Ever Since I Heard of Bhutan….

Dragons, Dzongs and Divine Mad Men!

Ever since I heard of Bhutan, I have wanted to visit. It was 2009 and I was studying for my Masters of Intenational Health when I came across a paper mentioning Bhutan’s development measure of Gross National Happiness. I was intrigued. Then over the years I became more fascinated by Bhutanese ideas, culture and development. Bhutan was declared the first country to be 100% organic in 2012, declared to maintain 60% forestation across the nation and a rich Buddhist tradition spanning thousands of years.


It was by chance that I was fortunate to be able to visit in December this year. I had already planned a substantial overseas adventure with a cycling trek from China into Myanmar and beaching in Thailand, I was all set. A work colleague and friend from another town happened to be visiting when I was just firming up my plans and mentioned that she would be in Thailand at a similar time to the end of my trip and really wanted to organise a tour in Bhutan, but had no-one to go with…..Wow!

What was I going to do? My leave was already approved and I didn’t have enough holidays banked up to take any extra time, not to mention the additional cost on top of my already pricey trip! It seemed like too good an opportunity to forget about though. An ATMA SEVA tour with a slant on traditional medicines in Bhutan, na-hu, no way was I going to miss this! Untitled

Thankfully I have a very understanding boss who was more than happy to extend out my leave for another 9 days at half pay so Stef and I could gallivant amongst the clouds, drinking tea and smelling lemongrass and ginger all the way.

We met in Bangkok the evening before our flight into Paro. Both of us were exhausted from our respective travels to that point. I’d been on busses and ferries for the previous 10 hours and Stef had just arrived from a boozy family wedding weekend in Phuket (beats the ferry anyway)! Words cannot describe the anticipation. I was psyched! I had already been to Myanmar earlier in the trip, another bucket list dream that ended on a slightly sour note.  So I was determined that this would top it. And it did!

Stef and I were blown away by how accommodating the ATMA SEVA team (Sonam, UntitledGyembo and Sangay) were. I certainly wasn’t used to travelling in this style, with this much genuine interest in what I desired to do each day. I feel like anything I have to say, or any photos I share will not do justice to the fabulous job each of these 3 did in sharing the Bhutanese culture with us.

We were met at the airport terminal by the whole team and whisked over the mountains and through the valleys to the capital Thimpu. There was never a moment of silence from the second we arrived. So many questions, so much information and people so willing to share their culture and personal thoughts and feelings! After having travelled in China and Burma earlier in the month it was refreshing to not have to ‘read between the lines’.


A visit to the National Institute of Traditional Medicine was a special treat as our guide Sonam was an old friend of a professor of botany there so we were able to Untitledexplore every aspect, even the pharmaceutical unit. Stef and I were like children in a candy store in the library. I could’ve spent the entire day reading, touching, smelling the books!

Stef was a bit worried about how the altitude would affect us. I had been as well as I hadn’t coped well initially in China. The excitement of being in the mountains was too much though. I wanted to throw myself into every experience, even if it meant freezing my nose off at the Dochu-la pass overlookingUntitled1 the Himalayas, puffing my way up to the Tigers Nest or immersing myself into the steaming hot stone bath. I was captivated!I was more concerned that I wouldn’t fit into my wardrobe anymore. Bhutanese food is amazeballs! Rich and cheesy, buttery and chilly-ee… In the words of my dear friend George, every morsel was like ‘Jesus rubbing your belly’. Ahem…. Perhaps I should rephrase that the say Buddha rubbing your belly. Except perhaps for the dried yak cheese…. Not big on that one!

It’s so hard to discern a highlight for this aspect of my trip. Every day was unique Untitledand held its own delights and challenges (physical and personal).Stef dubbed Bhutan ‘the land of surprises’.  Each day held an auspicious moment that told us that we were exactly where we were meant to be every moment. From brief glimpses at the King and Queen, sightings of other Royalty, to blessings from young reincarnates of enlightened monks years gone by. I was mesmerised by the mountains, the architecture and nature. The culture, peace and serenity with which people conducted themselves….. I think I was drunk on “Gross National Happiness’!






Bhutan – Happiness is a Place

It is rare enough to find a book that gives you a glimpse about the real beauty of our lives, but far more common to encounter a place where everything is apparent about being ‘peace-stained’. There is no doubt that Bhutan is one such place on earth, often referred to as the ‘last standing shangri-la’ amidst the great Himalayas.

Bhutan is one of the smallest countries in the world. Sandwiched between two giants, its population has approximately 700,000 people. It has become a place consecrated with rich natural and cultural ecologies, something that has always beguiled the outsiders. Its culture and tradition are so much swayed by the religion of Buddhism, which was first introduced by a great Buddhist saint called Guru Rinpoche in 476 AD.


There is perfect balance between modernity and preservation of culture and tradition. Based upon the Buddhist concept of interdependence between human and nature, the conservation of natural environment and making sure that this process does not turn out to be an ephemeral too takes an important priority. In doing so it has a lot to reciprocate, most importantly it has become an ultimate source of happiness for all.


Bhutan has been rated the happiest country in Asia and the eighth-happiest in the world. It has been often considered the last untouched place on earth. People really do seem happy here, however, many (especially foreigners) do wonder how long will the happiness last as they join the modern world?

The entire process of globalization, as it stretches its shadow across the globe; did have an immense affect upon Bhutan too. Bhutan has embraced this flux, yet, maintained adamant to grasp its culture. Indeed, a new approach has been comprehended, an approach known to the world as ‘Gross National Happiness’, or in Bhutanese vernacular, ‘Gyalyong Ghakey Pelzom’. This philosophy was introduced by the fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck with the purpose of guiding the people towards reaching the proximity of happiness. Ever since its preamble, every law or plans passes through the happiness filter first, making everything a likely way to happiness or at least to ebb the poignant among the people.


Nothing appeases the fact but the interminable inherent and benevolent nature of the people. A trace of beam across their faces regardless of the difference in their socioeconomic status forms a vital part in defining the Bhutanese legacy. The entire society is a collective based, with strong sense of sharing and compassion fervor, propelling people to reach out to the needy ones, making sure of the indispensable flux.

The beauty of the places and the landscapes are what amuses the people most. There is an excerpt “It is impossible to find words to express adequately the wonderful beauty and variety of scenery; I met with, during my journeys”, written by one of the English Visitor while sharing his experience about Bhutan.


Happiness is not the absence of unhappiness, but ability realized through them letting us choose and commit to something that has the potential to create a blissful society. With one step in the past, one in the present, the recipe of yesterday and today propels the people in generating a quaint yet a contemporary based tomorrow.

Happiness really is a place…

For more information about ATMA SEVA’s travel options in Bhutan, please click here.

Jigme Namgyel, research intern