Life in Bhutan Really is a Culture of Happiness

Esther Ro-Schofield, the Director of Operations for the MFA Design at the School of Visual Arts, discusses food, art and tsechus after her recent trip to Bhutan with MyBhutan.

Esther Ro-Schofield, the Director of Operations for the MFA Design at the School of Visual Arts, discusses food, art and tsechus after her recent trip to Bhutan with MyBhutan.

How did you first learn about Bhutan?

I first learned about Bhutan a few years ago from Lita Talarico, co-chair of MFA Design at the School of Visual Arts. She mentioned how Milton Glaser had been approached by Matt DeSantis of MyBhutan for possible collaboration.

How did you envision Bhutan prior to arrival?

I envisioned lots of mountains, Buddhist temples and stray dogs, which made me somewhat apprehensive. However, as soon as I arrived, I began to enjoy their company and now regard them as another charming feature of the country.

Did Bhutan meet (or exceed) your expectations? 

It exceeded my expectations. The people, especially the children, made a lasting impression on me.  Life in Bhutan really is a culture of happiness and what I’ve learned from it is something I‘ve taken with me when I returned home.

Due to the high mountains and tiny tarmac, the landing has often been described as either (sometimes both) incredibly beautiful or incredibly scary - what did you think? 

If there was any feeling of fear, it left after one look at the small villages and thin curly trails to hilltop temples. I knew I was arriving somewhere special and remember feeling wonderstruck by everything.

What was the most interesting story you heard from a local? 

A story that stuck with me was about the gho, the Bhutanese national dress for men and required attire when visiting a dzong or meeting high officials. According to one local, it’s very common for a man to borrow a gho because of an unexpected meeting and travelling back home would take too long. Ghos are easy to lend because they are one-size- fits-all. He did confess, however, that a borrowed gho will likely not be returned, but passed along to the next person who needs it. A man can have multiple ghos in his closet and they may all have belonged to different people. I love this story about a piece of clothing that illustrates a society of sharing and goodwill.

What was the food like? Did you like it? 

Bhutanese food is mainly vegetables and rice, which I like because it’s generally what I eat. There was a lot of dairy in the dishes and I was impressed how it complimented the super hot chili peppers, which was a staple in most of the meals.

You attended Thimphu Tsechu, what was that like? Did you wear a kira? 

The Thimphu Tshechu was like a great stately ball where everybody was invited. There were thousands of people, many having traveled great distances, wearing their finest kira and gho. It’s the best place for people watching. I never missed an opportunity to put on my kira, although after three wears, I seriously considered getting another one to change up my look.

You work in the MFA Design at New York’s School of Visual Arts. During your trip you met with artists, weavers, and artisans, what, if anything, do you believe American visual artists can learn from Bhutanese artists and vice versa? 

Art was everywhere in Bhutan enlightening every moment of my trip and always making me smile. It would be terrific if we all had the ability to express that kind of joy in our work.  If Bhutanese artists applied their unique craft to the kind of entrepreneurial spirit that’s been trending among American artists and designers, there is potential for some really compelling products.

Was there one event that you feel you will never forget? Please describe it. 

I will never forget the evening we arrived in Punakha valley. I remember the full moon and how it illuminated the mountains, which glowed for miles. I felt the warm wind on my face and inhaled the scent of fresh guava that filled the air. The trees rustled, the water babbled softly and the moonlight glistened like a million diamonds on the male Pho and female Mo rivers as they came together near the Punakha Dzong.  For those few days in Punakha, it felt like I had arrived in heaven.

The Bhutanese culture is unique, however, did you find any similarities between your culture and Bhutan’s? Alternatively, what was the most striking difference?  

Like everywhere else in the world, people in Bhutan, including the monks, love being on their cellphones and children love potato chips.  The most striking difference were the big banners of the very affectionate king and queen. I can’t imagine seeing blown up photos of our leaders this way, but in Bhutan they perpetuate the romance we have with the country.

What was the most difficult part of your trip? It can either be physical or mental (or both).

The first 30 minutes of the hike to Tiger’s Nest was demanding. Of course, we were taking the shortcut, which avoided horses but meant a steeper climb. Overall, however, the hike was unforgettably exhilarating and best of all, the monastery was a vision and a journey onto itself.

What is one thing you wish you would have known prior to arriving? 

I wish I had done more research into Bhutan’s history before the trip. It is possible to have a life-changing experience from a purely visceral visit. But there is a whole side to Bhutan that is in the details and there are fantastic stories about everything - even the trees have great significance.  So I recommend getting a general history lesson prior to arriving so that you can spend time listening to locals tell their stories.  

Do you have any tips for travelers planning their trips? 

When planning your trip to Bhutan, make sure you have at least ten days, ideally two weeks or more depending on how far you want to go. Attend a tshechu whenever you can, visit Punakha and try to fit in many hikes as these were the most memorable moments of my trip. Spend a few days in Thimphu to visit museums, craft bazaars and get a taste of Bhutanese city life. Finally, contact MyBhutan who will help you create a unique itinerary suited to your preferences in travel.

Any tips for travelers while traveling?  

Because of high elevation in Bhutan, it’s possible to get altitude sickness. There are ways to acclimate and medicine will ease symptoms. It also helps to always carry water and snacks, take lots of breaks, and most of all, remember that it’s okay to descend.

If you could describe Bhutan in three words, what would they be? 

Harmonious, sincere, steadfast.

If Bhutan was a color or color scheme, what would it be and why? 

Emerald for the land, blue sapphire for the sky, gold for the sun and ruby for the heart. My memory of Bhutan is like a piece of jewelry, sentimental and precious.


Esther Ro-Schofield is a fine artist and avid photographer. She holds a BFA in painting from Parsons School of Design and MFA in video art from the School of Visual Arts. Her projects continue to explore identity and culture through portraits and domestic life. Her enthusiasm for the arts has led to a commitment in art education to which she has devoted over 18 years. Presently, Esther is the Director of Operations in the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts and the Program Director for SVA Destinations: Masters Workshop in Rome.



StorySarah Cahlan