Bhutan is a deeply spiritual kingdom where the pursuit of happiness is ranked more important than economic growth – so slow travel is a perfect fit. It’s a philosophy worth embracing when getting around. On my nine-day tour of west Bhutan, I barely see a straight road. Instead, there are countless hairpin bends and precipitous drops, none of which deters drivers from overtaking each other. Fortunately, the scenery is endlessly distracting: in particular the Dochula Pass from Thimphu to Punakha, and the Lawala Pass to Gangtey, where rice terraces give way to wizened hemlock trees, snow-capped Himalayan peaks sneak in and out of view, hillsides ripple with prayer flags and lumbering yak stare suspiciously at passers-by.
My itinerary is part of a luxurious circuit of spectacularly situated Six Senses lodges that have opened in Bhutan’s most visited valleys. I begin at Thimphu, which wrested the title of capital from Punakha in 1955. With a population of about 115,000, in a nation of barely 800,000 people, it’s no heaving metropolis, but it’s the best place to observe the rhythms of modern life in Bhutan – a relative term considering that television only arrived in 1999 and there are no traffic lights whatsoever. Men and women dress in traditional clothing, cows and horses roam the dusty streets – as do dogs, hundreds of them.
If it’s the weekend, make time for the Centenary Farmers Market, when residents turn out in force to shop for chillies and spice, rice, dried yak cheese and meat and fresh vegetables. In an ambitious move, Bhutan is well on the way to becoming the world’s first nation to achieve wholly organic farming.
Make time, too, for the national sport: archery. I witness a tournament at Changlimithang Archery Ground, where teams of men shoot arrows at a target so far away it’s almost impossible to see. There is much shouting – and when the target is hit, the celebrations span song and dance.
Thimphu is home to the majestic Tashichho Dzong, which contains the throne room of the youthful King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, as well as the headquarters of Bhutan’s chief abbot, Trulku Jigme Choedra. But for history and atmosphere, the 17th-century holy Punakha Dzong fortress triumphs. The monks know this, and each winter the chief abbot and his considerable posse take up residence here. It may also be because Punakha, at an elevation of 1,200 metres, is positively balmy compared to Thimphu, which sits at almost twice the altitude.
A different religious experience awaits at the 14th-century Khewang Lhakhang in the Phobjikha Valley, commonly referred to as Gangtey. Morning sees me sitting cross-legged on the floor of an unheated room in the monastery, while it’s -10°C outside. Keeping me company is a group of young monks, barefoot and quietly shivering their way through dawn prayers. It ends in a crescendo of drums, cymbals and horns, before we break our fast together with a humble meal of beans, chillies, cheese and rice, as the rising sun slowly thaws the valley.
Most visitors to Gangtey come to see rare black-necked cranes, which migrate by the hundreds from Tibet to the valley’s marshland each year between October and March. An annual festival to celebrate their arrival is held in November, which I just miss, but I am not disappointed. In a country blessed with stunning scenery, Gangtey manages to be outrageously beautiful year-round.
The best way to appreciate the valley is on foot, starting at the Gangtey Nature Trail, which meanders through grassy knolls studded with wild-berry shrubs, past babbling brooks, languid cows, quaint farmhouses and into conifer forests carpeted by pine needles. It’s also ideal terrain for mountain biking, though at 3,000 metres above sea level, slight gradients can feel like scaling Mount Everest.
Which is what I envision a hike up to the Paro Taktsang complex – also known as the Tiger’s Nest – resembles. Thankfully, it’s only moderately difficult, a 900-metre elevation hike along wide and well-trodden paths to this incredible monastery wedged between earth and sky. Starting at dawn, I barely encounter another soul in the two hours it takes to reach it, though by then an ant trail of other tourists has formed behind me. Even with the relative crowds, Tiger’s Nest is incredible, a meditative temple complex that sums up west Bhutan – remote, beautiful, tranquil, magical, welcoming and well worth the effort it takes to get there.
By Kee Foong
Did You Know…
The Bhutanese government uses Gross National Happiness as a guiding philosophy. It became enshrined in the constitution in 2008, with an index to measure the collective happiness of the nation.
I’m headed for the adventure of a lifetime in the mountains of eastern Bhutan, the Himalayan kingdom’s least visited and most rugged region.
Eastern Bhutan is a world apart, dominated by the Sharchop people who speak Tshanglakha, as opposed to western Bhutan’s Ngalops who speak Dzongkha, the national language. Topographically the regions differ too: broad farmland spreads across the west, but in the east the valleys are narrow and the villages cling to mountainsides. Many villages are remote, and some valleys are home to ethnic groups of fewer than 1,000 people.
