On a real high



Penny Watson explores the mystic beauty of Asia's mysterious – and contented – mountain kingdom, Bhutan

Catching sight of Everest jutting out of the clouds against a brilliant blue sky brings a tear to my eye, so too the proximity of the plane's wing tip to the rugged pine-studded mountain terrain we're flying through. Flat ground is so rare here in Bhutan that the country's international airport had to be built in tiny Paro, 55km from the capital, Thimphu. The airport is considered one of the world's most challenging; at 7,300ft and surrounded by 18,000ft peaks, only a handful of pilots are licensed to land here.

Anecdotes like this are very much part of the Bhutan experience. This tiny landlocked Himalayan country, with a staunchly Buddhist population of about 730,000, punches so high above its weight in interest and intrigue that a visitor can't help but come away with an index of facts, factoids, anecdotes and trivialities that would make a quiz master froth at the mouth.

A brief history of progress, for example, can be reeled off thus: There were no public hospitals or schools in Bhutan until the 1950s. The country's first road was completed in 1962 and shortly after came electricity. Bhutan had no diplomatic relations until 1961 and the first invited Westerner came as late as 1974. And here's the clincher – in June 1999, Bhutan became the last nation in the world to turn on television.

Despite its dramatic catapult into the 21st century, Bhutan is taking modernity in its stride, at least to the casual observer. Intact traditions and culture seem to mix effortlessly with the comfort of contemporary travel, for example. I'm on a five day 'Himalayan Cultural Tour', which takes in the major sights and valleys of Western Bhutan and enjoying the kind of accommodation that can make a grown woman swoon.

Accompanying me on the journey is my guide Tshewang whose services are included in the fairly steep daily visa fee, which is obligatory for tourists. It's a win-win for me; having Tshewang around is like having my own walking, talking, Bhutan guidebook.

Maintaining tradition: Cultural dress is mandatory in Bhutan

Paro is a good starting point for a trip to Bhutan. The small town's grid of streets is lined with traditional painted wooden shopfronts and walking among them is a populace who think nothing of getting about in the national dress: heavy woollen robes with a woven cloth belt for men (gho) and patterned ankle length skirts for women (kira).

Tshewang tells me that a few years back the government tried to make national dress obligatory, with little success. The compromise – that it be worn in government offices, schools, temples and at official events – seems to have worked.

For tourists, it's eye candy as good as that found at two of Paro's other attractions Kyichu Lhakhang, Bhutan's oldest temple, and Rinpung Dzong, a towering white-washed fortress built to protect the valley from invading Tibetans. Here, monks wearing long maroon robes and big wooden beads spin prayer wheels and glide around in solemn meditation. Only their mobile phones suggest they're from this century.

From a Dzong window, Tshewang points out the understated royal palace, and explains it is where the handsome 30-something ruling Fifth King, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and his hot 20-something wife, Jetsun Pema, were married in 2011. It's also where Hong Kong actors Tony Leung and Carina Lau had their wedding photos taken in royal garb a few years before.

It turns out Tshewang could moonlight as a reporter for Hello magazine, if such a thing existed in Bhutan. He tells me that Uma Paro, the resort I'm staying in, was the secret wedding venue for Leung and Lau. He also divulges that Leonardo DiCaprio has stayed in my villa, which, to me says: Penny Watson slept in the same bed as Leonardo DiCaprio.

Punakha Dzong: High mountain architecture

But moving right along
From Paro we head to Punakha via the capital of Thimphu, where the Fifth King lives. K5, as he is known and the royal family are another great Bhutan talking point and not merely because of the king and queen's ravishing good looks. K5's father – let's call him K4 – introduced democracy to the country – unprompted – in 2008 on the anniversary of the monarchy's centenary. Since then, the Bhutanese have been able to vote for anyone they please but it so happens that the royals are doing such a top job that the people vote for them anyway.

