6 mins

Bhutan: Footpaths to enlightenment

In Bhutan, the official pursuit of Gross National Happiness has kept the country’s mystical east closed to visitors for years. Until now…

Buddhist prayer flags in Bhutan (jmhullot)

Why? Superb Himalayan hiking and a unique, protected Buddhist culture

Route: Fly London-Delhi-Guwahati (around 14 hours); drive to Bhutanese border (three hours)

When? Sep-Nov – clear skies; Mar-May – flowers

Once upon a time there was a young novice monk. And – to cut a very long story short – he didn’t eat enough magic radish to ascend to Nirvana with the rest of his devout brothers. As his master and fellow students tucked in and floated off to the heavenly realm, our monk – dubious about the efficacy of the root vegetable concoction – was left behind on earth.

But he was a good disciple. So his enlightened teacher has continued to watch over him from on high – a kind of Buddhist bodyguard – and ensured he’s been repeatedly and beneficently reincarnated over the centuries.

I know this because the 14th incarnation had just interrupted my lunch.

“Would you like to be blessed by a living saint?” inquired Rinzin, my guide, as I crammed rice into my mouth – not yet realising the stature of the chap in red who’d just materialised along the mountain path.

Feeling not a little confused, I bowed before this consecrated 30-something, known hereabouts as the Borang Tse Lama. He smiled beatifically and touched my head with both of his holy hands. As I backed away I looked down at the valley, thick with trees, both green and on the autumnal turn. I looked at the 4,000m hillside behind, which we’d just descended, and at the good food overflowing from the tiffin tins. Yes, blessed indeed.

It should have been odd to come across a living, breathing saint while trekking in the mountains. But I had come to expect such things in Bhutan: hats that looked like spiders; rocks revered as goddess’s breasts; auspicious pine martens; people who honestly believe that their government is trying to do its best for them… I had come to expect anything, that is, except other travellers.

Because if this Himalayan Kingdom is known for being concealed from the rest of the world, Merak Sakten – the densely forested chunk of valleys around two villages of those names in Bhutan’s far east – is more hidden still.

The government banned foreigners from the area completely in 1995 to preserve its unique culture. The region reopened to visitors in spring 2010, the tourist board keen to bring more money to the region. My entourage – guide, cook, assistant, horseman – and I were only the third lot through since.

The third lot. In 15 years. I conjured with the thought. This was why I was here: to trek for four days in a ‘new’ region, with a culture like no other, to find out if being so isolated can bring happiness – and to get as close to pioneering as I’ll ever come.

After our saintly visitor had departed, Rinzin handed me a cup of coffee from the thermos while Norbu refastened the luggage – toilet tent, gas stove, table and chairs, all for my benefit – onto his five pack animals. Pioneering, I surmised, is a lot easier than it used to be.

Into yeti country

Pioneering had felt sufficiently arduous on the journey into Merak Sakten, however. The peaks that make Bhutan so appealing also make it a bugger to get around.

To access the east – the opposite side of the country to Paro, home to Bhutan’s only airport – it’s easier to enter overland from India than make the cross-country traverse.

Thus it was that I’d braved the sweaty and terrifying roads of Assam (note to Indian drivers: dual carriageway becomes less effective when you use both sides to go both ways), hopped over the border at Samdrup Jongkhar, then made the unrelentingly up and sinuous six-hour drive to Trashigang, the region’s hub town.

It was a long, vertiginous, tiring, spectacular journey, which – when my attention strayed from the folds of foothills and infinite trees – gave plenty of time for an introductory lesson: Bhutan for beginners. Evenings spent discussing Buddhist philosophy round the gaslight would come later; the first thing I wanted to know about was happiness.

It was in 1972 that then-King Jigme Singye Wangchuck first spoke of Gross National Happiness. No twee platitude, it’s a serious attempt to steer Bhutan into the future without sacrificing what makes it so special.

To quote current King Khesar, GNH “means the creation of an enlightened society in which happiness and well-being of all people and sentient beings is the ultimate purpose of governance.” But does it work?

“Yes,” Rinzin answered without hesitation, as the car wound round yet another hairpin bend. “It’s about quality of life rather than money. It’s making sure people have what they need, and trying to provide it for those that don’t.”

I saw this in evidence as we made our painstaking way through the mountains towards Trashigang. Although bumps and potholes caused a thousand mini-whiplashes – it was less a drive than a pummelling – there were frequent glimpses of improvement in action: gangs of Bengalis moving rocks, roadworks causing delays that no one got angry about.

Finally we made it to Trashigang. After a night’s hotel rest for my battered bones, it was early to rise for the final drive towards Sakten Wildlife Sanctuary, where I had a rendezvous with a man and his mules.

