As the plane veers through a gap in the mountains, minutes before landing, a hidden valley spreads at your feet, framed by pristine forests and snow-capped peaks. At the heart of the Himalaya, Paro appears like a dream, a sprinkling of traditional houses with beautifully carved eaves and frames and auspicious signs painted on the walls. Buddhist flags flutter all around, incense drifts along the streets and nearly everyone wears the iconic national dress. Tucked between India and Tibet, Bhutan is highly traditional yet the country is moving forward: new democracy, new technologies, free education, free healthcare, economic growth and a ten-fold increase in tourism, hailing the campaign ‘Visit Bhutan 2015’. The modern world is welcome, as long as it does not damage the unique cultural traditions which are the soul of the country. It’s the best of both worlds and for the Bhutanese, the secret of the ‘gross national happiness’ promised by the King and ranked above gross national income.
Even with its international airport, Paro is no exception, a sleepy little place where men practise archery, the national sport, and two stunning landmarks symbolise the spirit of the land. Down by the river is the dzong, a fortified monastery with thick whitewashed walls accessed by a covered bridge. Dzongs are found right across Bhutan, the seat of civic administration and the monks’ body, guarding strategic points on river banks or up on lonely hillocks. Inside, temples glow with gilded statues and bright murals while in Paro, the watchtower turned museum houses the world’s most precious stamp collection.
A short drive up valley, Taktsang defies imagination, its shrines and temples clinging to a vertiginous ledge some 800 metres above the paddies. They call it the Tiger’s Lair for according to legend, this is where a guru flying on a tigress came to land to bring Buddhism and chase away demons. It’s the most sacred place in Bhutan and pictured on every postcard and guide book.
Thimphu, the capital, is roughly an hour away, too close to the mountains to accommodate an airport, but with enough space for upmarket hotels, a golf course and a dzong where in 2008, a new king was crowned among great festivities, barely noticed by the outside world.
Small as it is, Thimphu has a fair range of shops, including a National Handicraft Emporium where you can buy the finest kira -the wrap-around ‘dress’ worn by women- or a gho, a knee-length gown worn by men, in a superb range of silk, brocade and handwoven fabric, purely traditional or sporting the latest designer touches. Most regions specialise in crafts based on their own raw material, wood, clay and so on, and items surplus to local needs are sold in Thimphu. From wooden bowls to bamboo ware, from filigree silver to hand-made paper, Buddhist paintings or fabulous textiles, quality is assured as for the Bhutanese, creating beautiful things is an act of worship, a thanksgiving for the gifts of the natural world.
Skills are handed down from one generation to the next but the most promising artists can perfect their craft in a National Institute, either in Trashiyangtse in the East or in Thimphu in the West. These cover the 13 arts and crafts defined in the 17th century by the Shabdrung, the highly-respected leader who unified the country. Prices reflect quality and attempts to bargain would be a lack of appreciation.
Bhutan’s amazing arts and crafts are just one facet of the many cultural traditions deeply rooted in the Buddhist faith. Respect for all living things is paramount and that means a pristine natural world, home to snow leopards and blue sheep, black bears, Himalayan takins, Golden Langurs, elephants and tigers down south and 675 species of birds. There are edelweiss and rare blue poppies and more medicinal plants than you could ever imagine. Yet in Bhutan, resources are used for local needs rather than commercial gain. No fishing, no hunting, no plastic bags and no tobacco are widely accepted policies while the development of hydro-electricity, in partnership with India, helps to safeguard the forest.
The road climbing above Thimphu soon meanders through feathery blue pines up to the Dochu La pass where views extend from ridge to ridge to the great Himalayan peaks, including Gangkar Punsum, at 7541 metres the highest in Bhutan. The road continues all the way to the East through ever changing landscapes. Here the lovely hill-framed Punakha is draped in marigolds and orange trees, with a dzong poised like a ship at the confluence of two rivers, there the spine-chilling Black Mountains where disgruntled yaks stare at the roadside, the dizzying bends, the tiny hamlets nestling in forlorn valleys, the glinting snow, the luminous fields of golden rays, the streams and waterfalls where prayer wheels tinkle crystal clear day and night. Traffic is light and on this gigantic switchback, the scenery unfolds in slow motion, revealing what could be the last
Beyond Punakha, you reach Bumthang, the kingdom’s spiritual heartlands, brimming with ancient legends, holy sites, temples and monasteries. Near Jakar, the bucolic Chokor Valley marks the start of the relatively gentle Cultural Trek and the site of the most unusual religious festivals such as the Naked Dance, performed by men on a November night, and the Fire Blessing when locals run through burning straw to purify their soul. Meanwhile down in Phobjikha, over the pass, people celebrate the auspicious return of the black-necked cranes that come from Tibet to winter in warmer climes.
