A Reverence for the Environment: Treading Softly in Bhutan

A Reverence for the Environment: Treading Softly in Bhutan

Seeking happiness in the misty valleys and pine forests of Bhutan, where monasteries perch on mountaintops and the respect for nature is profound.

This article appears in Volume
23: The Adventure Issue.

had been told that the descent into Bhutan
is one of the most striking in the world. Indeed, as my tiny plane
wobbles through the sky the majestic tips of the Himalayas loom
into sight on my right-hand side, the unmistakable snowcapped peak
of Mount Everest prominent among them. Dipping below the cloud
cover I suddenly see the rolling green hills of Bhutan’s undulating
landscape emerge as the pilot weaves precariously through tree-
covered valleys towards an impossibly small landing strip located
on the edges of the town of Paro.

Bhutan has lingered in my imagination ever since I watched a TED
Talk by its Prime Minister, Tshering Tobgay. His powerful and
inspiring message, which introduced the world to his country as
well as its outsized, ambitious commitment to conservation in the
face of a changing climate, stayed with me.

Closed to tourists until 1974, Bhutan is a country much shrouded
in mystery and rumour. A Buddhist nation cradled high in the
eastern Himalayas, it is sandwiched between two of the world’s most
populous countries – India and China – and is perhaps best known
for prioritising its population’s happiness in place of gross
domestic product using a socio-economic index known as “Gross
National Happiness”.

Less acknowledged is that Bhutan is the only country on the
planet that is carbon negative. Despite being one of the smallest
countries in the world it has one of the largest commitments to
conservation, mandating that a minimum of 60 per cent of land must
remain under forest cover forever. In travelling here my intention
is to understand the meaning of happiness in a society where
Buddhism is deeply rooted, but where the temptations (and
collateral damage) of a more affluent, fast-paced way of life are
also rising. Deep down, and like any other person, I am also
curious about what makes for happiness in itself.

The first thing I notice as I disembark is the sweet scent of
pine and the occasional musky smell of incense in the air. Prayer
flags litter the landscape on every turn and dance in the wind –
some mark the dead and others celebrate life. During my ten days
here I spend time in the bustling capital city of Thimphu, where
development and urbanisation are rampant, before travelling east
through Punakha into the flat, earth-coloured Phobjikha Valley,
which resembles the landscapes of Mongolia. I’m left speechless by
the grand dzongs (fortresses) on the mountaintops – impossibly
detailed wall paintings and sculptures depicting half-human,
half-animal spirits hang from the walls inside. I encounter the
Paro Tsechu Festival, a colourful four-day celebration held in the
dzong in Paro that culminates in a throng of masked dancers in
yellow robes moving hedonistically to the beat of a drum and the
reverberating drone of a dunchen (horn).

My guide is Sangay Wangchuck, a charming and considered man
dressed in a traditional gho. These beautiful garments resemble
bathrobes, except they are woven in rich cloth in vivid colours and
held loosely by a belt to create a pouch for everything from books
to babies. His peaceful and caring nature is representative of most
people I meet on my journey through Bhutan. Those I speak with are
full of pride when they talk of their country and hold a deep and
profound reverence for the environment and animals that share this

On my last day I make the two-hour hike to the famous Tiger’s
Nest. This magnificent monastery perches precariously on an outcrop
of rock, protruding from a tall and dramatic cliff face in the Paro
Valley. I had expected the journey to be a well-trodden tourist
path, but the two-hour climb up a rough, surprisingly steep path
proves me wrong. I weave my way through a dense and fragrant pine
forest as well as signs proclaiming cheery statements such as “A
clean and beautiful environment is a feast for the soul!” and
“Let’s celebrate environment day every day!” It’s a final reminder
of Bhutan’s unwavering commitment towards environmentalism.

As I reach the top I take a moment to appreciate the misty green
valleys that stretch out below me and reflect on my travels in this
beautiful land. The growing temptation of urban development is at
odds with Bhutan’s continued ecological integrity, and it’s clear
that this small country is at a turning point. Breathing in the
crisp, clean air, I wonder if it will be able to manage its hunger
for economic growth alongside the preservation of its distinctive
culture, society and environment. The secret to happiness might
hang in the balance.

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