I had long wanted to visit Bhutan. A country that stands apart in the Himalayas as it has been saved from the damaging effects of tourism that have affected the rest of Asia for the past 20 years. The rising of the popularity of Bhutan, however, cannot be denied. Slowly the country is throwing open its doors and coming out with new hotels, airports and flight connections. The high prices, on the other hand, will still keep the mass market at bay for a long time.
The hidden Himalayan Kingdom
When doing my pre-trip research, I read a lot about the important role religion plays in this country and also about the adoring talk of Bhutan’s famously unconventional way of measuring its successes: gross national happiness rather than gross national product. In 1979 the king declared the GNH was more important than GNP. But some time later, just as the rest of the world was starting to sign up to the notion, in Bhutan it has been hijacked by the marketing. Drukair, the national airline, calls its in-flight shopping catalogue Happiness; the slogan of Bhutan’s Tourism Council is “Happiness is a place.” Happiness here became a brand, but please don’t get me wrong. There is still a lot of romance and rarity to explore, and I did find this happy land a pretty unique one.
We land in Paro, along with our friends Kiki and Dudu. The airport feels like the portal to a secret garden. The terminal building could easily be a 300-year-old temple, complete with painted religious symbols. The tiny airport, nestled among the steep mountains of the Himalayas, is said to be among the most dangerous in the world.
First Stop: Punakha
We travelled east from the 2,300m, the thin-air altitude of Paro to the lower and warmer elevation of Punakha, the country’s former capital. We passed the stone bridge and the mountain pass and had a late lunch on the beautiful terrace of Uma Punkha, which is one of the few five-star hotels in Bhutan. Built on royal-estate land high above the river, it resembles a small farm, and from there one has 270-degree views of the mountains layered across the end of the Punakha Valley.
We came around the Punkha Dzong, the largest Dzong in Bhutan, beautifully placed between the confluences of the rivers Mochu and Pochu. On a nation of dramatic buildings, the 17th-century Punakha Dzong is among the most spectacular. Dzongs are fortresses containing both monasteries and government offices. The massive Punakha Dzong, part-castle, part-cathedral, is where Bhutan’s kings are crowned, and the Thimphu monks spend their winters.
We experienced a typical Bhutanese hotel, Vara Hotel, where we got a lovely room facing the river.
While exploring Punakha, we visited Chime Lhakhang monastery (monastery of the divine madman), one of the best religious sites in all Bhutan. It was built in 1499 to honour the notorious Lama Drukpa Kunley, aka the Divine Madman. He is best known for sticking his phallus in the mouths of demons to defeat them. “My meditation practice is girls and wine,” he wrote. I was curious about this unthinkable story. His legacy is not only the replica of his “magic thunderbolt of wisdom” kept in the Chime temple but murals of flying penises painted on houses all over Bhutan.
There were no other visitors in the early morning. We took pleasure watching the monks having breakfast.
The day was bright. Blue sky, the sunshine and the high Himalayas in the reach of our eyes. The landscape was mind blowing. About 65 percent of Bhutan is under forest, so there is a powerful sense of life breathing from all the green. Rivers run beneath us, sometimes heard but not seen. This journey took us to the country’s spiritual heartland, where Buddhism first took hold.
On the way to Thimpu
Back on the road, we drove towards Thimpu, the capital of Bhutan. Thanks to the fantastic weather we were lucky enough to see the Mount Kula Kanuri from the car. Kula Kanuri is the highest mountain range stretching along the border between Bhutan and Tibet. Many sources cite it as the highest mountain in Bhutan, but it is situated exactly in between the border of the two countries.
Already in Thimphu, we stopped by the huge vegetable market and later on visited the School of Art and Crafts, known as the painting school. I enjoyed the afternoon at the Memorial Chorten, a temple where the locals walk around a stupa to bring them good luck. Then we trekked towards the Golden Buddha.
After office hour we could visit the Tashichho Dzong. This 18th-century fortress was built without the use of a single Dzong and is the seat of the Government. His Majesty’s offices are located here as well as the religious center.
Our guide took us to a “live music” session with his Bhutanese friends.
Paro, the final destination
Paro is the place where we first landed in the country and is supposedly one of the most beautiful towns in Bhutan. We left Thimpu around 4am on time to watch the traditional Paro Tschetchu festival. April 4th was the last day of this compelling celebration during which we were expecting to witness the Throngdrol (unfolding of the Silk Thangka).
