Bhutan: A road trip through the ultimate trophy destination

The Bhutanese are not happy. After having been in the so-called land of "gross national happiness" for a little less than 24 hours, this is a wholly surprising discovery. But, as I lunch in a restaurant in Thimphu, where the bumper-to-bumper traffic outside is beginning to challenge the city's status as the only world capital without a set of traffic lights, it's all there in black and white in a local newspaper.

Bhutan is beset with a major chilli shortage. This may not immediately strike the privileged visitor to this quasi-hermit kingdom as the stuff of national crisis, but the Bhutanese devour chillies with an enthusiasm similar to Americans and french fries – they can consume whole bowls of the fiery fruit at a single sitting.

But when they have to buy chillies at exorbitantly inflated prices from markets due to the government's rejection of a consignment of them from India (in Bhutan they must, by government decree, be organic), they become, well, let's say, grossly unhappy.

Chilli, after all, forms the basis of the national dish, ema datshi, a concoction made from chilli and cheese with the latter usually derived from the milk, or dri or nak, of the female yak. In its purest form, ema datshi can have more firepower than the occasionally successful Kim Jong-un ballistic missile test launch.

But I have not come all this way for a culinary adventure (probably just as well). I'm more interested in the concept of gross national happiness, coined by the fourth king of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, in the early 1970s when the country received fewer than 300 foreign tourists compared with today's ambitious target of 100,000 by 2020.

Gross national happiness was conceived as a Buddhism-based socio-economic doctrine that metamorphosed into an even more enduring de facto tourism slogan than New Zealand's "100 per cent pure" equivalent. Nowadays it's been refined as "happiness is a place". In its entry on Bhutan, the US Central Intelligence Agency's sober though informative Factbook guide to the nations of the world, makes no reference to gross national happiness in its Bhutan entry, while on the index of the world's happiest countries the "land of the thunder dragon" languishes at a rather sullen ranking of 97. This idealistic mountainous kingdom may struggle for altitude on the more scientific world happiness indices but, as a destination it still manages a lofty rating in terms of traveller bragging rights.

In terms of my own gross personal happiness index, I couldn't be more delighted – elated even – to be here, in what has become something of a trophy destination, albeit one that may have shed a degree of its original allure in recent years. And on this, my first visit to Bhutan, it's from Paro, site of the sole entry point by air for international visitors, that I embark on my journey around the kingdom.

THE LANDING: BANGKOK TO PARO

Certainly, Bhutan is no ordinary place and getting here is no ordinary undertaking. All of the flights on Druk Air, one of only two government-owned carriers permitted to fly to and from the kingdom, from Bangkok and Singapore come with surprise stops at Indian airports such as Kolkata.

Eventually, back in the heavens, we make our approach to Paro International Airport. At an altitude of 2235 metres with surrounding mountains reaching heights of 5500 metres, the facility invariably makes it to top 10 lists of the world's most terrifying airport landings. Unless you journey overland, this is the only way to reach Bhutan.

There are more dodgy banking practices on the approach to Paro than all of Wall Street. My Druk Air Airbus A319, having, thrillingly, flown past an entirely visible Mount Everest, skirts perilously close to the edge of craggy peaks as it dips and dives its way deep into the narrow valley in which Paro lies.

Safely on the ground at Paro International, with its large but vacant terminal building designed to mimic the traditional Bhutanese monasterial architectural vernacular, I disembark the plane into the thin air and look back and marvel at the mountains through which our pilot has somehow managed to negotiate a flightpath (I'm later reliably informed by an expat hotelier that Bhutanese pilots must learn to ignore automated "pull up, pull up, pull up" alarm calls inside the cockpit as they fly into Paro).

Outside, I'm greeted by my guide and driver – compulsory, legislated company for my entire journey in this land of commendably high value, low impact tourism. It's a Sunday with Paro (population, just 20,000) even more deathly quiet than it is during weekdays. In the shadows of the town's gigantic Rinchen Pung Dzongi, one of the impressive monastery and governmental forts usually built on high ground, that are dominant feature of Bhutan's towns, there is an archery tournament, attended by a scattering of spectators, under way.

