Known as the land of the thunder dragon, the beautiful Kingdom of Bhutan is heaven to visit. A tiny country in South Asia, it's located on the Southern slopes of the Eastern Himalayas. North of Bangladesh and South the the Tibet Autonomous Region, this mountainous country is a natural beauty! In 2008, Bhutan's political system changed from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy. Unbelievably, it was only in 1999 that the government lifted a ban on television and the Internet making Bhutan one of the last countries to introduce television.
I flew into Bhutan via Kathmandu, Nepal and immediately realized exactly how mountainous this country is. As we came in to land the plane banked left and right avoiding mountains as we weaved through the terrain finally coming to rest on the runway in the Paro Valley. I exited the aircraft and noticed a huge picture of the much loved King and Queen of Bhutan. The young couple are beautiful and the King with his long sideburns and shock of black hair reminded me of an Asian Elvis! After clearing customs I exited to find my guide, in traditional dress, waiting for me. He greeted me with a white prayer scarf which he draped around my neck. A trip to Bhutan must be thoroughly planned in advance. The entire itinerary must be booked ahead of arrival and a guide and driver are obligatory for the duration of your stay. All nationalities must adhere to this rule. Bhutan is the only country to have officially adopted gross national happiness instead of gross domestic product as the main development indicator. As such, tourism is strictly regulated. They do not want their beautiful country to turn into a McDonalds filled tourist slum, much like Kathmandu's Thamel area. You will find no backpackers here. The main reason is the large sum of money which is required for each day you are in-country but this includes all expenses such as guide, room and food. It's not really my style of travel to be chauffeured around and having everything taken care of for me, but since there was no way around it, I obliged.
My guide and driver were extremely peaceful and a joy to be around. The guide was so knowledgeable about the country and history, I think he should have been a professor. After arriving in Paro (the country's only international airport) we drove to the capital; Thimphu. On the winding roads we saw numerous wild (although friendly) dogs running around. Bhutan has a problem with large packs of random canines running freely around the country. Since Buddhism is the main religion, killing them is simply not an option. And so, herds of wild dogs, belonging to no one, can be heard barking at night on most evenings. On our drive I soaked up the beautiful scenery and we eventually stopped at the Tamchoe Lhakhang temple. To get to the temple we had to cross a suspension bridge which hung over a raging torrent of water. I was, once again, happy I'm not afraid of heights! We continued on to Thimphu and upon arrival drove up to a hilltop to see a 139 foot Buddha which was built on a 62 foot monastery base. It was the largest one I had ever seen. We also stopped at the weekend market which had a variety of fruits, vegetables, meat and other items. We stopped at the National Institute of Traditional Medicine and saw all the herbs, plants, etc. that are used for natural healing in the country. In the evening I was taken to my hotel and was greeted with a beautiful, gigantic room. I usually rough it when traveling so it was a treat to have such a nice hotel.
Another day we drove to a mountaintop to the jaw-dropping scenery of Sangchhen Dorji Lhuendrup nunnery. These lucky nuns have one of the best views in the world! As I walked around the nunnery many of the nuns were chanting and studying. With shaved heads and long orange and red robes they were a striking sight against the vibrant blue sky and green countryside.
The following morning we drove two and a half hours to Punakha over the Do-Chula Pass. At over 10,000 feet it was a great view of the Eastern Himalayan mountain range. On the way we visited some more beautiful temples. You'd think seeing so many temples would be boring but one was more beautiful than the next. On the way I noticed all the road signs were in English first and then in Dzongkha, the language of Bhutan. I mentioned how convenient it was they were all in English and my guide stated their entire education from start through university is in English. The only exception being the class on the national history of the country which is in the local language. As such, communicating is never a problem in Bhutan! I also asked what becomes of the large sum of money that is required everyday for a trip to Bhutan. He stated although the government keeps some of the money, most is used to improve the country such as road improvements. Education and health care is free to everyone in Bhutan.
After a couple days we eventually made our way back to Paro where I arranged for some motorbiking around the Paro Valley. I was given a Royal Enfield motorcycle to drive that had seen better days. It worked well, however and I had fun driving around the Paro area. The second day in Paro I drove three hours up to Chelela Pass which is the highest point in Western Bhutan. The drive up was treacherous not only due to the fact they drive on the other side of the road but also because of the constant hairpin turns, large potholes and all the random wild dogs and cows on the road. It was a white knuckle ride and I was glad to finally reach the top. I was greeted with the most beautiful sight of many prayer flags flapping in the fierce, bitter wind.
While in Bhutan, I also wanted to witness the national sport; archery. We arrived at the grounds were an archery competition was in full swing. We sat close to the target and as I looked around I wondered where the target for the opposing team was. I asked if a light line in the grass was where they stood to shoot and my guide smiled big as he laughed, shaking his head. He said "no, they stand over there 150 meters (492 feet) away!" I was completely shocked to see the other target so far away. I thought how in the world do they shoot that far but after seeing the fancy, high tech, high powered metal bow I understood how. We watched as the arrows whizzed by our heads planting themselves perfectly on the target. At these high speeds, it was far more interesting to watch than I would have ever thought.
I saved the highlight of the trip for my final day in Bhutan; the Taktsang Monastery or as it's better known, the Tiger's Nest! Originally built in 1692 and perched on a rocky ledge with a sheer drop of nearly 3,000 feet, it is simply stunning. We started off early in the morning and I was disappointed to begin the trek with a completely overcast sky. We arrived at the base of the climb after a short drive from Paro and my guide pointed to the heavens and said "there's the Tiger's Nest". Of course with visibility at almost zero, I couldn't see a thing! We started the approximate two hour trek up the steep path and after an hour reached the half way point and cafe. My guide pointed to where the Tiger's Nest should be and although the clouds had dissipated a bit, I still couldn't see anything. We continued up and as I once again checked for signs of life, I could start to see the clouds lifting rapidly straight up! It was as if something was sucking them up straight into the sky. With every step the visibility improved and by the time we reached the best view for photos the area had completely cleared and I had a perfect view. We continued to the monastery and went into many of the various rooms. I was offered holy water a couple of times from some of the monks inside. To properly receive the holy water you bow your head and hold out both hands in a bowl shape. After he pours the water you sip it and wipe the leftover water on the back of your head. The first time I wondered what in the world could possibly be IN the water as it was a lime green color and tasted awful. My guide informed me it was simply Saffron added to it. After an hour of going from room to room we started our trek back down to the Paro valley below. Once back on terra-firma I looked back for one last look at the beautiful splendor that is the Tiger's Nest.
I finished my trip the following morning and took Druk Air's small Airbus 319 back to Kathmandu passing the peak of Mt. Everest on the way.
Shangri-La does exists; it's name, in my opinion, is Bhutan!