Happy Together

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

On a sunny october morning, I sat in the cold stone courtyard of a monolithic, white-walled, red-and-gold-trim dzong, a monastic and administrative center, in the small burg of Jakar in central Bhutan. Monks twirled and leapt through the courtyard with three-foot-tall peacock-feather hats and hand-stitched harlequin costumes with draping sleeves that nearly grazed my cheeks. The breeze off their long skirts washed past my face and the beat of their drums reverberated through my core.

On the periphery of the courtyard, among hundreds of local Bhutanese villagers dressed in their finest silk ghos and kiras, the national attire required by law, a dozen Western tourists performed their own scripted ritual—they flashed cameras, ran fingers through guidebooks, whispered and exchanged nods with guides. They came for this four-day series of dances, a tsechu, which the Bhutanese believe wards off evil spirits for all who attend. The two spectacles were equally compelling: It was as though I was watching a small event in a little part of a tiny country slowly contribute to a major transformation, like noticing a wrinkle or a silver hair as a sign of aging—barely perceptible, but unstoppable.

The concept of Bhutan as a lost Shangri-La is exactly why people go there—and why it has become a trendy destination for au courant travelers: The number of arrivals rose from 5,137 in 1996 to 13,626 in 2005. But Bhutan is also in the midst of the giant internal process of modernization. In 2008, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck will hold a referendum to approve the country’s first constitution, institute a more democratic monarchy, and abdicate the throne to his son, the crown prince Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck. In light of the country’s rising tourist numbers and increasingly steady clop into the 21st century, I went to find out if Bhutan really was a wonderland of the happiest people and most pristine landscapes on Earth—and if so, whether that could possibly last.

Never colonized and largely isolated from the world until the mid-20th century, Bhutan, a Himalayan Buddhist kingdom half the size of Indiana and located south of Tibet, is still, in some ways, a stronghold of centuries-old traditions, customs, and beliefs that seem deliciously romantic to busy, overindulged Westerners like myself. With a population of fewer than 800,000, the country is home to more than 2,000 monasteries and tens of thousands of monks who practice Mahayana Buddhism. Many villages are still only reachable by tiny, snaking footpaths through the mountains, and more than three quarters of the population still relies on the land for subsistence.

This quotidian life passes in front of a backdrop of wild and beautiful landscapes, including 20 peaks over 23,000 feet. More than 70 percent of the country is covered in forest and more than a third of the land is federally protected. The government places a premium on cultural and environmental preservation through the governing concept of Gross National Happiness. Instead of considering the impact of legislation on the economy, the king considers the impact on the culture and environment. The results of this seemingly impossible fairyland approach to government are real world policies, like the minimization of timber extraction to save the forests for future generations.

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