It’s claimed that the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan is the happiest place on the earth. Shaftesbury resident David Grierson knows this. He’s been there, seen it and he’s got the T-shirt!
David rolled up his jumper to reveal his souvenir top proclaiming ‘Gross National Happiness’. He’ll be wearing it when he shares his anecdotes and images at a fundraiser at St John’s Church in Enmore Green on Friday.
Bhutan exudes a sense of calm and contentment, compared to its neighbours. “We flew to an airport just outside the capital, Thimphu. The contrast between Kathmandu in Nepal and Bhutan was extraordinary. Kathmandu is chaotic, busy and dirty. Bhutan is anything but all of those things,” said David. “It’s calm, peaceful and very clean. It’s a spiritual place because of its location.”
Any nervous flyer arriving in this landlocked mountainous state might be grateful for this soothing atmosphere. Paro Airport features one of the most dangerous landing approaches in the world. “We knew about this after we’d landed,” said David. “We were told there were only eight pilots licensed to be able to land there. Fortunately, we got one of those eight. It was more noticeable at take-off. It spirals a little bit because it is in a deep valley. It needs to corkscrew and go upwards. It was slightly unnerving.”
David describes Bhutan’s architecture was ‘dazzling’. “Certainly, it was very striking. You may have seen pictures of something called the Tiger’s Nest. They are called dzongs. This one is perched right on the cliff edge.”
David says travellers usually visit as part of an organised tour because tourism was heavily regulated when he went to Bhutan, four years ago. “I think it would be difficult to get there unless you went with a tour group,” he said. “They required you to spend a certain amount of money every day and they don’t encourage backpackers. It’s a destination for well-heeled, middle-class travellers or explorers.”
Whilst David enjoyed his visit it’s unlikely he will return. “It could be, on the surface of it, really quite an idyllic place to live but I think that boredom would settle in quite heavily. The nature there is quite wonderful with many areas that are reserves for migrating birds and rare animals.”
David soon recognised that Bhutan is a very different sort of destination by observing some of the signs he saw on the drive from the airport to the capital. “’Inconvenience regretted’, was one of the signs I particularly liked. ‘Life is a journey, complete it’ was another. These are official road signs.”
The country practises an offshoot of Tibetan Buddhism. “There is evidence of religion absolutely everywhere. It’s a, ‘That’s what you do religion’. It’s a way of doing everything, a form of good manners,” said David.
And he says, as far as he knows, Bhutan is a safe place, although he was advised to arrange vaccinations against rabies. “There were a lot of dogs there. They were no particular trouble to us.”
The country is classed as one of the least developed nations, but David says he didn’t pick up a sense of poverty. “The Bhutanese themselves are quite a reserved nation. They maintain an aura, not of arrogance but of a slight superiority. All the rough work is done by immigrant labour, particularly Bengalis. Men, women and children dig the roads while the Bhutanese look on benignly,” said David.
The former king, notable for marrying four sisters, devised the concept of gross national happiness. “It’s not just a vague concept of how good you feel. There are ten different dimensions which have measurable indicators. Education is at the heart of it and then there’s health, rural development, communications, ecology, cultural heritage, governance and well-being. They’re all measured out of ten. They compare themselves with other countries. They regard themselves to be the happiest nation in the world.” David says that people are not going around being ‘jolly and laughing all the time’, but they seem content. “There is that sense of general well-being.”
He took lots of pictures and he says visitors appreciate the country’s Himalayan setting, with the stunning backdrop of the capital. “I’ve taken some wonderful photographs of fertile valleys and ice-capped mountains. It is very much the ‘Shangri-La’ lost horizon style.”
David says he could show up to forty images during his talk, but it is his snap of the Dochula Pass which is his favourite. “It’s got part of a monastic temple in the foreground. Over a valley, which you can’t see, are snow-capped mountains bathing in the sunshine.”
David’s talk, ‘In Search of Shangri La’ is a fundraiser for St John’s Church in Enmore Green. It takes place on Friday, 25th October. Doors open at 6.30pm for a 7pm start. The £8 tickets are available from Jo Churchill or the Tourist Information Centre on Bell Street.