In the unspoilt valleys and villages of Bhutan, a way of life continues just as it's been for decades, with mighty peaks, traditional monasteries and homestays to discover along the way
A single mesmerising moment. That was all it took to realise a long-held dream. For years, I had yearned to explore the far reaches of the secluded kingdom of Bhutan, locked high in the Himalaya between Tibet and India. Then, a few days after I arrived, I emerged from my tent to watch a mantle of dawn cloud etch patterns of light and shadow across the valley floor.Above me clung the Bumdra Monastery, its gold-tipped roof adorned with ragged prayer flags flapping mantras into the wind, and to the far north rose the freshly minted peaks of the Jomolhari range, serrating the skyline. It had been worth the wait.
To do this, I set out on a series of day and overnight hikes, staying in homestays and guesthouses, and experiencing local life along the way. So, with the pack ponies bringing up the rear, my young guide, Rinzin, and I picked our way through the heady-scented forest of Paro Valley, full of twisted junipers and glossy rhododendrons threaded with webs of ‘old man’s beard’ (Clematis vitalba). Our trail traced a tumbling stream, its course punctuated every now and then by water-turned prayer wheels that filled the air with bell chimes and good karma.
Guide stripping wood (Martin Symington)
The air and vegetation thinned as we climbed up from the valley, eventually emerging on a yak-grazed clearing at 3,900m where we camped. During the following day’s descent, Rinzin pointed out distant outcrops, tiny hermitages where monks meditated in total isolation, often for up to three years. What astonished me was that this was regarded not as a feat of extreme asceticism, but was undertaken as a matter of course by many young Bhutanese men.
What do they do about supplies, or if there is a medical emergency, I pondered aloud? Rinzin’s reply was simple: “They send a text message.” Of course. The real boon of this trek, however, was that it ended by dropping down to Taktsang Gompa, better known as the Tiger’s Nest monastery.
Yes, it is possible to reach Bhutan’s stellar attraction from above, rather than by trudging the well-beaten track from the valley floor. You don’t even need a flying tigress, such as the one revered eighth-century Buddhist master Padmasambhava (aka Guru Rinpoche) rode to reach the dizzying ledge where the temple now stands, at the start of his mission to bring Buddhism to Bhutan.
Instead, we arrived at Taktsang via a little-trodden trail that plunged through forest and under a thrashing waterfall, before climbing down a series of steel ladders and stone staircases hewn from the mountain itself. Thousands of visitors to Bhutan – including Royals Will and Kate Cambridge last April – puff their way up to the Tiger’s Nest.
It’s a sight on a par with the Taj Mahal or Machu Picchu, yet despite the readily ingrained images in my head, it still took my breath away. However, it was the unusual manner of our arrival – dropping down from an overnight eyrie far above – that made the experience seem all the more remarkable.
Local flowers (Martin Symington)
The pursuit of happiness Tourism is a curiosity in Bhutan. While there is no annual visitor quota here, as some believe, numbers are naturally curbed by the country’s ‘high value, low impact’ policy, which sets most travellers a minimum spend of between US$200 and US$290 per person, per day. Of course, even then, those visitors that do make it here still don’t get the run of the land.
The majority are required to be accompanied by government-licensed guides and to stick to pre-arranged itineraries. They either join tough multi-day camping treks into the high Himalaya, or embark on ‘cultural’ forays, staying at government-designated hotels full of fellow tourists, to be whisked in groups from gompa to tsechu (festival) to datse (archery match).
Well, the Buddha termed his teaching ‘the middle way’, so I felt confident of Guru Rinpoche’s blessing in planning a happy medium. My route would combine the trek to the Tiger’s Nest with a journey eastwards along Bhutan’s ‘national highway’, stopping off in far-flung valleys and overnighting in villages to witness traditional life up close.
So it was that I arrived at my first homestay, following a day’s hike through the rice paddies of the Punakha Valley. I snaked around terraced slopes and bubbling irrigation channels, this time led by another gracious and erudite guide, Lobsang, who showed me how the valley’s fabled fertility combined with its reputation as Bhutan’s spiritual heartland.
Our route wove an agrarian landscape made sacred by creaking prayer wheels, white stone stupas and wire bridges fluttering with multi-hued prayer flags, known as ‘wind horses’. We passed prayer walls carved with the ‘Om mani padme hum’ mantra, and houses frescoed with phallic murals (not ribaldry, but a plea for fertility and protection against evil spirits).
As we approached Yewakha village, five-year old Changa ran down the lane to meet us. With shrieks of glee she led this strange foreigner to the wooden-framed farmhouse where her parents, Ap Lotey and Yang Den, were waiting. Chimi Zam, the little girl’s granny, was winnowing rice in the courtyard, and nearby a tree trunk notched into a ladder led to my room, where they had laid mattresses on the floor.
Prayer flags on summit of Bumdra mountain (Martin Symington)
After prayers mumbled before Buddha statues lit by flickering butter candles in the tiny shrine room, it was supper time. School-age siblings Wangmo and Kinley Wanchu were now home and happily chatting and translating, since English – rather remarkably – is the language of education in Bhutan at every level from primary upwards.
Sitting in a circle on sofas and the floor, we and the family sipped salty butter tea and crunched zaw (popped rice) before devouring beef with buckwheat pancakes and the ubiquitous emadatshi (green chillies, sliced and served with oil and cheese).
Wise old Chimi Zam, whose lifespan has encompassed the world at war and the opening up of Bhutan, said that she was pleased we were staying in her village, because when she was young she “did not know that there was a world beyond the mountains”. The Bhutanese government had kept the Switzerland-sized country in almost total isolation until 1974, when it first opened its doors a crack.
