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The happiest valley in Bhutan

by Catherine Marshall
Monk Bhutan
Residents of Bhutan’s most beautiful valley exemplify the country’s quest for happiness.

The valleys of Bhutan stretch open in gaping smiles. Descending into the valley of Paro where the airport is located, it feels as though those little patchwork fields are opening their arms in welcome. There’s something intractably happy about this Himalayan kingdom where measures for economic development are eschewed in favour of a far more meaningful index: Gross National Happiness.

That’s not to say grumpiness is non-existent here. In the valley of Phobjika, I meet a group of children walking home from school. One of the girls is jubilant, her face split open in a broad and contagious smile; a second girl scowls along with the boys. I can’t blame them: after all, they must walk long distances up and down mountains to get to and from school each day.

The happiness project

Instead, the population’s happiness – their wellbeing and sense of contentment – is measured collectively, a kind of happiness project enshrined as a goal in the country’s constitution in 2008. All those little moments of peacefulness and compassion and gratitude are added together until they comprise a great, big, happy whole.

Setting the scene for this affirmative approach to life are the king and queen of this mountainous hamlet, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and his wife, Jetsun Pema. Their framed smiles beam pacifically from the walls of homes and shops, temples and monasteries and hotel lobbies. The locals’ unreserved love of their royal family helps to undergird, no doubt, this prevailing sense of serenity.

And so the monks at the Gangteng Gompa monastery in Phobjika Valley are smiling as the bells resound across the terraced basin. The mites playing soccer with their teacher are laughing and squealing as they kick the ball high into the air. The children clambering uphill on their way home from school will soon be happy again, too, for food and family and rest awaits them.

Phobjika Valley Bhutan
Phobjika Valley, the happiest and most beautiful valley in Bhutan. Photo: Catherine Marshall

Receiving a blessing from a black crane

And so they should be, says my guide Jimba Phuntsho, for remote though this valley is, the people who live here are the happiest in all of Bhutan. They have everything they could possibly need: a road leading into the valley from Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, which has been widened and sealed so that it’s no longer obstructed with snow in the dead of winter. Farmland so fertile it overflows with crops and produces so many potatoes farmers must export their leftovers. A superfluity of wildlife: sambar, wild boars, Himalayan black bear, leopards and the vulnerable black-necked cranes which arrive at the end of autumn from their summering haunt on the Tibetan Plateau.

The cranes’ presence foretells a good harvest; when the first bird is glimpsed on the thermals, cries of relief wash up from the valley. So revered are they, when electricity finally arrived in the valley it was buried underground so as not to interfere with their flight.

And then there are the vistas, the valley bowl striped with crops, the mountains rising in a protective cup around it, the pitched-roofed houses with bright-painted phallic carvings invoking fertility dotted all about the farmland, and the silvery Chhu Nap River coiling through it all.

“They live in the most beautiful valley in Bhutan,” Jimba says.

As for me? I’m positively exultant, for happiness, it turns out, is contagious. I’ve come to the happiest valley in all of happy Bhutan, and it has set me aglow with gratitude. TTW

Catherine Marshall stayed at the award-winning Gangtey Lodge and was a guest of the Tourism Council of Bhutan, the Unique Tourism Collection and the Classic Safari Company.

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