Back in 2008 I shook hands with the king on his coronation day, overwhelmed by the people’s celebrations and hoping the fledgling democracy would maintain such an amazing culture. The modern world is creeping in but Bhutan is still the land of ‘gross national happiness’ based on respect for Buddhism, the royal family and all living things.
After a wonderful flight from Kathmandu along the Himalaya, most visitors arrive in Paro, a remote ‘Shangri-La’ in Western Bhutan which claims the country’s only international airport. On a full tour or a short add-on trip from India or Nepal, you can explore the Paro valley, Thimphu the official capital since 1961, about an hour away, and the lovely Punakha reached over a scenic mountain pass.
At around 2250 metres, the Paro river meanders crystal clear through lush glistening paddies. Lonely farms doze in the midday sun and over 150 monasteries and temples are scattered in the area, some dating back to the 14th century. Among them are Kyichu Lhakhang, one of the oldest temples in Bhutan and said to hide myriad treasures, and Taktsang, the iconic Tiger’s Nest clinging to a rocky ledge 900 metres above the valley floor. See it from the road, enjoy the gorgeous views from the half-way point or trek all the way to the top. Back in town locals in Bhutanese dress spin the giant prayer wheel among clouds of incense and Buddhist flags. The covered bridge over the river leads to the great Rinpung ‘dzong’, one of the ‘fortified monasteries’ found right across the kingdom, and Ta Dzong above, the circular watch tower which houses the National Museum. Then you can look around the farmers’ market or stroll along the main street lined with craft shops and pâtisseries, set in traditional dwellings with decorated eaves and window frames. This is still the Bhutan of yesteryears.
On the other hand, with no airport in its mountain-closed valley, Thimphu is embracing a brand new world. Buildings up to five-floor high, a few jeans, long hair, bright lights, more people and cars, things have changed but on the roundabout, the traffic lights were taken down by popular demand and the officer is back, keeping everything in order with the grace of a ballet dancer. The traditional dress is still popular, mingling here and there with the red robes of monks, and under the beautifully ornate roofs, shops sell hand-woven textiles, Buddhist amulets and SIM cards. Yet in this strange mix of old and new, Thimphu has kept its soul, most inspiring in the Tashichho Dzong, housing the monk body, the king’s offices and some government departments. Inside are temples, chapels and shrines, the throne room and the courtyard where Buddhist festivals are held every year as is the custom in temples and dzongs. Other attractions include the Memorial Chorten dedicated to the 3rd king, the textile and heritage museums, a hand-made paper factory and Zorig Chusum, the National Institute for traditional arts and crafts. You’ll find a few temples to explore and if you walk along the trails in the Motithang Preserve you might spot a takin or two (the goat-like national animal). Meanwhile a new Buddha keeps watch on a hilltop, its bronze statue covered in gold, 51 metre high and complemented by 125,000 smaller statues inside the temple. They say it fulfils an ancient prophecy to send a message of peace across the world.
East of Thimphu the highway climbs up to the Dochu La pass where at 3100 metres you’ll enjoy a fabulous panorama by clear weather. Mountains rise all around and it’s also a religious place with a temple and 108 auspicious chortens.
Then it’s down to Punakha, a delightful sub-tropical valley framed in marigolds, bougainvillaea and orange trees. At just over 1200 metres, the former capital still holds a special place in the people’s hearts for it is the winter residence of the monk body and the traditional venue for important events, such as the royal wedding in 2011. There, at the confluence of the Mo and Po Chu rivers, the dzong is said to be the most beautiful in the country, well known for its Buddhist festivals of masked dances and music and the precious remains of the Shabdrung who unified Bhutan. Then nestling in the rice fields on the edge of town is Chimi Lhakhang, the fertility temple built by the legendary Divine Madman where you might be blessed with a wooden phallus. It’s well worth a peep -donation welcome- but my favourite place is on the hilltop beyond the bouncy suspension bridge and up a steep scented trail. Up there only crickets disturb the peace and if you climb up to the balcony in the Namgyal chorten, the panorama simply takes your breath away from the forested slopes to the winding river far below, the golden fields, the bustling farmers and maybe an archery team practising their national sport.
Advanced booking through a registered operator is essential.
Whether you travel alone or with a group, a guide will be responsible for your welfare but that doesn’t mean you can’t wander on your own.
Based on the government daily charge, prices include full board accommodation in character hotels and lodges, sightseeing and services of guide and driver. Allow extra for souvenirs, drinks and tips (optional).
Bhutan’s national travel and tourist agency is www.bluepoppybhutan.com/en/
For journeys to Bhutan Silver Travel Advisor recommends Cox & Kings, Jules Verne, Wendy Wu Tours, Selective Asia