Asia’s Hid­den Won­ders: The Ex­tra­or­di­nary Bhutanese il­lage 2f Be ul

Bhutan Times - - Editorial - By Chris Dwyer ,

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.

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