the tree still stands today, built a house and starting growing roses as a hobby. But the story doesn’t end there.
In fact, it’s only the start. Arrut’s grandmother went on to build an open-air restaurant where the menu was limited to just two items: Pad Thai and coconut ice-cream. But that was enough to lure Bangkok’s expat community to the property which they nick named Rose Garden. Arrut’s grandmother even taught her rose gardeners how to dance to perform for the tourists. And this is where the story takes a delicious twist. Arrut himself was a chemical engineer for Shell, working on the “dark side” if you will, before he decided to take over the family property, and transform it into Thailand’s only organic resort.
These days, it’s called Sampram Riverside Resort, a 160 room hotel with 6 traditional Thai houses, which employs 450 people and stands on 28ha which includes Botanic Gardens, a Thai Village and Rose Gardens. But the highlight is a green market on the weekends where only organic certified products are sold.
“Our concept is based around the traditional Thai way of life. We wanted to expand more into our local community and into organic agriculture,” Arrut says.
“Unfortunately farmers use a lot of chemicals in central Thailand and we want to reverse that trend. We’ve been doing that for the last four years. We are the only hotel in the country to receive funding to do this.
“We want to promote Sampram as a new destination and hub for organic producers and travel. It’s been going quite well.”
“Quite well” is a bit of an understatement for this concept which is about to expand with an “urban farm shop” in Bangkok and with Sampram in talks with a number of luxury hotel chains and top supermarkets to promote their products.
“We weren’t professional farmers. We started approaching them and found most of them used chemicals and there was no incentive for them to not use them,” Arrut says.
“They were only getting cheap prices so we thought we needed to start being a market ourselves to buy from them.
“The Thai Government doesn’t look at this as a way of life, as a supply chain. It’s been a long process between us and building trust with the farmers.”
Arrut says no one else is the country is offering anything similar and those hotels or resorts who claim to be organic are mostly paying lip service to the ideal. The next stage of the business is to work on “The Sampram Model” where stakeholders will form a Memorandum of Understanding on their various roles, rights and responsibilities within the supply chain.
“A lot of hotels have organic gardens but that is really for show. To sustain a whole hotel is a different story. We know the people who grow the fruit, the rice…we are in touch with about 200 farmers at the moment in our province,” he says.
“It is a leap of faith to do organic farming. I started eight years ago and I thought it was impossible. In the end I had to come back to myself and you learn from your practice and get better and better. You learn to get the best balance in your farm.
“My big dream is for the Sampram district to become chemical free. The market wants organic and the government has failed miserably by not paying the farmers and they are now switching to the organic. “
Arrut also wants to use the 0.8ha of roses grown on the property to produce the first Thai rose oil in the world. And he’s sure his grandmother, who is now 91 and living in Bangkok, would be proud of what he’s achieved.
“She’s happy with what I’m doing. She was a keen gardener. She believes we have to adjust with time. Everything we are doing is based on the traditional Thai way of life.
“Every Thai feels now, after the coup, is the time for change. I’ve never felt like this before in my life.
“It is karma. We went right to the bottom, the only way is up.”
The Global Goddess travelled as a guest of the Tourism Authority of Thailand. http://www.tourismthailand.org
IT’S all so covert it’s like I’m a character in a spy novel. I am instructed to have my bags packed ready to go for Monday morning. There’s no itinerary and my plane tickets arrive in the cab on the way to the airport. I am whisked through customs and immigration and before I know it I am on an empty Thai Airways flight to Bangkok. I have no idea what I’m doing or who I’m meeting apart from this sliver of information: “You are on a fact-finding mission for the Thai government”. My imagination gallops like a wild bush brumby. Am I being summoned to Bangkok to learn something from the Thai government or do they wish to learn something from me? I scan my mind for what I could teach them. I have become somewhat of on expert in Brisbane’s disastrous dating scene and am convinced they wish me to confirm the unbelievable tales about which I have been writing for some time. Yes, Your Honour, he really did say his three favourite things were his gun, sex and bible. No, he can’t spell. Not even his own name.
Nine hours later the plot thickens. There’s a sign at the airport with my name, and a woman checks my passport just in case I am someone else masquerading as me. A private car with a female driver, whose name I later learn is Fa, ferries me through a series of dark back alleys like we are being tailed, before we arrive promptly at the Rembrandt Hotel and I am hurriedly shuffled to the Executive Lounge and checked in.
The next morning a familiar face sidles up to me at breakfast. I realise it’s the Rembrandt’s General Manager Erik Hallin with whom I had dinner at the hotel’s signature Indian restaurant on my last trip to Bangkok just six months ago. We talk politics, the reason I suspect I am really in Thailand. Since last November, protestors disgruntled at what they say is a corrupt government run by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra have been taking to the streets of the Thai capital in what have been largely traffic-disrupting, but peaceful protests. Erik informs me that occupancy of his hotel is running at 70 per cent, which isn’t bad but “people are scared off by the protests”.
“You learn to walk everywhere in this city,” he says wryly.
