YPFP NY kicked off summer 2017 by hosting its first official, international trip for members. Here’s what happened.

To put our discussions of foreign policy and international issues into practice, YPFP NY offered its members the opportunity to travel abroad in May. This first-ever YPFP NY-directed trip provided access to a range of political and cultural activities and introduced members to an Asian country that not many people have heard of: Bhutan (not to be confused with Burma). Undeterred and intrigued, four intrepid members embarked on this journey-of-a-lifetime: Jerry Doran, Executive Director; Erin Levi, Programming Director (who is penning a travel guide to Bhutan); Paul Mourino, Programming Coordinator; and Lindsay Collins, Member.

[L to R] Erin Levi, Jerry Doran, Lindsay Collins, and Paul Mourino. Taking a photo pit stop at Dochula Pass (10,200ft).

Why Bhutan?

Bhutan is a peaceful Buddhist mountain kingdom in the Himalayas and the only carbon sink country in the world. Heralded for its holistic, out-of-the-box approach to national development, which is coined Gross National Happiness (GNH), Bhutan prioritizes sustainability and collective happiness over pure economic growth.

At the same time, this tiny nation (est. population 750,000) lies landlocked between two of Asia’s giants, China and India, which places it in a unique foreign policy position. Just recently, Bhutan has been involved in a border dispute with its two nuclear-armed neighbors over the Doklam Plateau, which is complicated by the fact that Bhutan has close diplomatic ties with India, but none with China. (Bhutan and India signed a Friendship Treaty in 1949, which binds them to perpetual peace and friendship — it was renegotiated in 2007 to remove India’s supervision over Bhutan’s foreign relations — while Bhutan closed its 470km border with China following the Tibetan rebellion for independence in 1959. Since then, China is eager to establish diplomatic ties, but Bhutan prefers to resolve their border issues first.) Reports have also surfaced that Bhutanese accounts on WeChat, a Chinese-based chat app that is popular in Bhutan, have been hacked, possibly with the intention to make the Bhutanese more sympathetic to China.

Remarkably, Bhutan, which joined the UN in 1971, doesn’t have official diplomatic relations with the U.S. either; the only other countries who can make this claim are Iran and North Korea, which makes for an unlikely trio. Not to mention, Bhutan requires all foreign visitors, with the exception of Indians, to pay a daily minimum tariff of between $200 or $250. (The hermit kingdom, which first opened to tourists in 1974, limited the number that could enter until 2010. Although that cap has been lifted, only those who can afford the daily fee are able to visit.) This trip, therefore, succeeded in fostering connections between the two countries on an interpersonal level that is quite rare given the political and tourism realities.

The Trip

On a thunderous afternoon in late May at the start of Bhutan’s monsoon season, YPFP NY representatives Jerry, Erin, Paul and Lindsay adjusted their ghos and kiras, Bhutanese national dress for men and women, as they got out of the car. They had arrived at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, located at the end of a long road lined with colorful prayer flags just opposite the Parliament in Thimphu, where they were invited for a private audience with Foreign Minister Lyonpo Damcho Dorji and two younger Bhutanese diplomats. The conversation, which took place over tea and biscuits with views of Buddha Dordenma in the far-off distance, ranged from domestic elections in the U.S. and Bhutan (Bhutan’s upcoming parliamentary elections are slated for 2018) to external relations with China and India, who is Bhutan’s closest ally. They also spoke about GNH, climate change and, of course, YPFP.

Bhutan’s main foreign policy goal is simple, if not utopic: “We want to live in peace and harmony with all countries,” Foreign Minister Dorji told the group. And yet, “We don’t need official diplomatic relations to have good relations.”

Our YPFP NY delegation was honored to meet with Bhutanese Foreign Minister Damcho Dorji. Their conversation ranged from Bhutan’s foreign policy and Gross National Happiness to U.S. and Bhutanese elections.

Bhutan only has diplomatic relations with 53 countries. Unofficially, the number is higher thanks to a plethora of friendship associations and honorary consuls throughout the world. The reasons for such limited diplomatic relations, he explained, are primarily due to a lack of resources to maintain embassies abroad and space constraints at home to host embassies from other countries, as well as a policy of not getting involved with P-5s (which includes China) so as to avoid getting caught up in big disputes — a policy that has worked well until this summer’s stand-off at the Doklam Plateau. Nevertheless, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is optimistic that it will be resolved peacefully.

The meeting was arranged by former Bhutanese Ambassador to the UN, Dasho Lhatu Wangchuk, who hosted the participants for dinner later that evening at Folk Heritage Restaurant, where they sampled traditional dishes, such as suja (butter tea), ema datsi (chilies and cheese), kewa datsi (potatoes and cheese), sautéed fiddlehead ferns, and steamed red rice. The purpose of the dinner was to discuss GNH. Ambassador Wangchuk is a pillar of Bhutan’s foreign policy establishment and authored UN resolution 65/309 establishing GNH as an alternative human development indicator, which was adopted unanimously in 2011. (Thanks to this, the UN now celebrates the International Day of Happiness annually on March 20th.) Also in attendance were Dr. Saamdu Chetri, Executive Director of the GNH Center, and Dr. Julia Kim, a Senior Program Advisor at the GNH Center. Conversation was vibrant and philosophical.

