Embracing Buddhism in Bhutan

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As a wildlife photographer I have a front row seat for the World Conservation Olympics. While other nations struggle to live in harmony with nature, I think the small, relatively unknown Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan may be the underdog that wins the gold medal. During my Bhutan adventure, I learned a lot about Buddhism and its relationship with nature. I also learned a lot about myself. 

Gross National Happiness (a complex index of the nation’s well-being), does not just apply to people, but also to animals. It seems to me that the animals of Bhutan are very happy, and this happiness appears to be the envy of intelligent animals in neighbouring states. Researchers are finding that increasingly, tigers are crossing the border from India and coming to live in Bhutan – if this is illegal migration, the Bhutanese don’t seem to mind.

In Tango, just outside the capital Thimphu, my guide Dashi showed me a photo of a tiger seen sauntering down the road just a week before. But, it’s not just tigers that are popping up. Dashi told me that elephants cross over into Bhutan every night from Assam, where poachers are active, and then cross back into their home territory in the morning. Somehow, even the elephants know that killing animals in Bhutan is illegal and punishable by life in prison. 

Bhutan is a preserve for some of our planet’s most rare animals including snow leopards, tigers, red pandas, and moon bears. Impressively, 72 per cent of the country consists of protected habitat. The happiness of these ecologically diverse habitats has also been ensured. The first thing I noticed was that, apart from Manas National Park, all the other national parks in Bhutan lack any kind of infrastructure. The only way to traverse these vast wilderness areas is on foot. This has a two-fold effect: it makes Bhutan the ideal destination for hiking and long treks into pristine landscapes; and it means wildlife is protected, not just by law, but also by inaccessibility.  As a wildlife photographer, this was both exasperating and exhilarating. Here I was in a country teeming with one of the most diverse and plentiful populations of fauna in the world, but actually seeing any of it required luck. 

Wildlife photographers don’t like relying on luck. Shoots are usually planned around predictable events such as migration, feeding and mating. Every ethical means is employed to increase the quality and duration of contact: hides, stands, trackers, and helicopters. In Bhutan, connecting with nature is simply more natural. I had to let go of the obsession pounding in the heart of every wildlife fanatic. The need to ‘just let go’ was evident from the start when I realised my guide, Anjana, was very knowledgeable about Bhutan’s culture and history but she did not know much about Bhutan’s animals. This was very different from most of my trips where my guides are indigenous trackers, expert in locating wildlife. Instead of being focused, I had to be open. This was not going to be easy! 

At the Cheri Monastery, perched at an altitude of 2850 metres in Jigme Dorji National Park, I entered the temple and opened my heart and mind to the possibility of relinquishing control. The monk opened the palm of his hand to me and I took the sacred dice and rolled it for good luck. 

Despite my new-found Zen, I must confess the intoxication I felt during the steep hike down when I spotted a mother Himalayan Goral (mountain goat), and her baby on a rocky ledge. The mum lovingly licked her baby, who reciprocated by climbing on top of the mother’s head. All new mothers can feel they are teetering on the edge, but this mother was literally on a precipice, barely holding on, tolerating her ever-energetic youngster’s antics. These rare moments with an elusive maternal couplet were heavenly. Whether it was high altitude light-headedness or the practice of mindfulness, my experience was intense. 

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Although I tried to embrace the Buddhist teaching of not forming attachments, I still desperately hoped that the road less travelled from Tronsga to Tingtibi, via Zhemgang, would yield wildlife sightings. Following the rim of Djime Synge Wangchuck National Park, my driver, Sunam, cheerfully headed south on the impossibly narrow, one lane ‘highway’. There is literally no room for road rage here! The road twists and writhes like a deranged snake as it clings perilously to the mountain edge. Every turn is a blind corner. All the drivers proceed slowly and courteously – another expression of Buddhist philosophy or plain common sense? 

Road works to upgrade the highway added the charm of an obstacle course to the journey. Parts of the mountain had fallen onto the road and parts of the road had fallen down the mountain. Legend has it that Black Mountain Forest used to be inhabited by a vicious demon that was subdued centuries ago, but Anjana said she still felt the demon’s presence and would not suggest travelling on this stretch of road at night. I quite agree! 

The long hours on this road paid off and we spotted three different troupes of golden langurs. Furry cream youngsters played and squabbled. I captured them swinging away on vines to escape or to drop in on an unsuspecting playmate. Sometimes, the playmate reached up to sabotage a manoeuvre by pulling on that irresistibly long thick furry tail.  There were games of chasey up and down trees, and great feats of leaping from branch to branch. A mum with her tiny orange baby was very loving and protective; allowing the baby to explore a little but then taking him into her arms when he ventured too far. 

Anjana had never seen golden langurs before and she was absolutely besotted and delighted. Now I was the guide and she was discovering another world within her own country.  Wildlife photography is usually all about staying very still and very quiet, but Anjana could hardly contain her enthusiasm as she raced towards the langurs, pointing and calling out.  This had a predictable effect on the langurs. Clearly these wild animals were totally unhabituated to the presence of humans. I soon learned (and beseeched Anjana) to maintain a substantial distance from them, otherwise they would become alarmed and rapidly disappear into the thick foliage.

