Dan and Marcus recently got off the tourist trail and headed into the spell-binding countryside of Bhutan. Marcus tells all…
We hopped into our private car at Paro Airport with bubbling schoolboy enthusiasm about our impending journey through the magical kingdom of Bhutan. As we left behind the wonderfully ornate terminal building, our guide Namgay pointed out the roads might just be a little bumpy, but needless to say we would receive a complimentary in-seat massage, and a guarantee of an adventure like no other. He was right.
Our aim was to travel along Bhutan’s main road to the remote town of Bumthang (just imagine it is as wide as a British country lane…). I have always been told that Bhutan gets better and better the further east you head along the road, and Bumthang was the absolute highlight. Bumthang is made up of four valleys and is often compared to the beauty of Switzerland; amazingly fertile, with fields of buckwheat, rice and potatoes leading up to the pine-clad mountains which overlook the lowlands. Throw in a collection of ancient temples, amazing people and Buddhist monasteries and you have a destination like no other.
The one aspect of travel which I adore is meeting people, the stories you hear are often the part of the journey you remember most. We first visited the main Dzong, the fortified monastery which overlooks the town. We met two young monks, one who was 9 and the other 14 – they showed us around and told us about life as a young monk, of early morning prayers and the life they will lead for the rest of their lives. The younger monk was able to supplement his flourishing Buddhist studies with a love of Batman. Needless to say, the now re-named ‘Batmonk’ took us through the Dzong’s secret nooks and crannies on a behind-the-scenes tour of the building.
Next, we visited the Jambay Lhakhang Monastery which was both exquisite and beautiful, yet sitting in the courtyard were four old Bhutanese folk praying. I sat down next to them and we got talking. One was 79 and we heard stories of what life was like in the 1940s, the time when Bhutan had no roads, no cars and everyone worked off the land. She said life was better now, and that this has meant the older generation could sit in the monastery all day praying – something she very much appreciated.
We then walked through the rice-fields, through local villages and seeing traditional Bhutanese life as we explored. We passed a grandmother taking her granddaughter to collect the family’s water supply. The grand-daughter skipped ahead, sweet in mouth, no doubt as a reward for doing the water run. We met an old lady with a wonderful sense of humour on the other side of the river who told us how much she loved to speak to visitors to Bhutan. We were invited back to her house for butter tea; sometimes those magical moments of serendipity are created by simply saying hello.
After the walk, we stopped at the Red Panda Brewery (a wheat beer that could rival anything from Belgium) and a local cheese factory. Our final meeting was again serendipitous – we happened across the mayor of the nearby Tang Valley and it just so happened that their local festival was happening the next day and we were invited as VIP guests. We set off along a 26km dirt track to reach it. The road was the bumpiest we experienced in Bhutan, but the destination was by far the most incredible. If I was a mathematician (which I’m not) I could only assume the odd bump in the road plus speaking to as many people as possible and the maximum distance from an airport equals the most amazing travelling experience possible.
Bhutan has been a trend-setter in only allowing top-end sustainable tourism into its borders, and the selection of places to stay is of course improving, with Six Senses hotels opening five lodges in 2015, the well-established Amankora lodges and Uma hotels offering exceptional hotels to stay at each night. Some smaller newer guest houses are of an exceptional standard such as Gangtey Goempa Lodge for instance. But luxury travel is far more than a string of comfortable hotels, it is the collection of those little moments of happiness and good fortune which make you smile time and time again – being taken to places by the best guide in town and experiencing the destination in new and innovative ways. It is hearing stories from those who live there, and days at a festival where you feel privileged to be the only ‘outsider’ attending. My view is that luxury travel is all about what makes your eyes open-wide during the day, more than what helps them to close at night.
Bhutan is a destination like no other, an exclusive glimpse into a remote Himalayan kingdom which sees few tourists and offers an experience that is utterly memorable in every way. The more you invest in the time travelling down the road, the more magical the experience becomes.
For more information on Bhutan, call one of our Consultants on 0203 603 3555 or visit scottdunn.com