I looked out over the valley, the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas rising in the distance and the prayer flags flapping in the wind. The aching January cold seeped into my bare feet as I walked the polished floor of the monastery, and I marveled at the discipline of the monks who meditated, surrounded by the austerity of the mountaintop retreat. Later, I sat on a smooth wooden bench, my back against a sun-warmed brick wall, sipping tea brewed by a monk as several stray dogs tumbled on the dusty earth.
I took a deep breath and tried to imprint this moment on my memory, as the simple and the majestic intersected on a mountaintop in Bhutan. In the midst of a busy and stressful year, this was just the respite that my weary soul hadn’t known it needed.
My husband and I traveled to Bhutan in January, during the cold, clear winter off-season. As the weather limited more extensive trekking for non-professionals such as ourselves, our guides arranged a collection of day hikes coupled with visits to the main cities and several outlying villages and monasteries, locally known as Dzongs. We enjoyed this broader lens of experience in this compelling new locale, tasting a few highlights that tempted us to return again for a fuller immersion. After all, a week is insufficient time to really come to understand any place. It offers only a peek behind the curtain, a preview, an invitation to come back once more.
The Pursuit of Happiness
The Kingdom of Bhutan holds a unique philosophy. Known for its pursuit of Gross National Happiness, the country seeks “a holistic and sustainable approach to development which aims to strike a balance between material and non-material values, prioritizing the happiness and well-being of humans and all life.” I was eager not only to explore the physical beauty of this sheltered land, but to see the imprint of this philosophy on the lives of its people.
While perhaps the most well-known landmark for travelers to Bhutan is Paro Taktsang, the Buddhist monastery perched on the side of a cliff above the town of Paro, my own moment of inspiration came at Lungchutse Monastery, above Dochula Pass. While the pass itself is a busy stop, with many visitors pausing for photos among the 108 stupas and the view of the peaks, we were the only travelers on the hike up to the Monastery. As we climbed the gently winding trail through old-growth rhododendrons, we were teased by peeks of the distant mountains and valleys, but when we crested the ridge and saw the monastery framed by the Himalayas rising above the clouds, it took my breath away. I lingered on the ridge, breathing in the fresh, crisp air, and felt my tiredness dissolve as the beauty washed over me.
Bhutan presents itself slowly and unabashedly, as if it was aware of its beautiful landscapes and peoples, but is not inclined to brag. There was no sense of self-promotion, but a willingness to simply be, to welcome in the traveler as an observer, and to continue on as before. As our week in the country unfolded, my appreciation for this land grew. It felt unspoiled, untraveled, a small pocket Brigadoon still somewhat sheltered from the bustle of modernity.
Clearly, this was in part my own perception, the itinerant wanderer’s limited viewpoint to a more complex reality. Although the traditional architecture and national dress seemed to hearken back to a different time and challenges persist in transportation and infrastructure, with cell phones and internet widely available, Bhutan is developing briskly. However, it still felt as if it retained a critical authenticity, that of a place that had a strong sense of identity and meant to retain it despite the pace of progress. Travelers with deeper experience in the region commented that Bhutan today felt similar to the Nepal of two decades ago, before reaching the summit of Everest became a bucket-list, Instagram-worthy pursuit of the synthetic down-clad masses.
On our last night in Bhutan, we shared a meal with a family in their traditional farmhouse. The signature green chili dish left a telltale burn of spice on my lips, the remnants of a simple meal full of hearty flavors. We bathed in rustic wooden tubs, the water heated by stones and scented with herbs. As I looked at the stars scattered across the deep black sky, unpolluted by light or sound, I knew that Bhutan had captured a small piece of my heart, and I would certainly be back.