Hiking in Bhutan | Exploring the Secrets of the Hidden Kingdom
Can this small Himalayan kingdom really be "the happiest country on earth?"
Words by Tristan Kennedy | Photos by Sarah Crichton & Tristan Kennedy
They draw penises on their houses in Bhutan. Not scrawled, spray-painted penises, this isn’t graffiti. No these are lovingly crafted, anatomically correct and shockingly graphic in their detail - real works of art. They’re not seen as obscene here, they’re symbols of fertility, and it’s believed they help ward off evil spirits. The Bhutanese also protect their homes with hand-painted pictures of tigers and intricately drawn dragons too, but for some reason it’s the penises that tend to stick in tourists’ minds.
Even without their penchant for painting phalluses in public places, it’s perhaps no wonder that Bhutan has a reputation as a somewhat fantastical, otherworldly place. After all, this is a country that only got its first TV network in 1999, a country which has a national park dedicated to preserving the habitat of the yeti, and perhaps most famously, a country where they measure their development in terms of Gross National Happiness instead of GDP.
“Bhutan only got its first TV network in 1999, and has a national park dedicated to preserving the habitat of the yeti."
It’s often described as a sort of Shangri La (after the mythical mountain kingdom from the 1930s novel) and according to the high end hotel brochures, it’s “The Happiest Country on Earth". But can the place they describe actually be for real? Even if it once was, surely the 21st Century would have changed it beyond recognition?
Flying into Paro airport - situated in one of the few Bhutanese valleys flat enough to land a modern jet aircraft - certainly feels like entering a hidden kingdom. “There are only nine pilots in the world who are qualified to land here," our guide Sonam, aka SP, says as he meets Sarah the photographer and me. It’s easy to see why - the approach involved winding our way through an impossibly narrow valley with the wingtips seemingly metres away from the hulking great Himalayas on either side.
The drive from Paro to Thimpu, the nation’s capital, does little to dispel the fairytale feel of the place. The paddy fields are neat and well-ordered, and the houses look like something a Disney animator might have drawn, their corrugated iron roofs spattered crimson with chillies spread out to dry in the sun.
“There are strict rules about the buildings in Bhutan," explains SP. “You have to build in traditional Bhutanese style, and you can’t build like a skyscraper. It can only have a few floors." You can see what he means as we enter Thimpu. With their elaborately carved eaves, even some of the capital’s most modern buildings look several centuries old. When we get to the centre, our driver Passang chuckles and he points out “Thimpu’s only traffic light" - a white-gloved policeman standing in the middle of the road directing cars.
If there’s something cute and chocolate-boxy about Thimpu however, the mountains which surround it are an altogether more serious proposition. The city itself sits at 2,320 metres above sea-level, higher than Europe’s highest ski resort, and the slopes around it rise steeply on all sides. Because the slopes are thickly forested (the treeline in the Himalayas is higher than in the Alps, where everything above 2,100 metres is barren), and because everyone else in Thimpu is used to the altitude, it’s easy to forget how high we actually are. But as soon as we start hiking, our lungs quickly let us know - the air is a lot thinner than it seems.
Our first walk takes us up through misty forests to the Phajoding Monastery, a collection of buildings dating back to the 18th century. Even now the monastery can only be accessed on foot or by mule, and it’s a hefty hike - the complex sits at 3,900 metres above sea level.
At the top young monks emerge to greet hikers with cups of hot, sweet tea which SP and Passang encourage us to add spoonfuls of sugary-puffed rice to. It’s not unpleasant, but feels more like you’re eating a bowl of breakfast cereal than drinking a cuppa. “Ah, I’m actually OK," says Sarah as the second cup comes around. It makes no odds and in the rice goes anyway. As tea is served in every temple we visit in Bhutan, watching Sarah’s polite protestations becomes an increasingly entertaining ritual. Despite her best efforts, she never quite masters the art of avoiding the inevitable spoonful.
With the clouds swirling around the ancient, crumbling buildings, the place has a somewhat ethereal air. But this isn’t just a holy place, it’s also has a practical use - as well as being home to lifelong devotees, monasteries in Bhutan are places of education. And although the mist and fluttering prayer flags might make this feel like an eastern outpost of Hogwarts, the abbot here, Lama Namgay, is determined to make his school fit for the 21st century.
“This was once a very famous monastery," he tells us in excellent English. “But five or six years ago there were only five monks left and it was nearly closed. People didn't want to come here because there was no road access and everyone in Bhutan only wants to travel by car." With the help of a grant from the Indian government however, he and his monks are slowly restoring the buildings.