It's briefly interrupted by a toddler who momentarily and frighteningly strays into the line of arrow fire. Eventually, it's time to transfer to Zhiwa Ling, my accommodation for the night. Managed by a New Zealander and his French wife, the Bhutanese-owned lodge is conveniently close to Paro Taktsang, or Tiger's Nest, a 17th-century Buddhist monastery perched on the side of a rocky, nearly 3200 metres high mountainside.

Architecturally imposing, the lodge is designed along Bhutanese building principles with the second floor of the main building an in-house Buddhist temple fashioned from timbers sourced from a 450-year-old Bhutanese monastery. I give the temple a miss, feeling a bit fuzzy from the altitude and figuring there will be plenty down the road when tomorrow we leave Paro and embark on a journey around this mysterious, mythical land of the thunder dragon and the inflated organic chilli pepper.

ON THE ROAD: PARO TO THIMPHU

Although it is possible to avoid the national chilli and cheese dish during your travels, one aspect that is inescapable is the prodigious amount of driving required to get anywhere. Even though Bhutan's  gross domestic product is growing at a healthy 7 or so per cent a year, many major roads remain unsealed in this small country of just shy of 800,000 people; a rugged, mountainous land and valleys, wedged, vice-like, in the uncertain embrace of the two most populous nations on the planet.

India, Bhutan's pre-eminent ally, has embarked on an ambitious project to seal the national highway, engaging, in the process, coolie-like labour to perform the mammoth task. In the meantime the official national speed limit of 40 kilometres an hour still operates. In exchange for their aid and the security it offers against any threat from China over the border in Tibet, Indians are the only tourists to be allowed to self-drive in Bhutan. But even they are not allowed to pass a certain checkpoint beyond Thimphu without a permit.

Even though the distances between the main centres of interests are relatively small, the travelling times are not, with journeys of under 150 kilometres taking bone-jarring hours. Then again, the eventual sealing of the road network may soon rob Bhutan of some of the adventure that characterises a visit to it.

After a while I take pity on my driver and guide and desist asking them to stop so I can get out and take photos of the signage ("Driving faster can cause disaster"; "After whiskey, driving risky"; "Safety on road is safe tea at home") though I do insist on pausing to snap an elderly Buddhist pilgrim, his face as weathered as one of the distant ancient mountainsides, seated perilously close to the edge of the road, twirling a prayer wheel and chanting, sotto voce, under the searing high-altitude sun.

In Thimphu, the world's third highest capital at 2320 metres above sea level, I check into the 66-room Taj Tashi Hotel, where guests receive a blessing from a Buddhist monk on arrival. Feeling a little lethargic from the altitude, I skip the early-evening cultural performance and then feel guilty when I recall that I often feel just as lethargic at sea level back home.

ONWARD AND UPWARDS: THIMPHU TO GANGTEY

It's a working day in Thimphu when I rise early to go in search of an ATM that will accept one of my cards for some of the local currency. I get to see much of the tiny central business district by the time a machine spits out my card and some local ngultrum. My wanderings also allow me to mingle with Bhutanese men and women on their way to work, dressed in the traditional business attire they're encouraged to wear.

The men wear gho, a knee-length robe tied at the waist by a traditional belt known as kera, while women are resplendent in kira, a long, ankle-length dress accompanied by a light outer jacket known as a tego with an inner layer known as a wonju. After a visit to a sanctuary to view a takin, Bhutan's ungainly national animal, a cross between a goat and antelope with an unflatteringly large head, it's time to hit the road on the longest journey of my visit.

After an hour or so, having successfully passed through a checkpoint, we stop at a mountain pass called Dochula where there is a lookout featuring perhaps the alpine panorama to end all alpine panoramas and where the air feels as thin as a Neapolitan pizza crust. "There is our army," says my guide, pointing to the group of jagged Himalayan peaks, etched against a gloriously clear early winter sky.

