A truly mystical and magical visit to the incredibly beautiful and serene Land of the Thunder Dragon…
We flew direct from Delhi on a small Drukair plane into the tiniest, most charming little airport in Paro. Though the landing itself is a little less charming, notoriously tough and through a steep valley surrounded by towering 18,000 feet peaks and vicious winds that only a handful of pilots in the world are allowed to fly! (Look out for the Mount Everest peak on the way!)
This Himalayan kingdom has managed to preserve its rich cultural identity through years of isolation. And although the arrival of TV and the Internet in 1999 brought in external influences, traditional dress is still the preferred attire, local languages are prevalent and native Dzongka-style architectural features still grace every building.
Bhutan is the first country in the world which considers Gross National Happiness more important than GDP, a testament to the kind, tranquil nature of the people we encountered.
A beautiful culture underpinned with a strong Buddhist influence, there is in the country no crime and a refreshing sense of social equality – all the houses are a similar style, there are no ostentatious cars and the restaurants and entertainment are all at a similar standard. Even the revered king enjoys travelling around on a bicycle!
We spent most of our time in Paro and the capital, Thimphu – both small, green and beautiful in their own way. But since tourism is one of the main industries (despite focusing on quality rather than quantity with their USD 250 a day tourist tax), things can feel a little commercial. Although the first few visits of museums and monasteries are fascinating, if it starts to get repetitive, ask your guide to arrange activities that allow you to immerse yourself in the beautiful local culture. Try your hand at traditional weaving instead of observing, dress up in a Bhutanese kira or spend time learning from and chanting with a Buddhist monk rather than just peek into a monastery.
My favourite part of the trip was the trek up to Tigers Nest – situated on the edge of a cliff, some 900 metres above the rice fields of Paro, this 320-year-old monastery is considered one of the kingdom’s most sacred religious sites. Guru Rinpoche, credited with bringing Buddhism to the land, meditated for years inside a cave that now lies at the heart of the temple. The trek winds through beautiful green pine forests, across waterfalls, past ancient Buddhist shrines, and is adorned with endless lines of colourful flags (each of which represents an answered prayer). So beautiful and peaceful, the climb can be considered a meditation in itself.
Since tourism is a major industry, despite its small size, Bhutan is home to a number of luxury Aman Resorts, which are highly recommended. There are some other great hotels too, such as the Taj and Uma Paro. Evening entertainment is limited, but after the spiritually uplifting and invigorating days the best way to spend the evenings is to enjoy a local cultural show or relaxing in a traditional hot stone bath (stones, rich in healing minerals, are heated on an outdoor fire for six hours and then used to heat the water in your bath).
The food is an interesting combination of Indian, Chinese and Tibetan influences (think momos, noodles and chilli cheese); there is also a slight obsession with red chillies, which can be seen sprawled out to dry across every rooftop. But if the “tourist standard buffets” get repetitive, the 5-star hotels offer a nice variation.
True to its moniker of “The last Shangri-la on earth”, I left behind my 5 days in Bhutan enchanted, with a deep sense of contentment derived from the Buddhist values and simplicity of the land – coupled with the rare privilege of perpetual lush greenery and pure, fresh mountain air. It truly is as magical and mystical as they say.
Images courtesy Annabel Treon