Bhutan Revisited

The memories of my June 2011 visit to the Kingdom of Bhutan have burned brightly in my mind and I have often dreamed of coming back. Finally an opportunity to return to “the happiest place on earth” presented itself and I was filled with anticipation. We got to Delhi Airport extra early to ensure a seat on the left side of the plane for the best possible chance to spot Mt. Everest on the way, which sadly was shrouded in cloud as we are at the tail end of monsoon season. The crisp mountain air greeted us upon arrival in Paro as did a few raindrops, but set we set off for Thimphu, the capital, with our Amankora guide Tashi and driver, Kandu who would be with us for the next three days.

The hills were green from the summer rains as we passed Buddhist temples, timbered houses, verdant rice paddies and bridges strewn with prayer flags fluttering in the wind. I was pleased to see that there are still no traffic lights in Bhutan nor any billboards assaulting your eyes. You just have to take in the pristine beauty of the place.

Bhutan is often compared with the country of Switzerland both in terms of its geographical size and also its alpine feel. But it is home to just 750,000 people, 20% of whom live in the capital. The biggest change I noted was the expansive growth of Thimphu. Although the population of the country has been stable the past few years, more and more people are moving from rural villages to the city for employment opportunities and development in the valley appears to have swelled. The major industries are: hydro-electric power (most of which is sold to India), tourism and agriculture. But consider that in 2016, they had just 55,000 tourist arrivals in Bhutan (vs. nearly one million in Switzerland or nearly two million visitors in the tiny island country of Iceland) and you can appreciate how Bhutan has managed to not lose its magical charm and cultural identity.

The Amankora team welcomed us warmly and we had just a few minutes to unpack and get organized before the weekly cultural dance program began. We settled into comfy outdoor sofas, ordered glasses of wine and a blazing fire was lit. About a dozen dances were performed with accompanied music and singing – each representative of different regions of Bhutan. Adjourning to dinner, I was reunited with my friend, John Reed, who is country manager for Aman Resorts and oversees the five Amankora Lodges. I’m happy to say that the culinary traditions of Amankora, which I remembered so clearly from my previous stay are as good as ever. Amankora is always featuring fresh seasonal ingredients like a salad of chanterelle mushrooms with chilies and lime. We always had the most delicious snacks in our car – honey coated popcorn, homemade granola bars and freshly made potato chips.

We slept soundly with the windows open to the cool mountain air and the babbling brook outside a soothing metronome. A blue bird  greeted us the next morning and we enjoyed an outdoor breakfast over the best croissants east of the Seine River. Bhutan’s second highest mountain, Jomolehra, made a majestic appearance and looked as if you could reach out and touch it. At 7,340 m., it was snow capped and is often bashfully hidden by cloud… I remember desperately trying to see it in 2011 without success. We geared up for a hike in the hills as a warm up for tomorrow’s big climb to Taksang. Following a blessing by a monk to “remove all obstacles from our path,” we set out on a well-manicured path adorned with prayer flags, lush vegetation and wildflowers, toward a village temple.

Following the hike, we visited a small factory specializing in the lost art of handmade paper. It is a labor-intensive, multi-step process originating from the daphne plant, with an adjacent shop offering its artisanal wares. Next, we went to a small weaving studio where the colorful textiles are made that are used for creating the national costume of Bhutan – ghos for gents and kira for ladies – some of which were exquisite. After a fabulous lunch, we headed for Amankora Paro which would be home for the remaining two nights.

Over cocktails we learned how to make prayer flags, rubbing colored bits of thin cotton over intricately carved wooden blocks lightly doused with ink. Prayer flags normally are in five colors: white = purity; red = fire; blue = water; yellow = earth and green = nature. Everything on the menu was delicious – but the standouts for me were the Carpaccio of yak, which I bravely ordered on the waiter’s recommendation, and the raspberry sorbet. We retired early in anticipation of an early start tomorrow.

The hike to Taksang, or “Tiger’s Nest,” as it is known was more difficult than I’d remembered, but much less scary than my previous ascent six years ago. Tiger’s Nest is one of the best known sites of Bhutan and in fact an iconic symbol of the country itself: a monastery perilously carved into the side of a 9,000’ cliff. In spite of taking Diamox to help acclimate to the elevation and being a few pounds lighter, I was challenged by the steep and craggy switch backs and stopped often to catch my breath. Meanwhile, my 25 year-old daughter and her friend trotted like marathoners to the tea house, which is the half way point. The best surprise though was that solid handrails hand been installed on the trail and final set of stairs leading to the monastery. It was quite an accomplishment and we celebrated with a lunch in a local village home, followed by massages in Amankora’s beautiful spa.

Our short stay in Bhutan drew to a close all too soon. We got a morning yoga practice in followed by a go at archery, the national sport of Bhutan, before heading to the airport for the short flight to Kathmandu. We bid farewell to our Amankora family, knowing we’d barely scratched the surface, but equally knowing we’d be back. Tashi Dalek!

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