The five-day Paro Tschetchu festival is held each spring, from the 11th to the 15th day of the second month of the Bhutanese calendar – usually late March or April. It takes place at the Paro Dzong (Rinchen Pung Dzong), which is perched majestically above the town of Paro. It’s is one of the oldest dzongs in Bhutan and still serves as the administrative and religious center of the valley.
The Paro Tsechu is one of the largest festivals in Bhutan with pilgrims travelling from neighbouring districts to socialize, celebrate their thriving Buddhist heritage, and enjoy one of the most important events on the Bhutanese calendar. The first day of the festival is held in the courtyard of the Dzong and dances such as the ‘Black Hat Dance’ or ‘Dance of the Lord of Death and his Consort.’ On the final day a giant appliqué thangka, or Thondrol, is unrolled and displayed before dawn. I was overwhelmed by this beautiful expression of the Buddhist culture.
It seemed we were not the only ones interested in witnessing the Throngdrol. The King and Queen of Bhutan made an appearance during the festival. The young royal couple arrived just after the ceremony started and found a seat in the middle of all the people. Everyone was hysterical. I managed to exchange a few words with them at the end of the celebration. The Oxford-educated king, known as K5 (fifth king), was nominated by the former king K4 (his father) some years back and tasked with overseeing the country’s political transition into democratic elections in 2007 and 2008.
We had a lunch to remember at the Sonam Trophel Restaurant. Soon after we visited Kyichu Lhakhang, which is one of the oldest temples in Bhutan, dating back to the time of the Jokhang in Tibet, and then we headed to Rinpung Dzong Paro. Just like all Dzongs in Bhutan, this is the seat of the civil and religious activities and offices. From both places, one can appreciate stunning landscapes.
The old Dzong ruins, considered the most beautiful archaeological site in Bhutan, are situated on a ridge in the upper Paro valley.
Amankora Paro is also one of the few five-star hotels in Bhutan. We visit the hotel and have the best dinner of our trip. As you’d expect from Aman resorts, it combines contemporary design with traditional features and has an indulgent spa and excellent dining. The location is fabulous with stunning views to the Drugyel Dzong ruins.
In order to enjoy the Takstang monastery (Tiger’s nest) – most famous holy site in Bhutan – and avoid the crowds, we start the trek at 5:30 am. It turns out we are the first ones to summit the sacred monastery in that day.
It’s indeed a steep climb, as the monastery is located on the side of a rocky cliff 3,000 feet above the Paro Valley. But the going is easy. It requires two hours ascending, with plenty of opportunities to admire the breathtaking views.
The Tiger’s Nest is said to be the holiest site in Bhutan. It’s where Guru Rinpoche, known as Padmasambhava, materialized 1,300 years ago on the back of a flying tigress. He meditated for three years and then set about converting the Bhutanese to Buddhism. The monastery was built nine centuries later, in the 1600s, although the buildings we see today have been replaced several times. The Bhutanese point out buildings are temporal and meant to be renewed, but the ideas and philosophies they represent cannot be destroyed.
We check in at the Uma Paro hotel. It looks like a monastery populated by butlers rather than monks.
It is standard practice in Bhutan to consult an astrologer. On our last day, we do exactly that. At first, I am a bit scared about the disclosure of my future, but then I find it more interesting to know about my previous lives. I am not sure about the accuracy of his predictions, but I enjoy the experience of meeting this lovely astrologer-monk.
Surrounded entirely by China and India, the two most populous nations on Earth, Bhutan’s isolation, and its ancient spirituality have enabled the country to hang on to much of its culture and natural heritage. But as the country continues to modernize and open to the world, Bhutan will be challenged to stay this way. The Bhutanese believe in the power and value of nature, so I hope that keeping the faith might be what will empower the country to choose the right way forward. Most of the hotels are already built in line with a policy of high value (to Bhutan) and low impact. It’s a beautiful country and fits the niche of “exotic wilderness,” offering culture, nature, and adventure. It’s the type of place I didn’t want to miss while living in Asia.
We travelled across Punakha-Thimpu-Paro from April 2nd to April 6th, 2015 (5-day trip). Stayed at Vara Hotel, Gyelsa Boutique Hotel, and Uma Paro hotel. Had our meals at Uma Punkha, Sonam Trophel Restaurant and Amankora Paro. Our flights and tour were organised by Druk Air.
In the bag: Sweater; Winter jacket; Long Pants; T-shirts (as it gets warm during the day); Trekking shoes.