Happy Together

Tradition meets modernity in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. Story and Photography by Kate Siber

The dzong guard almost didn’t let me in without a guide, but then he flashed a smile and looked the other way. I was all alone in the empty stone courtyard, but I could hear the murmuring of monks, the fluttering of robes and pigeons’ wings, and the quiet footsteps in the hallways. Down a couple dozen steep steps, another courtyard looked out over the few lights of Paro, the bends in the river, and terraced rice paddies. A teenage monk followed me. I looked right, he went left; I looked left, he went right. Two older monks entered and he went skittering away, giggling.

As I was about to leave, I heard, “Psst! Miss! Miss!” from one corner. A young monk beckoned. Through minimal English and sign language, he intimated that I was to make a donation. He tied a red string blessed by the Paro lama around my neck as his two companions chortled into their long-robed arms. He then motioned for me to enter the temple via a passageway. Inside, three dozen teenage monks sat chanting over Sanskrit scriptures, until they saw me.

First one, then three, then a dozen, then most all of them stopped to look at me, to watch me pass as I ambled the ancient creaking floorboards. Some smiled shyly, others beamed up at me with grins, and some brave ones waved me over to them, laughing and staring.

“Where are you from?” asked one.

“Where do you live?” asked another. They became braver as I answered.

“You’ve beauty!” said one.

“You’ve beautiful!” said another as the three dozen of them giggled, eyes twinkling, in my direction. After I waved goodbye, I walked out, pulled my shoes on, and dawdled in the breezy courtyard, as a lemon-wedge moon rose over the wall. I knew the monks’ expressions were no come-ons, but simple, lovely expressions of curiosity. They may have never seen a Westerner my age, 26, alone.

On my flight out of Paro the next day, while I watched immaculate forests spread beneath us, I wondered how Bhutan might look in five years, whether its strong Buddhist traditions could survive the encroaching Western consumerism, and whether this concept of Gross National Happiness could sustainably see the country into the 21st century. I thought of one afternoon Chencho and I spent hiking to two tiny temples tucked high in the hills outside of Paro. On the way back down, I asked him what he would change about his life.

"Nothing,” he said.

“Nothing?” I asked, incredulously. “You’re perfectly happy?” Everyone wants to change something.

“Yes, perfectly happy.”

“That’s hard to believe.”

“I wouldn’t change a thing. I’m perfectly happy,” he said simply. I wasn’t convinced.

Along the narrow path, we watched schoolboys on their way home, while bent old women carrying loads of rice stalks nodded as we passed. As I watched the afternoon light wane over the lime-green rice paddies, crawling the hills until overtaken by a salad bowl of pines, rhododendrons, and ferns, I thought I began to understand at least one indomitable thread of the spirit of Bhutan’s people. And at that particular moment, I began to believe him.

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Beautifully written! As a Bhutanese who has been away from home long enough to get a sense of the socio-economic dynamics of modernization,
my concerns are growing. However so, I remain guardedly optimistic; I wish for us to craft a path that would allow every aspect of our lifestyle, both traditional and modern to sustain harmoniously.

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