The Good Society: A journey through Bhutan exploring Gross National Happiness

We recently returned from an immersive 10-day journey through Bhutan in partnership with the Gross National Happiness Center Bhutan. Kirsty de Garis shares her experience of exploring the Himalayan kingdom.

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Kristy de Garis
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Flying from Delhi to Paro, Bhutan’s only international airport, is more exciting than it should be. Mount Everest towers above the clouds amid a handful of other enormous Himalayan peaks, and the pilot threads the plane through a series of sharp turns through mountain passes on our approach. I notice traditional buildings perched on the mountain tops and the young Bhutanese woman seated beside me tells me the name of each monastery we pass, accessible only on foot or horseback. “Welcome to Bhutan,” she says with a warm smile when the wheels touch down.

Small Giants has partnered with the Gross National Happiness Center Bhutan to facilitate an Impact Safari adventure for 22 people, exploring the nation’s development philosophy after which the Center is named. A constitutional democracy since 2008, Bhutan’s government is committed to measures aimed at securing long-term quality of life for its people. As a result, some blanket decisions have been made: billboard advertising is forbidden, as is the sale of tobacco products, and mountain peaks are sacred: mountaineering is not a revenue raiser for the tiny kingdom of fewer than 800,000.

Peppered throughout our 10 days in Bhutan are deep conversations about what makes a good society. We evaluate the good and bad of leadership practice in Bhutan against the good and bad in our home countries to assess where we could improve at home and where we as citizens of other democracies might support Bhutan as it further engages with the world.

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The role of Buddhism

Buddhism plays a significant role in everyday life for the Bhutanese, and Gross National Happiness Center program leader Dr. Julia Kim leads at least one meditation session each day of our trip. Visits to ancient temples and dzongs (administrative buildings and monasteries) – complement a morning at parliament in Thipmhu, the national capital, where we begin our journey. We meet with the House Speaker and other high-level leaders in the government of Bhutan and hear their stories about the triumphs and challenges of governing in collaboration with their political adversaries.

The little details arrest me: in the National Assembly (lower house), elected parliamentarians sit side-by-side with the opposition government, debating policies and bills in pursuit of what the Bhutanese leadership describes as The Middle Path – a compromise that works for everyone. No system of leadership is without its flaws, but the fourth Bhutanese king’s commitment to the democratic process is adhered to by his successor’s people, who talk of their king with love and respect.

During our first few days, we hike straight up a steep mountainside to Dodeydrak Monastery, established during the 12th century and built into a split rock cliffside. The monastery, outside of Bhutan’s national capital, Thimphu, where we stay for the first three days of our trip, is home to 150 monks, who transport all their material needs up the mountain on horseback. We share a delicious lunch and meditation at the temple before shuffling back down the steep hillside.

An authentic village experience

We depart Thimphu and for the next two nights we stay at Mendegang Heritage Home, the ancestral home of GNH Center Bhutan’s Director, Tsoki Tenzin. Located in a rural village setting in the region of Punakha, three temples on respective floors of Mendegang form the spine of the home. The environment is an unforgettably unique village experience, where we are welcomed as friends and try our hand at the national sport of archery. We participate in a traditional Buddhist smoke offering ceremony, accompanied by constant low-frequency recitation of prayers by Buddhist monks.

Departing Mendegang, next up is river rafting, which I would describe as white water rafting. Our group divides into clusters of six, dons life jackets and helmets and rafts down the Pho Chhu (male) river towards Punakha town. There is little time for remorse in the river, as at the first set of rapids, still in sight of the shore we had departed, we are almost tossed from our rafts. Closer to our destination a few kilometres downstream, a handful of brave souls jump overboard and float down the river – calm in those moments and filled with Himalayan snowmelt. A warm shower is a welcome addition to the afternoon.

No big deal: hanging with a princess

From Punakha we travel to Paro, where we base ourselves for the final three nights of our journey through Bhutan. We are delighted by a meeting with her royal highness Ashi Kesang Chodren Wangchuck, President of the GNH Center. The princess speaks of her passion for what she describes as “development with values” – the development philosophy that underpins Bhutanese leadership’s decision-making.

The kingdom of Bhutan isn’t a perfect society, but the nation is the world’s first carbon-positive country and its elevation of personal flourishing over economic benefit is a global example of how we might reorient our values for the greater good. The stunning mountain setting of Bhutan, and the open smiles and generous hospitality of its people, capture my heart over an unforgettable 10 days.

Are you interested in joining us on an Impact Safari? Click here to learn more.

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