He’s also attracted scores of young recruits to Phajoding. A group of them are kicking a football around on a muddy pitch cut into the steep hillside behind the buildings. When they’re called in for lunch, his young charges sit cross-legged on the floor, their eyes glued to the TV showing an Indian soap opera. "We do things a bit differently," Lama Namgay explains. “In other monasteries it's very strict - they don’t let them play football freely and they can't watch TV. If they left [the monastery] they would be punished, or there would be a fine, but I don't think that's a good way for people to learn. So here we are a bit more free."
Not that these kids are left to slack - as well as their daily prayers and chores they have classes in painting, crafts and English and work five and a half days a week. But it’s obvious that Lama Namgay’s modernising approach and easy manner has made him a popular leader. When he asks one of his charges to guide us further up the mountain, a young monk called Kencho happily obliges.
Misty Mountain Hop
It’s cold and misty, and we’re clambering up to shrines 4,000 metres above sea level (just 800 metres shy of the summit of Mont Blanc). But Kencho is so quick that it takes me a while to realise that he’s wearing nothing but a pair of plastic flip-flops under his crimson robes - his sure-footed scrambling making a complete mockery of our lightweight waterproofs and expensive hiking boots.
In fact most of the Bhutanese people we meet, including our guides, take a similarly casual approach to high mountain environments. Passang climbs in his Gho, the traditional tunic-like garment that serves as a uniform for guides and government officials. It’s very smart, especially with Passang’s polished brogues, but not obviously the most practical get-up for muddy ascents.
When we embark on a two day trek, Sonam makes a concession to the seriousness of the mission by donning a pair of trainers, but they’re lightweight Nike Airs, not hiking boots - arguably better suited for the streets of Shoreditch than the steeps of the Himalayas. Yet neither this nor the cigarettes he stops to smoke at regular intervals seem to get in the way of his innate athleticism - he motors up the mountains like a Bhutanese Kilian Jornet.
The contrast with some of our fellow tourists couldn’t be more striking. We’re sharing our camp at 3,850 metres with two couples from Hong Kong who are dressed head-to-toe in brand new Arc’Teryx and Patagonia clobber - even the bumbags they’re wearing are branded. Despite this, two of them are seriously struggling and have to ride most of the way up on the mules that are carrying the provisions.
If their “all the gear and no idea" approach makes us chuckle then the third group - a party of middle aged women from Singapore - are a more genuine cause for concern. The ladies work for the city’s transport network they tell us, and save their money to come away together each year. But while I can imagine them enjoying Bhutan’s temples, they appear to be spectacularly underprepared for any sort of hike. Perhaps their job doesn’t afford them a chance to walk anywhere.
We celebrate our arrival at the high camp with a cup of tea, but before he can even add the rice to Sarah’s, Sonam’s phone beeps with bad news. The Singaporeans are having difficulties -it’s six hours since we set off yet they haven’t even reached the cluster of monastic buildings where we stopped for lunch. Ahead of them lies some of the most treacherous terrain, muddy paths with steep drops off the side, and it will be dark in an hour. We lend Sonam our head torches and extra layers as he heads down to help their guides out, but it’s a long and nerve-wracking wait for news in the mess tent.
The temperature plummets as the sun goes down. It starts to rain. I crack open a beer, but Sarah sticks to the tea. When she’s not hiking up hills taking photos Sarah’s a nurse, and she’s getting seriously worried that she might be called upon to do some emergency mountain medicine. “I really think someone’s going to get hurt," she says.
“Ahead of them lies some of the most treacherous terrain, it’s started to rain and it will be dark in an hour…"
Finally, well after we’ve eaten our dinner, someone shouts that they can see torches, and 20 minutes later the Singaporeans stumble into the mess tent. They’re cold, wet and exhausted, their day hiking jackets and hoodies no match for the Himalayan conditions. What was supposed to be a five or six hour walk has taken them almost twice that. But they’re alive and unhurt. As Sarah doles out dry clothes and the cooks hand out steaming bowls of soup, they start to revive. It’s been a close shave however - closer than they realise. “On that steep section I was walking behind one of them and she slipped," Sonam tells us later, shaking his head. “She couldn’t see because it was dark, but if I hadn’t caught her she would have fallen a long way."
Following the Flaming Tigress
Very little can prepare you for your first glimpse of the Tiger’s Nest monastery - Paro Taktsang. Bhutan’s most famous building, perched precariously 3,000 metres up a cliff has been photographed countless times from every different angle, but seeing it in the flesh somehow makes it look even less plausible and even more dramatic. That anyone could build a monastery halfway up this sheer expanse of rock seems incredible. That the Bhutanese could do so as far back as 1692 is all-but-unbelievable.
