Looking to shake up your travel routine in 2016 yet not wanting to fly too far from the nest in Hong Kong? Shamus Sillar suggests a visit to Bhutan, which he found surprisingly accessible and full of remarkable sights and experiences.
Among the countless highlights of my eight days spent in Bhutan in December was a visit to a tiny temple clinging to the side of a cliff – close to the country’s famous Tiger’s Nest Monastery, but one-fiftieth the size. My guide Kesang and I reached the spot after a spectacular half-day hike.
The door was closed, and from within we could hear a solo voice meditating in a low drone. Kesang gave a knock and the droning stopped. Light footsteps followed, and then the door swung open, revealing a middle-aged Bhutanese man with a soft smile and a gleam in the eye.
The fellow welcomed us into the temple – it was a tight squeeze – and poured into our hands a small amount of holy water that we sipped then ritually rubbed into our hair. In very good English, he explained that he had lived in this small room, alone, for a year and four months. He was approaching the halfway mark of a meditation retreat that was to last three years, three months and three days; we were lucky to be catching up with him now, he added, because from the two-year mark he was forbidden to speak.
“And what will you do when you’re finished?” I inquired.
“I’ll go and visit the masters and ask them for advice. They may recommend a course of deeper meditation.”
Deeper? One wonders how you go “deeper” than spending a third of a decade on a rocky ledge of a Himalayan mountain, thousands of metres above sea level. Still, the man seemed utterly content. He was, I guessed, approaching 50 – an age when most of us are seeking contentment by cramming as much into every day as possible: work, family, fitness, fresh experiences – you know, ticking off the bucket list. It did make me wonder, spending time with this serene fellow, why we’re always in such a hurry.
There’s a similarly unhurried vibe to the rest of Bhutan, too – the appropriate adjective to use might be “mellow”. Here are six more adjectives that summed up my impressions of this wonderful country.
The first stop on my week-and-a-bit itinerary came just a few kilometres down the road from Paro’s modest yet efficient airport. Kesang, dressed immaculately in his gho, the kilt-like national dress (women wear an ankle-length skirt called a kira), led me along a short trail to the banks of the Paro Chhu, a river of startling clarity; fly-fishing is growing as a popular pursuit for tourists here, and that comes as no surprise. Our surroundings were gorgeous: a valley clad with vegetation, an old monastery on a rise, and this gleaming river traversed by a traditional iron bridge covered in prayer flags. You’d happily travel for days for a sight so rewarding; I’d been in the country for 20 minutes.
Bhutan is deeply Buddhist, which is good news for the environment. The constitution dictates that 60 percent of the land must remain forested. It’s forbidden to kill animals; meat for restaurants comes from over the border in India, and the stray dog population is kept in check by castration rather than culling.
My itinerary made the most of the country’s natural beauty. Especially noteworthy were the stunning views of snow-clad Himalayan mountains from the 3,100m Dochula Pass, and a 5km hike in the serene Phobjika Valley, where Kesang and I sought a glimpse (successfully) of the rare and endangered black-necked crane that spends its winters in Bhutan’s marshlands.
With its heritage steeped in Buddhism, a Bhutan itinerary will almost always include visits to monasteries, some tucked away and others inside massive fort complexes (or dzongs). Highlights for me included the gigantic 17th-century Punakha Dzong perched at the confluence of two rivers, and the seat of the government until 1955, and the Tashichho Dzong in Thimphu – try to catch the eccentric changing of the guard ceremony held here every morning and evening.
Much newer, yet also impressive, is the gargantuan gold seated Buddha statue (the largest of its kind in the world), which looks over the Thimphu valley.
The most famous structure by a long shot, though, is the aforementioned Tiger’s Nest Monastery – Bhutan’s dominant cultural icon. This cliff-hugging building is reached via a steepish climb through a forest. Like the Taj Mahal, it’s a structure that doesn’t disappoint when you gaze at it in person, no matter how many photos and postcards of it you’ve seen beforehand.
Though it’s said to be the second-biggest industry, behind hydroelectric power, tourism is still in its infancy in Bhutan. As recently as 2005, there were only 10,000 tourist arrivals in the year; Hong Kong’s annual figure is around 27 million.
Consequently, the place isn’t heaving with hotels, and most accommodation is in three-star local lodges. There is a small handful of luxury hotels, however, and I had the pleasure of staying in two of the best. Both Uma by COMO Punakha and Uma by COMO Paro might be modest in scale (just 11 and 29 rooms respectively) but they’re world-class in style and service.
The Paro property is set in a pretty forest just a short drive from the international airport; it’s a favourite retreat of the Bhutanese royals – especially for the food at restaurant Bukhari. Uma at Punakha, meanwhile, is more remote – breathtakingly so; the valley views from my balcony were memorable. The food at both places is brilliant – as much as I loved Bhutanese cuisine (see below), my dinner of tagliatelle with lamb ragù at Uma at Punakha was a knockout. There’s also a COMO Shambhala Retreat at each property for sublime massages, facials and therapies.
Country Holidays’ Bhutan itineraries are separated into different categories of accommodation based on price point, from more modest lodges to the aforementioned Uma properties and other high-end options. The choice is yours.
