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Finding happiness in mystical Bhutan

By A. Pawlowski, CNN
  • Journalist Lisa Napoli spent six weeks volunteering at a radio station in Bhutan
  • "It just looks like nothing I'd ever seen before," she says, remarking on Bhutan's beauty
  • The staple of the Bhutanese diet is a red hot chili pepper, making the food very spicy
  • Bhutan's only international airport has been called one of the world's scariest to fly into

(CNN) -- When you're heading to what's been called one of the happiest places in the world, it's a good idea to pack many pairs of long black socks.

They make excellent gifts for the local men, Lisa Napoli was advised before her journey to Bhutan, while lip gloss and tea are the perfect offerings for women.

Not that presents were foremost on Napoli's mind.

Gripped by a fierce midlife crisis and questioning everything from her single status to her career choice, she was about to leave her home in Los Angeles to find some perspective in the remote Himalayan kingdom -- a trip that filled her both with excitement and fear.

"Shouldn't a woman in her early forties be doing something normal, like taking her kids to Disneyland?" Napoli wonders at the beginning of her new book "Radio Shangri-La: What I Learned in Bhutan, the Happiest Kingdom on Earth."

In 2007, the journalist took an unpaid leave of absence from her job and signed up for a six-week stint volunteering at Kuzoo FM, a start-up radio station in Thimphu, Bhutan's capital.

Lisa Napoli, surrounded by children in the village of Ura, has now visited Bhutan six times.
Lisa Napoli, surrounded by children in the village of Ura, has now visited Bhutan six times.

Just getting there was a long exercise in patience and jet lag: Napoli took an 18-hour flight from Los Angeles to Bangkok, Thailand, where she spent the night and hopped on a four-hour flight to Paro, Bhutan's only international airport.

It was the beginning of her adventure in the tiny kingdom, which only opened its doors to tourists in the 1970s and is famous for promoting Gross National Happiness -- public policy that emphasizes culture and environmental preservation alongside economic development.

Napoli, 47, recently talked about her experiences in Bhutan with The following is an edited version of that interview.

CNN: This was such a long journey to a very faraway corner of the world. How did you feel about that?

Lisa Napoli: For me, there is something really restorative about being on a plane for a long time.

When you go on a plane, you never know who you might meet, all these people on a shared journey -- kind of like when I go to jury duty. I love thinking who I might talk to, what I might learn from them and just hearing why they're going where they're going. So it is a long journey, but there's something good about that, too.

Visiting Bhutan
Bhutan allows tourists to enter the country as part of pre-arranged guided tours.

"You have to go through a tour company," Lisa Napoli said. "There's no sort of self-styled tourism there."

Visitors should expect to pay at least $250 a day, which includes lodging, a guide and a driver.

For more information, visit the Tourism Council of Bhutan at

Napoli also suggested these tour companies:

Yangphel Tours and Treks,

Bridge to Bhutan,

CNN: What is it like to land at Bhutan's only international airport, which is surrounded by mountains and which you note has been called one of the scariest in the world to fly into?

Napoli: Apparently pilots buy the flight simulation pattern for Paro because it's so much fun to try to figure out how to do it. There are only eight or 10 pilots now authorized to fly into that airport, and it's magnificent. You can see numerous Himalayan mountain ranges -- it's like being in heaven, it's spectacular.

For me, it was a thrill every time, and part of it is that you're so crazily jet lagged and you're so excited about getting there. But a big part of it, too, is just that it's so magnificently beautiful.

A couple of times, there have been bumps -- for somebody who is very sensitive, it might be tough. But it's nothing out of the ordinary.

The airport itself is lovely. It's one of those very small airports with one carousel for baggage, and it's all built in Bhutanese architecture. It's a delight.

YouTube: Landing at Bhutan's Paro Airport

CNN: You wrote that you felt sorry for yourself as you were going on this big journey alone. How did you get over that?

Napoli: In our culture, we're so reminded all the time that we have to be coupled off and that there's something wrong with us if we're [not].


While I was making the journey, while I was feeling sorry for myself, I always reminded myself that: A) I could be traveling with someone I really didn't like, which is how a lot of people are, or B) that I could be not going at all and C) that I really love traveling on my own.

You see a place differently when you're by yourself. It forces you to talk to people differently and experience things differently, and I think that's really good, I think that's really important for people to experience.

CNN: When you first arrived, you said that you had the feeling you had landed on another planet. How so?

Napoli: It just looks like nothing I'd ever seen before.

It's starkly undeveloped. And the people -- we're used to here in this country to a melting pot, but the people there are much more ethnically homogenous, and so you feel really as if you are standing out.

I'm a mountain person, I love the mountains, so I remember being excited about them. They're so majestic and beautiful -- you really do have a different sense of your place in the world when you're in a place where there's nothing and no one for miles on end.

Bhutan's hidden wonders revealed

CNN: You note that the houses in Bhutan are often adorned with paintings, sometimes of a giant phallus. Can you explain?

Napoli: The phallus paintings are interesting, and they're a curiosity for all of us in the West or who aren't Bhutanese. The phalluses are painted on the sides of the houses to ward off evil spirits, and it's believed that if you see the phallus, you'll avert your glance and not covet what you don't have.

YouTube: A look at Bhutan's more unusual sights

CNN: What kind of food did you eat when you were there?

Napoli: The staple of the Bhutanese diet is a red hot chili pepper, which is eaten as not a spice but as a vegetable, so it's the main course and it's historically stewed in yak cheese, but now often they use processed cheese.

They eat it three times a day, and they eat it over mounds and mounds of rice. The typical Bhutanese eats three to five plates of rice a day with this thing called emadatse.

Emadatse with the red hot chili peppers is super spicy, so the Bhutanese have a very tolerant palate. And whatever anybody reading this thinks is the spiciest food they've ever had, the real emadatse that they make for themselves is probably spicier. It's hard-core spice.

The Bhutanese really love their hot peppers, and babies get it early on. For most Bhutanese, if the food isn't super spicy, it doesn't taste right.

YouTube: Napoli's take on Bhutanese cuisine

CNN: Did Bhutan live up to its reputation as the happiest place on Earth?

Napoli: It's a fascinating place, and it made me very happy to be involved with it, but there's no place that's perfect, there's no place that's Shangri-La. But it is unlike any place I've ever been before.

CNN: Any advice for people who want to do something similar and may be hesitant?

Napoli: Just be open to all the opportunity around you and ask questions and follow your bliss.

But also, you don't necessarily have to go around the world to find yourself or to feel better about yourself. I had an amazing, moving trip to Death Valley while I was writing the book.

You can find beautiful, open space and lots of time to think and nature in lots of places in the world, and I think it's important to go do that every once in a while. Or if you're from a place that's very quiet, go to a big city. Mix it up, don't fall into the rut that so many people fall into, because it's very easy to do that.