Photography by Linda Leaming
Linda Leaming is an American writer who over 20 years ago moved to Bhutan, married a Bhutanese thangka painter and wrote two books about her life and passion for this tiny Buddhist country in the Himalayas.
You are originally from Nashville, Tennessee in the US – what made you first visit and then move to Bhutan?
It was in the early 1990’s. I had some Bhutanese friends that I met at the UN in New York, who encouraged me to visit. When I first came I was really blown away by the place. I like to travel but Bhutan is just like no other place I’ve ever been to. I came back again in 1994 and 1995, 1996 and then in 1997, the government allowed me to come and teach English at the cultural school outside of the capital, Thimphu. I wasn’t a trained teacher and I can’t say I was a great one, but it was such a great experience and I’ve been here ever since – now going on 23 years.
Bhutan used to be the world’s best kept secret.It remained untouched by foreign influence until 1974. What effect do you think this isolation has had on the country?
I would say it effects it in every way. First of all, it is just really hard to get here. No other country is so isolated and ethereal. It is surrounded by mountains and even today there’s very little that can come in or go out of Bhutan because it’s so remote. Even the planes that fly in have to be very small to be able to stop and start very quickly in these small valleys. You really have to want to get here. It is also an ecological hotspot. Within this small area (100 miles north to south and 200 miles east to west) there is every conceivable climate zone, from glaciers in the north to temperate in the middle and rainforest in the south. Bhutan was also never colonized which has helped them keep their culture intact.
painting by Phurba Namgay
Bhutan is still relatively untouched by mass tourism and it is deliberate, isn’t it?
Travel in Bhutan is very restricted. You can’t just come into the country. The government requires tourists to pay a day rate of $250, which covers accommodation, transport, a guide, food and entry fees. This helps protect Bhutan’s fragile environment. They don’t want people wandering around the country because it is so precarious and also because it can be dangerous as there’s not a lot of infrastructure once you get outside of the capital city. And you wouldn’t want to either; Bhutanese guides are very knowledgeable and drivers are some of the best in the world. Tourism is such a good source of income but it needs to be controlled. In Bhutan they prefer a high impact, low volume approach to tourism.
If there is one thing Bhutan is known for, it is happiness. Bhutan measures prosperity by gauging its citizens’ happiness levels, not the GDP. But what does the Gross National Happiness actually mean, and how is it measured?
It was in the early 1970’s when a very young King of Bhutan Jigme Singye Wangchuck during an interview said that for his people he would rather have Gross National Happiness than Gross National Product. It could possibly be a tongue in cheek comment, but the Bhutanese government really embraced the idea of GNH as a measure of people’s well-being. They use fairly elaborate charts to measure it but mainly it is based on four pillars: good governance, equitable economic development, cultural preservation, and environmental conservation. Is Bhutan a super happy place? I don’t know. But I do know there is a lot of well-being here and the Bhutanese do realize what they have is very valuable. The money is secondary to well-being.
You actually wrote a book A Field Guide to Happiness. It is not a typical self-help book, because it is based on your personal experiences in living both in Bhutan and US. How has living in Bhutan changed you as a person and changed your approach to life?
My husband Namgay and I used to divide time between Bhutan and US, spending a few months here and a few months there. My editor wanted to know what I learned in Bhutan and how I translated it to life elsewhere. Namgay is a painter and I am a writer. We live pretty basically and I think this can give a lot of well-being if you can live simply. The book highlights things that give us that peace of mind and make us more content with our lives. I think humour is really the key. One of the reasons I was so compelled by Bhutan in the first place is that the Bhutanese have a really good sense of humour and they laugh a lot.
In your other book Married to Bhutan you write that the main thing you loved about the country when you first visited, was “the way Bhutanese refused to be controlled by the clock” Can you elaborate on that please?
Well, it is one thing I love and also one thing I don’t really like. Time is so fluid here. They call it Bhutan Stretchable Time. Americans are very chronic about being on time. When we have an appointment, we’ll come 10 minutes early. In Bhutan, as long as you’re within a couple of hours either way, you’re good.
Your husband Namgay is Bhutanese and in both of your books you often talk about your relationship. At the beginning of your marriage you wrote that “you were poles apart on so many things, and both of you had to change and adapt almost everything you did”. What would you say are the biggest challenges faced by intercultural relationships like yours?
