Bhutan’s tourism tag-line is “Happiness is a place” and certainly there are few other countries in the world quite so rooted in a sense of place as Bhutan. This is a place of mountain peaks and frozen glaciers, of fast-flowing rivers and pristine lakes, of forests full of fragrant pine trees and ancient cypress and at this time of year, valleys abundant with rhododendron, magnolia and cherry blossom.
What is striking about this, however, is the melding of nature with culture in Bhutan. The Bhutanese people are influenced by the Buddhist philosophy of interdependence – the concept that everything in the universe is connected and, therefore, our actions and behaviours impact everything around us. As a result, they carefully consider the impact of their actions on the those around them, the wider society and the environment. This is evident in the generous hospitality they show to guests across the country and in their displays of compassion towards all sentient beings.
These Buddhist values shape everyday life, particularly non-violence towards animals and taking only what is needed from the forests and rivers and valleys, and have resulted in a landscape where people and wildlife thrive side by side. Where big changes to the environment need to take place, such as major infrastructure projects, they are preceded by an environmental impact assessment and also by rituals and offerings to appease the local spirits and deities. Fishing is banned (exceptions require a special permit and are allowed on a ‘catch and release’ basis only) mountains are considered to be the home of local deities and therefore holy and not to be climbed or conquered (Bhutan is home to Gangkhar Puensum which at 7,570m is the world’s highest unclimbed mountain) and there are strict laws pertaining to how much wood can be felled from the forests every year. In fact, it has been legislated that more than 70% of the country must remain under forest cover at any one time and this large amount of tree cover means Bhutan absorbs more carbon dioxide than it produces. As a result Bhutan is currently the only country in the world that is carbon negative.
Through these practices the Bhutanese have nurtured a culture that places equal importance on the spiritual, emotional and cultural needs of the people as much as their material well-being. This way of life is encapsulated in the concept of “Gross National Happiness” and central to the concept are the spiritual and cultural traditions of the Bhutanese which are deeply rooted in a reverence for nature. Through this policy, Bhutan recognises the need to keep alive traditional values that maintain a harmonious balance between economic development, environmental conservation and the preservation of cultural heritage.
Walking in Bhutan’s pristine forests and breathing in the clear mountain air, hiking to a remote monastery through corridors of rhododendron or camping alongside a turquoise lake believed to be the abode of spirits (and as such never to be polluted) are experiences that provide a powerful connection to nature, a connection that invigorates and rejuvenates and restores something deep within us. Such experiences teach us how to restore balance and harmony not only to our own lives but to the entire world. As Bhutan’s previous Prime Minister, Lyonpo Tshering Tobgay said in his 2016 TED Talk,
“I invite you to help me carry this dream beyond our borders, to all those who care about our planet’s future. After all, we’re here to dream together, to work together, to fight climate change together, to protect our planet together. Because the reality is we are in it together.”
If Bhutan wears the crown for caring for the environment, then Phobjikha Valley is the jewel in that crown. Phobjikha Valley is one of the largest, high-altitude wetlands in Bhutan, situated on the western slopes of Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Bhutan’s borders have had to remain closed for quite some time now, meaning that we haven’t been able to welcome any of you to experience our great nation. During these hard times, while we have been able to keep our whole team employed on rotation, there has been a lot of free time away from the lodge for our team to utilise. We asked some of our team members to share what they have been doing during this time.