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Travel Stories

Himalayan Harmony

by Nicholas Walton

Emerging from the pint-sized terminal at Paro, Bhutan’s sole international airport, new arrivals are greeted by dazzling sun, crisp mountain air, and, most invitingly, a wave of genuine smiles. The warm welcome from assembled guides, dressed as many Bhutanese still do in pristine national costume, brings colour back to the faces of air travellers who have just experienced one of the most nail-biting landings on the planet; only 12 pilots in the world are certified to fly into Bhutan, with planes required to undertake some serious last-minute maneuvers as they cruise the length of the valley, brightly-painted houses whipping past on either side, before breaking hard upon touchdown.

It’s my first visit to Bhutan, although the remote Himalayan kingdom has been on my personal bucket list for a decade. I’ve always been, like many other intrepid travellers, intrigued by a destination that has remained so well fortified against the onslaught of modernity; that has retained an ancient (and well loved) monarchy; and which measures its progress not in dollar signs or market points, but in happiness, literally.

Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness index, a measurement of the collective contentment of the kingdom’s 740,000 citizens, is a remarkably progressive approach for a country named for a thunder dragon. Coined in 1972 by Bhutan’s fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the idea has evolved into a socioeconomic development model recognized by the UN. There’s no doubt Bhutan is a land of happiness and peace, and one welcoming an ever-increasing number of well-heeled travellers who cling to their airplane armrests in pursuit of their own little slice of Himalayan harmony.

I check in at Como Uma Paro, an intimate 29-room retreat that, like virtually everything in this vertiginous nation, is perched on the side of a steep hill. Here it’s very easy to be happy; there are roaring fires, comfy beds, and shy but attentive staff dressed in elegant, silken kira dresses. There’s the Como Shambala Retreat, home to Bhutanese-inspired massages and an indoor pool; and Bukhari, a signature restaurant that serves hand-ground buckwheat noodles, yak dumplings, and Como’s iconic juice blends, making eating healthy surprisingly easy. As the sun sets there’s just enough time to watch the colour sap from the towering white-washed walls of the nearby Rinpung Dzong, a 300-year-old Bhutanese fort that overlooks the town of Paro, wisps of wood smoke drifting up from homes and dancing on the cooling breeze, the first stars already slipping from cover above. The next morning I’m on my way to Bhutan’s capital, Thimpu, and then on to Punakha, across the 10,000-foot Dochula Pass.

The Paro Valley is abuzz with first light. Ponies with shimmering chestnut coats wander the narrow lane down the mountain, and novice monks wrap their crimson robes tighter to ward off the last of the night’s chill as they cross the pale aqua Paro River.

The winding road that reaches the capital clings to rocky cliffsides as it passes the confluence of the Paro and Thimphu Rivers. Prayer flags jitter above the rushing waters and wrap like vines along the arches of traditional bridges which leap the chasm below. Thimphu is a serene little capital city. Nestled on the west bank of the Thimphu Chuu, the world’s third highest capital is laid out north to south, with an ornate clock tower at its centre. Nearby a police officer, resplendent in his uniform and white gloves, directs traffic from a tiny hut decorated in bold reds and yellows. Bhutan has worked hard to improve its infrastructure, but when the country’s first traffic light was hoisted at the same intersection, so many accidents occurred that it was quietly lowered again that very evening. I guess happiness is sometimes not changing something that isn’t broken.

The quiet of the capital is only interrupted by the cries from the Dzongkha field, where the national sport of archery is the biggest ticket in town every weekend. It’s a curious tournament; opposing teams strictly adorned in national dress, crowd in front of the tiny bulls-eye, while the archers of the competing team sight their shot some 150 meters down the field.

Teams jostle and challenge each other down the length of the field in an artful tradition designed to distract the archer, and when the arrow is finally loosened, all eyes turn to the sky, the bolt streaking through the sunshine and landing steps from leaping opponents. A missed shot is met with more polite taunts, but a successful strike leads to a respectful, traditional dance that blesses the target and acknowledges the talents of the archer. There are smiles, singing and dancing at both ends of the field, as skills are praised, arrows bestowed, and friendly rivalries stoked with more than a few drops of local ararice wine. Atop the Dochula Pass I visit the solemn Druk Wangyal Chortens, a memorial of 108 stupas dedicated to those who fell ousting Assamese rebels in one of Bhutan’s few armed conflicts.

With the mighty Himalayas, punctuated by Bhutan’s highest peak, Gangkar Puensum, as a stunning, sun-kissed backdrop, the memorial to the fallen - both soldiers and rebels - marks the importance placed by the people of Bhutan on life, peace and happiness. We descend through dense forest into the lush Punakha Valley, winding through tiny hamlets and past farms where water buffalo plow the fields in preparation for spring, arriving at beautiful Como Uma Punakha as the light begins to drain from the sky.

