“We arrived in the dark; we departed in the dark. We were enlightened along the way.”
– Pam Keene reflecting on her journey to Bhutan in early October.
Road to Bhutan: Unlocking the beauty, mystery and happiness of an ancient culture
Until lately, very few people traveled to the Kingdom of Bhutan, a mysterious country tucked in the Himalayan mountains between China and India. Not easily accessible – but getting better – the country just recently opened its borders to Western travelers.
When my friend and fellow journalist Christine Tibbetts called me last spring with the opportunity to travel to Bhutan, I didn’t hesitate. With trips to Southeast Asia and India in my passport, I knew a journey into this small, remote country would open my eyes to yet another culture and way of life.
Arranged through SheBuysTravel.com and in-country’s MyBhutan.com, our six-day itinerary took us far beyond a routine sight-seeing trip. We visited monasteries (also called fortresses), private homes, small villages and festivals. Our time traveling along the mountain ridges revealed breathtaking views of the forested panoramas laced with switchback single-lane rocky roads that took us high into the mountains and back into the fertile valleys.
We journeyed in the dark over bumpy roads from Paro to the capital city of Thimphu, so it wasn’t until the next morning that we actually had our first look at the country that would be our home for the next six days. We also met our traveling companions, including Kim Orlando with SheBuysTravel, and our local guide Kinley Rabgay and driver Kinley Tenzin. I quickly nicknamed the two Kinleys: K1 for our guide and K2 for our driver. It caught on with the rest of our group.
After waking up among the clouds, we soon left our hotel to visit a group of local weavers, creating incredible colorful masterpieces that would be made into women’s Kiras and men’s Ghos. Throughout our trip we’d see many Bhutanese in native dress. Perhaps the reason was the upcoming nation-wide festival, but more likely, many of the older generation wear their distinctive dress out of respect for the culture.
The entrepreneurial spirit is beginning to flourish in Bhutan, particularly when it also solves a pressing multi-dimensional national challenge. Many Bhutanese lacked access to organic and healthy foods; farmers’ had limited ability to distribute their foods; inadequate refrigeration further restricted the availability of protein, such as eggs.
About an hour from Thimphu, self-taught chef Kesang Choedon, created Chuniding Food nearly 10 years ago. In her open-air kitchen, she explained how she developed dehydrated eggs that when reconstituted taste just like they came from the chicken, plus more than 150 varieties of organic food that she distributes and exports through Chuniding Food.
Our lunch was a smorgasbord of fresh flavors of aged cheeses, hand-crafted dumplings, familiar and not-so-familiar vegetables and fruits, plus chicken, pork and recently foraged mushrooms.
Teenaged members of one of the country’s female softball teams joined us for lunch. Their American coach moved to Bhutan six months ago after seeing a posting on Facebook looking for coaches. He’ll be there for two years teaching the great American pastime to these young women who compete against seven other teams and hone their pitching, catching and batting skills, as well as learn about teamwork.
An afternoon of bumpy roads across the Dochula Pass at 10,500 feet took us to our next lodging in the Punakha Valley where the next morning white-water rafting in the Mochhu River took us through more pristine vistas and past solitary houses in the typical Bhutan architecture. The ice-cold water was chilling; even K1’s assurance that the river was warmer than its other branch, it was little consolation as we splashed through the rapids.
Afterward, we hiked across the country’s second-longest suspension bridge – 11,500 feet long – spanning the Pho Chhu River. On the way to our next lodging, we visited a small-town festival, our first taste of colorful pageantry and mythological culture. Along the roadway, we stopped to visit with two extremely competitive teams of female dart players. Called Khuru, it’s serious business; targets are flat 6-inch circles at ground level and the darts were very heavy. We could watch, but we were not allowed to participate.
Returning to Thimphu, which served as our hub, we stayed overnight and prepared for Thimphu Tsechu, one of the country’s largest festivals. Held in an arena, its approach flanked by a river and beds of blooming roses, the festival was attended by thousands of Bhutanese in native dress. In fact, attire is so strict at this festival that volunteer security staff checked each entrance to ensure that native Bhutanese were properly attired. Dressed in Western clothes, we were exempt, although one of our group was asked to remove her visor.
More slinky one-lane mountain roads took us to the Haa Valley in the west. It’s only been open to visitors for 20 years and truly captures the essence of the country as remote. People waved and smiled at us; they welcomed having their photos taken, especially if the photographer shared the results so they could see themselves.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of the journey was our overnight at a camp in the Himalayas. It was anything but camping in the traditional sense. We were hosted by MyBhutan with beautiful tents, real raised beds, a separate tented shower, fresh-prepared food and a performance by a Bhutanese music and dance troupe.
To get there we crossed the Chelea Pass, more than 13,000 feet above sea level, then descended about 1,500 feet to the camp. The final approach into the camp required hiking, more like trekking really, a rocky road for about 45 minutes.
Early morning photographs revealed far-away snow-topped mountain peaks. A hike to the nearby monastery provided stunning photographs of the monks, Buddhist prayer flags and life in remote Bhutan.
As we again traveled through the Chelea Pass, we chatted with others there, including a pair of cyclists from Switzerland – yes cyclists! – who were making the trip via bicycle. It’s a popular stopping-off place to rest for a bit, take in the views across the valley and the surrounding mountains and pause for one last look at the beauty of the mountains.
Our final days brought a return to Paro and preparation for a hike to the famed Tiger’s Nest Monastery, perhaps the most sought-after climb in Bhutan. The wide dirt somewhat rocky trail meandered upward to an amazing white monastery perched on a rock bluff. Built in 1692, it is surrounded by legend that involves a monk, a rivalry of kings and a flying tigress.
Be prepared to make the round trip of four miles because it requires anywhere from four to seven hours, depending on your physical condition. It ascends 1,700 feet to an elevation of more than 10,200 feet.
We met travelers from around the world on the trail, including an 86-year-old Bhutanese woman making the trek as she had done before, multi-generational families with grandparents and babies, people from Europe, South Africa and beyond. One group of people from Asia helped a woman in their group make the descent by walking her backward down the trail.
At the end of our walk, an elegant picnic awaited, with fresh and dried fruits and nuts, dishes of chicken and pork, fresh vegetables, all served on fine china using crystal glasses and real utensils. It was a welcomed juxtaposition from the trek and a lovely way to cap our trip.
Time passes quickly when you’re limited on a journey, but in Bhutan, it also passes more slowly and mindfully. The people aren’t rushed by the demands of the day; the worst traffic challenges are the intermittent horses, mules, donkeys and cows along the roads and trails; and the foibles of Western civilization are slow in coming.
My hope is that Bhutan will, while welcoming tourists from around the world, retain its distinctive culture, deep spirituality and the charm of its people.
Photos: by Pamela A. Keene
Next month: The journey continues with five days in Bangkok, new experiences and a reunion.