“Life is better now,” pronounced the old lady with an impish smile. This led us into a family discussion about ‘Gross National Happiness’, namely Bhutan’s. This, of course, is the country’s much-vaunted policy of marrying economic development with environmental and cultural conservation.
In practice, it is the kingdom trying to engage with the modern world by degrees, without compromising its traditions and spiritual character – its ‘soul’, if you like. I woke to the smell of woodsmoke and thump of hooves, then joined Yang Den in the cowshed below, where she was hand-milking the stock. We had a go at pumping the butter churn before watching our hostess pour hot water into a bucket of curds to make the cheese we had for breakfast.
Woman milking cow, Yewakha (Martin Symington)
Meanwhile, Changa helped her father shovel cow dung into a circular cement trough, where it was turned into methane gas, to be pumped via a rubber tube into the kitchen for cooking.“There is little take-up among tourists for homestays. Perhaps people expect a bit more luxury for their money,” proffered my guide.
Well, I guess luxury is a question of perspective, I decided as I shouldered my daypack and noisy little Changa shouted her goodbyes. For me, brief immersion in the lives of these happy, hopeful people was a luxury beyond the indulgent spa hotels typically offered.
I was learning by degrees how closely interwoven the concept of conservation was in traditional Bhutanese culture. My next hike was through the higher, cooler Phobjikha Valley, famed as the wintering ground for some 350 pairs of rare black-necked cranes.
I set off at dawn, soundtracked by the faint murmuring of monks from the extensive Gangtey Gompa, where, according to Lobsang, the heavenly birds pay their respects by circling three times when they arrive from Tibet in late October. “Monks, farmers and birds all live in peace and harmony,” he assured me.
From the monastery, we could see down the broad glacial basin, fenced from predators, free of pylons and entirely given over to the sacred cranes. We were too early in the year for them, though we spotted hoopoes and long-tailed magpies on our route through tangles of wild marijuana and forests of blue pine, where local people stripped kindling from trunks in a way that allowed the trees to regenerate. I had seen cork harvested sustainably from trees, but firewood was a first for me.
We carried on up a remote adjacent valley where subsistence farmers grew potatoes and buckwheat at homesteads behind wooden stockades, to protect them from bears and leopards. Lobsang was ever-vigilant about animals, though we spotted nothing more threatening than troupes of langur monkeys.
In its next life, I expect the east/west ‘highway’ to be reincarnated as a fairground ride. The road rollercoasters over giddy passes and plunges into valleys in a carnival of prayer flags, banners and stupas.It needs to zigzag round every contour since this section of the Himalaya is too seismically unstable for tunnels. Work has recently begun on a massive project to widen most of its 270km course between the capital, Thimphu, and Jakar in the Bumthang Valley, our destination.
Local woman (Martin Symington)
So be warned: for the next five years at least, travelling this dynamited and bulldozed road is going to be slow. For us, unseasonal rain had complicated matters, and we found ourselves tailing a convoy of trucks daubed in classic Bhutanese style – a menagerie of dragons and winged phalluses. On the plus side, a new mountain airstrip at Jakar meant the option of a 25-minute propeller-plane hop back to Paro. This heavenly blessing allowed us to look forward to a flight across the Himalaya.
It also meant a few days in the valleys of the Bumthang region, the furthest flung portion of my trip. Tiny Jakar had something of a one-horse feel about it, despite being watched over by a huge whitewashed dzong (monastery-fortess) on a hill above the town.
Red-robed monks flitted across the courtyard, while the incensed darkness within hid hundreds of statues of beatific golden Buddhas and terrifying demons representing the truths of worldly impermanence. It was something to ponder on during the exquisite hike from my homestay in the hamlet of Pang-Ray, along the crystalline Choekhor riverbank.
Chunks of cheese hung on racks outside farmsteads while bright red chillies were dried on the rooftops. Around one corner we stumbled on a game of khuru – the throwing of darts fashioned from nails and wood, and flighted with feathers. This is an altogether cheaper and more common version of the exalted national sport of archery.
In the game, men – old and young together – were whooping and dancing with glee, all dressed up in their ghos, the traditional costume for males that, give or take a skean dhu knife and a sporran, seemed to share much of its DNA with the old garb of the Scottish Highlander. The noise and energy of the game was a surprise in this serene valley.
It was then that Bhutan had one last surprise for me up its sleeve. A furious rainstorm delayed my flight back to Paro by a day, by which time there were two days’ worth of passengers for half as many places. It was then that Lobsang had an ingenious idea. Weight rather than the number of seats was the issue, so how did I feel about offering to abandon my bags?
I like to think Guru Rinpoche would have blessed us for embracing the Buddhist philosophy of worldly impermanence. Feeling liberated, I flew out of Bumthang with only hand baggage to my name, a rolling vista of valleys, rivers and sacred peaks unravelling below. It all felt rather fitting. Having chosen the rough comfort of homestays and the country’s rural corners, it seemed that the strange harmony that permeated life here had left its mark on me. I smiled at the thought: one final fleeting contribution to Gross National Happiness.
The author travelled with Mountain Kingdoms (01453 844400,www.mountainkingdoms.com) who offer a variety of small group and individual trips in Bhutan, including a 13-day bespoke itinery with international and regional flights, stays at Hotel Shangri-La in Kathmandu, all transport in Bhutan, guides, a driver, the two-day Bumdra trek, homestays and an overland journey from Paro to Jakar.
Main image: Taktsang Monastery (Dreamstime)