18 May 2024

Dont worry, be happy: Bhutan values Gross National Happiness higher than GDP
My magical mystical tour
Wendy Driver heads for breathtaking Bhutan, where tigers fly and happiness is all that matters
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elcome to the Land of GNH' was blazoned across the poster in front of me as I stepped off the plane at Paro airport. I had just landed in Bhutan, where Gross National Happiness is considered far more important than Gross Domestic Product and economic success. Before we had even touched down, I knew I was visiting somewhere unique. Prayer flags lined the runway and the terminal had carved casement windows painted with ornate motifs. The only billboard showed a glamorous young couple, the fifth king and his queen, looking as if they had stepped out of a Bollywood movie.

Tashi, my guide for the week, met me, placing a white scarf around my neck as a sign of welcome. He was wearing the ubiquitous national dress, a knee-length wrap-over tunic hitched up by a wide belt. Women were elegantly attired in long sarongs with silk jackets and embroidered scarves. This tiny Himalayan kingdom, wedged between Tibet and India, is a land of myths and magic - a Shangri-La where, as legend has it, tigers fly through the air and witches reside in ancient forests.
Buddhism lies at the heart of society. Houses are decorated with dragons, animals and phallic symbols to guard against malicious thoughts, and Buddhist monuments, known as stupas, are erected near rivers to defy evil spirits lurking beneath the water. Massive dzongs, medieval monastic fortresses, tower over
Celebrations in Gangtey at a festival for the black necked crane
" As legend has it, tigers fly through the air and witches reside in ancient forests."
valleys and shrines containing gilded prayer wheels dot the hillsides. Tiger's Nest, the country's most sacred site, is perched precipitously on a ledge above the Paro Valley. It was a three-hour slog to reach the diminutive temple and I was left gasping in the rarefied air - but it was worth the effort. I found myself walking through a canopy of brilliantly-coloured prayer flags in the midst of sheer cliffs and deep gorges where Spanish moss lay draped over the pine trees. Accommodation ranged from spanking-new hotels to delightful family-run guest houses where I'd curl up in front of wood-burning stoves in cosy bedrooms. At night temperatures plummeted.

A traditional hot stone bath was ideal to keep warm and had the bonus of supposedly curing aches and pains. At the Hotel Olathang in Paro, I lowered myself into a steamy pool heated by white-hot river rocks that released minerals into the water. Afterwards I felt so relaxed I fell asleep at dinner. Travelling around the country isn't easy. With many roads closed for repairs for several hours a day, a 50-mile journey can take five hours. Sometimes whole tracts of land had been washed away and we ended up driving across mudslides and along dirt tracks nextto dizzying drops.

But the views were sublime. Far below, silver rivers snaked through terraced farmland, while on the horizon were ranges of shimmering peaks. Wild yaks grazed on high grassland while monkeys squatted beside the bamboo in sub-tropical valleys. Sometimes we'd stop in remote villages and snack on freshly cooked momo dumplings stuffed with fried onions, which Tashi bought at market stalls. We feasted on more local fare at our daily picnics, tasting spicy noodles and deep-fried pakora with chilli cheese - the eye-watering national dish.
After a hike along the Chokshor Chu river in Bumthang, we stopped for lunch in front of the head lama's house while his wife brought us dry-roasted rice. We shared the picnic with half a dozen of their rosy-cheeked grandchildren. The Bhutanese everywhere were welcoming.

In the Phobjikha Valley, I was invited into a farmhouse, climbing a rough-hewn ladder to the first-floor living quarters, passing trays of sliced turnips and red chillis laid out to dry. Zam, the farmer's wife, insisted I try her home-brewed Ara, alcohol made from distilled wheat, while I sat on the kitchen floor. It tasted like ginger wine.
The valley is famous for blacknecked cranes that spend the winter there after a flight over the Himalayas from the Tibetan Plateau. I gazed enthralled as they greeted each other, puffing up their feathers while they danced and bowed to their mates. At the nearby monastery in Gangtey, we joined hundreds of families at the Black-Necked Crane Festival. Further east the magnificent dzong at Trongsa is set on a pinnacle of rock, a whole city contained within its walls.

Pilgrims prostrated themselves before a huge golden statue illuminated by hundreds of flickering butter lamps while red-robed monks sat cross-legged, mumbling prayers in a hypnotic chant accompanied by the sound of tinkling bells. On our flight back to Paro we were joined by a serene young monk. It transpired he was one of Bhutan's highest lamas and the reincarnation of Khyentse Rinpoche, the Dalai Lama's spiritual teacher. The red carpet was rolled out for him to board the plane before he blessed us all with hands clasped together in prayer. It really was a fitting end to this enchanting holiday.

Original article published in Apr 2015. All info and prices correct at time of publication.

"We shared the picnic with half a dozen of their rosy-cheeked grandchildren. The Bhutanese everywhere were welcoming."
The Tiger's Nest perches high above the Paro Valley
The black necked cranes of Bhutan
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