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It was the stairs at the end – 750 or 850 of them, depending on whom you ask – that almost killed me. After a long and arduous hike at an altitude of around 3,048 metres, hours spent on a well-worn path headed relentlessly uphill – the first part on the back of an unlucky mule, the second on foot – we arrived at the threshold of a staircase unlike any that I had ever seen.
Clinging to the edge of a sheer cliff, the steps swung down beneath a banner formed by thousands of prayer flags, past a rushing waterfall, then steeply up the other side. They finished at Taktsang Palphug Monastery – also known as Tiger's Nest – a dramatic place where (according to legend) Guru Padmasambhava meditated for three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours in the eighth century, after flying in from Tibet on the back of a tigress.
I plowed forward – bad knee be damned – with my travel companions: a plucky British couple and their patient, placid guide, Thinley. We gamely tackled the hundreds of stairs, finally climbing a series of oversized steps that led into the monastery itself. Noting my hapless wheezing, Thinley turned back toward me, a kind smile on his face. "Yes, it is very hard," he said. "But it's not easy to get to heaven."
I was in the Kingdom of Bhutan, a small, mountainous country sandwiched between the giants of India and China. Protected all around by the snow-capped Himalayas, this is a place with its own distinct culture, ruled by a 34-year-old king who loves romantic comedies and Elvis, and guided by the principles of Gross National Happiness. While it may not be the easiest travel destination – Bhutan requires a prepaid daily minimum spend in order to secure a visa, and a trip from Canada will involve at least three separate flights – visiting this kingdom in the clouds can feel like a journey to another world, an almost-mystical destination that’s even more difficult to leave.
After landing at the country’s main international airport in Paro, I made my way toward Thimpu, Bhutan’s capital and perhaps the world’s only seat of national power without a single stoplight (the main intersection is controlled by a white-gloved policeman who stands inside a hexagonal kiosk).
I browsed the craft market, where everything is made by hand, and visited one of the largest Buddhas on Earth, a 51 metre bronze and gold monolith that keeps watch over the city from a lofty precipice. After that, I proceeded to a village called Punakha on a thin, bumpy road that traversed hairpin switchbacks as it made its way up a precipitous mountain pass.
I was accompanied by a Bhutanese acquaintance named Sonam, who enlightened me on the ways of this kingdom.
She explained that the former king, who is still active in Bhutanese society, abdicated the throne in 2006 to make way for his forward-looking, Oxford-educated son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, then just 26. Known informally as “K5” (he is fifth king in this line of rulers), Wangchuck, who wears his sideburns long to emulate his favourite singer, is a people’s king who appears – always smiling – on billboards and buttons worn by men and women all over the country.
K5 has overseen unprecedented democratization and technological advances, and continued the social policies instituted by his father, who famously declared that, “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product.”
Accordingly, traditional measures such as GNP and GDP have been scorned in favour of GNH, which is used as a guiding principle in all government decisions – to the point that programs and plans are reviewed by a special commission, which assesses their effect on quality of life.
The concept is evident in the day-to-day life of the people, from the regular meditation and reflective gardening that’s built into the school curriculum, to the charming road signs that line the main roads. These run the gamut from encouraging (“Life is a journey! Complete it!”) to paternal (“This is a highway, not a runway!”). Even the graffiti is upbeat: In Thimpu, I read a white scrawl that read, “Life is not a race.”
Sonam put it in stark, simple terms: “Life isn’t just about economic things. GNH recognizes that if you seek physical well being, but ignore spiritual well being, it will cost you your soul.”
My first order of business once I arrived in Punakha was to climb toward a golden spire that poked out from among trees atop a steep hill – a warm-up for my climb to Tiger’s Nest. We threaded through rice paddies, past a large prayer wheel (turned by the hand of an 87-year-old farmer) and up a steep path to the top. There, in a shining temple, we met a smiling monk, who offered us a drop of holy water from a golden urn. Following Sonam’s lead, I touched the liquid to my lips and hair.
Buddhism is a key part of Bhutanese identity. Its pervasiveness here feels like something of a throwback, which is perhaps not surprising in a country that built its first road in 1962, and did not open up to outsiders until more than a decade later. Everywhere, you see the religion’s colourful totems: hundreds of cylindrical prayer wheels turned by waterfalls and thousands of prayer flags fluttering from bridges and across canyons.
Over the next days, we would visit many places that seemed either from the past or some sort of fantasy land. In Punakha, I visited an otherworldly dzong, a spectacular 17th-century fortress built between two rivers that now serves as a Buddhist temple and the seat of regional administrative power. I watched monks ring bells, bang drums and chant at a hilltop monastery in Gangtey. On Bhutanese New Year’s Day, I marvelled as men and boys wearing the traditional, bathrobe-like gho threw darts at distant targets and shot arrows from bows, playfully taunting misses and celebrating hits with dancing and singing.
I finished the trip with my trek to Tiger’s Nest. As I straddled that unfortunate mule, the Brits told me a Bhutanese legend: By choosing to ride the animal up the slope, I would be destined to be ridden by him on “the other side.”
“So, you’ve decided to risk the afterlife, have you?” the husband asked with a wry English smile.
I explained that my bum knee wouldn’t let me hike all the way – and that, yes, I was willing to assume the risk. Such a decision shouldn’t be taken lightly – but some things, including heaven, are worth it.
IF YOU GO
The Bhutanese government requires visitors to spend a minimum of between $200 (U.S.) to $250 a day in order to issue a visa. The funds include basic hotel, guide and meals and must be prepaid to an approved tour operator. Visitors are also welcome to spend more, and have many opportunities to do so at one of the country’s luxury lodges. For more information, visit tourism.gov.bt.
Calcutta’s international airport is the closest one to Bhutan, and both of the country’s carriers (Air Bhutan and Druk Air) operate 45-minute flights between it and Paro. Many itineraries will include at least one night in Calcutta. The Oberoi Grand offers a luxurious respite from the city’s famous bustle. From $150 a night. oberoihotels.com/oberoi_kolkata.
Where to stay
Luxury brand Uma by Como operates two properties in Bhutan. The first, which opened its doors a decade ago, overlooks a broad valley and the town of Paro and includes a traditional steam room and spa. A second, 11-room outpost, was recently opened in Punakha. All rooms there enjoys a view of a rushing river and the snow-capped Himalayas. From $450 a night (Paro) and $550 a night (Punakha). comohotels.com.
In Thimphu, the Taj Tashi, currently the largest hotel in Bhutan, offers five-star accommodations within walking distance of the craft market and restaurants on the main street. From $500 a night. tajhotels.com/tajtashi.
The writer travelled courtesy of the Tourism Council of Bhutan. It did not review or approve this article.