Perhaps one of the reasons they're so fly comes down to K4's homegrown philosophy that ensures 'gross national happiness' is more important than gross domestic product. When I ask Tshewang, he explains that the job of 'the minister for gross national happiness' (no kidding) is to assess the happiness of the people in four categories – tradition and culture, sustainable development, good governance and environment. How does he do this? Every five or so years, a census-like survey is sent out, asking citizens basic questions such as: 'are you happy with the roads in your village?', 'are you happy with your local government?' and 'are you happy with the cleanliness of your local river?', to which the people can tick: 'not happy', 'happy' or 'very happy'. The data is then put into a pie chart (no kidding) and the 'not happy' areas become the minister's focus.

Brilliant in its simplicity
With only 80,000 people and not a high-rise in sight, the king's laidback hometown seems more like a regional town than a capital city. The lack of traffic lights plays a part. So the story goes: the council added a traffic light in the main street a few years ago, but the people found it too impersonal and went through the red light anyway. When the traffic cop was reinstated to the middle of the road all was well again.

At 10,000ft, Dochu La, with its 108 chortens, is the highest point on the next leg of the journey from Thimphu to Punakha. Up here, I can see Gangkhar Puensum, Bhutan's highest peak at 24,836ft. Tshewang tells me it is the highest unclimbed mountain in the world and the last remaining pristine Himalayan wilderness. You've got to love Bhutan.

Punakha has an even slower pace than Paro, with misty mountains hanging over a terraced valley where smoking chimneys dot the landscape. It's home to the remarkable Punakha Dzong and a host of other little architectural marvels that make great day-hike destinations.

My favourite is the Temple of the Divine Madman. According to Tshewang, this questionable character travelled Bhutan as a yogi, spreading the word of Buddha in outrageous ways. His unorthodox approach included sleeping with 5,000 women and gaining nirvana by drinking lots of beer. His reasoning? Shake up the rigid social conventions of the day. He also introduced the phallus as a symbol to drive away evil, which accounts for the nearby village being overrun by decorative penises. Or does it?

The day before I fly out, Tshewang and I hike to Tiger's Nest Monastery, one of the country's most sacred and photographed sites. The monastery's red and gold-roofed temples cling miraculously to a sheer cliff face that juts out at 10,240ft, 3,000ft above the Paro Valley. The combination of this spiritual place and the natural world sprawling away below puts this on any traveller's hit list.

Perhaps it was on Alexander McQueen's. On our descent, Tshewang congratulates me for having beaten the late fashion guru down the mountain by four hours. It turns out Tshewang spent a week guiding McQueen and his partner around Bhutan. On this hike, they kept stopping for "cigarette breaks and chit chats". The five-hour trip became nine hours, and Tshewang had to escort them down the mountain by torchlight.

The image of one of the world's most famous fashion designers climbing to one of the world's most spiritual places is kind of a metaphor for Bhutan. Am I happy with how nicely Bhutan morphs tradition and modernity? Very happy. 

Uma by Como

Get packing

How to get there
Bhutan's only international airport is in Paro. The best way to get to Paro from Hong Kong is via Bangkok. Drukair (drukair.com) flies from Bangkok daily from US$838 ($6,500) (excl taxes) return.

Where to stay
Uma by Como's (comohotels.com) Himalayan Explorer itinerary costs US$5,760 ($44,700) per person for three nights' double occupancy at Uma Paro and two nights at Uma Punakha. The price is on a full-board basis, which excludes beverages, but includes all meals and picnics, excursions with an English-speaking Bhutanese guide, transfers and transport in Bhutan, government visa fees, royalties and taxes, museum and visitor centre entry fees, one massage per person and daily yoga classes.

When to go
Visit from February to April when rhododendrons are in bloom, or in October for the clearest view of the Himalayas.

Visa warning
Bhutan has quite a unique – and pricey – visa system. They are priced on a 'per day' basis (US$250 during March, April, May, September, October and November; US$200 during all other months), which includes three-star accommodation, car and English-speaking guide. There's a US$40 surcharge for single travellers and a US$30 surcharge for two people. Groups of three or more pay no surcharge. More information available at mfa.gov.bt/visa.


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