Into Bhutan

In this storied kingdom secreted behind Himalayan peaks, travelers find serpentine roads, ancient Buddhist traditions, crimson robed monks, and, yes, rack of lamb with arugula for dinner.

From Virtuoso Life Jan/Feb 2014.  Photographs by Kevin J. Miyazaki.


"I’m not sure,” I say.

“The Bhutanese people, we believe in reincarnation,” Wangchuk, our 25-year-old Bhutanese guide, says firmly. A few minutes later he turns from the passenger seat and cocks his head: “Are you afraid of death?”

I glance out the car window. Bhutan is all mountains and curves and cliffs here, no guardrail. But that’s not why he’s asking. During the long car rides that punctuate our ten-day trip, there is time to talk. And because we’re traveling in the world’s last independent Himalayan Buddhist kingdom, visiting ancient monasteries and cresting prayer flag-strung passes at heights that feel as close to heaven as you can get on earth, much of that talk leans toward the metaphysical.

“Me, I’m not afraid of death,” Wangchuk says thoughtfully.

My traveling companions, Virtuoso Life photographer Kevin Miyazaki and my childhood friend, sculptor Elizabeth Turk, and I finally decide we’re more afraid of aging than death. Or worse – Beth and I exchange worried glances – aging ungracefully. But our worst fears are Western fears, a luxury in a land as remote as this.

The conversation, like many we have during this Travcoa-operated trip, stays with me. Located in the eastern Himalayas, Bhutan is a tiny country wedged between two behemoths (India and China), with a population of just under 750,000 people. This strikingly beautiful place was, until relatively recently, one of the world’s least accessible nations. It had no roads, phones, hospitals, or schools other than monasteries until the 1960s; and once you experience its geography, tucked behind an infinity of mountains, you understand why.

After decades as an absolute monarchy, ruled for the last 100 years by the Wang-chuck dynasty (no relation to our guide Wangchuk), Bhutan is transitioning to democracy. It became a constitutional monarchy in 2008 and held its second national elections last year. At the same time, the country is modernizing slowly, taking immense care to preserve its environment and culture. All of this makes it a fascinating place to visit, one of those last remaining deeply authentic corners of the world.

You might be wondering, as I was: Does “authentic” in this case include nice hotels? And what about the food, rumored to lean heavily toward yak cheese and spicy peppers? Not to mention the long drives and the altitude. Authenticity, I think we can all agree, has its limits. Bhutan, however, has made a concerted effort to focus its small but growing tourism industry on high-end, low-impact travel. This means you’ll find lovely places to stay – and far more on the menu than yak products.

“From the beginning we were conscious of the fact that Bhutan can never be a mass tourism destination given the lack of adequate infrastructure,” says Thuji Dorji Nadik, the Tourism Council of Bhutan’s acting managing director. “The fragile Himalayan ecosystem was also a major consideration. Therefore, the principle of ‘high-value, low-volume’ tourism was adopted.” 

The idea is to attract discerning visitors and have them pay more – which benefits Bhutan’s developing economy without trampling its environment and culture. You must travel with a licensed Bhutanese tour operator (or one of their international partners) and book a daily package, which includes your hotel, food, guide, driver, and a $65 royalty used to to bolster the country’s social development and infrastructure. One of the U.S. companies offering high-end Bhutan trips, Travcoa refines the experience with nine nights at Amankora, the exquisite collection of mountain lodges Amanresorts has opened in the country.

AS WE STEP OUT OF THE VAN that first day onto a path of perfectly swept pine needles leading to the hushed lobby of Amankora Gangtey, then sip ginger tea while gazing out at a bucolic scene, we toast one another’s well-being and, well, happiness – another idea that pops up again and again in Bhutan. It isn’t hard to be happy in our spacious suites, with their wood-framed window seats, sumptuous views, and freestanding soaking tubs; or at the dinner table, deciding between an eight-course Bhutanese menu or a rack of lamb and arugula salad. But what about the Bhutanese people, I wonder. How happy are they?  

