Bhutan is a place which has retained its magic: wild tigers still roam the mountains, people still practice traditional Buddhist ways of life, and happiness continues to permeate the culture.
In today’s world of rapid development and rising modernization, it is becoming increasingly rare to be able to experience a place that truly feels off the beaten path. With tourism rates surging worldwide, going to a country that has only recently opened its borders is truly a once in a lifetime experience. That is what made the SFS program in Bhutan so thrilling and exclusive. Like a sighting of a Yeti, having the opportunity to visit Bhutan was something that excited me beyond words. However, despite my exhilaration, I will admit that when I boarded that plane, I had no clue what to expect. From endless bowls of rice to traffic-stopping cows, to interesting sculptures, Bhutan was a journey of plot twists and surprises. The tiny Himalayan kingdom was completely different from anything I had ever experienced.
Firstly, the nature of Bhutan is mind-boggling and breathtaking with its grandiose peaks and emerald forests. Hiking up to the top of peaks like Bumdra, you emerge above the cloud line and white cotton ball clouds spread out below you, obscuring the valley. You feel like you can touch the sky. It seems so close- like you could reach up and run your fingers through the blue. And the beauty of the views is indescribable and comparable only to a Bob Ross painting. Lush green forests blanket the peaks, icy snowmelt rivers weave through the valleys, white temples dot the cliffs, and massive mountains rise and obscure the horizon. The peaks stretch into the sky until they are hidden by the clouds, so you can only see half of the landmass. Craning my neck up, looking at these behemoths of land and forest and cloud, it is easy to understand why the Bhutanese believe that dragons and deities live at the peaks of these mountains. I can understand why they refuse to climb them for fear of offending deities and why they regard the land up there as sacred and pure. Obscured by their veils of clouds, the mountains are rendered mysterious and ethereal. Not only are the landscapes of Bhutan enchanting, but the people are also an absolute delight. The Bhutanese possess this innate sparkle. They are a people that love to laugh and smile and are always cracking jokes and teasing one another. When you walk down the street, they give you a beaming smile and cheerfully call out, “Kuzuzangpo la!” (which is Dzongka for “hello”). I have never before met a group of people so friendly to outsiders and so accepting of people trying to learn their ways. I now understand the country’s idea of Gross National Happiness as everyone here seems to have a smile permanently affixed to their face. Their happiness is contagious and infectious and infiltrates your experience, making every long hike and dusty walk through town infinitely more enjoyable.
SFS Bhutan was the epitome of this happiness. From karaoke performances, to Just Dance nights, to arguments about the existence of the infamous Yeti, to humorous discussions over bowls of ema datshi (Bhutan’s traditional dish of cheese and chilis), and chilly camping mornings spent sipping mugs of milk tea, this program taught me that adventures can still be found in the far-flung corners of the world. This program fully immersed us in the culture and way of life of the country. Bhutan is a place still entrenched within its centuries-old traditions and myths. As Professor PBC would gleefully sing every time “Country Roads” played during our bus rides, “Life is old there, older than the trees, younger than the mountains, growin’ like a breeze.” And there’s a sense of that in Bhutan. The way of life is old here: a place where compassion and Buddhist culture continue to reign despite any modernizations and developments.
One of the Dzongka words that stuck with me from a class lecture was the Dzongkha word for “very,” which translates to “Na mey sa mey ley shom.” The beautiful part of this is that it means “beyond sky and beyond earth” (probably invented due to the sky-reaching nature of the mountains). But this phrase perfectly describes my experience in Bhutan: it was beyond the sky and the earth with its immersion in nature, cultural authenticity, and life-changing spirituality. I met the most inspiring and adventurous students here: students who weren’t afraid to hop on a plane to travel to a remote kingdom on the other side of the globe, and who were constantly positive and uplifting with their buoyant personalities. And the professors were just as cheerful and intrepid, with Dr. Kuenga being the first anthropologist in Bhutan, and Dr. Tempa capturing photos of leopards and tigers and bears (oh my!), and Dr. PBC knowing the name of every plant that grew on the mountains. I will forever remember the people I met during this trip with a smile on my face.
Bhutan is a place which has retained its magic: wild tigers still roam the mountains, people still practice traditional Buddhist ways of life, and happiness continues to permeate the culture. I feel honored to have been able to experience a taste of this magic and study in such a unique place.
Curious about the SFS Bhutan Center? Click here to read about why we’re based there, our environmental research focus, how we connect and support the local community, and even take a tour of the Center.