Last August I travelled to the happiest country in the world to attend Mountain Echoes, a literary festival now in its sixth edition.
It was my first trip to Bhutan, one I’d put off for years on principle because of the high advance fees (US$200-250 per person, per day, even for couples) necessary to obtain tourist visas. It’s not so much that I can’t afford it—after all the fees include accommodation, meals, and guide services—it’s just that I’m more comfortable making my own travel arrangements, wherever I go.
In this case the Bhutanese government provided me with a visa to attend the event as a journalist, thanks to the kind interventions of Mita Kapur, CEO of Siyahi, India’s leading literary consultancy. Mita also co-produces India’s legendary Jaipur Literary Festival, upon which Mountain Echoes is partially modelled.
On my own dime, I fly Druk Air, but almost don’t make it when the flight makes an unannounced—but not unscheduled, as it turns out—stop in Bagdogra, a town in West Bengal, India, on the Bhutanese border. Luckily after I unload my carry-on and start walking down the mobile stairs, a Druk flight attendant asks whether I intend to stay in India. I make a hasty retreat back to my seat, feeling a bit stupid. I make a note to look at Druk’s Bagdogra flight as a possible quick gateway to Darjeeling and Sikkim at a later date.
After the plane threads a series of steep mountain valleys to land at tiny Paro airport—one of the most difficult approaches in the world—the crisp, clear air is a welcome change from smog-hazed Bangkok.
After paying a $50 visa processing fee at immigration, I am met by a Bhutanese driver who leads me to his car for the 54-kilometre drive from Paro to Thimphu. The road follows a stunning river most of the way, passing fruit orchards, snow-clad mountains, farmhouses, and flag-streaming chortens (Vajrayana Buddhist stupas). Given the complete lack of factories, it’s easy to believe that agriculture and livestock contribute 45 per cent of Bhutan’s GNP.
Thimphu, Bhutan’s political and economic capital, presents a tidy arrangement of newish brick and stone buildings designed to imitate traditional Bhutanese architecture. Streets follow the gentle contours of the Raidak River valley at an elevation of around 2600 meters. Despite being the nerve centre of national government, the town engenders an air of calm, even though it’s the middle of a work day.
The festival has arranged for me to stay at Druk Hotel, a deluxe four-star which is very conveniently located alongside Clock Tower Square in the heart of the city. Beautifully decorated with Bhutanese art and textiles, the Druk is one of Bhutan’s larger hotels, though in any other country 53 rooms would be considered relatively small.
Before the festival begins, I decide to visit Thimphu Memorial Chorten, a huge gilded stupa built in 1974 to honour Jigme Dorji Wangchuck (1928–1972), the 3rd King of Bhutan. Classic Tibetan in style, the impressive vase-shaped stupa includes sculptures of 36 tantric deities coupling in yab-yum, which though seemingly erotic is actually a Tantric Buddhist expression of wisdom in union with compassion.
Over the next three days, the festival unfolds to reveal an astounding mix of literary minds who engage in intellectual and cultural dialogue on myriad subjects. Main venues for events included the Royal University of Bhutan, Tarayana Centre, the Taj Tashi Hotel, and Nehru Wangchuck Cultural Centre.
An initiative of the India-Bhutan Foundation, with support from the Government of Rajasthan, this year the festival coincides with year-long celebrations for the 60th birthday of the 4th Bhutanese king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck.
Bhutan’s Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck serves as royal host for the occasion. Although in Thailand I’m used to royal sponsorship of cultural events, here I’m surprised to see that Her Majesty attends the proceedings daily, acting both ceremonially and as an active intellectual participant.
As expected with Indian co-sponsorship, many of the speakers hail from the Subcontinent, including bestselling novelist Ashwin Sanghi, journalist Bahar Dutt, Bollywood filmmaker Rajkumar Hirani, and standup comedian Sorabh Pant. Aside from delivering a side-splitting comedy routine to a packed auditorium, Sorabh talks about his book, Under Delhi, which he described as a “bestseller—I’m trying my best to sell it.”
India-born-and-raised French actress Kalki Koechlin performs a monologue called “Just Another Rant,” revealing the contradictions of being a woman, a foreigner, and an actor in India. One afternoon I attend an exclusive screening of her ground-breaking 2009 film “Dev Das,” and I am briefly star-struck when Kalki herself stops by to introduce the picture.
Among the Bhutanese speakers are author Dasho Sherub Gyeltshen, wildlife conservationist Tshering Tempa, historian and meditation teacher Khenpo Phuntsok Khenpo Phuntsok Tashi, and the Queen Mother herself. I’m struck by the seeming unity of their message and their combined focus on Bhutan’s vaunted Gross National Happiness. One of the government ministers makes the staggering announcement that Bhutan intends for all agriculture to be organic by the year 2020.
Representing the West, mystical poet Rupert Arrowsmith speaks about how he became a Buddhist, before reciting his poem “The Way to Bhutan.” Meanwhile French sci-fi author Pierre Bordage joins children’s book author Lucy Hawking (daughter of Stephen Hawking) to discuss the idea that other worlds exist within our own imaginations whether or not they exist “out there.”
Kathmandu-based American photographer Thomas Kelly presents a marvellous slide show and lecture on Bhutanese architecture in support of his recent book Himalayan Style. The book sells out quickly in the sales tents and kiosks at each festival venue.
The liveliest presentation of the week features Rocky Singh and Mayur Sharma, hosts of the Indian foodie TV series “Highway on a Plate.” In conversation with witty columnist Suhel Seth, the high-energy duo talks about their 200,000-kilometre journey across India, eating local cuisines and street food with the philosophy “When in doubt, eat it.”
Without question, the week hits a peak when I’m invited to attend a private dinner hosted by Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck at the Royal Palace. A van picks me and other guests up at the Druk Hotel for a lengthy drive outside the city through a heavily forested area that serves as a wildlife reserve for the takin, Bhutan’s national animal. After passing through stately lamp-lit gates, we’re ushered into the royal garden, filled with tents, for a cocktail reception and live music. When introduced to Her Majesty, I’m offered a welcoming smile and a warm handshake, the simple hospitality of which leaves me feeling a bit overwhelmed.
After cocktails and wine, the party moves into the Queen Mother’s plush living quarters, filled with Bhutanese Buddhist art and antiques. The sumptuous buffet includes such Bhutanese delicacies as ema datshi, a tongue-tingling mix of local cheese and green chillies, hoentoe, buckwheat dumplings stuffed with turnip greens and cheese, and jasha maru, minced chicken, tomatoes, and highly aromatic spices.
The last two days I make an effort to get out on my own and see more of Thimphu. I track down Zombala, a humble eatery near the so-called Hong Kong Market reputed to serve the best momos in Bhutan. Sharing a table with an older Bhutanese man and two schoolgirls, I order a mixed plate of beef and vegetarian dumplings. Dunked into Zombala’s homemade chilli sauce, they’re the best momos I’ve ever tasted, no question.
At Clock Tower Square, I catch an early evening performance by
North East Breeze, a well-known fusion band from Guwahati, India. The steps above the square are packed with locals, who loudly cheer every song.
Another night I follow Rocky and Mayur to an infamous live music bar called Mojo Park. Local bands Sunny and The Leones, The Back Beads, and The Baby Boomers take turns commanding the stage while we enjoy too many bottles of Red Panda beer and Druk 11000 malt liquor.
By the time I board the Druk Air flight back to Bangkok—this time with no stopover in Bagdogra—I’m making plans to return to the Land of the Thunder Dragon. I can’t say whether Bhutan is the world’s happiest country, but for the time being I’m the world’s happiest man.