In the footsteps of thunder dragons
I am very privileged to be able to travel to some amazing places around the world through my day job as a travel agent. Earlier this year, I was thrilled to learn I would travel to Bhutan with British Airways and Como Hotels and Resorts. Bhutan had been on my bucket list for a number of years. Ever since I saw an image of the majestic Tiger's Nest Monastery clinging to the cliffs I knew it was a place I had to see with my own eyes. When I told people I was heading to Bhutan, their reaction was either 'Where is that?' or exclamations of envy.
Bhutan is a country with a population of just over 700,000 people, nestled in the eastern Himalayas between Nepal, India and Bangladesh and is roughly the same size as Switzerland. Bhutan is the only surviving Buddhist kingdom in the Himalayan region, and its faith permeates all aspects of life. Famously, all social, political and economic decisions are guided by the philosophy of Gross National Happiness and Bhutan is commonly referred to as the land of smiles.
Bhutan opened itself to tourism in 1974 with a cautious tourism policy that still exists today. Many people mistakenly believe that there is a cap on the number of tourists allowed to visit Bhutan each year, but in actual fact the tourism policy promotes 'high value, low impact' journeys through a daily fee of USD200-250 per person per day. This fee covers accommodation, meals, guides, transportation and a Royalty payment to the Government and is designed to discourage backpackers and budget travellers putting pressure on the limited space and infrastructure.
So far, the only luxury hotels to be granted permission to operate in Bhutan are Aman Resorts and Como Hotels and Resorts. Both also operate as tour operators and organise a fully inclusive package for tourists. Getting to Bhutan is gradually becoming easier with flights operated by the national airline Druk Air out of Singapore (via Kolkata) and Bangkok (via Dhaka). Not having heard of Druk Air I was not sure what to expect, but I was pleasantly surprised. Druk Air operates three Airbus A319 aircraft and has just eight pilots trained to make the rather challenging landing into Paro airport through the mountainous Himalayan region.
My arrival into Paro was scenic as the plane flew over fertile valleys and through lush mountains. Paro is located at an elevation of 2,280m and it is common to feel some shortness of breath and light-headedness, so some time for acclimatisation is necessary.
Arriving at our home for the next night, Uma Paro, which is just ten minutes from the airport, I was quite literally blown away. The architecture is quintessentially Bhutanese and accented with the work of local artisans throughout. The property features nine private villas and eighteen rooms in the main house, along with two Como Suites. The property has a Como Shambhala spa retreat with indoor pool, yoga studio and small gym. The restaurant Bukhari serves healthy Como Shambhala Cuisine, Western, Bhutanese and Indian dishes. There is also a bar which is a great place to wind down after sightseeing with a pre dinner drink and in room dining is available from 7am to 10pm.
I was lucky enough to spend the night in a one bedroom villas, which were located a short walk from the main house. A very generous 92 sq m, these villas come complete with a kitchen, bedroom, sitting area with traditional bukhari wood burning stove. All villas come with personal butler service (oh my!) and a private spa treatment room, plus an en-suite that is quite possibly bigger than my apartment with a gorgeous claw footed bath. I could not believe my luck and immediately spent time getting acquainted with my plush digs.
After lunch, we commenced a trek through the property into the mountains to Paro Dzong, which is the National Museum housed inside the round fortress of Ta Dzong. Bhutan is an extremely active destination and certainly requires a general level of fitness. There were times during the trip that I struggled despite regularly going to the gym, but I think this may have had more to do with the altitude. The difficulty of the trek was well worth it when I saw the Paro Dzong peering mystically through the trees with rays of sunlight casting a magical glow over the structure.
After paying our respects we left the Dzong and headed into the main street of Paro, which was like something out of ancient history. The main thoroughfare was flanked on both sides by local stores selling vegetables, trinkets, clothing and other bric a brac. Small groups of young students gathered in town to gossip and eat and young Buddhist monks shyly hurried past as we took in our surroundings.
Back at the hotel, we enjoyed a drink in the bar and excitedly talked about all we had seen and wondered what was to come. The food at Como was world-class and would be very much appreciated over coming days, after we experienced a few local restaurants for lunch. Given that I love my food, I found the local cuisine rather disappointing, a little bland and tasteless. The national dish is Aema Datsi, which is literally hot chilli and melted cheese! They also love cheese and minced meat dumplings, blanched morning-glory, rice and meat based stews. In local restaurants meals are served buffet style. I was cautious with salads, especially in town, and always drank bottled water, which was excellent due to the local spring nearby. The food at Como offered a wide variety of Indian curries, western favourites like burgers (albeit a yak burger!), pastas and healthy options like steamed fish. Breakfast was served a la carte with a variety of eggs, oatmeal with fruit and nuts and pancakes, with great coffee and delicious juices and smoothies from the Como Shambhala menu.