“We believe Guru Rinpoche meditated here for three years when he came to Bhutan and brought Buddhism in the 8th century," Sonam explains as we snap photo after photo. Rinpoche, it’s believed, arrived on the back of a flying, flaming tigress, hence the monastery’s name. We arrive (somewhat more prosaically) on foot, having hiked down from the high altitude camp and skirted the top of the cliff on which the monastery sits. But neither our tired legs, nor the endless sequence of steps up to the entrance diminish our excitement in seeing it.
Cameras and phones must be handed over at the entrance, but once we’re inside, we’re allowed to roam around most of the complex freely. Certain temples are off-limits, but the original cave where the Guru is believed to have meditated isn’t one of them. The only thing stopping you getting down there is the sketchy climb down a rickety wooden ladder. Neither wheelchair access and health and safety are really a thing in Bhutan.
“We sit in the baths drinking rice wine laced with melted yak butter and scrambled eggs - what else?"
“Are you up for a climb?" Sonam asks with a grin on his face as we come out of the cave. A scramble over a boulder and a squeeze through a narrow gap leads us out onto a tiny, vertigo-inducing ledge on the cliff face itself. Looking up, we can see tourists peering over the monastery walls. Looking down, the tops of the trees below look very far away. “We’re not supposed to take tourists here but I like it," says Sonam. “Uh huh," I say, hugging the cliff-face closely. It’s scary as hell, but it gives me a newfound appreciation for the ingenuity and engineering talents of the monks who built the place, and it’s suddenly easy to see why they thought the cave was sacred.
The site of the Tiger’s Nest Monastery is far from the only holy mountain in Bhutan. There are plenty of opportunities for trekking in the country (we’ve barely scratched the surface with our two-day mission to Paro Taktsang) but there is very little in the way of serious mountaineering. This is because despite the Sherpa-like lung capacity of the locals, they consider many of the mountains too sacred to climb.
On a few rare occasions back in the 80s westerners were granted permission to ascend peaks like the majestic 7,326m Jomolhari. But the country’s highest mountain, Gangkhar Puensum, has never been summited - giving it the distinction of being the highest unclimbed mountain in the world. “We believe that it will bring bad luck if people climb [them]," says Passang at one point. “It’s believed that it’s disrespectful. There can be landslides and earthquakes - look at what happened in Nepal recently."
The Separation of Church & State?
It’s perhaps not surprising that the policy around climbing permits is dictated by Buddhist beliefs in Bhutan - everything here is tied up with religion. The magnificent Punakha Dzong, the ancient winter seat of the government which we visit midway through our week in Bhutan, provides a perfect example. Built at the confluence of two rivers, the 17th century fortress is part administrative centre, part monastery.
Inside, local government officials on their mobiles mingle in the courtyard with crimson-robed monks, and in the stunning central temple the main figures of Buddha and Guru Rinpoche are joined by a huge statue of Zhabdrung, the ruler who unified Bhutan. “Zhabdrung himself," as Sonam refers to him, is revered not just as a political figure but also as a deity in his own right. His remains, interred in the fortress he built, are considered sacred, and alongside Buddha and Guru Rinpoche, he’s the third member of the holy trinity which appears in all Bhutanese temples.
Perhaps even more remarkably, the tradition of considering their rulers sacred is something which continues in Bhutan to this day. The current king is not only the head of state, but also the reincarnation of a Buddhist saint. This might all sound a bit medieval were it not for the fact that the last two kings of Bhutan (perhaps appropriately given they are reincarnated Buddhist saints) have ruled in such an enlightened fashion.
Born an absolute ruler Jingme Singye Wangchuk, the current king’s father, voluntarily gave up all his power. He introduced the country’s first democratically elected parliament and then abdicated in favour of his son in 2006. The fourth king as he’s universally known (the current ruler being the fifth king) was also the man behind the idea of measuring Gross National Happiness as opposed to GDP.
Taken at face value, GNH can sound like a whimsical utopian ideal. But start digging and you discover a set of actually very practical governing principles, all of which stem from the king’s dual role as both Buddhist teacher and political leader. “We believe as Buddhists that it’s our duty to take care of all the living creatures of Bhutan," explains Sonam, “and our fourth king believed it was his duty to do the best for the people of Bhutan, but also to take care of the land for the future people of Bhutan. This is why our fourth king introduced GNH."
Far from being wishy-washy, the guiding principle of GNH ensures that things like free education, universal healthcare and environmental protection are given priority over purely economic growth. “One of the four pillars of GNH is the environment," explains Passang, “and we have a law that 60 per cent of the country must always be under forest." Bhutan is not just carbon neutral, it is carbon negative - its forest absorbing more than the country produces.
