A Singaporean Photographer's Pursuit of Happiness in Bhutan

  • By Guan Tan

  • Travel /25 April 2018

  • By Guan Tan

"These are not the places we discussed, nor I wanted to go," Singaporean photographer Billy Mork exclaimed in exasperation to his Bhutanese guide. Mork had just flown via the Royal Bhutan airline and landed at the taciturn kingdom's Paro Airport. The guide picked him up and amiably brought him to take in some of the town's famed tourist sites. Upon hearing Mork's frustrations, the Bhutanese amicably ditched his travel plans for the next nine days. Instead, he decided to take Mork out of town, into the mountainous regions where the locals lived.

The 64-year-old photographer came to Bhutan with no travel plans or arrangements. He only had one thing in mind — to rub shoulders with the happiest people on earth. "I wanted to go to places where people did not have the chance to go — climb mountains, and go deep into villages."

The next morning, Mork and guide embarked on five-hour-long road trips out of town, touring the mountains. When a village came into view, Mork would halt the car. It was not because he wanted to approach the village, but quite the opposite. On sight and sound of the truck, the villagers stepped out of their houses, looked down on the mud tracks, and started waving at these visitors. 


Photograph above: "This is one of the villages that was very interesting. I remember I travelled the longest distance — close to five hours to reach there. You could see this bunch of kids from far. They saw outsiders coming to their village and they were so excited... All of them charged out to the village gate.They knew it was a camera and they wanted to take photos, so they grouped together for me to take photos. Then they wanted to see, I showed them, and they laughed and all ran away. They were very shy."


"Of course, on the first day, it was so funny that people kept asking us to go to their homes. "Should I? Or should I not?" After a few days, I realised they were so open. So why should I say no? Just say yes to them even if I am far. They are waving from their small windows and I would walk all the way, even if it were muddy. Just walk there to see them."

When Mork walked up to these houses, the homeowners readily encouraged him to step into their houses. They took him on a tour of their living space, showed him their photographs, belongings, sat him down for a meal, and even took him to see the backyard.  While the older locals communicated with Mork via the guide, local young adults could speak and understand smatterings of English, for this is the first language taught in schools. "There was a young family, they were very poor. The guy was in his 30s, the wife was in the late 20s. It was a very simple home, but when they invite you into their homes, they cook for you and share their lunch with you."


Photograph above: In the living area of the lady's home, she set up a mat and pots of food for Mork. "Every day, every meal was the same. Even in different villages, they ate almost the same thing. They way they cooked was the same. It's real basic food — vegetables and meat, brown sticky rice."


Photograph above: Three teenager girls walking home from school in the late afternoon. "Schools ends at 3:00PM, they were on the way home. I asked and they told me they will reach home only at 6:00PM — they don't go home directly," Mork explains. From what he observed, the school-going children will frolick around the hilly pastures until sun sets. 


Home to home, Mork realised one thing in common. The locals were all eager to show them their belongings and way of life. He was puzzled and wondered why. 

"It's not like Singapore, where the majority of people are like, "You are an outsider, why should I talk to you?" In a society like ours, we are brought up to protect ourselves. We are not to say or voice out anything, or share anything with people." In Bhutan, it was the exact opposite. "They don't have a fear of talking to people. We don't come from the same country or culture. Yet, they don't have a gap. It's a very direct feeling. They open their house to show you everything, and are not afraid to show you what they have or what they do not have."  

It was then it struck Mork that this is an entirely new social and cultural fabric that he has never come across before. Mork may previously have, on many accounts, travelled to India, South Africa, and Cambodia. Be it cities or villages, the locals' yearning for upwards social mobility was obvious. Children whom he met in these villages would pose for a picture and ask Mork for money in return. Otherwise, they would admire and touch his camera, watch, clothes and accessories.

Yet, there was not a trace of this pining amongst these Bhutanese that Mork met. An immense sense of pride emanated from them "This is our life, and we are so proud of our lives." It seems like this pride stemmed from elsewhere. And that something else was probably the key to the happiness that surrounded Mork. 


Photograph above: "She is a young lady. She told me she is about 27 this year. They can speak English. She started a business in town selling sewing materials, and she is very happy. She went, "Sure, how do you want to take the picture, I will pose for you."


"Why people announced them as the happiest people in the world, I must feel it. And what convinced me was the communication with the people. You can see the people. They think that they have enough. When you have enough, you don’t worry about what you have or don’t have tomorrow — if you've got a job or will lose a job, if you have a meal or not. They don’t have this problem. They are happy with what they have."

If translated into a word, it must be contentment. Yet, it will not be accurate to try to grasp the Bhutanese concept of contentment from our vocabularies. To us, the dictionary simply states that content is an adjective describing a "state of peaceful happiness" or a person who is "willing to accept something". It sounds like a word for episodic occurrences. However, in Bhutan, the locals do not use this word to describe their lives. They were brought up to behave and think this way. It is a deep-rooted value, like how competitiveness was instilled in us from birth.

From left: Photographer Billy Mork showing a local man some pictures he took.
From left: Photographer Billy Mork showing a local man some pictures he took. "This man doesn't speak English. I was lost in the village and he helped me get out of the village. I shared with him some pictures I shot... he was so excited."

"Before I went, I heard about this [concept of happiness]. But I couldn't visualise what is happiness. You ask me what is happiness. I don't know. I cannot describe — whether I have money, have this, or reach that. To us, it's like you must have things." Having been to Bhutan, Mork's understanding of happiness changed drastically. "Just do enough, and that is enough. Don't compare with others what you don't have. You should be happy that you already have. That's it." 

There may be numerous books that attempt to explain, theorise and dissect the concept of happiness. Is there a place for people in pursuit of happiness actually visit, visualise and palpably feel happiness? "Yes," Mork snaps.

Photographs by Billy Mork
Photographs shot on Leica V-Lux