The Magic King­dom

Nes­tled be­tween two gi­gan­tic neigh­bours – China and In­dia – the tiny Hi­malayan na­tion of Bhutan is a ma­jes­tic, serene and beau­ti­ful coun­try that’s ad­mired not for its gross do­mes­tic prod­uct but for its gross na­tional hap­pi­ness in­dex.

Bespoke - - BHUTAN -

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 bevy 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 land in Bhutan, as it re­quires a dif­fi­cult ma­noeu­vre that in­volves turn­ing sharp left to avoid the moun­tain and land­ing in the val­ley as brightly-painted houses whip past on ei­ther side. It’s my first visit to Bhutan, although the re­mote Hi­malayan Bud­dhist king­dom has been on my per­sonal bucket list for a decade. I’ve al­ways been in­trigued by a des­ti­na­tion that has re­mained so well for­ti­fied against the on­slaught of moder­nity, re­tained an an­cient (and well loved) monar­chy and which mea­sures its progress not in dol­lar signs or mar­ket points, but by hap­pi­ness, lit­er­ally. Bhutan’s Gross Na­tional Hap­pi­ness (GNH) in­dex, a mea­sure­ment of the col­lec­tive con­tent­ment of the King­dom’s 740,000 cit­i­zens, is a re­mark­ably pro­gres­sive ap­proach for a coun­try named af­ter a thun­der dragon. Coined in 1972 by Bhutan’s fourth king, HM Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the idea has evolved into a so­cioe­co­nomic de­vel­op­ment model recog­nised by the UN. There’s no doubt Bhutan is a land of hap­pi­ness and peace, and that trans­lates to an in­creas­ing num­ber of well-heeled vis­i­tors who cling to their air­plane arm­rests in pur­suit of their own lit­tle slice of Hi­malayan har­mony. Then again, not just any­one can come and see this “last Shangri-la”. The for­mer king was pre­scient in want­ing to de­ter the back­packer set and tap into high-value, low-vol­ume tourism. As a re­sult the visa ap­pli­ca­tion process is quite strin­gent and sur­pris­ingly cum­ber­some, with con­di­tions like a re­quire­ment that all vis­i­tors book their trip with a li­censed Bhutanese tour op­er­a­tor and have lo­cal guides at all times, plus there’s a min­i­mum per diem of 200 to 250 USD per per­son, de­pend­ing on the sea­son. Though the Aman Re­sorts’ Amankora was the first five-star lux­ury ho­tel to open in Bhutan in 2004 (it has since ex­panded to in­clude five dis­tinct lodges – Paro, Thimpu, Gangtey, Pu­nakha and Bumthang – dot­ted around the coun­try, all of which are amaz­ing), my own trip be­gan at the 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 restau­rant serv­ing healthy hand-ground buck­wheat noo­dles, yak dumplings, and Como’s iconic juice blends. The next morn­ing I’m off to Bhutan’s cap­i­tal, Thimpu, a serene lit­tle city nes­tled on the west bank of the Thim­phu Chuu, mak­ing it the world’s third high­est cap­i­tal. 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 in not fix­ing some­thing that isn’t bro­ken. The quiet of the cap­i­tal is only in­ter­rupted by the cries from the khuru field, where the na­tional sport of archery is the big­gest ticket in town most week­ends. Play­ers adorned in na­tional dress aim for a tiny bulls­eye from some 150 me­tres down­field. Teams jos­tle and chal­lenge each other across the length of the field in an art­ful tra­di­tion called kha shed, which in­volves ver­bal teas­ing adorned in rich lit­er­ary lan­guage that’s meant to dis­tract the com­pet­ing archer. 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 be­fore skills are praised, ar­rows be­stowed and friendly ri­val­ries stoked with more than a few drops of lo­cal ara rice wine. Atop the Dochula Pass I visit the solemn Druk Wangyal Chort­ens, a me­mo­rial of 108 stu­pas, spher­i­cal struc­tures, no­tably ded­i­cated to both sol­diers and rebels who fell dur­ing the As­samese up­ris­ing of 2003-04, the first mil­i­tary con­flict ever for the Royal Bhutan Army. It is telling of Bhutan’s re­spect for life and peace. We soon head down the dusty road from Como Uma Pu­nakha to a field be­side the river where a mod­ern he­li­copter awaits. In a pi­o­neer­ing part­ner­ship with the Royal Bhutan He­li­copter Ser­vice (the king­dom’s fledg­ing air am­bu­lance fleet) well-heeled 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 – but 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, the King­dom’s high­est set­tle­ment at 4,115 me­tres above sea level. 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 hid­den par­adise, is pro­tected from mis­chievous spir­its by an an­cient gate at the vil­lage en­trance. For­eign­ers are ex­tremely rare in Laya, as are he­li­copters, and af­ter land­ing above the vil­lage, we’re greeted by cu­ri­ous lo­cals in­clud­ing two young sis­ters – I am the first for­eigner they’ve ever seen. Our last day is spent climb­ing to the Tak­t­sang Pal­phug Monastery, a prom­i­nent Hi­malayan Bud­dhist site also known as Tiger’s Nest, set on the side of a dra­matic cliff­side, Reach­ing the top is not as chal­leng­ing as it was it was built in 1692, when vis­i­tors had to risk life and limb on tiny footholds set into the rock to reach the top, but it is still a mi­nor feat with 700 steps down into the canyon and back up again to the monastery (which need to be re­peated on the hike home). Thank­fully, once you make it to the shrine and take in the soar­ing views across the King­dom’s moun­tain­ous in­te­rior, you’re guar­an­teed your big­gest Bhutanese smile yet.

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