PARO, Bhutan — When I told my three boys, ages 14, 12, and 9, that we were going to the tiny Asian nation of Bhutan last summer, my eldest looked at me earnestly, and said, “Mom, no offense, but I’m just not a developing world kind of kid.” I understood his alarm. Summer is hard-won downtime, a period when lounging, video games, and milkshakes take priority. His idea of kicking back did not include traveling halfway around the world to a country with yaks, weird food, and little in the way of Internet connectivity.
But two months later we were craning for our first glimpse of the Himalayas as our Drukair flight began its descent. Landing in Paro, the site of Bhutan’s only international airport and until last year its only airport, is breathtaking and heart stopping. Pilots follow a tight line, swooping between towering, pine-covered ranges before dropping onto the tiny airstrip. It looked impossible, yet minutes later we were on the tarmac. Standing under cornflower blue skies and feeling the sear of the sun, I looked over at my eldest and caught him grinning.
Bhutan is a place of seeming contradictions, with a landscape both raw and stunning, a climate that dips from alpine to subtropical, and weather that can freeze, soak, and bake you all in a day. Even its nickname, Shangri-la, bares a certain irony. Though exquisitely beautiful, Bhutan is a developing nation, a fact quickly impressed upon any tourist who motors about the country’s road system. Bouncing from pothole to pothole in a tired rental vehicle that strained to emit any puff of air conditioning, we spent 10 days traveling to the capital, Thimphu, down through the lush Punahka Valley, on to the higher elevations of Gangtey and Phobjika, then back to Paro where the Tiger’s Nest monastery is located.
I was there to study Gross National Happiness, the country’s ambitious development program that seeks to balance economic growth with societal well-being. My children were there because I wanted them to experience a country that until 1974 was closed to tourism, a place guidebooks often describe as medieval, and one where we encountered not one American during our stay. Then again, it was low season.
Our trip was punctuated with moments that seemed carved out of a National Geographic special. Shortly after arrival, for instance, our guide TP whisked the boys into a local fabric store. They walked in wearing shorts and T-shirts and emerged sheathed in ghos, the sashed knee-length robes that are the national dress of Bhutan. Outfitted accordingly, the boys attended school, once at a village primary and another time at a Save the Children-funded elementary in a remote part of the country.
Sitting in on classes, my 12-year-old pointed to posters that illustrated tessellations and order of operations, math concepts that he had learned just months before. At recess, the boys ran about the mud-caked yard playing tag and performing elaborate high-fives. I sipped ginger tea with the heads of school and teachers and talked about the goal of universal primary education and their curriculum, recently revamped by a team of Canadian researchers. Modern education was only introduced in the 1960s and 48 percent of the population, mostly older adults, remains illiterate. We came away fascinated and humbled.
Along the way, we spent a night at a family farmhouse, sitting cross-legged on mats drinking butter tea and eating flattened rice and chanterelles foraged that day. For bed, we curled up on mattresses, the older boys in the family’s prayer room with golden Buddhas.
By day, we grooved to Bhutanese pop music in our van and took long treks through rice fields and farmland before veering up into the mountains. The peaks were almost all dotted with a temple or monastery. We got into the spirit of things by meditating on the balcony of a four-story temple, but the dramatic views of Bhutan’s valleys and the rushing rivers that carved them soon proved irresistible to our untrained minds.
In this heavily Buddhist land, we were told happiness can exist only in the context of suffering. Descending from the precipitously perched Tiger’s Nest monastery on our final day, we got caught in a rainstorm. Soaked and chilled and with muscles groaning from the stiff climb, we stumbled into a tiny monastic hut to ride out the storm.
Inside, we warmed ourselves in the glow of 200-plus prayer candles and giggled when steam began rising off our clothing. Feeling better, my 14-year-old hummed a few bars from Journey. Soon the four of us were belting out “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” a capella-style before the hut’s owner, a delightful and kind elderly monk.
Back home, we spilled out the contents of our backpacks and found a disk of Bhutanese pop songs our driver Kezang had made for us. A handwritten title read “The Happy Tour.” The boys looked up and we smiled. It was.