After a blissful sleep, I awoke to crisp mountain air and we set off on our long drive to Punakha which guidebooks will tell you takes around 3.5 hours but in actual fact takes a while longer (around 5 hours) due to the windy, narrow roads snaking their way through the mountains. Punakha is at a much lower altitude of 1,300m and much warmer with fertile valleys that allow bananas, oranges, flowers and rice to grow. This is an area populated with farms and absolutely stunning.
Uma Punakha is built high up on one of Bhutan's most sacred valleys and each of its eleven rooms command sweeping views of the valley, with the Mo Chu River snaking through the rice terraces and orchards below. Uma Punakha has a very homely feel and guests are encouraged to mingle on the outdoor terrace if weather permits or in the lounge room with its floor to ceiling windows. Uma Punakha has nine valley view rooms, with either floor to ceiling windows or an outdoor terrace. For my money, the upstairs rooms are the most spectacular and I loved waking up every morning to the amazing view of the river and valley below. There is also one Como Villa and a one bedroom villa, which can be connected for families. The main restaurant has a similar menu with an emphasis on seasonal produce, due to the difficulty of getting food into Punakha. The Como Shambhala Spa is built to take advantage of the commanding views and the massage I had was possibly the best I've ever experienced. I literally felt as if I was floating. The signature treatment is a half hour Bhutanese hot stone bath followed by a one hour Como Shambhala massage. You must try it when you visit Bhutan!
Whilst in Punakha, we visited the Punakha Dzong which greets all visitors as they enter the town and sits majestically at the mouth of the Mo Chu and Po Chu rivers, flanked by flowering jacarandas. This Dzong was built in 1637 and was once home to the Kingdom's Government, but is now the winter home of the head abbot of Bhutan and one thousand monks.
We also wandered through lush, green rice paddies with our bright orange Como umbrellas protecting us from the falling rain to reach the fertility temple, dedicated to the Divine Madman Drukpa Kuenley, a Tibetan Buddhist saint. We visited on a national holiday and walked with groups of local families heading to the temple to pay their respects. The temple is well regarded and also visited by Westerners wishing for a family.
The afternoon was spent clambering across a swinging suspension bridge and through muddy trails to finally reach Botakha Palace, which was built as the residence of the late Third King in the 1950s, but fell empty when the capital of Bhutan was moved to Thimphu. The Palace gardens are full of mature trees including the centrepiece where locals believe a mythical serpent resides and provide offerings each rice harvest. The temple is built over three storeys with the third storey offering spectacular views over the valley of Punakha.
Although sad to leave Punakha after our two lovely days, I was full of anticipation and could not wait to fulfil my dream of seeing Taktsang Monastery, one of the most sacred sites in all of Bhutan. This glorious monastery is nestled into the sheer cliffs above Paro Valley at 9,650 feet. The trek is steep and physically demanding and a little dangerous at times due to the slippery and narrow pathways. The guides in Bhutan are invaluable and monitor your safety during the trek. The monastery is believed to have originated in the eighth century, after Guru Rimpoche flew across the mountains on the back of a tigress, bringing Buddhism to Bhutan.
After about 1.5 hours of solid trekking and challenging altitude, I reached the half way point, the restaurant, and could see Tiger's Nest in the distance. Even from here, through gasping breaths, it was amazing! And while, you can stop the trek here, I highly recommend persevering through the pain to trek for another hour or so to reach Tiger's Nest. As you get closer there are plenty of colourful prayer flags fluttering in the wind and coming through the prayer flags to view the absolute majesty of Tiger's Nest is something I struggle to put into words and must really be experienced first hand. I literally felt as if I could reach out and touch the monastery. The goosebumps were incredible and the feeling of peace and serenity that washed over me was indescribable. Coupled with the feeling of achievement, this was one of my proudest moments and I took the time to soak it in and photograph this architectural wonder. After a few minutes, a thick mist flew over and completely consumed the monastery. A few more minutes and it cleared again. There is definitely something spiritual going on here. If your legs have not completely given up and if the Monastery is open, it is possible to walk down another 700 steps across a bridge and inside the temple. It is so sacred that one must enter without shoes and belongings and no photography is permitted. A monk lives in this isolated Monastery for six months at a time, a true test of isolation.
I cannot recommend Bhutan more highly and believe that everyone should make the trip at least once. I believe you need a minimum of five nights, split between Paro and Punakha to get a true sense of all of its beauty. It offers something for everyone including the adventurous with some of the most challenging trekking and bike riding, plus other sports like archery. And yet, it can also be the most spiritual and peaceful place where you can take stock of your life and relax. The country well and truly captured a piece of my heart and soul. The Bhutanese are some of the friendliest and happiest people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. There is definitely something to be said for running a country with a focus on happiness!