Moments before landing at Bhutan’s Paro Airport on Drukair, wooden flute Muzak fills the cabin and you fill out an immigration card that reads: “Bhutan: Happiness is a Place.” Beginning in 1971, the country famously rejected GDP as the only way to value progress. Instead, it championed holistic development, measuring prosperity through Gross National Happiness (GNH). A GNH “index” tracks indicators, such as psychological well-being, health, education, time use, and cultural diversity. Although the U.N. adopted a resolution to put happiness on the global agenda in 2012, the model is coming under increasing criticism inside the country. In last year’s elections the opposition party upset the ruling party, challenging the concept of GNH. Bhutan’s new prime minister has shifted focus away from GNH and toward reducing debt and unemployment.

“HIKING HERE MAKES ME HAPPY. I can't describe it – it just makes me feel lighter,” Wangchuk says. He’s sporting his usual outfit: a crisp gho (robe), knee socks, and dress shoes, offset by black-framed glasses and a hipster haircut. (Women wear a kira, a brightly patterned, ankle-length dress.) As he leads the three of us along an ancient footpath through the Phobjikha Valley, he doesn’t have to describe it. We feel it: the healthy blue pine forest; the landscape, gentle underfoot; in the distance, mountains rising in all directions. Our path follows a ridge wrapped in short gold-brown grass, the weather is ideal, and the view, heightened by high-altitude light, is of a valley renowned as the winter home of the rare black-necked crane.

Beyond its simple beauty, the valley is even more remarkable for having only recently allowed in electricity. That’s right: Local elders voted against electricity – today, 39 percent of the country’s population still has none – fearing it would interrupt the annual black-necked crane migration. But now the wood-shuttered, two- and three-story farmhouses here, all built in traditional fourteenth-century style, sport solar panels and satellite dishes alongside prayer flags.

It’s these visible changes – and the delicate balance of old ways and new – that makes Bhutan so interesting. When we tour the Gangtey Monastery, a sixteenth-century temple perched above the valley, young monks in scarlet robes horse around the courtyard as they have for centuries, while a gray-haired woman prostrates herself at the entrance. Between each prostration she draws her arms wide, like she’s gathering up the air, raises them to her head, then presses them to her heart.

“She’s collecting all sentient beings who are suffering in the world – all human beings, animals, insects,” Wangchuk explains, “then praying for the past” (hands above head), “praying for the present” (hands at head), “and praying for the future” (hands at heart). In the clean, clear sky above the monastery, a dozen cranes spiral overhead like black kites against dazzling blue. The Bhutanese believe that the arrival and circling of the cranes each year provides a special blessing. “They go up and circle three times. Always three times,” Wangchuk says softly. “I wouldn’t believe it unless I’d seen it with my own eyes.”

I believe it, standing here where the rhythm of the modern world feels far away and the pulse of all sentient beings feels near. We enter the main gompa (temple), follow Wangchuk up a series of steep ladders, and enter a small altar room. Once our eyes adjust to the dim light, we can make out walls covered with frescoes of lively deities and a floor lined with Bhutanese drums and ancient trumpets, each fashioned from a human leg bone. On the altar before us, butter lamps burn and bowls of holy water beckon.

We’re absorbing all this when young monks begin streaming in and taking up drums and trumpets. Once they start what sounds like Buddhist band practice, Wangchuk motions for us to bow out.

“There was a moment up there when time stopped,” Beth whispers when we reach the courtyard.

Suddenly we’re all speaking softly. Maybe it’s the Bhutanese people, their straightforward gentleness and pride, or the silence of the spaces – inside and out – but it makes you feel quiet and careful, like you’ve been handed a fragile treasure. Traveling in Bhutan, we notice, can have a little of the quality of stepping into a chapel. All is not perfect: There is high youth unemployment, poverty, corruption, a sobering lack of infrastructure. But it’s hard not to feel reverential when you witness a tiny country holding tight to its traditions as the outside world closes in.

