Secret Bhutan



The Kingdom is a Jewel in the Rough


Bhutan rice fields in the countryside


For all the stories I had heard and all the articles I had read, I wasn’t prepared for the Bhutan that presented itself to me.  A jewel of a Country seemingly preserved by continued centuries of culture and tradition, yet leveraging the best of the modern world.   Bhutan radiates the past with a delicate overlay of present in the kindest way possible.  Coming from the west, I expected a Bhutan that boasts a Gross Domestic Happiness Index, highly regulates tourism, and offers a certain sense of mystery — plus all the other things that are typical of Asian countries, including a rich history and wonderful food.  What I found was a beautiful country with people who are really, genuinely, warm and friendly, not the usual warm and friendly “Can I sell you something?” that I expect as a traveler.  Bhutan is how I imagine most of Asia was before western influence took a firm grip on the region.  Life here is simple and runs at a relaxed pace.  People have nice things, nice homes, nice cars, but nothing is at all extravagant.  The people of Bhutan work hard, but are humble about their personal achievements.  They are immensely proud of their culture, their heritage, and most of all, their country. 

Farm Life and Tiger’s Nest

During my stay at a farm on the edge of Paro, I ate meals prepared with organic vegetables harvested earlier that day.  The family was rightfully proud of how they managed the farm.  They explained how the cow manure, fire ash, and all the organic matter createda self-sustaining organic ecosystem.  The Home Stay itself was a treasure arranged by my guide Tiger's Nest Buddhist monastery in Paro BhutanTashi.  Situated across from a river, this working farm was a special place for me to see how the people live and work.  The farm runs at a deliberate pace that westerners would consider slow, but everything that is necessary is accomplished between sun-up and sun-down.  The farm is located a short drive from the trailhead for Tiger’s Nest, the most popular temple in the region and a prime tourist attraction.  We were up early to beat the crowds hiking to Tiger’s Nest; we did the two-hour uphill hike in a little over an hour.  Two things worked in our favor; one, no crowds or ponies to slow us down on the trail.  And two, my guide Tashi and I both love to hike and were up to the challenge.  The Tiger’s Nest Monastery does not disappoint.  The mythology behind it and the spectacular location are reason enough to make the journey.  As a Westerner who practices mindfulness, it was a spiritual honor to sit in silence within these walls where so many have practiced before me.  Sitting perched high up on the side of that cliff, smelling the incense burn, and hearing chants float in from other parts of the monastery, was a humbling experience.  This must be where mystics live.

After returning from Tiger’s Nest, a traditional hot stone bath was waiting for me.  The family worked on and off building a structure of logs and rocks in a fire pit behind the bathhouse.They lit the fire mid-afternoon and by early evening all that was left was some ash and a pile of very hot rocks.  The rocks were fed into a giant wooden tub through a chute in the side of the bathhouse.  I went in the water at one end of the tub, the hot stones went in the other end.  It got even better as the water had herbs from the garden floating in it.  The smell of mint and sage filled the small bathhouse.  The light coming through the windows faded as the sun went down. The thick wooden sides of the tub holding me and the water together in a comfortable embrace. Most wonderful bath ever… 

Punakha Dzong a 17th-century riverside fort lit at night

Forts and Fortification

With only five days to explore the country and so much to see and do, Tashi took me to the small town of Punakha to tour the 17th-century fort and former capital of Bhutan.  I stayed in a hotel on a hill overlooking the fort.  Tashi cautioned that I was staying at the hotel for the view, not the food.  He was right, a swing through the local farmers market fortified me before an evening of gazing out over the valley— taking in the majesty of being in the foothills of the Himalayas.  The fort sits at the confluence of two rivers and dominates the small town that surrounds it.  The nighttime scene of the illuminated fort from my hilltop view was spectacular.  The peanuts and bananas from the local market were also very satisfying. 

Our schedule didn’t allow for a visit to the Punakha Suspension Bridge that spans the Puna Tsang Chu river near the fort.  Sometimes choices have to be made and the chance to trek to a temple at the top of a mountain pass won out.  The drive from the fort to the suspension bridge is short and the detour is well worth it, if you have a little extra time. 

