Will Ottley climbs to the spectacular Tigers Nest Monastery in Bhutan, perfectly balanced high on a cliff face, and discovers a Buddhist country not just steeped in mystery, but embracing environmental happiness.
The journey by plane from Kathmandu in Nepal to Paro International Airport in Bhutan, takes in the Himalayan range that includes the majestic Everest (8848mm), conquered by Sir Edmund Hillary in May 1953. This seemingly pristine and inspiring mountain, home to snow leopards and Himalayan yogic masters, is now apparently so overcrowded, that climbers might not survive the descent.
In contrast, and striking the delicate balance between sustainable tourism whilst protecting its unique values and environment, Bhutan, the land of the Thunder Dragon, is a shining example of best practice. If the surveys are correct, this carbon neutral country is also one of the happiest places on the planet.
My own sense of relief as I arrived in Paro international airport at 2200m, sitting between Himalayan foothills, was not due to the technical landing strip, but a tangible sense of personal space and calm pervading the atmosphere from the Bhutanese architecture and pristine air. Bhutan is proud of its rich cultural heritage and quite rightly endeavors to preserve it, even when constructing modern buildings.
I’d heard about the mysterious Kingdom of Bhutan many years ago, whilst completing the Annapurna Circuit trek in Nepal. The forward thinking monarchy of Bhutan, a Kingdom the approximate size of Switzerland, sandwiched between Tibet and India, instigated a permit system in 1974 to control the number and quality of visitors. Effectively opening up this formerly closed country to visitors, the permit system facilitated amongst other things free health care and education. In 2008 the country further evolved into a constitutionally democratic monarchy with an elected parliament. The upbeat Bhutanese people, many of who continue to wear traditional dress and observe Buddhist traditions, now speak excellent English, taught in schools at a young age, with good access to modern technology.
Bhutan offers visitors a really unique experience, from rhododendron draped walks to temples nestled amongst pristine mountains, incredible fortresses situated at river confluences and hot stone baths. Like the national sport of archery that sets unfeasibly small targets at huge distances, the emphasis placed on Gross National Happiness, a belief that the country’s advancement cannot be solely measured in GDP, is culturally refreshing. It’s a chance to reassess one’s own values in an atmosphere of tranquility.
A Himalayan Escape
The majority of visitors to Bhutan choose to stay either close to Paro airport or the capital Thimphu, just over an hour away. A smarter decision is to be based in an idyllic oasis between the two.
Perfectly situated high in the hills away from the barking dogs, and offering panoramic views of the valley, just 20 minutes from Thimphu, is Boutique Hotel Dewa Thimphu by Realm. This atmospheric five star hotel is the perfect place to relax and unwind after a long flight, an arduous trek, or visits to incredible temples.
The perfect base for a Himalayan adventure, this exceptional hotel has luxury pool and spa facilities and an excellent restaurant offering an array of local and Western dishes, including vegan. The chefs at the hotel personally welcome visitors, being rightly proud of the tantalising variety of cuisines on offer, which is a big breath of fresh air, excuse the Himalayan pun, in a country not renowned for fine dining.
Your guide can very easily drop you and collect you from the hotel with 20 minutes notice (from Thimphu). The friendly and attentive hotel staff will make your stay in a select number of boutique rooms feel very special.
Taktshang Goemba Monastery (Tiger’s Nest)
As exemplified by the giant Dordenma bronze Buddha statue overlooking Thimphu, completed in 2015, and dedicated to everlasting happiness and enlightenment of all sentient beings, Buddhism is intrinsically tied up in the Bhutanese identity.
Early inhabitants of Bhutan, many of whom followed the Bon religion were introduced to Buddhism with the arrival of Guru Rimpoche (Padmasambhava) in AD 746. Widely venerated as a ‘second buddha’, his statue can now be found in almost all temples in Bhutan, alongside his principal consorts Mandarava and Yeshi Tsogyal. His powers to subdue demons and evil spirits are legendary, as is the story of him flying to the holy site of Taktshang Goemba on a pregnant female tigress. The most famous temple in Bhutan, also known as Tigers Nest, is perched dramatically on a cliff edge and accessed via an approximate 2 hour steep trek to over 3000 meters. The approach to the temple in the upper Paro valley taken by many pilgrims is extraordinary for the scenery alone, and entering this magical building, that has survived two fires, feels deeply humbling, exuding an almost holy presence.
Those with legs at altitude, and wishing to leave the crowd firmly behind them, can venture further up the hill to the unique temple of Ugyen Tshemo Lhakhang which has four fascinating levels with the backdrop of Tibetan Mountains.
The Palace of Great Bliss at Punakha, and The Divine Madman
Schedule permitting, a trip to Punakha, which served as Bhutan’s capital for 300 years is a must see, for the extraordinary magnificent Punakha Dzong. Constructed in 1637, this distinctive fortress, accessed via a bridge, with towering walls, temples, and administrative buildings, is also known as The Palace of Great Bliss.
Close to the city of Punakha is Chhimi Lhakhang temple of fertility dedicated to Lama Drukpa Kunley, The Divine Madman. His challenging behavior and provocative sexuality, that he used to subdue demons and to spread Buddhist teachings, is now celebrated with phalluses painted on houses around the country.
Permit and guide
If you live outside of the Indian subcontinent you will need to pay a daily minimum package fee to visit Bhutan of $250 per person. This fee includes basic 3 star accommodation (luxury is a premium), an official licensed guide (Tourism Council of Bhutan) with transport, all meals, taxes and fees to enter sights. A proportion of this fee goes towards infrastructure, education and healthcare. For blue skies and warm temperatures the best time to visit are October to November, and March to May. The April season affords an opportunity to experience the most amazing rhododendron blossoms whilst trekking through the forests.
Getting there and away
You can fly to Paro direct from Kathmandu with Druk Air. Further entry points are from Bangkok and Delhi. You can obtain a Bhutanese visa, arrange your accommodation and itinerary with a registered Bhutanese tour operator. It is strongly recommended that you have good travel insurance and follow medical advice before your trip.
About the author
Will Ottley is a freelance travel writer and author of the inspirational fable, “Mountain Garden”, but does not work with or for any of the parties mentioned in this article. Follow Will Ottley at www.willottley.com