As Norbu strapped the gear onto his steeds in the village of Chaling, he gave us a quick migoi – yeti – update: the Sakten Wildlife Sanctuary we were entering was designated to protect them. However, according to Norbu, none have been seen in the area for years.

Which is to say, they most certainly were seen here before – all Bhutanese believe in these huge, hairy, garlic-stinking beasts. “If we do see one,” Rinzin told me with a twinkle, “run downhill. Their feet face backwards so they can’t balance.”

It wasn’t impossible to imagine yeti stalking these forests. Bhutan is 72.5% trees – plenty of places for migoi to hide. But they remained elusive as we walked across more denuded hillsides, passing mani walls (stones carved with mantras), a monastery in construction near the ruins of an old one (“It’s an auspicious site,” Rinzin explained) and rhododendron bushes waiting to put on their spring spectacular.

Then the thunder dragon boomed...

Auspicious encounters

Rain followed the thunder, and plenty of it. We paused for refuge with some young men under a tarpaulin: turns out they were constructing a tourist shelter. Now this area is reopen, the government is building a network of sites so that future trampers will have a few more facilities. For me, a damp tent awaited – and I loved it.

Just outside the village of Merak, we pitched on a patch of grass, a temple, prayer flags a-flutter, to the left and a scatter of farmhouses behind. No sooner had we settled to a cuppa than the occupants of those farmhouses came a-calling.

Four ladies and a sheepish boy came bearing tshok chong, an arrival drink – flasks of home-brewed arra spirit (thankfully not as strong as it smelled) and butter tea (slimy, with an eau-de-yak). But even if I didn’t care for their beverages, their company was wonderful. As were their hats.

Shamo look like spiders but are actually headgear. Woven from wiry black yak hair, these berets (of sorts) have five leg-like tentacles that channel the rain away from the scalp. Worn with the region’s distinctive thick red jackets and colourful jewellery they are possibly the best traditional dress I’ve ever seen.

Indeed, I was admiring our visitors when the oldest of the women caught me off guard.

“Do you think Bhutanese men are handsome?” Rinzin translated for her.

Oh… actually, as I have a boyfriend, I wouldn’t like to comment, I flustered.

“So? You can have an English and a Bhutanese boyfriend!” she countered, directing her gaze at the uncomfortable-looking male in their party.

I said I’d take him if he came with a large dowry.

“Well, I haven’t much money,” she replied, “but I’ll give you some yaks.”

A tempting (if pungent) offer: I declined, and our visitors left in a gaggle of giggles. They certainly seemed happy enough.

As was I the next morning, eating my honey and toast at my table in the sunshine – unlike the boys, I couldn’t face ema datse (chillies and cheese) for breakfast. A solitary snow-capped peak poked above the valley, and a monk walked past as I was brushing my teeth: I don’t know if that’s officially auspicious, but I took it as a good sign.

And it was a good day, walking on through Merak, negotiating the purchase of my own shamo, and passing the yaks it may well have been woven from. Every farmhouse was topped by two flags – for luck and prosperity – while stands of lungdhar, wish-fulfilling prayer flags as tall as sails, rippled on exposed hillsides, sending their missives to the heavens.

We climbed further, a tantalising panorama of high Himalaya just visible between foothills and cloud. At a 4,300m pass – our journey’s zenith – a salt-sprinkle of snow coated the slopes, and banners of red-green-blue-yellow-white flapped in a fury. A short descent down the other side, and sunshine was restored – perhaps because this is where I received my saintly blessing.

Power to the people

By the end of the day I’d experienced all seasons, stepping-stoned across rivers and seen a lifetime of trees. When the village of Sakten came into view – bigger than Merak, a burst of humanity – it was a shock. It was too late to explore that evening, so instead we hunkered down to a Dorji feast – how did our chef concoct such banquets with one gas hob?

Meanwhile Rinzin tried to save insects from suicide-by-lantern: ever the good Buddhist. He told me many tales too – there seemed to be one for every occasion. Like legends of humans getting the better of yetis, and saucy stories about the Divine Madman, who though a saint had a penchant for promiscuity (don’t ask what he got up to with his ‘magic thunderbolt’).

Rinzin also tried to teach me about the Buddhist pantheon – but there are thousands of gods and spirits, some universal, some specific to an individual tree. It was going to take more than a week to get to grips with the local religion, but I was starting to see why you’d bother.

Rinzin had a phrase he repeated often: he must always show “kindness and loving to all sentient beings”.

