A Kingdom Up in The Sky
With monasteries sitting pretty at an altitude of 3,000 meters, here’s a chance to look at the world from up in the sky.
On a clear day, the snow-capped mountains of the Everest seem to float in the sky when viewed from an elevation of 3,000 meters. To the naked eye, the powder-white peaks appear as clouds that hover majestically over the Himalayan ranges where a nation of very happy people have called home for the past thousand five hundred years. In a country with no traffic lights, where chilies are a national obsession and the conventional GDP marker replaced with a Gross National Happiness index, it is tempting to illustrate Bhutan as just a destination of fun facts. But for this remote Buddhist kingdom where centuries-old culture and tradition are still very much part of daily life, its history of uninterrupted sovereignty is a valuable lesson on embracing modernity without compromising on identity.
Though the world wide web and television arrived in Bhutan only two decades ago, mobile data coverage across the mountainous country is impressively efficient equipping the young generation, monks included, a communication channel with the world. With just a little over seven hundred thousand inhabitants, more than 70% of the country is covered by forests resulting in a negative carbon footprint, an achievement that the government has pledged to maintain as part of its mission to be the world’s first 100% organic nation. Agriculture is rooted in traditional farming techniques with little use of pesticide or industrial practices making the shift to sustainability and organic processes a breeze.
As a parliamentary monarchy, both the king and the chief monk are still very much revered for their roles within a social and religious context. Through the lush green valleys dotted with historic fortresses and shrines, and the mountains where colorful prayer flags fly high, it’s the experience of meeting monks, nuns, farmers and artisans that helps define this enigmatic nation.
Zhiwa Ling Hotel
An architectural gem envisioned by architect Peter Kampf, nearly every part of the hotel is handmade, from the massive hand-carved wooden beams to the colorful hand-painted ceilings and walls by sixty local artisans over the span of five years. Its main lodge and cottages, featuring 44 rooms, are set in a lush landscape at the foothills of the Himalaya. Home to a private temple constructed using 450-year-old wood sourced from one of Bhutan’s most sacred sites, the Gangtey Goemba monastery, where guests can experience rituals including decorating ritual cakes to offer to deities.
Satsam Chorten, Paro. www.zhiwaling.com
Nestled in the valley where the Wang Chu river runs, the property is a great base to explore the Thimphu region, home to some of the kingdom’s most revered monasteries. Taj Tashi mirrors the architecture of the country’s traditional fortresses with interiors adorned by classical hand-painted Buddhist murals. 66 rooms and suites overlook the mountains while the spa offers guests the opportunity to try a traditional hot stone bath. Unwind with a drink at the terrace and take in the spectacular view of traditional homes perched on the mountains.
Samten Lam, Chubachu, Thimphu. www.tajhotels.com
A 12-room lodge built to recreate traditional Bhutanese farmhouses with a strong focus on green operational practices. Designed by Mary Lou Thomson, the property’s common spaces were conceived to carefully frame the panoramic views of the Gangtey valley with floor-to-ceiling windows. With ultra-mod fittings and amenities, the lodge finds a perfect fit with luxury travelers but integrates into its surrounding through sustainable architecture. The rooms feature artefacts and ornaments sourced from local homes. Just under the Monastry, Phobjikha Valley.
Tiger’s Nest Monastery
It is no coincidence that all the monasteries were constructed on dangerously steep mountains or impossible cliffs as the journey to the sacred sites are considered laborious tests to be passed before being allowed to ask for blessings. The Tiger’s Nest monastery in Paro is probably the most symbolic monument of the kingdom both for religious pilgrims and visitors requiring up to 4 hours of uphill ascent to arrive at the site depending on fitness levels. Home to precious relics and invaluable temples, take in the views and relish in the mystical legends that surround the stone mountain where the monastery sits.
Earth Cultures, www.earthcultures.co.uk
Built at the confluence of two major rivers, the Pho Chhu and Mo Chhu, which converge in the Punakha valley, the fortress was the administrative seat when the region served as the capital of the country from 1637 to 1907. Home to a hundred pillar hall featuring exquisite murals, a visit to the fortress gives an understanding of Bhutanese carved woodwork and art. Punakha Dzong is notable for containing the preserved remains of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the unifying leader of Bhutan as well as a sacred relic known as the Ranjung Karsapani.
Central Punakha, +975 17676729
Just beyond the famed Gangtey Monastery on the Phobjikha valley lies it namesake village. Here, one of the world’s rarest birds, the black-necked cranes, migrate from the arid plains of Tibet to spend winter in a milder climate. Phobjikha, at an altitude of 2900m, falls under the district of Wangduephodrang and lies on the periphery of the Black Mountain National Park. Visit a traditional farmhouse in Gangtey Valley and partake in the daily chores of a Bhutanese household, light butter lamps at the 13th century Khewa Lhakang monastery or mountain bike up the strenuous climbs of Lawa Pass.
Yana Expeditions, www.yanatravel.com
Centenary Farmers’ Market
To get a glimpse into the country’s initiative in becoming a 100% organic nation, step inside the busiest domestic fresh market where apples and puffed rice are aplenty. Farmers from around the kingdom set up stall every weekend peddling freshly harvested produce that are relatively small in size yet full of flavors, a typical indicator of natural farming methods. Snack on puffed rice and corn flakes, the natural cereals are among the most widely consumed grain products here.
Folk Heritage Museum Restaurant
Try Eema datshi, a simple dish of chilies with yak cheese that is a national staple present at every meal. Eaten with red rice or buckwheat pancake, the creaminess of the dairy mellows the spiciness of the local chilies. The restaurant serves traditional style dishes including braised beef and stewed potatoes in cheese. Make room for exceptional buckwheat cookies and take away homemade jams and dried fruits. Kawajangsa, Thimphu. +975 02334637
Momos are dumplings of Central Asian origin, and here in Bhutan, it is stuffed with cheese, beef or vegetables. The locals flock to Zombala where the queues can get testy during the weekend for the both the deep-fried and steamed versions. A cheap and cheerful local dive near Hong Kong Market, get ready to jostle for a seat. Doendrup Lam, +975 2 324 307.
Twenty30Forty chronicles the travel adventures of two adventurous women aka two silly women who travel the world in search of stories to tell. Barely dusted themselves from the trails in Bhutan their Tales to Share Begins here.