Nestled high in the heart of the Himalayas, Bhutan is a mysterious country that has intrigued me for years, so being able to finally visit was amazing.
With my wife and two friends we arrived into Paro and the first thing that strikes you is the beautifully colourful Immigration building in a traditional Bhutanese style, that is a world away from so many of the dull, grey concrete monstrosities that one is normally forced to queue in around the world. It immediately puts you in a positive frame of mind and Bhutan seems to have an uncanny ability to do just that ! We were then met by our charming guide, Lucky, who was an ever present joy over the following two weeks.
Above: Tiger’s Nest monastery
We spent our first day or two exploring Paro with its beautiful dzong, museums, markets and walks, but the inevitable highlight is the Tiger’s Nest monastery which involves a short drive up a little rural valley road and then a 2 to 3 hour trek up to monastery itself. As you slowly hike upwards you start to get glimpses of the monastery through the trees. As you get nearer you then see this remarkable building gripping to the shear cliffs of the mountain…a truly wonderful sight. You then head up and down loads of steps and finally reach this gorgeous rabbit warren of a monastery with monks bustling about and incredible views out across the surrounding mountains. Like with many places in the world, it is even more remarkable than in the multitude of pictures that one sees of it.
We then enjoyed a three day trek up into the mountains with Lucky who took us high into the forests, which were bedecked in their Spring colours of red rhododendrons, purple irises and a plethora of other colours.Steaming hot porridge and coffee in the morning and tasty snacks through the day followed by a surprisingly good dinner cooked by the ever cheerful camp crew got us through the cold nights and in those three days we saw incredible scenery as well as shaggy yaks, shimmering blue monal pheasants and no other humans at all apart from our camping crew…pure and blissful escapism.
Thimphu was the next port of call and as the capital of the country it’s reasonably busy streets were a dramatic change from the enchanting silence of the mountains. However as the seat of the Royal family and the government there is plenty to see and do with the museums, dzongs and markets, but there is also the chance to get beneath the skin of the place and visit schools and watch the children enjoy their traditional Bhutanese painting classes; visit artisan paper makers in their backstreet factories or even a gorgeous encounter with some nuns in their nunnery. Another interesting side trip is to see the country’s national animal, which is the rather smelly and hairy Takin, a blend of antelope and goat and there is a small reserve on the edge of the city where this animal can be seen.
Driving through the hills along the rather narrow roads of Bhutan is a rather alarming activity, but the views are stunning and there is always something interesting to see whether that be a pretty little stupa or people selling vegetables on the roadside and the drive to Punakha is no exception to this. As we drove along we saw a number of the high Himalayan peaks when the weather was kind and finally arrived into the fertile Punakha Valley. This is still the seat of the Chief Abbot in the country and what a fabulous place this is. It is where the Pho Chu and Mo Chu rivers meet and at that junction is the glorious Punakha dzong, which is perhaps the country’s most photogenic building! We walked over the ancient wooden bridge with the huge white dzong in front of us surrounded by the resplendent purple haze of the jacaranda trees. This dzong is a hive of activity both governmental as well as religious yet you can wander round most parts and watch the world go by. We happened to be there when the local governor arrived and to see everyone snap to attention was most amusing.
We drove on eastwards and finally came to the serene Phobjika Valley, which is home to the lovely Gangtey monastery and also the Black Necked Crane sanctuary. These graceful birds turn up here from the Tibetan Plateau to feed and see out the winter and although we didn’t see them as we were there in the Spring it is lovely to see where they come to and if you are lucky enough to be in the valley in November, there is a special festival to celebrate these beautiful birds.
We then returned to Paro for a final night in this magical kingdom and celebrated with an archery competition. The local boys walking past on their way home from school decided to join in and inevitably we were put to shame (to be fair it is their national game !)
There are different ways to get in and out of Bhutan, but arguably the most spectacular is to fly on Druk Air between Paro and Delhi. On our way back to Delhi we were lucky enough to enjoy bright blue skies and impeccable views over many of the legendary 8000m peaks of the Himalayas including the majestic Mount Everest. There simply couldn’t be a better way to finish our Bhutanese odyssey…