Hannah Methven, our Area Specialist for Asia has given us her thoughts on the breathtaking Bhutan - Land of the Thunder Dragon.
Tucked away between India and China is a very special place, Bhutan, the Land of the Thunder Dragon. Set at the eastern end of the Himalaya, Bhutan offers a stunning landscape of mountains, dense forest and incredible trekking routes. But one of the biggest draws for travellers is the culture. Both the devotion to Buddhism, which is seen as a way of life not a religion, and to the philosophy of Gross National Happiness which is unique to this beautiful country. Rather than focusing on a monetary value to measure the countries success Bhutan instead looks at cultural heritage, health, education and happiness.
I had high hopes for my first visit to the country and I certainly wasn’t disappointed. Before I even arrived I had the pleasure of a three-hour flight from Delhi. It might sound strange to say the flight was a pleasure but sitting on the right hand side of the plane I was treated to a view of the mighty Himalaya in the early morning sunlight. I got to see Everest, Kanchenjunga and Chomolhari amongst many other huge peaks as we followed the range until descending in to the Paro Valley. The landing is just as spectacular as you pass through a narrow valley, wondering quite how the pilot is going to negotiate the seemingly miniscule channel.
After checking in to my hotel it was straight out to explore, there wasn’t much time and I didn’t want to waste a minute! First stop was the National Museum to get an idea of Bhutan’s history. On arrival there was clear damage from the 2011 earthquake which caused large scale destruction in Bhutan and neighbouring Sikkim. It’s not possible to visit the main museum building whilst the restoration takes place but a nearby building has been extended to ensure the displays aren’t disrupted. Below the museum is the imposing Dzong. Each major town and city has one of these incredible buildings which were originally built as fortresses. Dzongs are often set dramatically on high ridges to give the best possible views of the surrounding areas. Nowadays they aren’t needed for protection but fulfil two roles, with part of the building housing monks and the other part used for the administrative headquarters. Punaka Dzong has to be one of the most beautiful in the country, set at the confluence of two rivers this imposing building also boasts a backdrop of lush green forests and jagged peaks.
I couldn’t leave Bhutan without climbing up to the famous Tiger’s Nest Monastery. Perched impossibly on the side of a sheer mountain this incredible monastery was home to Guru Rinpoche for three months of meditation after legend has it he flew to Bhutan on the back of a tigress to free the Paro Valley from a powerful demon and in turn bring Buddhism to the country. The monastery is one of Bhutan’s most treasured religious sites and without a doubt a visit is made all the more magical due to the effort required to get there. Set 900m above the base of the Paro Valley it is a steady climb up to the monastery, with the final section formed of steep descent on a stone stair case followed by an equally steep ascent to reach the monastery entrance.
The climb itself takes around two hours but the path is clear and you can take it at your own pace. Bhutanese believe that the effort required rids the body of sins and prepares you to enter the monastery with a clear mind and heart.
There is the option to enjoy stunning views of the monastery from a café for anyone who doesn’t want to do the full trek. It’s a manageable walk but at the end of it I had some pretty weary muscles. The solution was clear, a traditional Bhutanese hot stone bath. Stones are heated in a fire for up to three hours, and then added to water laced with herbs to help relax the body. I’d recommend it to anyone, even if you haven’t done the walk!
Take a look at all our Adventure Holidays in Bhutan
By Hannah Methven