Friday, May 20, 2011

Off The Beaten Track: Bhutan, The Happiest Kingdom On Earth

Lisa Napoli is a successful media journalist with reams of experience working with many well-regarded, cutting edge institutions, among them CNN, the New York Times, MSNBC, NPR, and even the cable shopping channel, QVC. In 2006, she made her first trip to Asia when she was invited, by chance, to Bhutan. A native of Brooklyn, NY, and a graduate of Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., Napoli lives in downtown Los Angeles and hopes in the second half of her life to be a philanthropist. She’s working with friends to raise money to help build a library in Bhutan through READGlobal.
I didn't set out to write about my time living in Bhutan. I'm a journalist, but I never fancied myself a travel writer. In fact, when I went to Bhutan to help start a radio station, I was trying to figure out how to get out of the media business altogether. It absolutely wasn't my intention to write a book or document the experience in any way.
But months after my return, I couldn't stop thinking about the place. Now that I've published a book about my time in and around this Himalayan kingdom known as the last Shangri-La, I'm having the pleasure of hearing from people who've been, who had the same kind of reaction. There are two types of people who seem to show up at readings, in fact: the devout Bhutan-philes, and the people who relate to where I was when I got asked to go there...people who have reached some sort of critical crossroads in their lives. One guy showed up in Miami the other night with his photo album; he'd been to Bhutan twice and said, "No one understands."  It's true that it's hard to explain what it is that touches you about the stark beauty of the place. I hope I've managed to do that with my new book, just a tiny bit.
And since pictures sometimes speak louder than words, I've got a series of videos I made on my last visit there up at the "Shangri-La" channel. My favorite one is called "geography lesson," about a group of grade-school kids I met in the fall on my sixth visit there. I was in the far east of the country, staying with some friends, Bhutanese friends. One day, we went for a walk and visited a school. You can see in the eyes of those kids how amazed they were to meet someone from the States. What you can't see is how moved I was to be the first outsider they'd ever encountered.
RADIO SHANGRI-LA: What I Learned in Bhutan, the Happiest Kingdom on Earth is classified as a travel memoir, and I suppose that's an accurate way to shelve it. But it's not an overt travelogue, a blow by blow of what you can or should see when you go. My experiences there were very different than those of people who pay $200 a day to visit. (The tourist tariff just went up to $250.) See what you think. Here’s an excerpt and if you would like to read more, follow the link below.
The approach to the most sacred monastery in the Kingdom of Bhutan is steep and winding and, especially as you near the top, treacherous. You are sure with one false step you’ll plummet off the edge. Had I been here during certain times over the last few years, I might have hoped I would. It is a cold winter’s Saturday, dark and overcast. Misty gray clouds, pregnant with snow, hug the mountains.
My companions are several of the twenty-somethings who staff the new radio station in Bhutan’s capital city, where I’ve come to volunteer. Kuzoo FM 90: The voice of the youth. Pema is wearing jeans and a sweatshirt and fl at white dress shoes, the kind you might put on with a demure frock for a tea party. Ngawang’s wearing the same stuff on top, but she’s got sneakers on her feet. Each woman carries a satchel stuffed with herkira, the official national dress, requisite attire for Bhutanese who reach the summit. Kesang is already wearing hisgho, the male equivalent. Over it, he’s carrying a backpack filled with ten pounds of oil to fuel dozens of butter lamps, offerings to be left for the gods. Me, I’m twenty years older, and practicality reigns: I’ve got on my thick-soled boots, an ugly long black down coat with a hood, and six layers of clothing underneath.
So much for the strength I’ve gained from my daily swimming regime; I am huffing and puffing against the altitude and the intensity of the climb. My new friends modulate their sprints to let me keep up.
Bhutanese are hearty in many matters - they are used to living off the land, the hard lives of farmers - but they are particularly strong when it involves making the trek to this place called Takshang, built on a sheer cliff that soars ten thousand feet into the sky. The depth of their devotion becomes abundantly clear when, out of nowhere, a radiant twelve-year-old boy scurries down past us, stark naked, completely unaffected by the temperature and the incline. He’s trailed by a solemn entourage of grown men. Not one of them misses a step. Later, we learn this beatific adolescent is a reincarnated lama on pilgrimage from the remote eastern reaches of this tiny country.
A pilgrimage to Takshang is the highlight of a trip to Bhutan, but it is commonplace for the Bhutanese. They are carried here from babyhood. Slight, frail seniors navigate the twists and turns and inclines deftly from memory, in a fraction of the time it takes foreigners half their age. Tales are told of people with physical disabilities who labor for twelve hours so they might reach the top, where a cluster of temples awaits. The most sacred of the altar rooms there is open to the general public only once a year.
To find out more about Lisa, visit her at 

To hear Lisa Napoli talk about her book and watch videos about Bhutan, visit Lisa's videos page:


  1. Sounds fascinating. I'll pick up a copy at Barnes & Noble. Thanks!

  2. Lisa, you really make Bhutan come alive in this excerpt and the videos on your website. I'm looking forward to reading more in your book. Visits to countries like this where people are still very connected to each other can be transforming. I can see how that happened to you. Good luck with your ongoing work, and thanks so much for sharing your experiences with us today!

  3. Lisa, your book sounds wonderful. I've always held a fascination for Himalayan countries, especially Bhutan. Thank you for sharing and I look forward to reading more about your adventures.

  4. Last year I wrote a review for an indie documentary Shooting for Democracy about the first democratic elections in Bhutan, instituted by their own king. Interestingly enough, many people didn’t want to have to make the decision as to what party to vote for – at least according to the film. They’d rather have the king make all the decisions. That was especially true for the older generation. Another interesting tidbit was that elections took part in 2008 just about coinciding with our own – and the film did an interesting juxtaposition between two countries by interviewing a bunch of high school kids – Bhutanese and American. I’ve been curious about Bhutan ever since.

  5. Lisa, this is another case of "I must read the book until I can make a visit myself." Thanks for transporting us there.

    BTW, have you heard the happy news today? :)