If our lives are dominated by a search for happiness, then perhaps few activities reveal as much about the dynamics of this quest—in all its ardour and paradoxes—than our travels. They express, however inarticulately, an understanding of what life might be about, outside of the constraints of work and of the struggle for survival. Yet rarely are they considered to present philosophical problems—that is, issues requiring thought beyond the practical. – Alain de Bottonfrom “Anticipation” in The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton (2002)
Returning to Bhutan
For the first visit to Bhutan, I followed the guidebook’s recommendation to travel in the winter for the blue skies. On that first trip, I was on assignment for a Canon photography magazine, so the blue skies were something I thought a requisite backdrop for the photographs I wanted to capture. That first visit was also an exploration of an unfamiliar place, a place that captivated my curiosity with its philosophy of Gross National Happiness (GNH) as a measure of the country’s success as an alternative to Gross National Product or income.
Bhutan’s slogan is “Happiness is a Place,” and its measure of success using an intangible human asset, happiness, spoke to the humanist in me. I believe in joy, and that joy is possible in the day to day life that humans chase. We can find joy in so many things that we encounter that it seems almost impossible not to find moments of joy when we pay attention.
I was also aware that anticipation can pose a dangerous substitute for the actual experience. In his essay on anticipation in The Art of Travel, de Botton tells the story of Duc de Esseintes, a recluse who suddenly found intense desire to travel to London after reading a Dickens book. Duc de Esseintes lived outside Paris, and in his preparations for travel, he read from a guidebook to London; spent time at a wine bar with mostly English patrons; and had a meal of typical English roast and potatoes at a tavern. It was in the tavern that he discovered he didn’t want to go to London after all, as “What was the good of moving when a person could travel so wonderfully sitting in a chair?” So the Duc decided to stay in France, at home.
This was in the 1880s.
In our millennium’s multi-media reality, it’s not difficult to possess, vicariously, the wonderful experiences of travelers who venture out, and for us to second-handedly plunge into the sensory trails of those who have taken the plane or boat or train or the Instagram shot before us.
With Bhutan it was different. I am not sure it is as easy to enjoy the simple, stark beauty of this country by eating at a Queens, New York restaurant that might serve its signature dish ema datse, chili sautéed in yak cheese, or by reading a book like Beyond Sky and Earth.
Bhutan has been isolated for a long time, and tourism infrastructure in the country is fairly recently developed and open to travelers, only available since 1974. Visiting the country also presents a narrow window: a visa to Bhutan costs U$250 a day except in the low-season months of December to February (when it’s very cold) and June to August (when it is rainy and the roads might experience some landslides along the way) when it costs U$200 per day. This tourist tariff includes the accommodation cost, transport, guide, and daily meals, water, tea/coffee.
You really just have to go if you want to know what it is like.
So I planned to return to Bhutan in a different season. In the second trip, free from the constraints of a trip for the sole purpose of capturing photos with blue skies, I was more open to experiences that lent only themselves, not the hinted-at glamour of a brochure or a particularly well-turned description in a guidebook, but something unknown that I had not yet experienced and which I did not have any preconceived notions about.
In other words, I had no expectations except that I would pay attention and try to stay in the moment.
When you travel it is easy to get lost in anticipation of what is to come; or to become so captivated by memory that you spend the present either looking toward the future or remembering (and scrolling through photos of) the past.
It was my fortunate experience during the second trip to Bhutan that I stayed in the moment, unfettered to either future anxiety or past regrets, and those moments are very personal. But experiences like these are also available to you, the traveler, should you also want to indulge in living only one moment at a time in the Land of the Thunder Dragon.
10 Best moments in Bhutan in the spring
We delighted in spotting rhododendrons and wildflowers growing wildly everywhere. In the spring when you travel the kingdom’s one and only highway from Paro, where the airport is, to Thimpu, the capital, there is not much flora as the roads are cut out of rocky cliffs. But when you exit the outskirts of Thimpu and travel toward the central part of the country, flanked by natural forest, you begin to see these bursts of color peppering the countryside.
