First time in …Bhutan


| June 21, 2018

Prior to my trip to Bhutan, I had spoken to colleagues and read as much as I could to gain a better understanding of the country and its culture. I thought I knew what to expect from Bhutan…

Candles

My excitement grew as we began our descent into the verdant valley that surrounds the airport, nestled between the towering Himalaya. Stepping out of what I’d call a jet-propelled time machine, I felt as though I’d travelled back in time. This mystical land in the Himalaya had been closed to the western world until 1974 and now has a strict ‘high value, low impact’ tourism policy. The wonderful thing is that Bhutanese people welcome you with a warm smile and are extremely genuine. Watching people go about their day to day life is amazing, simply because they are so content. Happiness here is so palpable that you can’t help but smile yourself.  

Sunday market in Thimphu

Sunday market in Thimphu

One of my most memorable experiences in Bhutan was meeting some school children on my way to Chimi Lhakhang, a Buddhist monastery in Punakha. I was walking through a paddy field, when I came across a bunch of giggling girls. They were very chatty and invited me to join their game. It was a ball game using a bunch of leaves tied together that were then tossed and kicked around. It was a humbling realisation of how lovely childhood is, and that it doesn’t take much to be happy. Their beaming little faces will stay with me forever.

Verdant valleys

Verdant valleys

Along with the preservation of Bhutan’s identity and values, the Bhutanese government includes the nation’s national happiness as a key measurement of the country’s prosperity. It is sad that this concept of pursuing happiness and preserving traditional concepts is so estranged to us in the UK. The Bhutanese people are fiercely proud of preserving their culture: across the country you will see people dressed in traditional clothing and using traditional methods to produce goods.

Punakha market

Punakha market

Bhutan’s lush landscapes and snow-capped mountains are incredibly picturesque. The Dochula Pass, on the road between Punakha and Thimphu, offers some of the best views of the Himalayan peaks. It is known for its 108 stupas – places of meditation – and panoramic views of the Himalaya.

Dochula Pass

Dochula Pass

With nearly three quarters of the population practising Buddhism, it is hard to escape religion in Bhutan. But why would you want to? No matter what you believe in, it’s difficult not to appreciate Buddhism’s core values and message of peace. Buddhist architecture is known for its fortress-like designs, with intricate and delicate detailing, wooden entrances and spacious interior courtyards that are beautiful. You will pass an innumerable amount of dzongs – administrative and monastic institutions – and monasteries in Bhutan. My favourite is in Punakha, which is not just aesthetically pleasing, but has some beautiful thangkas – a Tibetan Buddhist painting on cotton or silk – depicting important Buddhist scenes.

Punakha Dzong

Punakha Dzong

When most people think of Bhutan, it’s the iconic image of Paro Taktsang – better known as the Tiger’s Nest – that comes to mind. A Buddhist temple built into the side of a steep cliff, it is considered one of the most sacred sites in Buddhism and is the highlight of most visits to the country. Built in the late 17th century, legend has it that it was the landing site of Guru Rinpoche, who travelled from Tibet on the back of a tigress to introduce Buddhism to Bhutan. Unfortunately, I did not have a flying tiger at my disposal, so I hiked from the Paro valley, which took around three hours. Although this is not an easy hike due to Tiger’s Nest being at an altitude of 3,120 metres, it is manageable and there are several viewing points along the way if you are unable to make it to the entrance. For the first hour of the trek, the monastery is hidden behind the cliff. The first glimpse of the Tiger’s Nest is magical.

Tiger's Nest

Tiger's Nest

Bhutanese cuisine is like its people: warm and comforting. Lavishly spiced with chillies, dishes are often paired with cheese. Ema datshi, the national dish, is a cheese & chilli curry, eaten with red rice. The dish has been spun into numerous variations, using different vegetables along with chilli. The Bhutanese chilli is used as a vegetable rather than a spice. If you don’t like chillies, there are plenty of alternatives, as dishes are influenced by the bordering countries of India, China and Tibet.

Visiting Bhutan is not about tasting the most delicious food, or staying at the most luxurious hotels – although the food is delicious and there are some luxurious hotels. It is to experience a country where happiness is more important than wealth, a place where people love their king and traditions. There is an innate happiness in almost everyone you will meet and you will leave the country happier and smiling. I still am.

Aman hotel in Paro

Aman hotel in Paro

Cox & Kings’ Bhutan: The Dragon Kingdom escorted group tour includes both the Punakha dzong and Tiger’s Nest monastery. Alternatively, you can speak to one of our experts to organise a tailor-made holiday.

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