Travel has always stoked my curiosity, I’ve always found greater understanding about myself as I’ve explored more of this world. For the last few years, I’ve found myself working my way from Vietnam to India and as much in between as possible. The mystical, lesser known Bhutan has been on my list for a long time. Having just returned I wanted to be able to look back on how I felt, what I saw, and why Bhutan is a diamond hidden among mountains.
Should you only have a couple of minutes today and not enough time to read my full account of Bhutan, then here’s a quick snapshot of why you should go to this magical kingdom:
It’s been a little while since I’ve had so much excitement about a new destination, but flying out of the clouds, above a carpet of lush green forest, dissecting the spectacular Himalayan mountain range caused me to draw breath in a way only a place like this can.
It is quite a thing to be in the presence of something so raw and powerful yet so peaceful and calm. The mountains are humbling and wash your daily worries away at first glance.
Before we get into the specifics of the capital, it’s worth noting that the landing strip at Thimphu Airport is one of the 10 hardest places to land in the world. Scary at first, however it brings the reality of how remote this destination we are arriving in is and perfectly sets the tone of this entire trip. We really are in one of the quietest and most remote corners of Asia, and of the world.
Thimphu isn’t a capital how I have come to understand a capital.
No matter where a capital is, it is a reflection of the surrounding societal and physical landscape it resides in, and this capital echoes a world that belongs to yesterday, a reflection of a culture which is steeped in history and marches on unaffected by the influences of the external world.
No traffic lights, advertisements, brands or congestion. Instead you’ll find people existing in a relaxed and traditional environment, no one seemed rushed or pressured, just happy and contented.
On the way up to Amankora Thimu we passed through the Memorial Chorten. Built in 1974 as a memorial to King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, the Chorten is home to many Bhutanese daily prayers. You could feel the importance of this place to those that came here to pray, with the energy carrying over to all others visiting the Chorten and making it a spiritual moment whether you are yourself a religious person or not.
At the break of dawn on the second day we trekked up to the Tango Monastery. You could see it tucked up in the mountain from below, a mysterious and inviting sight. As we edged closer, more and more prayer flags appeared, fluttering in the valley wind with red robbed monks slowly appearing and bowing heads as you walked past.
After a guided tour of this beautiful building, being educated on some of the finest Buddhist paintings in the world we sat and drank tea with the monks during one of their scripture classes. Just two days in Bhutan and I felt completely decompressed from my daily routine back home, and taken back by the friendliness of the people here.
On the third day we headed up over the Dochula Pass (3,100m). The drive is stunning and on a clear day like today you can see the Bhutanese section of the Himalayas. We drove along the river Mo Chhu (Mother River) towards Punhaka Fortress, a 17th century masterpiece.
Standing at the intersection of the Mo Chhu and Pho Chhu (Father River), the Fortress is without any doubt one of the most spectacular sites I’ve ever seen. The tall white walls juxtaposed against the deep brown, short gradient roofs make the building immense yet welcoming.
I felt lost in thought approaching the temple, I hadn’t even considered what lay on the other side of the walls. Inside the temple, the courtyards open up to a beautiful space, where prayer walls are decorated with intricate photos and wood carvings of Buddha’s life, whilst monks light incense and sit in silent prayer. It heightens your senses to be in and around such a place of such clear importance to the people here. A trip to Bhutan without the approach to, and study of the beautiful interior of Punhaka Fortress would be a trip with unfulfilled potential.
Waking up at the Dhensa Resort which had provided such incredible views of the valley as the sun set the night before, got us all excited about the day to come. We began with a short hike up to the Khansum Yuelley Chorten, which stands high on a ridge overlooking the valley. Trekking through rice paddies, past old prayer wheels with praying monks and chance encounters with the men and women working the land was a surreal experience and you could sense that nothing here had changed, or needed to, for many years.
The hike is like a travelling through time, every few hundred yards you become more aware of the simplicity and purity of life and was the most refreshing part of the trip so far. On reaching the small four-tiered Chorten, the view was even better than we had been told to expect.
So far we had seen and engaged with many monks on our trip, but spending the morning at the local nunnery for morning prayers as the only tourists present during their prayer ritual was an incredibly soothing experience
Driving up to Gangtey Lodge it was enlightening to see how these people have lived for hundreds of years, as remote houses start to appear on clifftops and in the distant valley, then we stopped and tried the chilli cheese and I quickly realised, when the cheese is this good, why would you ever leave? Surrounded by beautiful green paddy fields, which drop down into the lush green valley as it opens up in front of you, the view makes me feel like I’m in the most remote place I’ve ever been. The pace of life has probably never changed, instead the locals move at their own pace and after only 5 days in this country it feels like the sort of pace we should all be moving at.
Tonight we stayed at Gangtey Lodge, without doubt one of the best places I’ve ever stayed, where the beautiful views stretching down through the valley as far as the eye can see and a lovely surprise was enjoying a bath with what I can only image are the best bathing views in the world.
An early start and a mountain biking excursion down through the valley is something I’ll never forget. It was not just challenging but liberating making it to the top of the valley before flying down through winding roads and past the farms back to the hotel.
As national sports go, archery is a pretty epic one. After watching these highly skilled men and women pick off precision targets up to 150m away you find a whole new level of respect and appreciation for them and their way of life.
Tonight we stayed in Uma Paro, handcrafted in stone, wood and tiles, the villas have a wonderfully authentic Bhutanese feel. The photos don’t do this hotel justice and the 6 course Indian meal that was served, and this is quite a statement, was the best Indian meal I’ve ever had outside of India.
The one I’ve been waiting for. After seven days here we finally stepped out on a three hour hike up to the famed Tiger’s Nest.
Perched 3,000 feet above the Paro Valley up against the mountain and initially hidden in the trees, the faint outline of the famous monastery emerges. The Tiger’s Nest (Taktsang) is said to be the holiest site in Bhutan.
1,300 years ago, on the back of a flying tigress, Guru Rinpoche materialised and after spending three years meditating in the shelter of a series of caves along the mountainside, he set about converting Bhutan to Buddhism. Whilst Bhutan is a relatively mysterious and lesser travelled region of the world, the Tiger’s Nest is one of the world’s most famous and striking temples.
Every step brought the faint chanting of the monks and aroma of incense closer. The final approach takes you over a sacred pool, where the entire area is draped in prayer flags and the final flight of steps which have been carved out of the mountain rocks bring you to the gates of the monastery, where all technology is left behind and you step into a blessed, sacred world.
One thing I’ve learnt on my travels is that you should never anticipate what you expect. Travel with excitement, but always be prepared that whilst some places will blow you wide away, others will leave you wanting.
The Tiger’s Nest Temple, blew everyone away. It is a day that will be with me for the rest of my life and a highlight of everywhere I’ve been so far.
After seven days of awe and wonder, seeing Everest standing tall and powerful above the clouds on the flight home, is a fitting post script to the greatest trip and destination I have been lucky enough to enjoy.
Want to follow in James’ footsteps? See the new itinerary here!