Bhutan is “the Land of the Thunder Dragon,” called Druk Yul, and it is happiness rather than gross profit that is measured and reported by the Government! The landing in Paro can be challenging, but the experienced pilots of Drukair will slide you into the green valley with no problem. The air and light are crisp and I feel so free as I come out of the plane… only to smile and be happier to see that all the men are wearing wrap dresses! The photos of the young King and his recent bride are everywhere, and they truly are the most beautiful young couple!
Sangay, my guide is waiting for me with Damcho, the driver… both looking elegant in striped wraps that I now know are called Gho. The Kira is what women wear. Rather than taking the long drive to Punakha right away, Sangay suggests that we stop at Paro’s fort to watch the yearly festival, which is the birthday celebration of Guru Rinpoche, who introduced Buddhism into the country in the 8th century. I climb the hill, mix with the very colorful crowd and squeeze myself to sit on the steps to watch the show.
The dancers wear very elaborate costumes as they dance and prostrate themselves in front of the King of Death, the God of Wisdom and Knowledge in order to receive good wishes and longevity. After the festival, I visit the first of the many Dzongs (forts) I will see in Bhutan. Majestic, impressive architecture, reassuring, the Dzong is divided in two parts, one is administration and the other, the temple and monastery, is for religion and meditation… it is magnificent!
The drive to Punakha is very long and as we cross many altitudes we see different scenery, climates and vegetation. Gigantic cypresses give way to a profusion of pines, vibrant red rhododendrons…, and lots of blooming apple trees!
To reach the Amankora Punakha, one of the many lodges that make the Aman resort experience in Bhutan a paradisiacal one, you have to leave the car and cross a lovely suspended bridge decorated with colorful prayer flags! The lodge is built as a traditional farm house and only has 8 rooms. It is very simple, elegant and very Zen. I have dinner alone in the courtyard with delicious wine and Bhutanese food. The chef is from Boston and lives happily in the valley. I have a deep tissue massage before a great night’s sleep… enjoying the silence and the solitude, both so good to the soul!
I wake up with the sun and meet Sangay at the little bridge. We hike to a beautiful temple, make offerings, burn a butter lamp and meditate a bit. I take lots of photos as we go down to the chili fields and the rice terraces, passing by the farmers and their cows. Lunch at the lodge is watermelon and tomato gazpacho, Bhutanese lentil balls and a memorable ginger and honey sorbet!
Christian Louboutin, my Bhutan travel companion, has landed and we meet at the Punakha Dzong in the afternoon. Equally impressive, massive and beautiful, we discover the courtyards and temples and take endless photos of the decorated walls. We then go and visit a women’s monastery, although with their heads shaven and in the same garnet robes, it is hard to distinguish the young nuns from the monks. We watch a class. We understand nothing, of course, but the concentration and focus is inspiring and contagious. It is a full moon that night as we eat in the courtyard.
After a huge hike to yet another temple, we start driving towards Thimphu, the capital. The road is long and hard…, we climb high towards Dochula. We meet Ugyen Dorji, the master artist from whom we buy many Thangkhas. We also buy the Bhutanese embroidered boots, which are the best boots I have ever seen! The altitude and the spiral roads are making me a bit lightheaded, but the beauty of the scenery compensates and we arrive happily at Amankora Thimphu. Before checking into our rooms, we go to the market of handicrafts. Christian buys an embroidered vest, which he plans to wear at the Met Ball, and I buy a lovely beaded handbag and some bracelets.
At the hotel, there is a great commotion…, we are being told that His Majesty the King and his lovely bride the Queen will be coming to the hotel to dine with us! Everyone is impressed… as we are, of course! It is true that through people who knew them, we did everything we could to let His Majesty know that we were visiting their magnificent country and that we would be so privileged to have an audience with them…. but dinner! How exciting! What to wear? My bags are tiny, my choices limited. I decide that my most recent acquisition, the Bhutanese boots will star in a look with black tight pants and a sweater. When they arrive, the King immediately compliments my boots — by now, I know they are called Tsholham — and the friendship has begun.
A wonderful, sensitive, intelligent, caring man, the King, who studied in the US and Oxford, is simple and considerate. His wife, the Queen is breathtakingly beautiful and very sweet. We have a wonderful dinner.
The next morning is another huge hike before lunch at the Taj Hotel with two lovely ladies, also part of the Royal family, and then we are called back to have tea with the King and Queen in the garden of their Palace. Sangay and Damcho are so impressed to drive us… as we are, of course. The King and the Queen give us tea and delicacies. They show us beautiful textiles and the King gives Christian and I each a pair of boots. We take photos, we laugh and walk the garden… It is like being in a fairy tale. They look and behave like a fairy tale King and Queen. They are so incredibly nice, simple and caring about their lovely Kingdom.
We arrive in Paro at night…, another beautiful Aman hotel, another meal, another deep tissue massage and another good night sleep. We wake up early and at 8am are already on the trail to Taktsang, or The Tiger Nest, the holiest place in Bhutan… 2 1/2 hours up… 1000 meters higher than Paro, and it is a hard climb because the air is thin. We go slow. We take photos. We get to the top… 3200 meters. We visit the temple… we make offerings… watch the view… it is worth it!! The way down seems longer. The whole hike takes more than 5 hours! We stop for a picnic… wild dogs surround us, politely, and wait for our leftovers. We get back to the lounge, dirty, and have a shower just in time to meet our friend Khendum at the Kyichu Temple that her grandparents had rebuilt. Monks are praying… they are apparently praying for us… we had given Khendum our birthdates. They give us tea and cookies. It is very moving! After the spiritual moment, we have a shopping moment in the streets of Paro… and finally we have our last dinner.
Our trip to Bhutan was magical, the country is magical, the people so kind, so simple… the King and Queen seem unreal. It all felt like a dream. We are sad to leave, and maybe the local Gods are sad too because the day we leave it rains and our flight is delayed… We will be back!