King­do­mof hap­pi­ness

An up­lift­ing jour­ney to the moun­tains of Bhutan

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - MICHELLE ROWE

THE monk is no more than five years old. Face cloaked in a cheeky grin, a fleece un­der his red robe pro­tect­ing him from the chill inside the old wooden tem­ple, he strug­gles to pay at­ten­tion as his friends re­cite their nightly prayers.

One of five ‘‘rein­car­nates’’ liv­ing with dozens of other novices in this im­pos­ing monastery high on a moun­tain in cen­tral Bhutan’s re­mote Phob­jikha Val­ley, the boy even­tu­ally gives up the bat­tle. Catch­ing the eye of an­other child, he raises his hands and slices the air with some of his finest kung fu moves. The boys’ gig­gles ring out like the chimes of a bell, punc­tu­at­ing the rise and fall of the Bud­dhist chants that float out into the night air.

This mag­i­cal vi­gnette is one of many that colour my jour­ney across Bhutan, a 38,394 sq km ter­ri­tory at the foot of the Hi­malayas, with China to the north and In­dia on its other bound­aries. The coun­try has long been known for its phi­los­o­phy of Gross Na­tional Hap­pi­ness, a com­mit­ment to pro­tect­ing its cen­turies-old cul­ture and spir­i­tual val­ues at all costs, but there’s no deny­ing it is hurtling into the mod­ern age. Trol­leys heaped with elec­tri­cal goods — plasma tele­vi­sions, stereos and com­puter games — roll like a car­a­van to­wards Drukair’s Bangkok check-in desk as my hus­band and I arrive for our flight to Bhutan.

The only air­line serv­ing the na­tion, Drukair’s ap­proach to Paro air­port must be one of the most chal­leng­ing and spec­tac­u­lar in the world. Weweavethrough nar­row val­leys, past farm­houses cling­ing to the sides of cliffs and moun­tains shrouded in wispy cloud. The air­port, too, is an ar­rest­ing sight.

The or­nate, white­washed build­ings that re­sem­ble dzongs — the fortress-monas­ter­ies that will be­come a fa­mil­iar sight on our trip — seem to have been here for cen­turies. In fact, the air­port was built in 1983 — the first in­ter­na­tional ac­cess point, apart from a wind­ing and treach­er­ous road that runs from the south­ern bor­der with In­dia to the cap­i­tal, Thim­phu.

The beam­ing Wangchuk, our guide, greets us on ar­rival. He and his cousin Ken­cho — both clad in the tra­di­tional kho, an­kle-length robes with prom­i­nent white cuffs pulled up to knee height with a belt — are from the re­mote eastern vil­lage of Trashigang and will be our trav­el­ling companions for the next 10 days.

On the way to our lodge, 30 min­utes’ drive from the air­port, we pass through Paro’s main street, its small wooden shops and restau­rants like relics from the past, yet Wangchuk tells us the town was also built in the 1980s. Strict con­trols on the de­sign of new build­ings im­posed by the gov­ern­ment, elected when the muchloved fourth king de­clared the coun­try a democ­racy in 2008, have so far pre­served Bhutan’s dis­tinc­tive ar­chi­tec­tural her­itage.

Paro, in the coun­try’s cen­tral west, will be our home for two nights and its low al­ti­tude in com­par­i­son to the rest of Bhutan makes it a per­fect place to be­gin. I’m a non-smoker, but I am­feel­ing like a 40-a-day ad­dict at an el­e­va­tion of 2500m.

Home base is Amankora, a se­ries of lux­ury lodges built by the ex­clu­sive Aman­re­sorts group. Our stay will take in three of Aman’s five Bhutanese prop­er­ties and cover paddy-strewn Paro, the Swiss val­ley vis­tas of Gangtey and the al­most trop­i­cal sur­rounds of lower- ly­ing Pu­nakha. On a day-trip from Paro to Thim­phu, about two hours’ drive to the north­east, we ex­pe­ri­ence the first of Bhutan’s many ec­cen­tric­i­ties — its na­tional ob­ses­sion with darts.

The game bears no re­sem­blance to your av­er­age English pub com­pe­ti­tion. Rather, an alarm­ingly large wooden mis­sile with some­thing re­sem­bling a nail at its tip is hurled at a small wooden tar­get wedged in the ground up to 50m away. In the vil­lage of Bondey, we pull up to watch a game be­tween the lo­cal ladies’ team and a group of younger women from Thim­phu.

The pitch is a worn piece of turf bor­dered by weep­ing wil­lows and a thin stream, and the women throw their mis­siles one by one, shout­ing en­cour­age­ment to their team­mates and laugh­ing when a com­peti­tor’s dart goes astray. Those who hit the tar­get are re­warded with a rous­ing song and dance, as well as a coloured scarf that is tucked into the top of the tra­di­tional skirt, the kira.

We press on to Thim­phu, vis­it­ing the post of­fice, where you can get your photo printed on a stamp that can be used as le­gal ten­der, check­ing out an archery store sell­ing ev­ery­thing from tra­di­tional bam­boo bows and ar­rows to $2000 com­pe­ti­tion-level equip­ment (archery is Bhutan’s other sport­ing ob­ses­sion), and shak­ing hands with the man who scored the win­ning goal in the eclec­tic doc­u­men­tary The Other Fi­nal, in which Bhutan, the world’s sec­ond-worst football team, recorded its first vic­tory (against the world’s worst, Montser­rat) on the same day as the 2002 World Cup fi­nal. The next day, we be­gin the ar­du­ous jour­ney from Paro to Amankora Gangtey in cen­tral Bhutan, the high­est of the Aman­re­sorts prop­er­ties at nearly 3000m. We’ve been warned by fel­low Amankora Paro guests that the roads are treach­er­ous, climb­ing to dizzy­ing heights and shared with a pro­ces­sion of trucks cart­ing stone quar­ried from the sheer cliffs, for use in road con­struc­tion or in the na­tion’s hy­dro- elec­tric­ity sec­tor. It takes us seven hours to reach Gangtey and I am grate­ful for the pre­ci­sion driv­ing of Ken­cho, who ne­go­ti­ates pot­holes, trucks and an in­or­di­nate num­ber of cows mas­ter­fully, valiantly stick­ing to the 30km/h manda­tory speed limit as I avoid

look­ing into the abyss.

Gangtey Goe monastery in Phob­jikha V

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