An uplifting journey to the mountains of Bhutan
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