Join our Mailing List

"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Bhutan: Kingdom in the clouds

October 13, 2010

Peter Myers meets adventurers and holy men on a
modern pilgrimage through the Middle Earth mountains of Bhutan.
The Sydney Morning Herald
October 9, 2010

"No ordinary incident has been occurred." With
unfailing consistency, the night-shift security
detail at Amankora Punakha adds these words to
its overnight report. Though they cannot know it,
their sentiments are profoundly emblematic, for
this is an extraordinary place. "There's magic
here,'' the lodge manager, Torrun Tronsvang,
tells me. ''After living here some time, you stop
trying to explain it and just go with it."

I've been in Bhutan only a few days but already
I've seen boy monks whirling to the durdag (Dance
of the Lord of the Cremation Grounds), I've been
blessed by the Divine Madman's holy phallus,
eaten a caterpillar with rumoured Viagra
properties and I've walked in the mountains and
valleys of this semi-mythical kingdom, the
existence of which just doesn't seem plausible in the 21st century.

Amankora Punakha is my penultimate stop - I'm on
a 10-day "pilgrimage" across the country,
stopping at Amankora's five monastic-style
lodges: in the capital, Thimphu; a high-altitude
lodge at Gangtey; in remote Bumthang; and in the
district of Paro, in a pine forest.

Each valley has its own surprises but none is
more beautiful than Punakha's emerald vista of
rice paddies. It is Amankora's lowest-lying
lodge, a converted farmhouse at 1300 metres. The
dining areas and library, where we play
backgammon or Scrabble at night, were once used
for grain storage. Eight guest rooms are in new
blocks nearby; from my room I can see the king's
summer palace across the river. The lodge is
accessible only by foot - across a suspension
bridge festooned with prayer flags, then on a
track plied by golf buggies. One morning, a daft
and bizarrely tame bird, a gold-crowned common
hoopoe, blocks our buggy's path. We wait. There is no hurry.

With air thin on oxygen but thick with magic,
Bhutan is squeezed between the towering peaks and
forested valleys of the Eastern Himalaya, between
India's Assam province and sprawling Tibet. Only
700,000 people live in this Switzerland-sized
kingdom, most of them farmers. Their houses,
which resemble Swiss chalets, are big enough for
three generations to cohabit, with their
livestock and grain supplies. Property rights are
matrilineal: a husband joins his new spouse in her family home.

Though Bhutan is changing fast - smartphones are
becoming common sights -- it is nothing if not
idiosyncratic. Part Buddhist philosophy, part
utopian ethos, Gross National Happiness famously
forms the central pillar of domestic policy. Less
well known is the amorous pastime of ''night
hunting'': if a young man spots an attractive
woman he may, come evening, climb up a ladder and
knock on her window. If she's keen, the window
opens and in he jumps. If the consensual
one-night stand results in pregnancy, then so be
it - the family takes on the baby without shame.

Amankora's lodges (part of the luxury Amanresorts
group) fit seamlessly into this weird and
wonderful land, with their gigantic wooden doors,
sloping whitewashed walls, rammed-earth villas
and long stone-pillared corridors. The
minimalistic Scandi-chic guest rooms have wood
stoves and freestanding bath-tubs but no
audiovisual equipment. Herein lies a delicious
paradox: Aman guests pay a high price to
experience such asceticism, while the Bhutanese
lust after ever-bigger plasma televisions and the
young urban generation plays video games.

The simplicity of the lodges is deliberate.
"Bhutan is very much about getting out every
day,'' the general manager of Amankora, John
Reed, says. ''You get a bit infected; you want to see more and more."

Reed arrived in 2003, about a year before
Amankora's first lodge opened, and for the first
six months he played the ultimate tourist,
exploring every mountain, every village, walking,
cycling, talking, listening. Each lodge offers a
long list of such activities: pony treks,
hot-stone baths, morning debates with monks,
high-altitude golf games, private barbecues, fortune tellings and more.

On my first day in the kingdom, I take a
vertiginous trek with Reed and three of his dogs
to a musty 12th-century temple overlooking the
mossy-green Thimphu Valley. At 2400 metres, the
view takes my breath away. In the distance we
glimpse the palace where the former king's four wives, all sisters, still live.

Each valley we approach in the next nine days
delivers new adventures. In remote Bumthang, we
decide to cycle up the steep pine-clad Ura Pass,
though most people prefer to pedal down. This is
the best way to fully appreciate the country, I
decide, before the excruciating uphill zigzags begin.

We pass farmers ploughing their mountainous plots
with bullocks and carts, and schoolchildren
trekking long distances to their lessons, kitted
out in their uniform robes, accessorised with
bright-blue wellington boots. It gets harder as
we climb into thinner air - we manage 32
kilometres in the next four hours, eventually
giving up seven kilometres short of the top of
the pass. Then we retrace our tracks, hands
hovering over brakes in case a rogue cow or horse
appears. We meet the sun-lit clouds halfway down
and follow clusters of horses wandering to evening pastures.

At Punakha, I mention to Tronsvang I'm eager for
exercise. She has just returned from one of the
world's toughest walks, the 30-day ''Snowman''
trek from Paro to Bumthang. Regardless, the
following afternoon she takes me cycling up a
mountainside behind Punakha's fortress. In four
hours we scale dizzying gradients, dodge cattle
and hurtle down rocky hairpin tracks. Unfazed,
Tronsvang maintains conversation throughout and
we finish up with a plate of the best local
dumplings in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Punakha town.