While our delegation walked away from both discussions with a greater understanding of the policy implications of GNH, we were left with many questions: how should we measure national success? Is GDP inherently destructive? How much wealth do we really need? And to what extent and in what ways does happiness play a role in shaping human, economic, and political development?

Discussing GNH over dinner at Folk Heritage Restaurant with distinguished guests: Dr. Saamdu Chetri, Director of the GNH Center; Ambassador Lhatu Wangchuk (ret.), Board Member of GNH Center; and Dr. Julia Kim, Senior Program Advisor at the GNH Center.

Participants also met with entrepreneurs who are making great strides in developing the Bhutanese economy: Karma Yonten of Greener Way left a career in IT to spearhead the first trash and recycling system in Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu; Dorji Gyeltshen, inspired by his time living in Europe, founded Namgay Artisanal Brewery in Paro as one of the country’s first craft breweries and, soon, its first beer hall. And thirdly, Matthew DeSantis, an American living in Bhutan, created the country’s first online travel portal slash social enterprise, MyBhutan, as a way to bolster both tourism and traditional industries countrywide. (MyBhutan actually worked with Ambassador Wangchuk’s tour company, Bhutan Paragon Travel, to help organize YPFP NY’s trip.) Each demonstrated how entrepreneurship can act as an engine of economic growth while maintaining the sustainability tenet of GNH.

Besides meetings, the trip included an array of activities that brought participants closer to Bhutanese nature, people, and way of life, from soaking in a traditional hot stone bath and staying at a family-run heritage farmhouse to whitewater rafting and hiking.

Hiking offered these New Yorkers the chance to savor pristine air and mountainous landscapes, make new friends, and meditate inside Buddhist temples only reachable by foot.

On one hike, members navigated muddy paths through verdant rice terraces in Punakha valley to reach Chimi Lhakhang, the temple of Divine Madman Drukpa Kunley, whose magical phallus is a symbol of fertility and wards off evil spirits. Because of him, phalluses are displayed everywhere: in artwork, painted on homes and hanging off the rooves of buildings.

En route to Khamsum Yueling Monastery, also in Punakha, the red-faced quartet paused to catch their breath at a large spinning prayer wheel, where they encountered Sangay, an octogenarian who had the distinguished privilege of serving the second and third kings (Bhutan has had five since 1907). His advice for dealing with a Bhutanese king? “It is best to speak softly and always to tell the truth.”

The most arduous but rewarding hike, purposely saved for last, was to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery, a.k.a. Taktsang, a sacred Buddhist temple complex that clings to a cliff at 10,240ft (3,120m) above sea level. There are no shortcuts: Bhutan’s top attraction takes on average 2½ to 3 hours to reach, excluding the return. Shrouded in clouds, the perilous location of this literal skyscraper was picked for a reason: it’s where Guru Rinpoche, who is credited with bringing Buddhism to Bhutan, arrived on a flying tiger and meditated in a cave for three years, three months, three weeks, and three hours.

Pausing for a photo op along the steep, 2½-hour hike up to the gravity-defying Tiger’s Nest Monastery, which clings to a cliff at 10,000ft above sea level.

In addition to hiking, the group visited Punakha Dzong (a dzong is an administrative and monastic fortress), which is particularly stunning in May when the purple flowered-Jacaranda trees are in bloom. It’s no wonder that the first King of Bhutan, Ugyen Wangchuck, was crowned here in 1907. Unlike most dzongs, which are strategically located atop hills and mountains, this one is situated at the confluence of two rivers, the Pho Chhu and Mo Chhu, in the heart of Punakha’s lush, low-altitude valley. These waters are glacier fed from Gasa, a northern district which borders Tibet, and are home to the critically endangered white-bellied heron.

Participants also sampled Thimphu’s nightlife with Bhutanese students and young professionals. Bars and clubs that wouldn’t be out of place in New York are popular with young Bhutanese. (Mojo Park, have you thought about opening an outpost abroad?)

Overall, the trip to Bhutan was completely invigorating. For New York urbanites, roaming this untouched, spiritual paradise felt something like time-travel back to simpler times. The itinerary was packed with rich cultural and dining experiences, meetings with both high ranking members of the political community, as well as inspiring business entrepreneurs, and much more in between. The chance to travel to a remote part of the world with like-minded young professionals was certainly unique and invaluable. The group agreed that traveling together with fellow members of our organization enabled us to get the most out of the trip. A high bar was set in Bhutan as YPFP NY looks forward to its next trip.

Contact Us

If you have any questions about Bhutan or future trips there, please contact our Programming Director, Erin Levi: erin.levi@ypfp.org.

Got an idea for where our next trip should be to? Write us on our Facebook page or tweet us your suggestions: @YPFPNY.

This article was written by Erin Levi, with contributions by Jerry Doran, Paul Mourino, and Katie Kokkinos.

Paddles up! The group went whitewater rafting down the Mo Chhu river. They were rewarded with breathtaking views of the Punakha Dzong.

Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP) engages, builds, and amplifies NextGen voices to advance solutions to global challenges. www.ypfp.org/new_york.