Magical Mystery Tour

Published 02 March 2017   

Humour, quirkiness and a serious obsession with the Internet and Smartphones is not what you’d would expect in Druk Yül, Land of the Thunder Dragon and possibly, the “last Shangri-La on earth.” But that’s what Katie Truman found in bucket loads in Bhutan, along with plenty more enlightening surprises…

Text by: KATIE TRUMAN

Photos by: SAMANTHA COOMBER


Awesome Tiger’s Nest Monastery, Bhutan’s most iconic and sacred landmark – and ultimate selfie backdrop.

The first surprise is where – or even, what – is Bhutan, as not even some of the most well-travelled, geographically savvy folk know of its whereabouts, let alone, existence. The only reason I knew (before flying-in four months later) was down to a highly publicized official tour in 2016 by British royals, William and Katharine, guests of their Bhutanese counterparts and beloved King and Queen.

Travel’s hottest new destination is actually a remote little Buddhist Kingdom landlocked in the eastern Himalayas between Tibet (China) and India, and the efforts to get here – visitors must travel as part of a pre-arranged package or guided tour, all-inclusive of visas and minimum daily tariff, and maximum annual quota of approximately 60,000 tourists – earns the ultimate travel one-upmanship. But more importantly, Bhutan is one of the most awesome, totally unique, spiritually inclined and untainted countries I’ve been blessed to visit.

This last great Himalayan kingdom is steeped in history and ancient traditions, enshrouded in mystery and legends, with jaw-dropping topography ranging from dramatic snow-capped peaks soaring over 7,000-metres and rolling hills blanketed with pristine evergreen forests, to glacial river valleys and subtropical plains, all protected by the planet’s strictest environmentally committed regulations; Bhutan is not just carbon neutral, it’s a carbon sink, boasting negative carbon emissions no less.


With stunning views like this, over Punakha Valley, what’s for breakfast is totally irrelevant.

On my seven-day guided tour by four-wheel drive through Bhutan’s more well-trodden and familiar western region, each day is crammed with wow factor experiences and sights from dawn to dusk (nightlife isn’t one of Bhutan’s, stronger points).

Isolated for thousands of years with scant interaction with the outside world until the 1950’s, remaining closed to international visitors until 1974 when, after a royal command, they slowly started to arrive by invitation, this Land of the Thunder Dragon has beautifully preserved its extraordinary culture and heritage, with age-old Buddhist rituals still part of daily life. Although now embracing modernity (becoming the world’s youngest democracy in 2008) and with development and tourism ramping-up, Bhutan still emanates in part an endearing innocence and other-worldly charm.
I explore mystical Buddhist temples, and trekking uphill to ancient monasteries and nunneries clinging to sheer rock faces up in the Himalayan foothills, am rewarded with sitting-in on mesmerizing prayer services. And the Dzongs I visit, fortresses predominately built in the 17th century across Bhutan, nowadays doubling as religious, administrative, military and social centres, are exquisitely well-preserved architectural masterpieces, home to monks and priceless Buddhist art works. We drive to Bhutan’s highest road pass, at 3,988-metres; here, viewing endless mountain peaks encased in swirling mists from a cliff-edge we have a picnic lunch and hang-up our prayer flags on a desolate hill, left to flutter with hundreds of others in the relentless wind. Bhutan wasn’t what I expected, it was even better.


The good life : views across Paro Valley’s bucolic splendour.

My treasured memories, however are of the people, the unexpected quirky experiences and bizarre encounters: the Bhutanese are fun-loving, well-educated and cultured, with a whacky, almost cheeky sense of humour and chilled attitude to life. Something to do perhaps with being the world’s first nation to measure its success, social priorities and progress based on Gross National Happiness, rather than Gross Domestic Product: according to a GNH Commission, 81.5 percent of Bhutan’s population is “deeply happy,” which I can well believe.

Even omnipresent road signs in English are snappy, sage and witty, warning about the perils of dangerous driving – “Drive like hell, you will be there,” or, “It is not a rally, enjoy the valley.”

A relative newcomer to modernity, with the Internet and International TV only introduced in 1999 and mobile phones, around 2004, the Bhutanese seem to be making-up for lost time, near-on obsessed with the Internet and Smartphone use, even in the most surreal places.

My stellar guide, greeting me at Paro International, a walking history encyclopaedia, yet Bhutan’s coolest dude, has within one hour asked me for my WhatsApp number and if he’s not glued to his Smartphone, it’s discreetly tucked in his pouch-like tunic top, part of the male national costume.

We trek up forested hills to Tango Goemba, Bhutan’s most important Buddhist monastic college, secluded high in the hills. In the centuries-old temple, atmospherically lit by butter oil lamps, I meet a young inquisitive monk, who speaks good English. After discussing the fundamentals of Buddhism, he turns to me and asks, “Are you on Facebook?” I nearly keel over, as even I’m not on Facebook. The monk explains that when he is on religious retreat in India, the Internet emits a stronger reception.


Passing a mass of Buddhist prayer flags -and a thousand prayers – on the trek up to Tiger’s Nest Monastery.

Like all visitors here, we make the epic ascent to Tiger’s Nest Monastery (Taktsang Lhakhang), Bhutan’s most iconic landmark, most spiritual spot and one of the Himalayas most revered Buddhist monuments. Resembling something from a fairy-tale, this gravity-defying monastic complex precariously rests on flat rocks, 900-metres up a cliff. After two hours trekking, we are greeted at the entrance by the Head Lama, leading us first into a miniscule but sacred prayer chamber. During our guide’s ever-impressive history lesson, we notice the Head Lama seated in a corner, with his back to everyone, bent over. Yes, even in this revered spot, we discover he is checking messages on his phone.

My favourite hang-out, a rustic, wooden café overlooking idyllic Lobesa Valley, is named, St. WiFi Restaurant! Actually, from this café, we hike through rice fields and quaint Lobesa Village to revered Chhimi Lhakhang, resting peacefully on a hill since the 15th Century, AKA “Fertility Temple,” as couple’s flock here trying for children. We pass traditionally-built stone houses, like elsewhere, prettily decorated with hand-painted tiles and carved woods, but here their walls are plastered with giant, decorative phalluses, as bright pink as my blushes. These relate to the fertility temple’s traditions, besides being ancient symbols of fertility and warding off evil spirits. These are also on sale in village souvenir shops, carved in wood, multi-coloured and brazenly standing erect in window, from door stoppers to key-rings. I couldn’t make this stuff up; but in Bhutan, there is no need.

Katie Truman’s travels through Bhutan are kindly sponsored by Bhutan’s premier Travel Agency, DrukAsia (www.DrukAsia.com) appointed official representative and sales agent of the Bhutanese Royal Government’s National Carrier, Drukair.

1 Comment

  1. Great article. Trekking is best choice to spend your vacation. I also see one of company which provide trekking in himalaya, Valley of flowers including north india. You can get more details of it in http://travelroach.com .

    Hope it may be useful for you.

    Thank you

    Posted by Smita Agarwal on 15 March 17 at 4:13pm [Comment]

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