Far, far away – beyond the rivers, before the mountains – there is a country, a kingdom, a place like a fairytale, where lies stories of demons, devils and deities. Stories of their battles, where good always overcomes evil.
The skies here are clear blue, just like the rivers. Temples and castles perch on hillsides and cliffs. Buddhism is a way of life – and it shows everywhere, their care for the natural world, the environment and for their animals and every living thing. It reflects in the gentleness of the people, their patience and their contentment with life. They say Bhutan is the happiest country in the world!
Nestled between India and China, Bhutan is isolated, and seems to be untouched by the rest of the world. My travel through Bhutan was one of discovery – there on the rooftop of the world, I learned of faith and values, traditions and ancient cultures that make Bhutanese people so unique. Travelling through green-forested valleys and snow-capped mountain passes – I watched prayer flags flutter and prayer wheels spin, while the pilgrims chant “Om Mani Padme Hum”
My holiday was four centres, and I travelled between them in a comfortable car accompanied by an excellent driver and an equally excellent guide. We spent the next eight days together and became firm friends. Its a government regulation that you have a guide with you at all times when sightseeing. Routes criss-cross high passes but the driving is relaxed and at speeds no more than 50mph and no honking of horns!
I visited Thimphu, Punakha, Phobjikha Valley and Paro. Each feature a dzong (a fortress monastery and administrative centre) – a central gathering place for festivals, prayers and meditation.
Thimphu is Bhutan’s capital. It’s a combination of old and new – red robed monks walk in a modern main street, cars and markets bustle together. Thimphu is the only capital in the world that has no traffic lights! We spent a delightful half hour watching a traffic policeman direct the traffic with hand signals in a Tai Chi fashion! Very entertaining!
Leaving the city behind we drove over the Dochula Pass to Punakha. The pass is over 10,000ft high – and surrounded by snow clad mountain peaks of the Himalayas to the east. A good stopping place for lunch or a coffee is at Druk Wangyal Chortens - a memorial of 108 stupas built in three concentric circles. Wish for good weather when you travel the pass … it is notoriously misty here!
My treat at the end of the pass was the Phobjikha Valley and Gangtey Monastery. Our accommodation was modest, because most people come here to walk – and we did – a two hour walk to the 17th Century monastery, mostly uphill! The most famous and very rare black necked cranes migrate to the valley in November. They come from Tibet and stay until February. They arrive in their hundreds, and before they land in the valley, they circle the monastery three times as if to pay their respects. The monastery holds a festival in honour of their arrival. Folk songs and masked dancers celebrate these enchanting majestic birds, with people coming from miles around (and from all around the world).
At Punakha, the dzong is the most beautiful – set by the riverside, it is a showcase of Bhutanese craft and architecture. Punakha is on the confluence of two rivers – and we thoroughly enjoyed a white water river raft on the afternoon we arrived here.
At Paro, I was back in the bustling town of shops, restaurants and offices. The dzong here is most famous for a giant embroidered tapestry – which depicts the founder of the dzong, Guru Rinpoche – you will hear stories about him everywhere in Bhutan. It’s also worth a couple of hours to meander through the National Museum, in a watchtower, above the dzong – as if it was built to guard the treasure of the dzong.
But the absolute highlight of my trip was yet to come! Paro Taktsang (the Tiger’s Nest Monastery) was my inspiration to visit Bhutan – I’d seen it years before in a brochure, and had kept it ever since, in my ‘bucket list’ - and it didn’t disappoint. This is Bhutan’s most iconic picture postcard – the monastery is poised on a cliff edge, a vertical drop of 1,000 meters to the valley floor!
We took the walk at a slow pace, starting at 7am, with plenty of water and sticks to help us up and down. There is a cafeteria at the half way point – great for coffee, hot food and a toilet stop, before carrying on - the monastery getting closer, but still seeming, impossibly out of reach!
At last! We reached the final steps to the Tiger’s Nest – huge uneven steps took us to the temples with their golden roofs and their rock-hewn walls. The views from the turrets, of the valley below and the mountains around, were spectacular to gaze at in speechless wonder.
The tiger is one of the four auspicious animals in Bhutan. It stands for dignity, confidence, modesty and discipline. Guru Rinpoche brought Buddhism to Bhutan, riding on the back of a tigress. Since then many monks have meditated here, in fact they are supposed to live and meditate in the monastery for three years, as Guru Rinpoche did in the original cave here.
Lonely Planet has nominated Bhutan as the world’s top destination for 2020 – a country that measures success by “Gross National Happiness” … I think I’ll vote for that, and I hope to persuade you too!
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No, I'm not a Travel Guru, but I have loved travelling since I was five years old, and more than love travel... I love to share my experiences... and show you our Wonderful World through my eyes!