Oh, I don’t know… food, culture, clothing…. It would be interesting to hear what he has to say. I definitely gave him a lot of problems and I had meltdowns. But I always felt that since I was American and I was coming into this new culture, a very complex culture, I had to do more of the bending so to speak, to the Bhutanese way of doing things. And I think that’s a really good way to go about the world; be a guest everywhere you go and be a good guest, a gracious one. Talking with other intercultural marriages I think family can be a huge issue, because family has demands. It is not necessarily a criticism, it is just the way it is. But I feel really lucky because Namgay’s family even to this day, so many years later, still treat me like a guest. They won’t let me in the kitchen.
Do you speak Dzongkha – the national language of Bhutan?
My Dzongkha is not great. I never really got past body parts, food and household things. But I speak it anyway. I have recently learnt the national anthem. It was partly because it was always very important for Namgay to improve his English so we could travel to the US.
Bhutan is located between China and India, both of which have very defined cuisines. What is the Bhutanese food like?
Bhutanese food is rice based. They have this beautiful unpolished red rice with a nutty flavour. It’s all organic and always fresh. They love really hot chillies and the local cheese called datse. They also like meat although they don’t eat as much of it as we do in the West. It is mainly used to flavour the curry, which is the name for anything that you put on rice.
One of the most distinctive features of the Bhutanese is their traditional dress. Let me use a quote from your book: For Namgay and me, the language of Kira and Gho was our mating dance. Can you tell us more about those unique garments?
It’s very elegant. Men look really handsome in their gho which is this knee-length robe, which crosses over itself in front, folds in the back, and ties at the side. Women wear kira, the floor length woven dress, with a tight belt around the waist and pinned with a brooch at each shoulder. Even now, whenever I put on my kira, Namgay will say: Oh you look so nice.
What is the first thing you do, when you go to US. apart from seeing your family and friends. In other words what do you miss the most about the western world?
We don’t go there that much anymore, but we used to like going shopping, not really to buy lots of things; it was just fun to see all this stuff. I remember early on we got this digital camera and we went everywhere to look for a good case for it. We discussed it a lot, looked at the straps making sure it will hold up. When you are so remote, everything has to be either flown or trucked in and things are more expensive. The saddest thing in the world is to buy something outside, bring it back and it breaks. That’s one thing that people often don’t realize when they come here; things aren’t cheap because the added expense of transportation.
For a tiny Himalayan Kingdom, Bhutan is actually extremely progressive, plastic bags have been banned since 1999, tobacco is almost wholly illegal and by law 60% of the country must be fully forested. What else can other countries learn from Bhutan?
I believe now it’s closer to 70% forest covered. They have very cleverly established national parks (including the Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Park) that cover a large of the country providing sanctuary for and allowing animals to migrate. The dream is to have Nepal, India, Myanmar and Thailand continue these corridors. India has established a corridor in Assam, below Bhutan. Poaching is a bit of a problem in Bhutan but not nearly as bad as in other places. I imagine poachers are people from poor communities in the South that are lured by the opportunity to earn fast cash by killing and selling the parts of animals to India or China. But since most of them are Buddhists, it’s against their religion to kill animals. To deal with the issue, an organization called Bhutan Foundation has recruited religious leaders to try to stem the poaching. The monks and lamas, who live in those communities have called on the poachers and extracted oaths from them that they’ll quit poaching. Bhutanese are very clever.
And how has Bhutan changed since you first arrived in 1994?
Well, there was no TV or Internet when I first came here, so I guess now Bhutan is more connected. But they have always been outward-looking and seem to know a lot about the rest of the world. I guess when you are a small and vulnerable Himalayan Nation you have to be that way.
They’ve had a huge baby boom so the populations has gotten really young and there is a lot of young energy. There is a new Medical College and a new Law College. In 1994 there were only 12 lawyers in the country ; one lawyer for every 600 people. The capital Thimphu has grown about 200 percent. We have a few nice 5 stars hotels now too. But when you go outside of Thimphu not that much has changed. Which is kind of nice.
Both of Linda’s books can be purchased in print and e-book formats: