Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Bhutan: how can you not be happy?

Arriving in Paro was like flying into a dream. Above the clouds, the cold white peaks of the Himalayas rise majestically, and as we dove beneath the clouds, the wings of the plane seemed as though they would scrape the sides of the mountains as it banked around the curves of the valley where the runway was rumoured to be. Roads zig-zag up steep mountain slopes as lengths of colourful prayer flags zig-zag through stands of conifers. The hillsides are dotted with cattle and farmhouses, and closer to the valley floor the land is broken up into terraces of rice, wheat, and potatoes.

It is so outrageously beautiful, it makes your heart ache at every turn. The fresh, crisp air! The red blooming rhododendrons! The towering pine trees dripping with lichen! The high mountain passes topped with chortens (stupas) and temples! And have I mentioned the prayer flags festooned through all the forests?! GAH! It’s all so amazing!

Bhutanese architecture is distinctive and striking. From a distance they look like Swiss cottages, their white stucco bottoms topped with dark oak that’s carved and painted, and topped with chalet-style roofs. Colourful figures and symbols adorn the spaces between windows and doors: tigers, deities, and flowers, and also the phallus, which is a symbol of protection.

Travel in Bhutan is completely different than the rest of Asia. Tourism here is regulated by the government, and to visit the country, you have to be part of a tour operated by one of the many federally-approved travel agencies. Every traveler has to pay a base tariff per day, plus an additional surcharge if your group is less than 3 people. This fee (though extraordinarily expensive), gets you a private guide, driver, transportation in a comfortable car, accommodation, meals, entry fees, visas and a custom itinerary for the duration of your stay.

Thirty percent of your fee goes to the government whose development policy is GNH (Gross National Happiness). From our welcome package: “GNH is a holistic approach to development emphasizing the importance of spiritual well-being alongside economic prosperity.” There are four key pillars of GNH which include sustainable and equitable socio-economic development, environmental conservation, preservation and promotion of culture, and good governance. Seeing how a rapid increase in unfettered tourism can erode cultural integrity and infrastructure, Bhutan is making a concerted effort to grow in a way that most benefits its people. It’s a very interesting approach. 

Colourful crowds out for the last day of the Paro Tsechu.

Presumably to justify the high cost that people are paying, Bhutan is pulling out all the stops. Or maybe it’s more a reflection of our tour company, but since being greeted the moment we stepped out of the airport by our guide, Sangay, and our driver, Tandin, we have barely had to open a single door or carry our own bags or worry about a thing—it’s a strange, fancy world that we are completely unaccustomed to. One night we’re chowing down on street food on plastic chairs by the side of the road, the next, we’re dining by candlelight and having napkins put in our laps and having dish after dish after dish put before us, while overly-attendant waiters stand at the ready in the shadows. I would be much happier paying a lower fare to eat street food and sleep in simple accommodations; I just want to be here. But living fancy-shmancy for a few days is also nice…

Just a few other examples of some of the fancy five-star service we’ve been getting:
  • Upon arriving at each new hotel, we’re brought hot towels to refresh ourselves, and given tea and snacks while our bags are put in our room.
  • Our rooms have generally had stupendous views and have been incredibly massive—our bathrooms are bigger than some of the accommodations we’ve had in SEA. 
  • One night I wasn’t feeling well enough to go to dinner, and Mark mentioned this, and the staff raced up to the room to bring me soup. 
  • At our second hotel where the rooms were heated by woodstove, the fire was stoked while we were at dinner, and hot water bottles were put in our bed so the room was perfectly toasty when we returned.
And further proof that we be slummin’ it no more: on our third night in Bhutan, we saw David Suzuki at the next table. No joke! David Freakin’ Suzuki!! Yes, I was starstruck beyond belief. And no, I didn’t talk to him, there never seemed to be a good time, even the next morning at breakfast when he walked a mere two feet from our table. I was too gobsmacked. David Suzuki!

And here are just a few more highlights of what we crammed into six amazing days:

We arrived on the last day of the Paro Tsechu, the annual festival celebrating the Guru Rimpoche, where locals come in their finest traditional dress to watch dancers and musicians perform from dawn to dusk, for three days. It was a colourful affair beside the imposing Paro Dzong (fortress), and I’m so glad we got to witness a little bit of it!

From there we drove to Thimphu, the capital, through deep valleys where prayer-flag adorned bridges cross over glacial mountain rivers, and visited the Kuensel Phrodang (the world’s largest seated Buddha). We went to the small zoo to see Bhutan’s bizarre national animal, the Takin, and visited the art school where students learn the traditional crafts of Bhutan: painting, sculpture, carving, embroidery, and silversmithing. We also visited a weaving studio and a workshop where they make reed paper.

Crossed the Dochula Pass, where there are 108 stupas, and where there is rumoured to be a fantastic view of the Himalayas. We were here twice, and both times, no Himalayas.

Hiked through the Phobjikha Valley, the winter nesting location of the black-necked cranes that come here from Tibet. Spectacularly remote, it’s the first time in the entire trip that we were away from any kind of traffic or pollution. Just utter peace and quiet. I wanted to stay there forever. And though we didn’t see any cranes (apparently they left last week), we did have a David Suzuki sighting.

In the Punakha Valley we visited the Chimi Lhakhang temple, otherwise known as the Temple of the Divine Madman, or the Fertility Temple. Both Mark and I received a blessing of fertility on the forehead from a monk with the three “weapons” of the Divine Madman: a bow and arrow, a ivory tusk, and a wooden phallus.

A little further down the valley, at the confluence of two rivers we marveled at the Punakha Dzong, the former capital. A surprising feature we noticed were the thick, oblong beehives hanging from the windows – absolutely mesmerizing to watch their surfaces shift and shimmer as the bees moved around.

We watched men play archery, the national sport, where the target is 145 metres away and each opponent’s point is honoured in song. Very, very impressive.

And of course, no visit to Bhutan would be complete without hiking to the most photographed site in the entire country, the amazing Tiger’s Nest Monastery (Paro Taktsang), perched high on the side of a sheer cliff, at 10,240 ft above sea level! It was an exhausting 5-hr roundtrip hike, but utterly worth it. No photography is permitted inside the monastery itself, but the various rooms we saw were chock full of magnificent paintings and sculptures. When the monastery caught on fire in 1998, locals flocked to the site and formed a line up the trail and passed bucket after bucket of water, and managed to put the fire out, saving some of the original structure, though a near-complete restoration was necessary.

Our short time in Bhutan was well worth the cost to see this little-seen place, and hopefully we can return someday to explore further into this majestic country!

Our hike overlooking the Dzong in the capital, Thimphu.
The stupas at Dochula Pass, enshrouded in fog.

One of many glorious views on the drive toward Phobjikha Valley.

Hiking across the Phobjikha Valley below the Gangtey Monastery.

The lovely, peaceful, and remote, Phobjikha Valley.
Phobjikha Valley

Metsina village on the right, with Chimi Lakhang temple on the rise on the left.

Phalluses are painted on houses to ward off evil spirits (or possibly to make Westerners giggle).

Those brown circles are beehives! Aren't they incredible?!

Inside the monastic portion of the Punakha Dzong.

Just a sample of the vibrant, expressive murals that cover the walls of all the temples.

Punakha Dzong.

The prayer flag festooned forest at Dochula Pass.

Between Thimphu and Paro.

Just outside of Paro.
Early morning fog enshrouding the Paro Taktsang.


Another monastery building.

And there it is. Spectacular.

Prayer flags everywhere!

Beautiful countryside.

The Paro Dzong as seen from our hotel room. Amazing!


  1. What an absolutely amazing adventure. The photos are beautiful!!!!
    Chey xo

  2. This looks and sounds totally unreal Amberlea! I remember looking at photos of the Paro Taktsang with you a year ago. Can you believe you were actually there!? Your photos of it are stunning.

    Katelin xo

  3. Are you kidding me? DAVID SUZUKI? I can't believe you didn't talk to him! Although understandably as I'd also be intimidated!
    What an amazing country!
    And those phalluses sure are...anatomically correct! (hehe!)
    Those beehives are so cool!
    The monastery on the cliff is incredible.
    I read recently that Bhutan is the 17th least visited country on earth - only 37,000 visitors per year! You and "Dave" are in good company!

    1. Actually, we did see him again a few days later, at the airport - he was on the same flight as us. So I did muster up the courage to tell him how much I admire his work, and how I grew up watching The Nature of Things, and he seemed most displeased that I was bothering him... oh well!

  4. Thanks, guys! Yeah, it was totally amazing. I want to go back!
    And Katelin, there were so many times I cried, seeing these places that we looked at together so long ago! I could hardly believe I was there!

  5. The Tiger's Nest Monastery is amazing! Such sheer cliffs!
    Bhutan looks like a really neat country!

  6. wow - what an amazing part of the trip. The photos of Paro Taktsang take my breath away - I can't imagine seeing it FOR REALS!!!! btw, the bhutanese seem to have the most colourful clothing of all time - love it!