Asia’s Hidden Wonders: The Extraordinary Bhutanese illage 2f Be ul
Since the dawn of time, every traveller has tried to go beyond, to reach that special place where few have trod before. In Asia, only North Korea accepts fewer tourists than the mountainous Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, making it already one of the world’s rarest and most exclusive destinations.
When you add in a chartered helicopter ride - in one of only two choppers in the entire country - you know you are heading somewhere very special indeed. That place is the truly remote, untouched and otherworldly beauty of the Laya Valley where the Layap people, numbering only 1,000 in total, refer to their homeland as Be- Yul - ‘ The hidden land’.
The only other way to get there involves a four- night trek to 13,000 feet - followed by a fournight trek back. Unsurprisingly, only a handful of very committed hikers brave the ascent each year. Captain Nik Suddards, a Yorkshireman by birth, takes just 40 minutes to fly you there in the state- of- the- art Airbus chopper belonging to the Royal Bhutan Helicopter Service.
The charter is part of a helicopter safari in the Land of the Thunder Dragon - to give Bhutan its full name - organised by the ultra- luxe COMO resortswho own two properties in the country. You wind your way through the most jawdropping landscapes of towering sheer cliff faces, alpine forest, turquoise lakes and snow- capped mountains with the occasional tiny shack the only sign of life below.
The Laya village clings impossibly and improbably to the only flat piece of land in sight, a dusty and dry slope covered in tin and wooden shacks. As the chopper gently circles downward for a perfect landing, long sticks embedded in the ground carrying white flags are sent wildly fluttering. These are markers for the dead, a Bhutanese tradition where they are planted in the soil as a reminder of the soul, until one day they too naturally return to the landscape.
It’s the majestic beauty of the surroundings which strikes you, but also the complete lack of any other sounds. Extraordinary, total, silence hits you profoundly, especially coming from a big city. When combined with the altitude, your breath is truly taken away.
Only a handful of flights make it to Laya every year, so you’d be forgiven for expecting a sense of excitement. But no one from the Layap community rushes out to see the multi- million dollar chopper land, while those we subsequently meet seem to take the arrival of three passengers draped in cameras completely in their stride.
Those people we meet in our brief visit are almost all women, most of them performing backbreaking manual work. At any altitude, walking with enormous slabs of slate tied to your back would be hard enough, but walking up hills at 13,000 feet? We’re told they are moving the slate to help in building new dwellings.
Despite their incredible physical efforts, there doesn’t seem to be a sense of resentment or bitterness from the women. A couple of them are accompanied by their daughters who look at us shyly, at first, before later breaking out into big grins. Our translator and guide explains that they simply like to walk with their mothers.
An older lady then appears, noticeable from a distance due to her beautiful conical weaved bamboo hat, unique to the population of 1,000 Laya people, that trails brightly coloured strings of beads.
Again, she seems totally nonplussed to see us. On one finger, a beautiful blue stone ring, her hands seemingly lined through years of sun and toil.
It’s a surprise then to learn that the young man walking behind her is actually her son. He’s trying to play it cool, nonchalantly on his phone. But it’s not switched on and, even if it were, there’s a very small chance of a signal up here in the remote Laya valley.
Apart from the shacks where people live, two buildings stand out. One is the brightly- decorated monastic school house which doubles as a village hall.
The other, a lone outside toilet, a throne with a view like no other.
It was so difficult to leave the remarkable, beautiful Laya Valley, one of Asia’s - and indeed the world’s - most remote and inaccessible communities. But the flying visit - literally - somehow revealed as much about the visitors themselves as it did the incredible location. And for that alone, any traveller would be truly grateful.