Over the Pass and to the Temple

As an avid hiker and backpacker, I couldn’t be at the foot of the Himalayas and not go for at least one trek, even if it was just for a half day.  Some call it hiking, or walking, but in Bhutan you are trekking.  Whatever you call it, following trails Poles holding prayer flags on a mountain topand visiting remote temples is the Bhutanese way.  They think nothing of hiking out for a few hours, hanging some prayer flags, meditating in a mountain top temple, maybe having a snack, then hiking back down.  Along the way, on our short four-hour trek, we ran into a herd of yak, thousands of prayer flags, a majestic temple seemingly maintained by a single monk, and trash cans— lots and lots of trash cans and thankfully not much trash.  The obsession with keeping things clean goes all the way out into the countryside, down a trail, and up a mountainside.  It’s wonderful!  When trekking here it’s hard not to notice the absence of other tourists.  We ran into some locals and even a few monks.  There was one couple who were leaving the temple as we arrived, but for the few seconds they were there, it was a blip in the day.  This can be credited, at least in part, to the highly regulated tourist industry in Bhutan.  Through a visa system and pre-planned itineraries, the government regulates how many foreigners can go to different parts of the country at any one time.  It may seem restrictive, but I was able to go to all the places I wanted to easily and safely, and without a lot of other tourists around.  Yes, I know, I present the situation I wish to avoid.

Not all Buddhas are Old

Having traveled a lot around Asia, I’ve seen plenty of Buddha statues and plenty of temples.  The Buddha Dordenma in Thimphu made me reconsider my expectations of what a Buddha and a temple could Buddha Dordenma sits above a meditation room and art display actually be.  As one of the largest sitting Buddhas in the world, it is truly an amazing work of sculpture.  The Buddha and temple sit atop a hill on the edge of town.  It is an awe-inspiring view of the valley below and the Himalayan range to the north.  The temple beneath the giant Buddha is one of the most magnificent temples I have ever seen.  The detail of the artwork and what must have been a thousand tiny Buddha statues inside the temple was simply amazing.  As I stood near the entrance, every direction I looked there was art, reverence, and beauty.  If only I could float to the ceiling to get just a little closer to the intricate paintings and embroidery.  To add to it, 125,000 tiny Buddhas are encased within the larger sitting Buddha.  There is no way to see them, they are just there.  This is a recently constructed Buddha and temple both being completed in 2015.  The stairs leading up to the buddha are still under construction. Once the stairs are complete, this will be a spiritual landmark that will stand for ages. And rightfully so, it is beautiful beyond words.

The Final Word

The people of Bhutan are kind and untainted by the frantic race of capitalism and consumerism that has seemingly trapped the rest of the world.  Life here is fairly simple; the idea of Gross Domestic Happiness  seems to be working.  The people I The matriarch at  Namgay Homestaymet and interacted with don’t have a lot of material things, or a need for them.  The idea of marriage is changing from an arranged union to what is commonly known as a love marriage.  That seems progressive, but I’m skeptical. What is progressive is an equality between the genders.  They don’t have it all figured out, but the roles women and men play carry less importance in identity and is more pragmatic than what I am accustomed to.  The women and men shared the work on the farm and not much seemed to be deemed “men’s” work or “women’s” work.  I couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow at the all-female security force at the airport.  There were a couple of male officers on hand to pat down the male travelers, but otherwise, security was all female, 180 degrees from every other airport I’ve ever been in.  When planning a trip to Bhutan, try not to pack your expectations with your luggage.  It’s better to leave preconceived notions at home and travel to Bhutan with the knowledge that you may have a plan, but the plan isn’t going to turn out to be what you thought it would be, it just might be better.  Give your journey a chance and let the magic of this “jewel in the rough” envelope you in a special kind of mindfulness. If you can live without your cell phone for a few days, you just might get to know yourself a little better. I did, and it wasn’t as scary as I imagined.

For tour guide and driver:  
Bhutan Namzang Happy Tours and Treks 
For the Farm stay:  Namgay Homestay