According to his astrologer – a learned man, consulted before making key life decisions, nothing like Mystic Meg – if he does this, he will be reincarnated as a monk in his next life, another rung closer to enlightenment. And herein, I reckon, lies the key to Bhutanese happiness.

In Bhutan the Mahayana form of Buddhism is followed, the adherents of which seek enlightenment for the sake of all living things, not just for themselves. This altruistic tenet – basically, be nice to everyone and everything or you’ll come back as a slug – seems like a good basis for a harmonious society.

I heard Buddhism in action the next morning (the 15th of the month – an auspicious day, naturally). As we explored Sakten’s muddy lanes, exchanging ‘kuzuzangbo-la’ greetings with the locals in their dashing red dressing gowns, we could make out the schoolchildren singing to the god of wisdom.

What with the kids’ chorus, the surrounding regiments of prayer flags and the wooden flying phalluses dangling from the farmhouses’ eaves (a Divine Madman luck legacy), Sakten was not leaving its fortunes to chance.

A lady in a shamo, embroidered robes and bright beads was brewing arra in her outhouse. She explained the process and offered me a cup, though as it was barely 9am I politely declined. Despite my refusal, she and her husband  invited me into their home, a 100-year-old stone building with a prayer wheel by the door.

It took me a while to adjust to the gloom. There was no light inside save the shafts from one tiny window. Every surface was coated in a century of soot. But it was a wonderful room, because there was nothing extraneous in it.

There were pots and pans, bits of rope, heavy blankets. On the rafters rested the pod of a silk-cotton tree, the petals inside given as offerings at the temple. Next to it lay a traditional quiver of bamboo arrows, used for fun – archery is the national sport. They sleep in this room, they told me – there is an upstairs but it’s much warmer down here.

When their children return from the hills, where they were currently tending the family’s 60 or so yaks, they would all cosy up together: the ultimate in open-plan domestic living.

We left Sakten on our third day in the region, and began to loop back towards Trashigang. The walking was fine and varied, negotiating forest tracks and suspension bridges, tramping alongside churned up rivers and tiny streams.

It was at the latter I discovered surely the most cunning trick in Buddhism. Spinning a prayer wheel improves your karma, so some devotees build wheels in a tributary’s path, the spindle constantly turned by the water’s flow. Voilà! Automated brownie-point production.

But despite being ingenious, this karmic short-cut wasn’t the most striking sight during our walk. As we descended a leaf-mulched path we passed a team of four men carrying 100kg of metal pole up it. “It’s for the village, to bring electricity,” explained Rinzin as the men huffed by.

Our trek continued for another two days. Sunshine dappled through innumerable trees; trails of mules were dragged across bridges; a night was spent in a tent by a roaring glacial river; local herders goaded yaks; prayer flags festooned everywhere.

But I couldn’t stop thinking about that metal pole.

It was Gross National Happiness in action, providing for all living beings – even if that meant lugging heavy loads up precipitous paths at high altitudes to far-flung villages.

I thought of the farmhouse I’d visited, tried to picture where they might put a telly.

I wish them happiness.

Dzongs: Bhutan’s holy HQs

One of the defining features of Bhutan’s landscape is the dzong, the administrative and religious headquarters of a region, comprising offices, temples, courtyards and monks’ accommodation.

Dzongs are huge, fortress-like buildings, constructed at strategic and auspicious locations – at the meeting of rivers, on hilltops or mountains spurs. Visitors – both Bhutanese and foreign – must be smartly dressed to enter the dzong: no sandals or scruffy clothes are allowed

Punakha Dzong, in the north-west, has the most impressive location, set at the confluence of two rivers. Trongsa has many temples nestled into the hillside. Paro is plain massive. But most share the same basic plan:

> High, inward-sloping walls with few low-level windows, made from white-washed earth and stone

> Interior flagstone courtyard; surrounding woodwork brightly painted with Buddhist motifs. May be used to host festivals/house animals rescued from sacrifice ceremonies. Photography allowed

> Galleried rooms used as monks’ quarters

> Large, heavy doors; usually have thresholds, to deter the entrance of spirits. A dzong will have only one entrance to make it easy to defend

> Central tower containing lhakhang (temples). Shoes must be removed to enter; photography not permitted inside

> Sloping roofs sit just above elaborately painted wooden eaves to allow air to circulate in loft storage areas

More like this

Check out our Bhutan travel guide for tips, advice and articles | Inspire me... More

7 treks not to miss on your trip to Bhutan | Inspire Me... More

Bhutan becomes newest democracy | News... More

Bhutan: kingdom of heaven | Destinations... More

Bradley Mayhew helps you experience the awe-inspiring treks and temples of the Himalayan hideaway, Bhutan | Destination... More

Related Articles