My guest room, one of 11, including two sumptuous villas, looks north down the valley towards towering peaks, the meandering Mo Chu river winding its way through emerald rice paddies below. There’s a king-sized bed, sheesham-wood furniture, and a deep soak tub that’s perfect for frosty Punakha nights. I wrap up warm and join fellow guests on the terrace for cocktails, served under a mesmerizing canopy of stars, followed by a Bhutanese feast in the restaurant. The experience is nothing short of magical. The next morning my guide and I step back in time as we explore Pungtang Dechen Photrang Dzong, the valley’s ancient fortress, which dates from 1637.

The palace of great happiness houses sacred Buddhist relics but the monks who call it home still welcome visitors and leave us to roam its vast inner courtyards unhindered. It’s a special day to be in Punakha; Trulku Jigme Chhoedra, the present Je Khenpoor religious leader, is visiting, and the fields that line the confluence of the Pho Chhu (father) and Mo Chhu (mother) rivers beyond the fortress are alive with colour. There are monks swathed in terracotta and tangerine kasayas; elders from the mountain villages in black ghos with white shawls and matching whiskers; giggling novices with brilliantly red robes and freshly shaved heads; and wizened old women wrapped in silk scarfs every colour of the rainbow. It’s a family affair and saucer-eyed children ride the backs of their parents and grandparents as monks recite scripture in a sing-song tempo. Everywhere there is laughter and conversation; our small group are the only foreigners out of thousands of worshipers but we’re made
to feel very welcome.

From the past, we leap to the future the next morning as we rattle down the dusty road from Como Uma Punakha to a field beside the river where a modern helicopter is resting in wait. In a pioneering partnership with the Royal Bhutan Helicopter Service, the kingdom’s fledgling air ambulance fleet, travellers staying at Como’s properties can now be among the first to visit some of the kingdom’s most remote corners as part of a six-night scenic heli-adventure that includes two flights from Paro to Punakha via the rarely-visited Laya Valley, and from Punakha to Paro via the Utsho Tsho, the Turquoise Lakes of the Labatama Valley, although I’ve managed to hitch a ride in the opposite direction, visiting Laya en route to Paro’s international airport. With a roar from the turbines that reverberates off the mountain sides, British captain Nik Suddards pilots the new Airbus helicopter up Punakha Valley, offering a bird’s-eye view of the Nalanda Monastery and the sacred peaks of Jigme Dorji National Park, home to snow and clouded leopards, Himalayan black bear, red pandas, and ancient glaciers. After 40 minutes in the air we circle the tiny village of Laya, at 13,500 feet above sea level the kingdom’s highest settlement.

Located in one of the most remote and least developed parts of the country, Laya is home to the semi-nomadic Layap people, a relatively affluent community that harvests cordyceps, a rare fungus used in Chinese and Tibetan traditional medicine. Their Bey-yul, or the hidden paradise, is protected from mischievous spirits by an ancient gate at the village entrance, ensuring happiness prevails even in this remote corner of the Himalayas. Foreigners are extremely rare in Laya, as are helicopters, and after landing above the village, we’re greeted by curious locals, among them two young sisters. I’m the first foreigner they’ve ever met, which puts smiles on all our faces. From Laya the helicopter itinerary heads south to the rice terraces, mountain fortresses, and ancient shrines of Paro. We skirt frozen alpine pools, the jagged tips of lower peaks seemingly within reach as we descend into the valley, passing Paro Taktsang, the iconic Tiger’s Nest monastery, on approach to the runway.

Our final day is spent climbing to the Tiger’s Nest, a feat in itself. A prominent Himalayan Buddhist site, the Taktsang Palphug Monastery was built in 1692 on the side of a dramatic cliff side, and while visitors no longer have to risk life and limb on tiny footholds set into the rock, the hike up the opposite cliff, and then the 700 stairs down into the canyon and back up again to the monastery (which needs to be repeated on the hike home) can be a little challenging. But that’s the beauty; once you make it to the shrine and drink in the soaring views across the kingdom’s mountainous interior, you’re guaranteed your biggest Bhutanese smile yet.

If You Go
All tourists (with the exception of Indian, Bangladeshi and Maldivian citizens) who travel to Bhutan are required to have a Visa and must book their travel through a Bhutanese tour operator or their international partner. See the official Bhutan Tourism Council website for more information.

The author stayed at Uma Paro and Uma Punakha while in Bhutan. Both are under the Como Hotels banner.


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