GNH is also behind the country’s famously strict tourism policy. Every visitor to Bhutan is required to book with a registered Bhutanese tour company and (with the exception of Indians and Bangladeshis) to travel with a guide. Visitors must pay a tax, meaning that the minimum you can spend is US$250 per day. If this sounds deliberately exclusive, it’s because it is. It’s actually referred to as an “anti-backpacker policy" and means the majority of the other tourists Sarah and I meet are 60-something retirees.
But despite the fact that it makes independent travel impossible, it also makes a certain kind of sense. “We don’t want our culture to become like Thailand," says Sonam, “or like Nepal where everyone can go, and they have a big problem with pollution." If Buddhism’s influence on government policy is unsurprising, it doesn’t stop there. The religion affects every aspect of Bhutanese daily life, even dictating the way they wash.
Dubstep in Bhutan
The traditional Bhutanese bath, Sonam tells us, is a must. Sarah and I are led into a corrugated-iron roofed shed where the wooden tubs are divided by an internal grill - we sit on one side drinking the local spirit (rice wine laced with melted yak butter and scrambled eggs - what else?) while red hot granite rocks are dropped in the water on the other side to heat it up. The bubbling and fizzing as each rock hits the water is quite alarming, but we’re not supposed to talk about it - as the “rules of the bath" sign warns us: “Do not spend the bath time engaging in idle chit-chat. It is better to recite Buddhist mantras."
If the Buddhist traditions initially seem strange to western eyes however, they quickly cease to feel old-fashioned. SP and Passang are not just excellent guides, they're great company, and as we get to know them better we learn that they’re traditional Buddhists and citizens of the 21st century at the same time - with the Instagram accounts and mp3 players full of Ed Sheeran songs to prove it. SP prostrates himself at every temple we enter and explains how young children are identified as reincarnations with the enthusiasm of a true believer (“at the age of three he picked out the bell he used in a previous life," he says of one young Lama.) But at the same time he’s a Liverpool fan, and something of a badboy who has homemade tattoos reading “Sex Pistols" (and somewhat less fortunately) “Torres" on each of his wrists.
He and Passang know how to party too, as we find out on a night out in Thimpu. We watch an Indian band from across the border playing covers of the Rolling Stones and Tom Petty before heading to a club to dance to dubstep remixes of Rihanna and the Harlem Shake. The DJ’s tunes might not be bang up to date but they’re not far off, and the guys’ friends are well-dressed, well-travelled, sophisticated and charming.
If I’m surprised to be dancing to trap tunes in Thimpu, perhaps I shouldn’t be. It’s the apparent contradictions which make Bhutan such a fascinating place. This is country where the citizens enjoy free healthcare and free education, a country whose environmental laws would make Denmark jealous, but a country where a 2,500-year-old religion still dictates every aspect of everyday life.
You can stay in a modern five-star hotel in Bhutan. You can go trekking. But you can’t climb many of the mountains. It’s a country which welcomes tourists with open arms, and yet deliberately restricts their numbers. This is a country where the Premier League is shown everywhere, but where they still paint penises on their houses for good luck. It still has elements of the Shangri La of legend, but it’s also modern, and increasingly forward-looking - one of Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay’s most successful forays into foreign relations was his recent TED Talk. His description of Bhutan’s environmental laws earned a rapturous reception from the liberal Vancouver audience. Ultimately Bhutan feels like a country that’s opening up to the world, but doing so on its own terms.
On one of our final days, we visit the fertility temple dedicated to the holy fool Drukpa Kunley in the Punakha Valley. Apparently famous for subduing demons using his penis, he’s the reason why the phallus is so revered in Bhutanese culture. Inside there are photo albums filled with pictures of the babies who’ve been conceived after visits to the temple. It’s not just Bhutanese couples either - there are Canadians, Indians, Brits, Dutch and Germans, people from all over the world. The grins on their faces and the conviction in the handwritten letters would be easy to mock, but there’s something magical about the place that makes you want to believe in it all.
The same could be said of Bhutan as a whole. “The Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon," “a modern-day Shangri La," “the happiest country on earth". All of these make Bhutan sound like a mythical, made-up place but it’s not. It’s real. And that makes it all the more special.
Do It Yourself:
There are no direct flights from the UK to Bhutan, but the national carrier Druk Air and Bhutan Airlines connect Paro to major regional hubs including Mumbai and Bangkok. We flew Druk Air from Bangkok check drukair.com.bt for flight times.
Accommodation & Guides:
Unless you hold and Indian or a Bangladeshi passport, you can't travel independently in Bhutan - all tourists must book with a registered Bhutanese tour operator, who will then arrange your visas, accommodation and guides.
Yelha Bhutan Tours (bhutanonlinevisa.com) organised Mpora's tour, and were excellent.