Festivals are the highlight of any visit to Bhutan, a headspinning kaleidoscope of swishing brocade and silk as masked dancers pounce and twirl on the flagstones to the sound of gongs and long Himalayan horns. It’s a time for blessings and prayers but also for fun with picnics on the river bank and for country folk who have walked for days to attend, a once a year chance to meet relatives and long lost friends. Everyone shows off their best clothes, especially made for the occasion, and festivities last up to five days. Festivals are held across Bhutan, most of them in the dzongs in spring or autumn.
After the Kori pass, the eastbound road begins a tortuous descent towards semi-tropical lands festooned in papaya trees, bananas, bottlebrush, guava and the fragrance of freshly-cut lemongrass. Later, the Drangme valley greets you with a rushing silvery blue river and steep rose-tinted hills with a mere sprinkling of trees. These eastern reaches do not claim the soaring heights of other areas but their precipitous gorges and dramatic spurs are sure to take your breath away.
Beyond the confluence of the Bamri and Kulong rivers, a thin ribbon of road clings to a ledge heading towards Trashiyangtse. Few visitors venture this far but those who do will discover a lost valley laced in rice fields and wooded slopes where violets and orchids grow along the scented trails. Wagtails and redstarts flit on the river bank and the constant whir of crickets mingles with bird song. It’s as enticing as the snowy mountains and tropical lowlands, the high passes and green pastures and the dzongs and temples where intrinsic values ensure gross national happiness in a fast changing world.
Places to Stay
Uma by Como, Paro
Uma by COMO, Paro, is an intimate, 29-room resort featuring the most exclusive private villas in Bhutan with an enviable location in the Paro Valley. This puts you within striking distance of the country’s great cultural landmarks. The style combines local artisanship with COMO’s contemporary style, while activities range from yoga to Himalayan camping adventures.
The villas here are entirely private, with soul-stirring views of forest, mountains and the surrounding valley. Each one occupies its own glade planted with azaleas, rhododendrons, camellias and hydrangeas. Built of stone, wood and tiles, the villas feel at once Bhutanese and luxurious with wood furniture vividly painted with flowers by local artists. Indian cotton bedcovers have hand-stitched patterns paying homage to Bhutan’s Buddhist culture and colours. The result is a luxury resort with a fresh, original look that feels sleek even as it recognises the cultural context.
Situated in Balakha Village, 30 minutes from Paro International Airport, the 24-suite Amankora Paro contrasts rustic elements with contemporary design. Its architecture features natural rammed-earth walls, gently sloping roofs and wood-panelled interiors. Centred by a large flagstone courtyard, a lime-washed stone pavilion houses the living and dining room facilities, library and outdoor terrace, all warmed by fireplaces. Other options in Punakha are Uma by Como & Dhensa Boutique, Punakha
Taj Tashi, Thimphu
Set in the heart of the Thimphu Valley, the Taj Tashi, is a gateway to a land steeped in mythology and magic. In keeping with the enchanting surrounds, the hotel is a blend of Bhutan’s Dzong architecture and modern design. Adorned with classical hand-drawn Buddhist murals, its 66 elegant guestrooms afford guests striking highlights of the region’s art and colour.
Guests can sample Bhutan’s fiery cuisine, gaze at the make short but rewarding forays into the vibrant local markets, pleasantly while their time in one of the hotel’s traditional themed café’s and restaurants, or find yet more ways to relax with a special ‘ Bhutanese Hot Stone Bath ’ at the Jiva Spa. Other options in the region are Hotel Norbuling and Le Meridien in Thimphu; Dewachen Hotel in Phobjikha Valley; From the top Deluxe Suite Living Amankora and Mountain Lodge in Bumthang.