BACK ON THE ROAD TO BUMTHANG, the easternmost point of our pilgrimage, our driver, Ugyen, follows the winding curves. We descend through forests of hemlock, native oak, and spruce; we see our first rhodo-dendrons, deep-red blooms on plants tall as trees. We slow down for five furry yaks stuck in the road; we stare at them and they stare at us, profoundly confused. We pass road signs that read: “Mountains Are Pleasing Only if You Drive Slowly.” And simply, “THANKS.”

At a viewpoint near Trongsa, in the center of the country, we also see our first foreigners. In four days! A young Western couple leap out of a jeep. They might as well be Martians. None of us can think of a single other place we’ve traveled – and we’re a well-traveled bunch – where we’ve encountered so few tourists (aside from the handful staying at our hotels, whom we see repeatedly).

As we travel farther east, each valley feels more silent and enclosed than the last. In Bumthang, which is full of temples, my room overlooks a stone courtyard that opens onto the royal family’s former palace, used until 1954. The air smells of pine needles and wood smoke. At the eighth-century Jambay Temple, one of the country’s holiest spots (where Guru Rimpoché, the eighth-century tantric master, is thought to have first brought Buddhism to Bhutan), we join a parade of elderly Bhutanese circumnavigating the courtyard in a slow, hunched walking meditation. It’s lovely: the rhythm and turn of prayer wheels, the chirp of birds, the flap of prayer flags in the breeze. We spin the prayer wheels, send out our silent petitions, glance at the weathered faces as we pass, and exchange shy grins that seem to say, it’s a stunning day to be alive, isn’t it?

After a 12-hour drive back to Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital, I meet Sureg Loja, a Bhutanese trekking guide who now runs a boutique travel agency, for coffee. Loja, dressed in jeans and a California surf T-shirt, acknowledges that change is coming fast. Television was only allowed into Bhutan in 1999, and today Bhutan Telecom has 110,000 mobile Internet subscribers. There isn’t a single stoplight in the country, and the tallest building is six stories, but it’s all relative. “Forty or fifty years ago, people were still on horseback,” he points out. “We lived a very basic, medieval existence.” Now, schools, roads, and electricity are the country’s top infrastructure priorities.

AN HOUR PAST THIMPHU A TRAIL LEADS up through pine forest to Taktsang Monastery, more commonly known as Tiger’s Nest, Bhutan’s most famous landmark. The valley is thick with fog when we arrive, but the next morning the view is revealed: jagged snowcapped peaks against bright blue sky and visibility so sharp it’s like seeing the Himalayas in high-def. Most astonishing of all, though, is Tiger’s Nest – it looks like it’s glued to the cliff face.

At the trailhead we encounter more tourists in five minutes than we’ve seen all week. Beth and I start walking. We pass each of the other hiking parties until none are left and we’re the only ones on the trail. As we climb higher we shed our down jackets and stop to spin a series of prayer wheels. Signs along the trail proclaim: “Green Is Gold, Let Us Preserve It!” and, “Remember, Nature Is the Source of All Happiness!”

An hour farther we round the corner to face an icy black gorge filled with the sound of rushing water. There, clinging to the cliffs, is Tiger’s Nest. We cross a hanging bridge strung with prayer flags. The sound of horns floats down from above. A procession of monks appears, descending from Tiger’s Nest straight toward us. Beth and I get separated in the commotion, so I enter the monastery and step out to where a walkway cantilevers over the cliffs. Monks gather on it, blowing trumpets and waving white scarves over the railing toward the distant snow peaks and the heavens.

I am an outsider – the only one. I press myself back against a cold stone wall, transfixed: the horns, the monks, the scarves.

Then, without warning – even though the early-spring sun is shining – it begins to snow. Tiny, auspicious-seeming flakes float down. The monks waving their white prayer flags grin. And I smile back: Happiness is not only being, I think, but being here.

By Kim Brown Seely.  All rights reserved.