I know I’m meant to start this story with what I see: locals flashing red betel-nut smiles; white manidhar prayer flags fluttering on hillsides as a sign of respect to the dead; crimson-robed monks playing football on the crest of a mountain, on the highest ground I’ve set foot on in my life, so close to the blue sky that I could reach out and put some in my pocket for later.
But this story begins and ends on the inside. Bhutan offers so much more than what you see.
Wedged between the goliaths of India and China, Bhutan is a quiet and proud David. One of the poorest countries in Asia, it is best known for its Gross National Happiness Index, which was introduced by the fourth King of Bhutan in 1972 to measure the general wellbeing of citizens and, in turn, to influence economic and social policy. It’s the only officially Buddhist country in the world, where temples and stupas literally poke from the peaks of mountains, rock faces and side streets; homes have their own shrines; and prayer and devotion are like breakfast, lunch and dinner. Essential. Everyday. Ordinary.
On my second day in the Buddhist kingdom, I’m offered a long-life blessing – it feels like bad karma to refuse. The nation of roughly 800,000 people sits about 2500 metres above sea level and I’ve climbed a few metres more up a steep wooden ladder to a temple in the Dechen Phodrang monastery – a school for young monks, who are essentially children of extreme poverty.
Image credit: Young monks hurry to prayer.
A semicircle of boy-monks chant, rock and play ceremonial drums and trumpets. I sit cross-legged on the floor in the middle of the modest temple with my friend. We’re doing that tourist thing of trying to look respectful while wondering when we can leave without causing offence. We’re engaged in an eye dance of proposed exit strategies when the round-faced head monk, straight out of central casting, breaks from the chanting and speaks in clear but accented English.
“Where are you from?”
“I love Australia. I’ve been to Perth, Brisbane, Canberra, Melbourne, Sydney.”
Another Bhutan surprise.
He blesses us with water from a bumpa (it looks like a teapot) resplendent with ostrich feathers, ties a yellow string around our necks and asks if we mind him sharing lessons from his past 45 years.
“I am old. But I know now, I am enough. I have enough,” he says, smiling. “And you? You know you are enough, too?” I feel uncomfortable when my yoga teacher back home talks too much about being grateful. I smile, hoping his question is rhetorical.
I learn quickly that the Bhutanese are polite (and have a cheeky sense of humour) but don’t muck around with small talk. Our guide, Tashi – a guide is compulsory in Bhutan – likes to ask the big questions: “Why do you work so much?”, “Do you want a son?”, “Why do you walk so fast?” We hike five to 15 kilometres every day, visiting towns and temples (often straight up hills dense with fir trees) and I discover Tashi is as competitive as I am.
Image credit: Prayer flags flutter in the breeze below Amankora.
On driving excursions we share the road with wandering cows, sleeping dogs and the occasional deer. We pass signs that say, in English, “Keep the environment clean and green”, “Be gentle on my curves” and “No hurry, No worry”, the latter a national character trait.
Bhutan is a place of inspiring lasts. It was one of the last countries to get wi-fi and TV (1999) and still doesn’t have any traffic lights. “We did have one set in [the capital] Thimphu but we took them down straight away,” Tashi tells me as our driver, Wang Chuck, skilfully navigates winding roads and lazy clouds trying to land on the car roof. “They complicate things.”
Image credit: A suite at Amankora’s Punakha Lodge.
Bhutan may be small but it has distinct regions. Amankora has five ultra-luxury lodges dotted throughout and my friend and I stay at three, zigzagging between them in the back of our comfortable 4WD. At each property we are completely indulged – there’s wi-fi if we want it and a thoughtful Western menu (we can also opt for local fare, such as the national dish of chilli and cheese served with red rice). Eschewing ostentatiousness, Amankora is all about subtle luxury, sensitivity to the natural and cultural surrounds, sympathetic architecture, intimate experiences (early-morning yoga and a late-afternoon facial, followed by a Green Margarita and scallop crudo) and perhaps the ultimate in indulgence: hyper-personal service. Amankora also arranged for Tashi to plan and guide our daily activities and to not laugh when we first tried the popular local beverage of butter tea. It’s butter. In warm water.