Reaching the village of Tingtibi at dusk, we were greeted by a tree heavy with golden langur families getting ready for bed. It was becoming dark, and I was so exhausted from 10 hours of treacherous travel I felt I didn’t have the strength to lift my camera and heavy 100-400mm lens. Usually, this would never deter me – I would just will myself to find that extra bit of energy. But, there is something about Bhutan that gave me permission to just sit by the tree and surrender myself to the experience. In that moment I had no purpose or goal other than to witness something beautiful. 

Tingtibi is only known to the most passionate birders and is very much off the beaten track. Anjana had never been there before, but the queen of networking started to chat with a local man sitting on a porch and he just happened to be a birding guide. The next morning, we were up at dawn and had the most wonderful five-hour amble in a forest alive with the sounds of birds warbling, laughing, chirping, tweeting, twittering, crowing, cooing, singing, shrieking, and, in the case of the red hornbill, barking. Then, to top it off, I heard a barking deer actually bark. 

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After the euphoria of my wildlife fix, we returned to Paro. I reverted to a bit of old fashioned retail therapy and bought an exquisite antique Buddha. Anjana was very excited and said we would take my Buddha on our high altitude climb up to Tiger’s Nest (Taktsang) to be blessed by a monk. The hike up to Taktsang is one of life’s great experiences. I saw people of all shapes, ages, nationalities and fitness levels walking together; in a spirit of adventure and breathlessness. Some hikers sported the latest trekking gear, and some made the rainy, muddy ascent in a sari and thongs. The blessing of my Buddha is a memory I will always cherish. Anjana, like most Bhutanese, is deeply religious. I am not a religious person, but what was holy for me was the genuine affection and honour she bestowed on me through this gift.

Buddhism is the key to unlocking the soul of Bhutan. Perhaps thousands of monks meditating many times a day have a real effect on the psyche of a nation. The monasteries of Bhutan may be remote and inaccessible, but the monks are not. I was struck by the unique relationship the people seem to have with the highly respected monks. I witnessed a beautiful combination of reverence tempered with familiarity and affection – I guess you could call it love. There are approximately 10,000 monks in Bhutan and I think Anjana, an irrepressible chatterbox, knows every one of them! 

Anjana could not pass anyone without having a conversation. At first, stopping to talk to people (instead of locating animals) was a little frustrating for me, but I met so many wonderful people, including the man walking down the road carrying a new-born calf. He explained that the mother had been so traumatised by the birth she had abandoned her baby and he now had to be the mother. “She is a first-time mother. She will do better next time”, he said gently

Wherever we went, I spoke (through Anjana) to people bound together through Buddhism and a conviction that government policy is underpinned by respect for all living things. If a country can have a soul and a conscience, I felt it most tangibly in Bhutan. I experienced the spiritual presence of nature itself while hiking through a misty forest of pink and red rhododendron at Dochula Pass. The high-altitude vapour was so delicious and cool, I could feel my lungs expanding to accept this gift and felt the thin air infusing my brain with a natural high. 

At the end of my odyssey, was I frustrated because I hadn’t seen a snow leopard or a red panda? No. I saw extraordinary temples and was awed by meditations of monks bowed in silent contemplation. Cascades of maroon-robed monks dazzled me as they poured down the steps of monasteries. I laughed with men and woman barely older than me; their faces carved and chiselled by a harsh climate and a harsh life. They were also the fittest people I will ever meet, including the sixty-year old woman who hikes up and down Taktsang twice a day with packs of horses! I mastered the ancient art of making a bowl sing – it took a whole afternoon of learning to relax, while putting enormous pressure on myself to succeed. I was reminded that seeing truly wild animals is an extraordinary privilege, not an agenda.

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For me, this had been a very different kind of adventure. Instead of the usual emphasis on pushing myself physically, the challenges were more psychological and spiritual. As a psychologist, I teach and practice mediation and mindfulness, and incorporate it into my busy life. In Bhutan, meditation and mindfulness is not just something you do; it is the essence of where you are and who you are. Its something akin to the feeling I get in Sydney when I occasionally meditate at a Buddhist temple and experience the power of communal meditation. I think in the wild, the total absorption and wonder I feel may also be a kind of meditation. Bhutan just turns the dial up on contemplating the vastness of the untouched physical and metaphysical landscape. 

Perhaps my next challenge will be to work out how to hold on to my Zen once I return home and begin planning my next trip as I effortlessly seduce a song out of my singing bowl. What is undeniable is that, as a photographer, I have expanded my horizons. In Bhutan, I took almost as many shots of monks as of monkeys. 

As our human population increases, sharing the planet with other species is one of our greatest challenges. What brought me the most joy in Bhutan is the fact that this is one of the last remaining protected, pristine wilderness regions in the world. Here, wild animals have nothing to fear from humans. The geography has dictated a humble way of life and the people, in turn, nurture their little piece of the Himalayas. 

I discovered that Bhutan is beautiful by nature.

Trip notes:

To apply for a Visa to visit Bhutan, you must be part of a tour and a guide must accompany you throughout your stay (which is a lovely way to get a real insight into Bhutan.) You can join an organised tour, form your own group or travel by yourself. Visit https://www.tourism.gov.bt for lists of recommended tours and guides.


Michelle Lawford travelled as a guest of Tourism Council of Bhutan. She had a fabulous luxury stop-over in Bangkok as a guest of Como Metropolitan, and was treated to their famous Shambhala Spa massage and Glow wellness cuisine. 


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