Christie’s field notes from Bhutan

A peaceful trail through a tiny Himalayan kingdom

We’ve always felt that ‘being there’ – in person, feet on the ground – is the best way for us to gain a deeper understanding of the trips we design for our travellers. To get beneath the surface, to discover the world’s tucked away secrets.

That’s why, recently, we sent Christie on a research trip to the lush valleys of Bhutan. Hiking through pine forests blessed with prayer flags and meditating with ruby-robed monks between mountains shrouded in cloud.

This is her story. Over to you, Christie.

Paro – my head in the clouds

The beating heart of Bhutan is green. Sustainable, pure. As one of only three carbon negative countries in the world, care for the environment isn’t just an ideal in Bhutan, it’s a way of life. You notice this as soon as you fly in, the whole country blanketed in vast forests of Blue Pine and Fir. These huge smears of emerald count for 70% of the country’s surface. And it’s refreshingly beautiful.

We flew into Paro – the safest, widest valley – and landed right in the centre of town. Between the white, brown, and red of traditional Bhutanese buildings. Made of beaten earth, stone, and bamboo – wooden frames overlap white-washed walls and trefoil (‘three-leaved plant’) windows line each tiered storey. There are no skyscrapers or modern abodes here; even new houses are built in the old architectural style. A way to preserve history, I’m told.

The following morning, I head to the cliffs of upper Paro valley to fulfil a wish I’ve had for several years, ever since I saw photos of a precariously perched monastery tucked above the clouds. Paro Taktsang. Or Tiger’s Nest, as it’s also known.

The hike takes four hours. The halfway point – marked by the small café that sits there – can be reached by foot, or by mule. Just follow the earthy scent of Suja (butter tea) and you’ll find it. With striking views of the monastery above, it’s the perfect place for a sip of this creamy yet salty brew and a spoonful or two of Shamu Datshi (mushroom, cheese and green chilli stew). Fed and watered, we continue up.

As with any quintessential picture postcard destination, there’s always the fear of it not being as you imagined. Of expectations unmet, that lingering feeling of disappointment. Fortunately, that isn’t the case here. Even catching glimpses of it as we make our way through pine forests to reach it is breath-taking. All around lichen appears to be dripping off the branches as the wind gently blows through it and colourful prayer flags flutter in their hundreds. I step over roots that emerge from the compact earth, ducking beneath strings of colour slung between trees. Sunlight floods the lush valley below and Bhutan’s renowned monastery perches serenely in the shadow of the rugged cliff face. It’s spectacular and surreal. And certainly more incredible than I could ever have imagined. One thing’s for sure – trekking in Bhutan is not to be missed.

Thimphu – reaching new heights

High in the Himalayas, Bhutan’s capital stretches out across the Wang Chhu River – an extensive patch of shops, restaurants, and markets that blend into rice terraces. Here, like in the rest of the country, small rocks and stones sit on rooftops to hold tiles down instead of nails. Another nod to tradition.

I stroll through the city, rubbing shoulders with ruby-robed monks and street vendors selling saffron incense and bottles of wild honey. Dome-like mountains jut out between buildings, restaurants serve home-baked cookies and karaoke bars come alive only on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays (the designated ‘entertainment days’ according to Bhutanese law).

It’s a relaxed, friendly place. And also the home of royalty. To the north of the city, the Trashi Chho Dzong dominates the valley with its red and gold tiered roofs – a bold mass of white-walled splendour. But the king isn’t here, I’m told, he’s in London for the coronation of King Charles III. Maybe next time.

Phobjikha Valley – into the land of black-necked cranes

As soon as I arrive in Phobjikha, I notice something is missing. There’s no power – well, no electricity or telephone lines at any rate. The landscape is refreshingly clear of them, generators taking their place. I ask why. The answer is somewhat heartwarming. It’s because of the cranes, I’m told. Every year these black-necked birds migrate from Tibet and there was concern that the introduction of power lines could do more harm than good. A kind sentiment that makes this glacial valley even more special, I think. It feels cleaner, more beautiful somehow.

We soon set off to hike deeper into the valley. We climb higher and higher and, at the risk of sounding like Julie Andrews, the hills are alive. With flowers, that is. Red, pink, white – thousands of rhododendrons completely cover the landscape. Below, clear tranquil waters flow their way through the valley – a river by the name Nakey Chhu, carved by a snake that once challenged a boar to race. Or so the legend goes.

Upon our descent we head to Shedra (a sort of monk college). Here, meditation is the order of the day. We oblige. Learning the art of ‘shamata’ (tranquillity and calm abiding meditation), the monks teach us how to develop a peaceful mind, to overcome stress, and to generate kindness. Afterwards, we sip on tea and chat with them about Buddhism and poetry, asking them a stream of questions about their way of life. The scent of burnt herbs drifts on the breeze – part of a cleansing ritual performed at early morning to appease spirits. Young monks in training hang their washing to dry – a charmingly quotidian sight. Encircled by luscious mountains and crisp blue skies, I feel an unparalleled sense of calm – a feeling that lasts long after our departure.

Punakha – white water and lilac blooms

One of the most compellingly striking images of Bhutan are those of its dzongs; places of spiritual grandeur adorned with gold-red roofs and intricate dragon motifs. Punakha is perhaps the most famous of all, its lilac jacaranda trees in full bloom beside a gushing river. Across the water, you’ll spot narrow wooden bridges donned with prayer flags – the sound of their fluttering a welcome, therapeutic balm.

On the side of winding valley roads, a different kind of blessing. Golden prayer wheels. Powered by natural waterfalls, or turned clockwise by hand, these creations are believed to release positive blessings, love and wishes into the world.

Hoping their good luck holds true, I head to my next rather nail-biting activity – white water rafting. Built on the confluence of two rivers (the Male and the Female), Punakha Dzong overlooks this adrenaline-fueled feat. We dash between the rapids, past rice terraces and onlooking birds. It’s fast (and very fun). I’m breathless afterwards. Partly from the rafting, partly from the beautiful natural surrounds.

Our hotels in Bhutan

In this tiny Himalayan nation, we rested up at some of the best luxury hotels in Bhutan – each one beautifully blended with the landscape in which it resides. Beyond our own comfort, this is an essential part of our research – checking in with the staff from the hotels we love. And for me, it’s all about the personal touches. From hot water bottles carefully placed in your bed each night at Six Senses Paro to being surprised with our very own traditional Bhutanese dress for dinner at Amankora. Where the former embraces its pine forest surrounds (a series of luxurious villas furnished with natural timber and locally-crafted Himalayan rugs), the latter incorporates a traditional Bhutanese farmhouse with elegant suites set between orange orchards and rice terraces.

Final thoughts

My journey through Bhutan was breath-taking – in the best possible way. I spent much of my time trekking in the wild heart of its leafy valleys, breathing in the crisp mountain air (and the spectacular views). But, of course, there are other ways to experience a Bhutan vacation – and other luxury hotels in Bhutan from which to explore. So, whenever and wherever you wish to embark on your trip to Bhutan, we’ll start designing it for you. Today, if you like.

discover your own bhutan

Bhutan is a place of outstanding natural beauty and enlightening experiences, and our Travel Experts can’t wait to show you around, from Phobjikha Valley to Thimphu. Head below to find out more.
Take me to Bhutan