Bhutan has always been on my bucket list! It is one of those countries that I always dreamed of visiting but thought it was just too expensive and hard to get to, as tourist numbers are limited. Myth number one! Tourist numbers in Bhutan are not restricted. And although all tourists must pay a minimum fixed daily rate, a trip to Bhutan does in fact represent good value for money! I travelled with Beyond The Clouds to see Bhutan for myself.
The first surprise was the architecture. Having flown in from Kathmandu where ugly concrete buildings rise haphazardly, the Bhutanese are encouraged to build using traditional methods. Even the airport terminal building showcases Bhutan’s stunning architecture.
The next reminder that you have arrived in the mystical kingdom is the currency: the Bhutanese Ngultrum. I change money and headed into Paro, which is more of a small town than a city. Rows of neat, beautifully decorated houses line the streets. The stunning mountain scenery, green meadows and clean, fast-flowing rivers remind me of Switzerland. Men in Bhutanese national dress, a kind of tunic worn above the knee, compete in archery matches with crossbows. They break into a strange ritualistic dance every time they hit the bullseye. I feel I must have landed in some kind of Buddhist fantasy land as red robed monks carry ornately decorated butter lamps across ancient courtyards.
Travelling by car with my highly knowledgeable Bhutanese guide I am transported into the land of myths and legends. Buddhism was introduced to Bhutan in the 7th century, when Guru Rinpoche flew on the back of a tiger to what is now knows as the Tiger’s Nest Monastery. This is Bhutan’s most iconic tourist attraction and I was eager to see it for myself.
I was not prepared for the stunning scenery of unbroken forest (70% of the country is forest), rhododendrons in bloom, at one of the most spiritual Buddhist sites in the world. Cut into the rock, the ancient monastery clings miraculously to a sheer cliff, rising 1000 metres from the valley floor. The views are magnificent over the Paro Valley, and the only sounds to be heard are prayer flags blowing in the wind.
The standard of hygiene in Bhutan is very high and hotels offer extremely comfortable accommodation. I could not believe that my room at the Naksel Boutique Hotel and Spa just outside Paro was really for me. I revelled in the gorgeous pine-clad room, beautiful bed linen and luxurious bathroom. As part of tour packages, tourists eat buffet style in their hotels. I wanted to get out to explore a wider range of eateries, which turned out to be fabulous in Thimpu, the tiny capital that still has no traffic lights. The Bhutanese national dish ema datshe is chillis and cheese, and this is a little challenging to the western palate. I was therefore delighted to try other local specialties, such as lightly braised asparagus, ferns and red rice.
Deep in central Bhutan I discovered Bhumthang cheese and yoghurt made at a cheese factory, started when the Bhutanese advertised in a Swiss newspaper for a cheese maker. The Swiss gentleman who answered the advert arrived to find no cows and had to introduce Jersey cows into the lush Bumthang Valley. Now his grandchildren run the bucolic Swiss Guest House, renowned for its fresh home-made bread, yoghurt and cheese, and famous fondue evenings. Set in a beautiful apple orchard, the guesthouse serves delicious home-cooked meals in the charming restaurant.
In the historic town of Trongsa, I was walking down the street when I was invited to join ladies dancing at the investiture of the new governor of Trongsa. Before I knew it, the governor and I were posing for pictures together and discussing global events. Amazingly, I ran into my new friend a few days later at a festival in the Bumthang Valley. The tsechu, or festival, is one of those once-in-a-lifetime cultural immersion experiences. I was lucky enough to watch the show from the special room reserved for head monks, royal family and of course my chum the governor!
Sadly, it was time to leave Bhutan. I have yet to reach the remote Haa Valley over the highest pass in the country. I will just need to return again!
Beyond the Clouds runs a full range of journeys in Bhutan. All profits are used to fund its vital work in post-earthquake Nepal.