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Where Wealth ≠ Happiness

Story by Peter Fabricius October 8th, 2015

On my Druk Air flight into Paro, I started reading an article in the in-flight magazine about Bhutan possibly being “the best place in the world”. At first it seemed painfully generic, but by the time we started our descent, I was three quarters through, and realised that the article was about Bhutan’s unexampled commitment to slow growth and low impact of development on its environment, people, and ancient values.


See, the Bhutanese live by what the locals call “gyal-yong ga‘a-kyid pal-‘dzoms”. In English, “Gross National Happiness” (GNH). The phrase was coined in 1972 by Bhutan‘s fourth Dragon King, as a signal of commitment to building an economy that would serve Bhutan‘s culture based on Buddhist spiritual values, instead of the western material development that was represented by gross domestic product.

In short: wealth ≠ happiness.

I see different translations of this message almost every day, on my Facebook, Instagram, or Pinterest feeds. Heaps of them. A folk-filtered photo taken from someone’s open tent, with a text overlay reading along the lines of “I’ll rather have a passport filled with stamps, than a house filled with things”. Let me be frank, I love those posts. I also Like them. I also like “things”. This is not a rant about online content trends. I’m merely expressing my admiration for the fact that the very concept idolised by the world as the true pursuit of happiness, has been implemented by Bhutan as an official development policy. They live and breathe it. Every day. And I felt it the moment I stepped off the plane.


If you’re looking for reasons to visit Bhutan, exceptional encounters with nature should be at the top of your list. A day hike to Tiger’s Nest Monastery in Paro introduced me to this incredible landscape. Pine-covered hills as far as you can see, with Dzongs peeking out here and there (It’s fascinating to think that 60% of the country will remain covered by natural forest, by order of the king). It is one of the most challenging monasteries to get to. Located at an elevation of over 10,000 feet, Taktsang is the birthplace of Bhutanese Buddhism.


I did the hike with 3 new friends, one of whom is a talented tour guide. I mostly learned about Bhutan’s history and vegetation, until we approached Tiger’s Nest, when the topic quickly shifted to pilgrimage and spirituality. He shared Buddhist beliefs and thoughts on reincarnation, I shared my thoughts on grace, and what it’s like to believe in Jesus.

Mutual respect is like currency in Bhutan.

The monastery itself is something to behold. Built on the edge of a cliff in the 16th century, no one’s exactly sure how it was engineered back then. A temporary cable way had to be built for repairs, after a fire damaged parts of the structure in 1998.


On the walk down, we passed a few groups of monks, young and old. I saw a couple of other tourists on the trail, including a guy I met on the flight in, but never lost the feeling of isolation, nor got used to the overwhelming presence of our heart-stopping surrounds. Back at the base, we drove into town in search of lunch. Starved from the climb, we wolfed down a pizza. This was beyond the point of strictly eating local cuisine. I needed carbs. The restaurant’s owner sat with us for a while, and when I asked for the bill, replied with a cool but friendly“It’s on karma”.


From there we walked Paro’s streets (there aren’t many), strolled through rows of incense and spices in a noisy market, met a young Bhutanese Elvis, and visited a traditional farm house. I briefly made a fool of myself in a basket ball game, and saw someone throw a huge dart at a target 45 feet away - a local pastime, comparable to archery.


There’s an incredible sense of peace and community in Bhutan, unlike what I’ve experienced anywhere else. I found it fascinating to see a nation that have been exposed to more development in the past 50 years, than in the previous 500 years combined, living in such fellowship. Exposed to the consumerism and trends of new media, yet firmly grounded in an ancient value system that contradicts it.



Ariya Hotel for Accommodation in Thimpu

The Resort at Ravens Nest for Accommodation Paro

Yeoong Tours and Travel for travel arrangements and guiding

A special thanks to Mr Karma Chime.

Footnote: Date travelled: July 2015
Paro, Bhutan