With one foot in its medieval past and gross national happiness put before gross national profit, a trip to Bhutan is the perfect antidote to modern life
Until the 1960’s Bhutan had no roads, cars, telephones or postal service. A group of foreign tourists was permitted entry for the first time in 1974 and the first flight landed in 1983. The Land of the Thunder Dragon is emerging from isolation and cautiously modernising while retaining its soul. Our trips in western Bhutan are through areas of stunning natural beauty, dotted with remote fortress-monasteries among a people whose living spiritual culture and Buddhist values are central to daily life.
As soon as you step off the plane at Paro you know that you have arrived somewhere special and completely different to anywhere you have ever been. Your smiling private guide is dressed in a traditional knee-length robe (gho) and long socks, the mountain air even at the airport is clear and fresh, and prayer flags, known as ‘wind horses’ gallop in the wind dispersing wishes all over the land. Bhutan is an extraordinary place.
Everyone in Bhutan seems determined to be kind to visitors and ensure the happiness of travellers. Here, a house is judged not for its size but by the hospitality it offers. The welcoming smiles are infectious making the potholed and winding mountain roads, nocturnal barking dogs and lack of central heating in a chilly hotel room seem irrelevant.
On a cliff 900m above the floor of Paro valley Bhutan’s most famous site the Tiger’s Lair, or Tiger’s Nest monastery clings to a sheer rock face. The saint Guru Rimpoche flew here on the back of a tigress but for mere mortals the only way up is on foot, through ancient forests of oak and rhododendron, over streams and under fluttering prayer flags strung between the trees. We recommend starting in the eerie quiet of early morning to enjoy tantalising glimpses of the monastery before your efforts are rewarded and it comes into full and glorious view.
A short drive from Paro brings you to the capital, Thimphu. The Trashi Chhoe Dzong, the fortified monastery and administrative centre, is nothing short of impressive. You won’t find a traffic light anywhere in the city but the textile and folk museums are well worth a visit before exploring the weekend market with its weird and wonderful foods brought in by villagers from around the region.
Thimphu may hold the power, but further east, Punakha dzong is undoubtedly the most beautiful in the country. Situated at the confluence of the Mother and Father rivers it is decorated with red and gold carved wood and in spring jacaranda trees on the river bank burst into lilac coloured blossom. Don’t leave the area before walking across the fields to Chimi Lhakhang where a monk may use a giant wooden phallus to bless you. Clear your mind of any preconceptions and expect the unexpected – anything can happen in the Land of the Thunder Dragon.