19 May 2024

The famous Tiger's Nest, or Taktsang, Monastery.
Off the Bhutan track
Ruby Wax immerses herself in the spiritual serenity of this remote Himalayan Kingdom - and is astonished to find that even she has become a calm person.
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or those of you who might have tried to find Nirvana in your youth and failed, I think I found it in Bhutan. From the mouth of the most cynical person I know, me, I swear to you this place was, until my arrival, uncorrupted. No one wants your money. They don’t even want you there! If the government feels the number of tourists is having an adverse effect on the environment, it cuts back. There are no beggars, hardly any thefts and no violent crimes.

You want to know why? The whole country is basked in Buddhism, which means if the people are very, very good, they won’t get kicked up the backside by karma and have to come back in another life as a cockroach. And that, my friends, makes everyone a Girl Scout, happier to meet you than your own mother. I had heard about Bhutan from Joanna Lumley, who wrote a book about this mystical Shangri-La, but didn’t believe it and wanted to see Bhutan for myself. I had also read an article about it, which began: ‘Bhutan has a unique combination of terrain and weather that makes for exciting, near-vertical touchdowns… with an airport unencumbered by radar…’
Young Bhutan monks
I’m terrified of flying so this did not bode well. Not only that, you cannot fly straight to Bhutan, you must go via Delhi. About 1 hour into the flight to Bhutan, I started hyperventilating due to the sight, at 33,000ft, of mountain peaks jutting through the clouds, nearly scratching the belly of the plane.
The King of Bhutan is crowned
"There are no beggars, hardly any thefts and no violent crimes. "
My best friend, who came along with me, was thrilled – but I threw up. The stewardess informed me the six highest peaks in the world are in the area. They made the Alps look like mild acne. Suddenly, the plane slewed sideways and corkscrewed into a slit in the mountains for landing. I was carried off at the airport as my knees had liquidised. Immediately after touchdown, the enchanted kingdom of Bhutan is revealed before you. The terminal building is actually a palace, not dissimilar to a giant Swiss chalet but hand-painted with various tigers, dogs, crows, rats, dragons and, the star of the show, that crossed-legged, low-lidded, perpetually happy guy called Buddha Every home in Bhutan has been painted with those same designs, as decreed by the present King.

The men wear calf-length tartan robes and knee socks, looking like they’re half-dressed; the women wear wrap-around, floor-length skirts and short, boxy, brightly clashing tops, looking over-dressed. No one in Bhutan is fat and no one, as far as I could see, suffers from stress. The King has also declared that if you cut down a tree another must be replanted. So trees cover 70 per cent of the country. He also says everyone in Bhutan must work. Not one of the 700,000 inhabitants lives off the government. You’re given a home, land, seedlings for trees, an ox if you need it, and you’re on your own. Everyone can have an education and, at a certain age, you’re encouraged to go to school at the opposite end of the country to try to avoid tribalism. Many Bhutanese go overseas for further education but 95 per cent of those who leave the country for work or school come back because they love the place.

My guide, who at first I thought was a simple soul, turned out to speak seven languages, had a degree in anthropology and was an expert in history and religion. The King, revered here as Elvis is in the rest of the world, is married to four sisters who live in separate homes around his log cabin. In Bhutan you can marry as many people as you want, as long as they’re all sisters or brothers. Paro, the first place you hit from the airport, is very much like an ol’ Wild West cowboy town with wooden walkways and a dirt road running down the middle. The only difference is, instead of a cowboy in a Stetson, there’s a guy in a bathrobe and knee socks ridin’ into town on his horse.

Each shop was a cubby hole selling prayer flags, sweeties, and tinned goods. High above the tiered rice fields was our hotel, once the Palace of the Princess. The following day our guide took us 10,000ft above Paro to the Tiger’s Nest, or Taktsang, one of the most venerated sites in the Himalayas. According to legend it was founded by a guru who arrived flying on the back of a tigress in the 8th Century. You just have to nod when they start talking about flying gurus. Anyway, to reach the halfway point you must climb through a forest of pine and gigantic rhododendron, straight up the mountain. I begged to be carried. Old people, carrying their kitchen on their heads, jogged past me. Finally, I collapsed at the tea house, a log cabin surrounded by burning candles and prayer wheels turned by a rushing stream.
If you throw your head back, almost snapping your vertebrae you can see, a further 2,000ft up and jutting out from a cliff face, a complex of giant monasteries all tipped in gold. How did they build it? To me this is far more awe-inspiring than the technology needed to send a man to the moon. And, above the monasteries, w-a-a-a-a-a-y on the top of jagged mountain ridges, are individual huts where I was told the monks go on retreat. Let me define what they mean by ‘retreat’. When a monk gets the calling, he climbs thousands of feet to a hut
where he stays, isolated, for three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours in silent meditation. Each individual has a sponsor, who takes food up every few months. Are you getting the idea that this isn’t a ting-a-ling, windchime, inner-child, weekend-workshop type of place?

Punakha, another town shrouded in mystery, stands at 11,000ft, a seven-hour car journey from Paro via hairpin bends so tight you feel you’re almost pirouetting. The jungle you pass through is home to 300 kinds of trees, 30 types of orchid, 40 varieties of rhododendron and 460 species of birds as well as bears, black panthers, snow leopards, monkeys, tigers and elephants. As you rise into the clouds, you see moss hanging from the cedars like shrouds. Punakha itself is a stairway to a heaven of rice paddies and everyone is either pulling a yak or wearing a big bucket of rice on their backs. It’s de rigueur. At our lodgings in Punakha, the KY Hotel, we all washed our clothes in the communal concrete tub outside. On our way back, we hit Thimphu, the Bhutanese capital, which has a few roads with cement walkways and shops.

There’s even a formally dressed traffic guard in his own box, regally performing gloved semaphore as he directs with military precision one car going one way and then, ten minutes later, another going the other way. My Hotel, the Druk, which is the best in Punakha, is an erection in hopefulness. There’s a long, marbled lobby with the odd chandelier and then you see your mahoganied room, where the upholstery and bed are covered in a sad, green kind of corduroy that looks like your grandfather’s old bathrobe. The gym is a lone bar-bell on the floor.

So what is it about Bhutan that made me love it so? Well, again, the King. When asked at a meeting of non-aligned countries what Bhutan brings to the table in terms of trade, he said the country was high on ‘gross national happiness’. At first everyone smirked. Now it’s an expression used to measure success in developing countries. Bhutan is swarming with monks. Claret-robed and bald, it’s their eyes that get you. They are hypnotisingly calm and radiate an aura, like they’re fighting an inner battle with the seven sins and they’re winning. This calm is catching. By the time I left Bhutan I swear I was a really delightful person to be around. The whole population has caught the ‘calm’ disease. As you walk through town, you can hear that low sound of Buddhist chanting. We followed the sound and found ourselves in someone’s front room. It was filled with monks chanting in a fog of burning incense, ringing bells and burning butter candles.

The family served us yak tea. This is the Bhutanese way of cleaning house. Once a year, every family has this monkfest to spring-clean the house and fill it with good vibes. Aman Resorts are developing an exclusive holiday complex in Bhutan and are seeking staff among the locals, including waiters. They asked one tribesperson what he thought ‘waiter’ meant and he said it was someone who put a grass seed in the earth and waited for it to grow. He was hired as the gardener.

Original article published in Oct 2005. All info and prices correct at time of publication.

"When a monk gets the calling, he climbs thousands of feet to a hut where he stays, isolated, for three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours in silent meditation. "
The Dzong at Punakha
Bhutanese monks preparing for prayer
Some of the rice fields of Punakha
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