The happy kingdom of the Himalayas
e have come down to earth in Bhutan, a tiny, steeped kingdom in the foothills of the Himalayas, flankedby two giants: China and India. A monarchy fed by legends of dragons, kings in search of happiness and impassable mountains. Though you may not enter this kingdom on the back of a wild dragon or flying tigress, like the characters that inhabit its most popular tales, you will experience one of the most adrenaline-inducing flights in the world. Paro Airport, the only one that receives international flights, has one runway, and the landing manoeuvre is so complicated that only the nine pilots of the national airline Drukair are allowed to carry it out.
This Buddhist fortress of rising peaks (its name in Sanskrit means highlands) was closed to tourists until the 1970s, when it opened its doors to the West thanks to its fourth monarch, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the father of the current king. He was also the one who introduced GDH (Gross Domestic Happiness), a scale that measures the success of the country, in place of the usual GDP. Based on this, culture, environment and spiritual development are just as important – if not more so – than the state of the economy.
More than 30 festivals
The famous Bhutanese festivals, called tshechus, take place all year round and in every region, which means you can always immerse yourself in one of these millenary rituals in honour of Guru Rinpoche. Of the more than 30 that take place, the ones in Paro and Thimphu are the busiest and most colourful.
Traditions are respected in Bhutan, but still, the country is slowly giving in to modernity. When you arrive in Thimphu, the only capital city in the world without traffic lights, you will be surprised to see its inhabitants talking on mobile phones while wearing traditional dress. Men wear ghos, a kimono that reaches as far as the knees, while women wear silk jackets and kiras, a type of long sarong.
Around 70% of the country is covered in plants and more than 60% of it is a natural reserve, meaning hiking is an unmissable experience. The possibilities extend from a simple stroll around Thimphu, to the Snowman Trek, one of the most difficult routes in the world, at 4,500 metres above sea level. The blue poppy, the national flower, grows just above that height.
An hour’s drive from the capital is Taktsang Monastery, known as the Tiger’s Nest. A three hour climb through pine forests will take you to this temple (the best-known image of Bhutan), which clings to a cliff in Paro valley, at an altitude of 3,120m. It was built on the meditation cave of Guru Rinpoche, founder of the Tibetan School of Nyingma Buddhism. Legend has it that he flew to the cave on the back of a tigress and remained there for three years, three months, three days and three hours.
The western section of Bhutan is the most visited. Without ever going below an altitude of 2,000m, paths have been created between temples, which can be traversed by car or on foot. Spirituality penetrates every level of life. Buddhism is the main religion and it is linked to the state. Legends of spirits are everywhere: rivers, forests and mountains. It is normal to come across Bhutanese people on pilgrimage to a hermitage, or monks who, after performing a ritual involving incense, holy water and small plates, will send you on your way. There are more than 10,000 religious monuments and nearly 2,000 dzongs (monastery-cum-fortresses) distributed throughout the country. The second oldest and biggest in the country is Punakha, in the valley of the same name, which was the location of the capital until 1955. It is one of the most beautiful monasteries, and besides its majestic architecture, it offers visitors the opportunity to spend time with the monks who live there.
Legends will also pursue the most daring, those who manage to reach the eastern area, the least accessible region. This is home of the sharchop ethnic group, traditional yak shepherds, and it has temples like the imposing Trashigang dzong, and the wild shrine of Sakteng, which the nomads believe to be home to the yeti. It is impossible to tell where legend ends and reality begins. It is easier to enjoy the dramatic Himalayan landscape and smile in the happiest country in Asia. Because, in the words of the ex-minister of education Thakur S. Powdyel, “what really counts isn’t always something you can count”.