On the morning of our trek to Paro Taktsang, or Tiger’s Nest monastery, I grab my old man’s wooden walking stick with the excitement of a kid heading to a theme park. Every hike has been leading to this one. Reaching an elevation of 3200 metres, Tiger’s Nest is a collection of four temples, several dwellings and lots of steps that was built in 1692 around the holy cave where it’s said Guru Rinpoche alighted from a winged tigress sometime in the eighth century CE.
We set off at about 7.30am and, somewhat surprisingly for such a well-known trek, it’s not crowded. I suspect potential visitors have been scared off by summer’s classification as wet season. Though our time in Bhutan has been drier than normal, the term “monsoon season” still seems dramatic.
The hike is more challenging than I anticipated. It’s an extremely steep, 10-kilometre (three- to six-hour) round trip with thousands of uneven stairs. Towards the summit, Tashi calls us back. We watch as playful dogs chase golden langur monkeys on the mountainside. The monkeys win, hands down. “I’ve seen monkeys grab sticks like humans and shoo the dogs away,” says Tashi, laughing.
Knees tested by cruel steps and bodies sweaty, we finally reach the magnificent cluster of buildings clinging to the cliff. Maybe I’m out of breath, maybe it’s the altitude but I have to remember to breathe. It’s impossible to imagine constructing such a complex so long ago and I start to entertain the fantastical tale of a guru flying here on the wings of a tigress.
Image credit: The Tiger’s Nest monastery, near Paro.
As we climb even higher I prepare to pray like Tashi showed me on my first day: one prayer for self, one for family and one for all sentient beings. In the past week I’ve prayed more than I have in my entire life. I’ve prayed with local workers in Paro, with tourists in a gilded meditation hall beneath the 52-metre-high golden Buddha Dordenma in Thimphu and on an isolated hilltop, where the temple’s 80-year-old caretaker is so devout that there are silhouettes of his feet, knees and hands worn into the timber floor. I’ve come to realise that praying this way – sort of Buddhist, sort of awkward Westerner – offers comfort and perspective. It makes it impossible to think only about oneself and connects you to the wider world.
In the main temple, we stumble upon a once-a-year, all-day vigil and have to squeeze past crimson and saffron robes. We’re shoulder to shoulder in the first crowd we have encountered in Bhutan. There’s chanting and beating drums and incense clouding the air.
After we pray, Tashi whispers, “Do you want to stay for a bit longer?” We nod and sit for a while in a shadowed corner, filling with the chanting and vibrations, listening to the sounds of life being celebrated and feared. No furtive eye dance. Two women from Sydney on a cliff face in Bhutan, in a room where everyone is enough.
GOOD TO KNOW
Stay: Luxury hospitality chain Aman has a network of five lodges in Bhutan. Collectively called Amankora, they’re spread around the country
in Thimphu, Gangtey, Bumthang, Punakha and Paro. The group offers three- to 12-night itineraries, which means you can stay put at a single
lodge or experience all five of them. Or you can create your own journey with the hotel’s reservation team, which will also sort out other aspects
of your travel to Bhutan, including visas and airport transfers.
Daily fee: Bhutan charges tourists a daily fee of US$200 or US$250 (about $290 or $365), depending on the season. This covers three-star accommodation, meals, a licensed Bhutanese tour guide, internal transport, camping equipment and haulage for trekking tours. The fee is included when you stay at Amankora. Solo and duo travellers incur a daily surcharge of US$30 or $40 (about $44 or $58) so it’s better to visit in groups of three or more.
Visas: Australian passport holders need a visa to enter and exit Bhutan, which costs US$40 (about $58), takes several days to process and can be arranged by a government-licensed tour operator. The Tourism Council of Bhutan publishes a list of approved operators.
Climate: Research average temperatures for the time you’re travelling and pack accordingly. Bhutan has four distinct seasons and a variable climate, depending on elevation, so layers are essential. Summer evenings are cool and it snows in winter.
Dress code: Bhutan is a fairly conservative country and many locals don traditional dress. Visitors are expected to wear modest clothing when entering dzongs and temples.
Information: Finding reliable details about Bhutan (even how to say “thank you” or “hello” in the national language of Dzongkha) is not as easy as a quick Google search. It’s a real mystery until you arrive – part of the appeal.