Bhutan, a small Himalayan kingdom nestled between the goliathans India and China, is one of the youngest democracies in the world. Its small population of 0.8 million people were happy with the absolute monarchy in place yet the then King, the visionary Jigme Singye Wanghchuk, preempted history and heralded the change to a parliamentary democracy in 2008. In preparation for this change, in 2006 at only 50 years, he chose to abdicate the throne in favor of his son Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck. The current King is commonly referred to as King 5 and his father as King 4.

Photo credits: World Expeditions;                                                         Photo credits: Summer Festival: Remote Lands

King 4’s story of renunciation is retold by the Bhutanese people as a narrative that within it carries the sensibility of the people themselves – of a life and living that elides greed and embraces simplicity, and in so doing brings contentment and joyfulness. It is unsurprising then that Bhutan carries the moniker of being the happiest country on our planet.

Photo credits: Northwestern Rafting Co;                                                  Photo credits: The Durango Herald

Commandments to increase the ‘GNH - Gross National Happiness’ as compared to the ‘GDP – Gross Domestic Product’, are ubiquitous throughout the country. Laws and policies are associative to the GNH ‘formula’ – conserving the environment (71% of Bhutan is under forest cover); preserving the culture (for example - they must wear the national dress, the Kira for women and Gho for men, in their daily lives); equitable and sustainable socio-economic development (even the USD250 per day that foreigners* are charged as a levy to be in Bhutan is ploughed back into providing equitable education) and good governance. Metaphorically also, you will find the GNH ethos evident in the kind, helpful and honest demeanor of the people.

Photo credits: Priya V                                                         Photo credits: Como Uno

Places I stayed in, both luxurious and simple hotels, were marked by a distinctly Bhutanese sense of hospitality – genuine care towards your well-being. The Le Meridien in Thimpu and in Paro and the Como Uma, Paro were all indulgent properties. Though luxury when you can afford it is not a rarity; an innate sense of kindness and nurture in hospitality that these hotels exhibited, is rather rare. Even a 3 star hotel I halted in for a night enroute to the Punakha Valley, namely Kichu Resort, was also unfaltering in their hospitality.

Photo credits: Dzongs:Darter Photography;                                          Photo credits: Temple:Amulet Luxury Travel Bhutan

Bhutan’s most famous tourist attractions are its Dzongs (fortresses) which are dotted around the country, the most famous being the Dzongs in the capital Thimpu, in Paro and in Punakha. Then, temples follow in popularity led by Paro Taktsang referred to as Tiger’s Nest. However, I was struck by a nunnery I visited atop a mountain in Punakha, namely Wolakha and bewildered by the magical beauty of the mountain passes - Dochula and most so, Chelela.

Sunset colored robes, clean shaven heads and perpetual smiles (unless they were studying) demarcated the mostly very young nuns in Wolakha. The temple on its grounds was extremely ornate and intricate with a huge imposing golden Buddha statue surrounded by Buddhist leit motifs.

Photo credits: Chelela Pass:Priya Virmani;                                               Photo credits: Absolute Bhutan Travels;

Chelela, the highest motorable mountain pass in Bhutan, especially for nature lovers, is a dream. Nestled between the cities of Paro and Haa – which is an Indian army base, Chelela is a bit of a hidden secret. Reaching there by car is common but one can also choose to trek part of the way (either on the way up or down) to savor the tranquility of the spruce and larch forests that lead to the Pass affording unmatched views on cloudless days of the snow-capped Himalayas in the distance. Together with the beautiful example of the people, I left Bhutan with the beauty of these awe inspiring, snow drizzled peaks.

Outside Bhutan, conversation about the country often leads to discussions on how the world will ultimately influence this isolated, landlocked country. But I simply hope rather than Bhutan becoming like the rest of the world, the rest of the world learns from Bhutan and finds its way to Gross World Happiness!

*Nationals of India, Bangladesh and the Maldives are exempt from paying the foreigner’s levy.

Places I stayed in:

Le Méridien Thimphu

Chorten Lam, P.O. Box 01286, Thimphu, Bhutan

+975 2 337788

Le Méridien Paro, Riverfront

P.O. Box 1265, Shaba, Paro, Bhutan

+975 8 270 300

Kichu Resort, Wangdue

Chuzomsa, Wangduephodrang 16005, Bhutan

+975 8 271646 / +975 8 271649

Como Uma Paro

Paro Valley, PO Box 222 Paro, Bhutan

+975 8 271597

Photo Credits: Banner Left: Look4ward; Banner Center: G Adventures; Banner Right: Kandoo Adventures