Remote from the global hurly-burley, Bhutan’s gentleness is at the heart of its genuine welcome.
At dawn the streets of Thimphu are deserted, but the Bhutanese capital city is well and truly awake.
Around the National Memorial Chorten, dozens of people are making their ritual circumambulations, cleansing their spirits and their bodies as they walk rings around the Buddhist monument.
Hands twirl prayer wheels, chants are murmured and clouds of incense smoke pour from an urn, perfuming the air. Just beyond the circling feet of the faithful, a group of old women sit eating breakfast.
“Would you like to share our potatoes?” one woman asks me, and the entire group breaks into toothless grins of invitation.
It’s a moment that might easily encapsulate Bhutan, a place where religion and happiness so frequently intersect. This tiny Himalayan kingdom, sandwiched between the giants of China and India, is famously a land of happiness, eschewing gross national product in favour of a self-created ‘gross national happiness’.
Welcomes here are as warm as the subtropical heat, and there’s a gentleness to the people that goes beyond the surface of a simple smile.
Buddhism is at the heart of Bhutanese life, and also at the heart of every visitor’s stay here. Temples, chortens and monasteries dominate cities and towns, though ultimately the landscape is Bhutan’s star feature.
With its green valleys set beneath dramatic Himalayan peaks, it resembles Nepal without the scars of overuse. The human touches seem only to enhance the landscape: the monasteries that crown hilltops, the bridges cloaked with prayer flags, the lush rice terraces that chequer the valleys.
For most visitors, a trip to Bhutan means a trip to western Bhutan, where it’s typical to visit Thimphu, the towns of Paro, Punakha and, often, further-flung Gangtey. Thimphu could well be the world’s only capital city without a traffic light.
Dominating the view from almost everywhere in the city of 90,000 people is a golden Buddha sat high on the slopes above like some sort of benevolent guardian.
At 51m in height, it was only completed in 2015 (locally they boast that it will become the eighth wonder of the world), and its true size and grandeur only become apparent when you stand at its foot, with tonnes of gilded bronze sitting in lotus position overhead.
Fortresses-cum-monasteries known as dzongs are central to Bhutan’s identity (the national language is even called Dzongkha) and Thimphu is bookended by a pair of them. The giant Trashi Chhoe Dzong is the most imposing, but the smaller Simtokha Dzong is crucial to Bhutan’s history.
The country’s oldest dzong, Simtokha, was built in 1629 by Bhutan’s founder, Zhabdrung, who is represented as a greybearded gent in monasteries throughout the country, often seated beside the Buddha. Though Bhutan later splintered again into fiefdoms, it was united once more in 1907, when its monarchy was established. Today it’s under the reign of its fifth king.
Bhutan’s former capital, Punakha, boasts the country’s most spectacular dzong, a white behemoth sitting in the fork of two rivers beneath an imposing mountain skyline. Rice fields line the riverbanks, creating a dazzling green landscape during the summer monsoon.
East of Punakha, at the end of a torturous drive, is remote Gangtey, which for mine is Bhutan’s most enticing place. The small tumbledown village is strung along a ridge above the wide, glacially carved Phobjikha Valley. This marshy valley fills with migrating blacknecked cranes in winter, while the village culminates at a spectacular monastery.
This combination of the natural and spiritual worlds is at the heart of any visit to Gangtey. Providing a window onto both is Gangtey Lodge. All 12 suites at this luxurious farmhouse-style hotel overlook the Phobjikha Valley. For the spiritually curious, the lodge works closely with the monastery, providing a range of potential experiences and interactions with monks, including one-on-one lunches.
The lodge is just one of a selection of exceptional hotels across Bhutan. In Thimphu, the slick, dzong-style Taj Tashi welcomes guests with a blessing ceremony from a monk. In Punakha, the subtle but addictive COMO Uma Punakha sits peacefully above the rice fields in perfect silence.
Just as outstanding is the COMO Uma’s sister hotel in Paro, the town that is almost every traveller’s first and last glimpse of Bhutan, being the site of its international airport. Squeezed between mountains, it’s one of the world’s most spectacular airports, with Paro’s striking dzong seeming almost to hover at the end of the runway.
The dzong dominates the town, but Paro’s greatest attraction – and Bhutan’s most famous site – is the Tiger’s Nest Monastery, precariously clipped to a nearby cliff face 900 metres above the valley floor.
A steep, well-protected trail climbs to the monastery, where legend suggests the second Buddha, Guru Rinpoche, flew on the back of a tigress to tame a demon. The monastery seems to defy reality in a scene as spectacular as any mountain sight in the world. In Bhutan, however, you soon come to expect little else.