From what I can piece together, the Thai government has called me, and three other colleagues – one from Sydney, one from Melbourne, and the other from Auckland, to write a piece proclaiming it’s “business as usual in Bangkok”. Except there’s a few hiccups with this scenario. Problems which becoming increasingly more apparent as the week wears on. The day I arrive, disgruntled rice farmers from rural Thailand have also joined the democratic protestors, claiming they have not been paid under a rice subsidy scheme instigated by the Thai government. And, less-widely reported, so have rubber plantation farmers. And they are trying to block Yingluck’s physical return to Government House with barricades established in key parts of the capital.
At first it does seem like another day in Bangkok. If anything, it’s a bit more quiet than usual, like the capital is nursing a New Year’s Day hangover. I wander down to the protest site and take some photos. But after lunch things change swiftly. A restaurant owner asks me what I’m planning to do next. “I’m just going back to my room to do some work,” I reply. “Good he says. The traffic is very bad, the fighting has broken out again. But don’t worry, you will be safe.” Given the protests have been peaceful, I take his words “fighting” to mean little more than a war of words and return to my hotel room to work. At 6pm I turn on the BBC and am shocked. At this stage, three people have been killed and dozens others have been injured when a grenade was tossed and riot police moved in on the protestors. I meet my Sydney colleague Rod Eime http://www.traveloscopy.com
and we head down to one of the protest sites and there are crowds of people, but no violence in this particular area.
By the end of this one night in Bangkok, four people are confirmed dead, 64 are injured and there’s speculation by witnesses that the police, not the protestors, tossed the grenade. Our planned visit to the “peaceful protest” site is rapidy cancelled by the Thai government, along with a press conference that evening, with “bad traffic” cited as the reason. Wading into another country’s politics, as a foreign journalist visiting for just a few days, is a risky business. You snatch a glimpse, often polished by the PR machine, and are then diverted. And the truth remains the casualty.
A local journalist, who didn’t want to be named for fear of deportment, tells me over breakfast that it is essentially “business as usual” in Bangkok, but warns me to stay away from the protest sites as things can escalate rapidly.
“I’m not concerned at all. The Thais will sort it out in their way. The best thing for this country is for the Generals to take over. Forget what other countries say. It is Thai culture, it has been happening for hundreds of years. Let them sort out what they’ve got to do,” he says.
“Today is going to be a an interesting day here. (Exiled former Prime Minister) Taksin’s ex wife saw a fortune teller in Burma who said if Yingluck didn’t get back into government today she never will.
“The Thais are very superstitious. I don’t know whether there will be more violence. But no one is particularly perturbed.”
It is a surprisingly peaceful day but despite the obvious casualties, there is another victim in this scenario: tourism. Thailand relies heavily on the tourist dollar, particularly from Australians who have long held a love affair with the Land of Smiles. Mark Armsden, a mate and former colleague from our Gold Coast Bulletin news reporting days some 20 years ago, now lives in Bangkok and handles the PR for Tune Hotels. He’s passionate about how the situation is impacting on Thailand’s key income earner: “If you think the protests are having little effect on tourism, speak to hoteliers, tailors, restaurants and bars and other local businesses between Sukhumvit 33 and MBK. Then speak to the thousands of young working Thais who rely on the service charge they earn to supplement their income – this nonsense has been devastating on the “spine” of Bangkok tourism….and that’s before you get down to the river and all the businesses that rely on tourism there as well. You should also check on how devastating it has been on the flag carrier (Thai Airways) as well.”
Mark’s opinion is one echoed all over Thailand. Perhaps it’s our isolation as a nation, but Australians adopt an interesting approach when it comes to violence overseas. We hear there has been conflict in a city and we avoid a country altogether. We’re strangely conservative like that. But the reality is somewhat different. Even in Bangkok, while the protests were exploding in some parts of the city, it is business as usual in others. We dine at the exquisite Naj restaurant on high-end Thai food while the protestors are outside. Attend a Muay Thai boxing class. And there’s plenty of parts of Thailand that remain unaffected. Along the ravishingly beautiful River Kwai, a tour guide tells me the situation is having a massive impact on tourism, far away from Bangkok.
“It’s high season here and we should be full but we’re not. This is how we make our money, from tourism,” he says.
On Saturday afternoon and back in Bangkok in a beauty salon, I ask the girls whether there has been any more strife since I’ve been down in the remote River Kwai. They laugh and talk to each other rapidly in Thai, the only word I can understand is “farang” which means foreigner and I ask them what they are saying. “Farang knows more about Thai politics than Thai people,” they giggle. I fly out midnight Saturday night and on Sunday afternoon the situation has changed again, when a woman and child are killed, and 22 more people injured, in a grenade attack near a popular shopping area. In recent months, a total of 19 people have died and hundreds more have been injured. As far as I know, none of these have been foreign tourists.
But as we know, perception is everything. After the 2012 Bali bombings in which 88 Australians were killed, we all boycotted Bali. But we were also the first nationality to return. We may be a conservative nation but we are also resilient. So spare a thought for Thailand and those who are dying in the name of democracy, whose livelihoods rely on the tourist dollar and do what Aussies do best. Bounce back. Your neighbours need you. I’ll certainly be back, apart from the fact I love this city, I’ve got a Brisbane dating report to deliver to the Thai government.
The Global Goddess travelled as a guest of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, Thai Airways, Rembrandt Hotel, Bangkok and the River Kwai Jungle Rafts. For more information go to http://www.tourismthailand.org