I’m often asked where’s the one place I’ve visited that has totally blown me away, and I have to say, that’s a tough question to answer. I’ve seen so many wonderful places and each has their own special memories. But, in terms of one country where I felt totally privileged to experience it, where I got access to a culture not many people get to see and where I travelled through some spell binding scenery, it has to be Bhutan. The Buddhist culture also drew me in as I’m a sucker for that whole spiritual stuff: monks in burnished red robes, stunning temples and making a wish as I spin the multi-coloured prayer wheels.
Bhutan will soon be displaying its beauty to the world when (Prince) William and Kate visit the “Land of the Thunder Dragon” this spring, as part of a larger trip which will also take in the sights of India.
What makes Bhutan so special is that this tiny landlocked country (tucked away between Tibet and India) was isolated from the outside world for many years and only opened up to visitors in 1974; even now it carefully manages the number of tourists that visit the country so as to preserve its unique culture and traditions - men are expected to wear local dress of a knee length robe, there are laws prohibiting smoking and billboards, and the nation supports Gross National Happiness over Gross National Product; visiting this Kingdom will certainly enhance your general net happiness.
Currently, a trip to Bhutan will start and end in Paro where the country’s only International airport is, and flying in is a bit hair-raising. After passing the snow-capped Himalaya (the peak of Everest so close Julian and I took the perfect picture), the scenery below changes to mountains densely covered in dark forests as far as the eye can see. Then, as the plane takes a sharp turn you can see a very small clearing ahead - oh yes, this is where you land! As the plane eeks its way down into the valley below, it screeches to a sudden halt within seconds of hitting the end of the incredibly short runway.
Julian and I spent our first few days in the tranquil and stunningly beautiful Paro Valley. Here mountains loom majestically in the background and the valley is peppered with brightly painted ornate wooden houses, many covered in decorative motifs, which on closer inspection, are revealed to be phalluses (for good luck of course), whilst roofs are covered in red chillies drying in the sun. Chillies are the staple diet of the Bhutanese and when I say staple, I mean staple, they eat them for breakfast lunch and dinner piled high on even bigger domes of rice.
As you walk around you’re struck by the silence which is punctuated by the odd cheer. It didn’t take us long to find out that the cheers were coming from the local archery field. Archery is the national sport and played by nearly everyone, nearly all the time. Each time anyone hits the target their team do a little dance and cheer. Julian had a go and needless to say no-one was dancing or cheering, bless!
The highlight of our time in Paro had to be the hike up to Taktshang Monastery (or Tiger's Nest as it’s more fondly known). This is the most famous of all Bhutan’s monasteries and perches precariously on the side of a cliff, 900m up from the valley floor. On the day that we ventured up, we were determined to make sure that we were the first people to the monastery so we set off at a pretty rapid pace. The trail lulls you in to a false sense of security as it starts quite gently winding through a wooded area of blue pines and past older tourists on the back of donkeys - puh!
We passed the wooden teahouse, which is as far as most people get (but not us), and one of the best places to view the monastery. From here the trail winds steeper and steeper - no matter how fit you are you still find yourself getting out of breath as the air grows thin. We passed locals going about their business - it always amazes me on trips like this that we turn up fully kitted out in our North Face gear with sturdy walking boots, whilst the locals manage to survive in an anorak and a pair of flip flops!
After an hour of constant uphill we finally got there. We were greeted by the smiley monks who live at Taktshang and the smell of the flickering butter candles mixed with the heady scent of incense. We managed to knock 30 minutes off the official hike time and the extra effort was definitely worth it; being able to experience the serenity of the monastery and the eeriness of its location without anyone else around was amazing.
From Paro we headed to Thimpu, the capital of Bhutan. It is unlike any capital I’ve ever come across; there are no traffic lights and only one roundabout which is presided over by a very well dressed policeman in super white gloves. Here we immersed ourselves in the bustling weekend market, took in some interesting museums (which give a valuable insight into the Bhutanese way of life), visited temples and watched the locals going to prayer, whilst indulging in way too many momos (steamed dumplings), the local delicacy.
We drove east over the stunning Dochu La Pass with views over hundreds of chortens (Buddhist Shrines) and prayer flags fluttering in the wind.
Punakha was our next stop. We trekked to beautiful monasteries, ate fresh fruit in the fields with locals and just sat gazing out over the valley. We could not help but be struck by the peacefulness and the fact that we were the only western people there - I can safely say that doesn’t happen very often. The highlight of Punakha has to be the Dzong (large monastery), which was one of the most beautiful in all of Bhutan.
Remarkably for a country that sees only a small number of tourists (compared to its neighbours) and is very remote, it has some of the best and most beautiful places to stay (Uma, Six Senses and Aman). Don’t think that staying somewhere luxurious will cut you off from experiencing real life. It won’t. Each property is in keeping with its surroundings and offers sustainable tourism at its best, plus access to some of the best guides and unforgettable experiences - those little moments that make you smile and you never forget.
Bhutan is a destination like no other, an exclusive glimpse into a remote Himalayan kingdom which few people see and offers an experience that will be utterly memorable. The more you invest time travelling around the country (we included an 8 day trek on our trip), the more magical the experience becomes.
If you’d like to find out more about Bhutan, please do get in touch.