I’m a sucker for spicy food; I’d happily sprinkle chillies on my breakfast cereal. And that’s pretty much what the Bhutanese do. It rains chillies in this place – at least, that’s the impression you get from the farmhouses, whose roofs are covered in piles of little red peppers drying in the sun.
The national dish is called ema datshi; it’s a bowl of large green chillies, more floral than fiery, cooked in a cheesy sauce. Every restaurant offers it. (I know because I ordered it – cheese ‘n’ chillies is like culinary nirvana to me.)
Of course, you don’t have to eat spicy food in Bhutan; in fact, you could avoid it entirely on a visit and still feast superbly. My non-chilli intake included: steaming bowls of buckwheat noodles, plump momos (dumplings) filled with pork or veggies, mild curries of chicken or beef, and various delicious potato dishes (British explorers planted spuds here in the 18th century). The staple is a nutty red rice that is great to eat even on its own.
For a local tipple, try the beer – some of it is very good. Just be wary of the popular variety labelled “Druk 11,000”. (Or “Drunk 11,000”, as I dubbed it.) The number may well represent the alcohol content – this stuff is lethal!
From the chillies on your plate to the prayer flags fluttering on the top of every rocky outcrop, there’s nothing drab about Bhutan. Even the petrol station in the capital Thimphu is done up in the fetching local architectural style.
Especially colourful are the country’s many religious festivals – called tshechu – featuring dancers in gargoyle-style masks and whirling, multi-coloured costumes. (Country Holidays can help you plan the dates of your trip to coincide with one or more of these famous festivals.)
While the monasteries are notably vibrant, with their striking wall paintings in gold and red hues, Bhutanese villages tend to be colourfully adorned, too – and sometimes in unexpected fashion. Among the noteworthy decorative elements on the walls of many homes is the phallus. Representing fertility and good luck, the symbol was an integral part of Bhutan’s early ethnic religion, and later became associated with a popular and unorthodox 16th-century Buddhist saint known as “the Divine Madman”. Kesang and I took a stroll in the village next to the saint’s monastery, Chimi Lhakhang, and found erect phalluses painted on almost every wall; there were shops selling a wide range of knickknacks in the shape of the symbol too. (It keeps the tourists coming, so to speak.)
As the title of this feature implies, Bhutan is a country that does things a little differently. Consider, for starters, the concept of Gross National Happiness. GNH is how Bhutan measures its “health” as a nation, rather than by GDP. This isn’t a gimmick; it’s an official policy based on the pillars of sustainable development, cultural values, the environment, and good governance. Does it mean everyone walks around with smiles on their faces? Not really. (And it’s a system that has its critics.) Still, more and more countries seem to be adopting some kind of happiness-related index – most recently, the UK – on the back of Bhutan’s model.
Among its other quirks, Bhutan is the only country in the world to have outlawed tobacco (in 2004), so you won’t see anybody smoking (except perhaps the Indian road-construction teams); the Bhutanese do, however, enjoy chewing doma (areca nut wrapped in betel leaf). Plastic bags have been banned since 1999 – the same year that television was introduced for the first time. Thimpu is the only world capital without traffic lights; officials did try to install a set but the people objected! The highest mountains in Bhutan are forbidden to be climbed because they’re considered sacred. (In fact, it has the highest unclimbed peak on the planet, the 7,570m Gangkhar Puensum.)
Even the national animal is quirky: it’s the takin, best described as a cross between a goat and an antelope. Kesang took me to a wildlife park where we tried to get a glimpse of the beast, but we didn’t have any luck.
But I won’t say this made me unhappy – let alone grossly unhappy. After all, it gives me a great reason to return.
Hong Kong-based travel agents Country Holidays are Bhutan experts. They offer eight different itineraries, from a five-day “Bhutan Escapade” to an in-depth 13-day “East to West Bhutan Panorama”. I did the eight-day “Bhutan Insight” trip, which was an ideal overview of the country, taking in historical sights, trekking, natural beauty, cultural experiences and more. It’s understandably popular.
Trips with Country Holidays start from HK$16,500 per adult traveller, including not just accommodation, guides, private air-con vehicles, transfers, entry fees and meals, but also the US$250 daily tariff that Bhutan imposes on tourists. You’ll pay quite a bit more to stay at luxury hotels like Uma, but trust me, at least a few nights in these is worth the splurge.
How to get there: Druk Air is Bhutan’s national carrier and it provides an excellent service – reliable and clean, with tasty food and some incredible views of the Himalayas out the window. From Hong Kong, the best option is to fly to Bangkok and overnight there, before getting on the morning Bangkok to Paro flight (four hours, departs daily). Economy and business class seats are available at drukair.com
When to go: I was there at the start of winter. It meant that I missed the spectacular rhododendron displays of the warmer months, but the weather was crisp and the tourist numbers sparse, making me feel almost like I had the place to myself. Bhutan is pushing to be recognised as a year-round destination, which seems fair enough judging from the quality of my “low season” experience.
For more inspiration on where to travel from Hong Kong check out our Travel page