On the way to Gangtey and Phobjikha Valley, there is a rest stop at Dochula Pass, and on a clear day, you can spot the Himalaya range from the viewing spot. Sometimes, if you are there too early, or there is a lot of moisture and cloud cover, the Pass is covered in a soft mist.
About an hour and a half from Dochula Pass, you enter the Gangtey area, where in the spring the fields of dwarf bamboo welcome you along with some blue canvas tents of yak herders who stop by so the yak can feed on the dwarf bamboo before the herders take the animals to higher elevations.
We stopped by a yak herder who was milking a yak. She sold us a string of rock-hard candy made from yak cheese. Milky and too hard to bite or chew, the candy was a handy snack for the ten-day trip and each one lasted for hours, you almost forgot you had it in your mouth.
The landscapes are, for lack of a better word, breathtakingly gorgeous. I imagine that if I painted landscapes, the shades of blue in the layers of vegetation, mountains and sky would inspire prolific art.
Outdoor market and home cooking
In Gangtey we visited the farm house of a man who had once been a chef, and who has settled into the edge of Phobjikha valley with his wife and child. He hosts homestays in his farmhouse and lunches for trekkers in the valley. We had asked him for a cooking lesson of our lunch, and he showed us how to make momos, the dumpling that is a popular snack or light lunch stuffed with vegetables and cheese. He also demonstrated how to make ema datse. Later, after the delicious meal, we brewed coffee over a campfire outside his house.
Repairmen on roofs
Just before the descent into the valley
where our hotel was, we spotted a man on a rooftop repairing the clan flag. In
the spring when the winds are less brutal and the air is warmer, apparently
roof or stupa repair is something Bhutanese do.
More activity in the Dzhongs
Bhutan has a close relationship between the clergy and the government. The governance of the country centers around dzhongs, fortresses which house the monks and are also places of government offices. In the spring, there is more activity around the dzhongs, and this time around, I was able to create more portraits.
Monasteries without cold feet
As in all Buddhist holy places, like monasteries and temples, people have to remove footwear to visit. It was definitely better in the spring to enter the monasteries and temples as the floors were warmer.
Also because of the warmer weather, there were a lot of new prayer flags fluttering in many of the places we visited. Our guide got a set of prayer flags in Thimpu, and we attached them to trees as we entered the pass into Gangtey. “There’s a lot of wind here,” explained Kuenley, “and we believe that our wishes from these flags are better carried by wind.”
Punakha feels like summer
Punakha is a higher elevation than Phobjikha Valley or Thimpu. It is warm enough to grow rice.
In the spring, it was also warm enough to climb atop a temple stupa in the Punakha Valley to see the patterns of the river and fields below.
Tiger’s Nest or Taksang
The previous trip, it was snowing in Paro on my last day and so I skipped climbing the long trail toward the Tiger’s Nest, a temple nestled on a side of a cliff about 20 minutes by car from Paro. The trek up to the monastery is around 4.5 kilometers, but it is a steep and difficult climb for non-trekkers.
Alain de Botton writes, “We are inundated with advice on where to travel to, but we hear little of why and how we should go… “
There are two reasons why I travel.
The first reason why I travel is to find joy in the ordinary. I have walked in Paro through a shortcut that flanks apple orchards, and plucked an apple from a tree. Unblemished by pesticides, the apple is ready to become a snack, and because it is on public land, it belongs to the people. Looking down that same trail, I discovered mint growing profusely beside a tiny creek, ready to be soaked in hot water for mint tea.
The second reason why I travel is to create harmony out of what I find and attempt to capture this in an image. I don’t make photos because I travel. I travel to create photos. In Bhutan, with such a small population of 700,000 for the entire country, finding people to photograph is something I found easier in the spring, when the warmer weather brings people outdoors to the dzhongs, the markets and village fields.
It was the attempt to stay in the moment that transformed the simple images I found into a string of joy. And like the yak cheese candy, it has held a pleasing flavor for a long, long time.
All photos by Aloha Lavina.