By law, most foreign tourists have to employ a local agent for touring Bhutan, and I soon realise I’ve done well by choosing the Bridge To Bhutan agency: Phuntsho Dorji, my all-in-one driver and guide, speaks fluent English, navigates the mountain roads skilfully and packs an encyclopaedia of knowledge.
The road twists and turns through wild mountain scenery, along what was once a major trade route between India and Tibet. The peaks are high with rocky summits, while thickly wooded slopes seem to go on forever – Bhutanese law mandates that at least 60 per cent of the country must be carpeted in forest.
After six hours on the road, we wind down into Trashigang, the market town that is the focus of the eastern region, its wooden-balconied buildings clustering in a steep gully. High above the town on a mountain ridge, the white-walled Trashigang Dzong fortress originally stood guard over the trade routes and still houses a major Buddhist monastery. Dramatic murals enliven the long archway leading to the dzong’s spectacular courtyard, lined with wooden galleries along its four-storeyed facades, carved and painted in earthy yellows, reds and browns.
After a well-earned dinner – yak dumplings and the Bhutanese staple, ema datshi, melted cheese with green chillies – and a restful night at the Druk Deothjung hotel, the next day we drive west on a rough-surfaced highway that follows a churning river, heading for a renowned mountain-top temple. We turn onto a country lane that switchbacks ever upwards through pine forests and maize terraces, finally reaching a plateau at 2,100 metres.
Here is the village of Drametse, a straggle of painted, wooden houses gathered around its prestigious monastery. Following a total restoration, the monastery’s repainted murals depicting a pantheon of Tibetan gods and demons are a sight to behold. It is the largest and most important temple in the east of Bhutan, and the location where the Drametse Ngacham – ‘the Mask Dance of the Drums of Drametse’ was created five centuries ago. It has since effectively become the national dance, gaining a Unesco nod. At a three-day festival each December, monks garbed in multicoloured costumes and terrifying masks perform the Drametse Ngacham and other dances of ancient Tibetan inspiration.
Next morning, we head up the Chhu river valley. Far below, we catch sight of a festival procession led by monks, winding its way along banana tree-lined paths. On the way down, we stop at the golden-roofed Gom Kora temple. Here in the eighth century, so the legend goes, the great Buddhist master Guru Rinpoche vanquished an evil spirit hiding within a large rock. Now pilgrims circle the site in worship, spinning prayer wheels set in the surrounding walls.
For the last day, we head further east to the village of Radhi, famed for weaving naturally dyed raw silk. The place is buzzing: village headmen from all around have come to discuss the upcoming national elections. As they are mostly farmers, the seed shop does a roaring trade, and every customer gives the two large prayer wheels at each end of its porch a meditative spin.
Driving onward through fields of green rice and yellow maize, high above yet another stunning valley, we stumble across an ornate new temple – part of a Buddhist nunnery. A shy young nun shows us into the prayer hall, which is brilliantly painted with figurative murals and geometrical patterns on its ceiling. Phuntsho and I are amazed by our unexpected find. But then again, discovering dazzling beauty in remote places is exactly what awaits tourists who venture to east Bhutan.
By Keith Mundy
Need to Know
Apart from citizens of India, Bangladesh and the Maldives, all visitors must obtain a visa in advance (US$40) and travel with a registered tour operator, paying a minimum daily package rate of between US$200-$250, depending on the season. This includes food, accommodation, transport, a guide and the sustainable development fee (SDF) of US$65 per day.
In 2018, the government introduced an SDF waiver for those travelling to the country’s eastern circuit (the eastern provinces of Lhuentse, Mongar, Trashigang, Trashi Yangtse, Pemagatshel and Samdrup Jongkhar), resulting in cheaper rates until the end of 2020. Click here for more info.
Well, Hello There
‘You are likely to see giant ejaculating penises painted on the facades of houses in Bhutan – nowhere more so than in Punakha, site of Chimi Lhakhang, a small 15th-century temple dedicated to Drukpa Kunley. Better known as the “Divine Madman”, Bhutan’s cheekiest saint is said to have spread enlightenment through having sex with thousands of women, while defeating demons with his euphemistically named “magic thunderbolt of wisdom”. He is regarded as a fertility deity, and while I’m not pursuing fatherhood, I am nonetheless donged on the head by a big wooden phallus as a blessing during my visit.’ – Kee Foong
Don’t Do This in Bhutan
Smoke (it’s almost banned)
Snap photos in religious sites