The trekking in Gangtey, five hours' drive east
of Thimphu, comes highly rated and we're not
disappointed. The half-day Longtey trail passes
Himalayan larch and rhododendron draped in old
man's beard lichen; the path criss-crosses
thickets of dwarf bamboo and ankle-deep mulch. My
fellow walkers and I create bog-related haikus to maintain our spirits.

Halfway along the trail, on a dry, rocky riverbed
and through a rhododendron forest at 3600 metres,
the most Middle Earth scene of the trip emerges.
We question whether it is oxygen deprivation that
makes the ancient, dank woodland appear to us as
cinematic fantasy or whether something else is at work.

That night we dine in a potato shed near the
Gangtey lodge. Outside, a storm rages but we
couldn't be cosier with water bottles on our
laps, candles embedded in the stone walls and a
bukhari (wood-burning oven) beside us. We tuck
into a traditional Bhutanese meal of pork
dumplings, pumpkin and wild-pepper curry; spinach
and milk soup; and the nation's signature dish, chilli and yak's cheese.

When the lodges are empty, staff work in the
villages, helping farmers with their potato
harvest or teaching English and maths to the
monks. It's partly through these good deeds that
the company has found such compelling
distractions for its guests. In Bumthang, our
next stop, we hike to a little farmhouse with an
apple orchard at the front. Aum Tshomo, the
farmer's wife, has a table of local dishes and a
warm welcome waiting for us: buckwheat crepes,
wheat pasta and the best potato curry any of us
has tasted, made with chillies and farmer's
cheese. This is followed by a shot of ara, a
maize liquor similar in taste to Japanese sake. A
dead caterpillar floats in my glass and I'm
peer-pressured into swallowing it for its ''stamina''-inducing properties.

The Himalayas are Asia's birthplace of
imagination, home to gods, spirits and sacred
power spots marked by monasteries. Buddhism
reached Bhutan in the 8th century; 800 years
later, a Tibetan leader, Shabdrung Ngawang
Namgyel, unified the country and appointed
political and religious leaders. A royal dynasty
began in 1907; the popular and handsome fifth
king holds power, after his father abdicated in 2008.

The kingdom remains resolutely Buddhist. An
austere daily ritual can be seen at any temple:
rows of old folk circumnavigating the building
clockwise an auspicious 108 times, chanting
prayers, sometimes leaving a pebble in a pile every 20 rounds to keep count.

There are more than 2000 temples, monasteries and
dzongs in Bhutan. (Occupied by monks in winter, a
dzong is a whitewashed fortress with huge
courtyards and long galleries - the finest of
these is in Punakha.) Once-brilliant wall
paintings in many dzongs have lost their lustre
from centuries of butter-lamp smoke but the
intricately carved and decorated woodwork remains.

At Gangtey's 17th-century monastery, an eerie
woodwind sound emanates from an upstairs room. My
guide, Tashi, says the instrument is made from a
human femur, most likely the bone of a Christian.
Buddhist bones escape such deployment. Before
cremation, the deceased's eldest son breaks every
bone and the body is seated in a foetal position.
This is to prevent zombieism, Tashi explains, po-faced.

The most ethereal of Bhutan's monasteries is the
famed Tiger's Nest in the country's far west
district of Paro. Built in 1692, it was partly
destroyed by fire in 1998 but retains the look
and feel of a 400-year-old temple hanging on a cliff.

It's a tough two-hour slog up here, culminating
in a 750-stair climb. In one of the precarious
temple's inner sanctums, a resident cat sits
bemused as devotees pray in front of a large
Buddha image flanked by offerings of biscuits,
crisps and cooking oil. It's a sombre downward
march from Tiger's Nest - our departure is imminent.

As we leave the lodge at Paro, Tashi hands me a
four-leaf clover - they seem to grow in abundance in Bhutan.

It takes time to adjust to the world beyond
Bhutan. My eyes still glaze over when friends
talk of restaurants or films. How absurd, I think
- my mind far away in a dwarf bamboo forest above the clouds.

Peter Myers travelled courtesy of Amankora.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Paro airport is the entry point to Bhutan, at an
altitude of 2235 metres and surrounded by peaks
as high as 5480 metres. Druk Air flies to Paro
from Delhi, Bangkok, Kathmandu and Kolkata;
flights can be booked only via a local travel
agency or on drukair.com.bt but you must have
visa approval first. Visa applications must be
made in advance through a tour operator and you
must travel as part of a tour group.

Two options include flying Thai Airways to
Bangkok (9hr) for about $990 low-season return
from Melbourne and Sydney including tax, then
Druk Air to Paro via Bagdogra, India (4hr) for
about $US446 ($458) one way. Or fly Singapore
Airlines to Delhi (via Singapore), then fly Druk Air to Paro (2hr 20min).

Touring there

Amankora arranges journeys in Bhutan from seven
nights ($US9800 for two people) to 12 nights
($US16,800 for two people), including lodge
accommodation, all meals and house beverages,
airport transfers to and from Amankora Paro or
Amankora Thimphu, road permits, private transport
with a driver and guide, a massage each and
visa-processing assistance. Extra government
charges for all travellers include a 15 per cent
government tax and service charge, $US95 a person
a day in royalties, a one-off $US10 fee towards a
"sustainable tourism fund" and a $US20 visa.
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
Developed by plank