They're lined up before me side-by-side like a team of rugby players during a national anthem, none of them below 7000 metres. The peaks act as a natural barrier between Tibet and Bhutan to any prospective invading army. The name "Bhutan" is said to mean, "the end of Tibet", and, standing here, on a hillside studded with more than 100 chortens or stupas, I witness a powerful illustration of it as I run my gaze across the outline of Gangkar Puensum, at 7570 metres Bhutan's highest peak.

The Bhutanese famed penchant for controlling tourist numbers also extends to its tallest mountains, with none of the kingdom's 20 "virgin peaks" allowed to be scaled. It's a contrast to neighbouring Nepal where Mount Everest has become something akin to a deadly high-altitude freeway funded by the rich.

The Bhutanese explain that their peaks cannot be climbed because they are considered to be "abodes of the gods". As for those chortens, they were commissioned by Bhutan's eldest Queen Mother as a memorial to the kingdom's soldiers, killed in the 2003 war against Assamese insurgents from across the border in India. It was a battle personally led by the father of the present king who abdicated in favour of his son, and on the way out of the palace sensationally declared Bhutan a parliamentary democracy.

After what seems like a whole day in the four-wheel drive, twisting and turning around more hairpins than a Paris Fashion Week dressing room, we arrive at Gangtey at dusk, a village in the upper extremities of the  Phobjikha Valley, dominated by Gangtey Gonpa, a magnificent 17th-century monastery.

Inside the 12-room Gangtey Lodge, my accommodation for the night, a hot, traditional Bhutanese stone bath and a dinner of yak steak awaits me. A product of the visionary Australian-Burmese founders of Balloons over Bagan in Myanmar, the gorgeous lodge is perfectly positioned overlooking the vast remote valley, dotted with three-storey black and white farmhouses, and is one of the most captivating in Bhutan.

Most visitors to Bhutan don't come in winter but not doing so would mean missing one of the kingdom's great natural spectacles. Each winter rare black-necked cranes make the milder Phobjikha Valley their temporary home, flying at high-altitudes across the Himalayans from Tibet, their summer habitat. The cranes, considered harbingers of prosperity, are sacred to the Bhutanese though their celebrity as a rare species was diminished somewhat when a whole new colony of the birds in China was discovered in recent years.

COMING DOWN THE MOUNTAINS: GANGTEY TO PUNAKHA

It gets progressively and noticeably milder as we make our own back down to Punakha, the ancient capital of Bhutan, set in a fertile valley. Along the way, I'm nagged by a regret of not having reserved at least another night in the enchanting Phobjikha Valley. But I put on a happy face, my mood improved by the knowledge that my next night's stay is at the exclusive Aman Punakha Lodge.

To reach the lodge, it's necessary to first cross a suspension footbridge over the Mo Chhu River. The lodge is framed by a stunning centrepiece traditional Bhutanese farmhouse once owned by a former chief abbot. In the courtyard at night, cultural performances are held around a crackling fire. One of a circuit of luxurious Aman properties scattered across Bhutan, this well-appointed accommodation is designed by the acclaimed Australian resort architect Kerry Hill. The lodge is nestled amid rice fields and orchards. Punakha is known as Bhutan's food bowl; it's the source of most of the kingdom's fruit and vegetables, all of which are, of course, organic.

One afternoon during my stay I visit the superbly located 17th-century Punakha Dzong, only the second to be built in Bhutan. It, too, is reached by walking across a bridge built over the fork of two rivers, Pho Chhu (father) and Mo Chhu (mother). The sprawling dzong is still home to Buddhist clergy, being the winter residence of the kingdom's head abbot, the Je Khenpo.

TO THE TIGER'S NEST: PUNAKHA TO PARO

No visit to Bhutan, at least for the able-bodied, can be truly complete without a pilgrimage to the kingdom's most recognisable attraction. For tourists, the Bhutanese like to leave the Tiger's Nest, or Taktsang Monastery, to the penultimate day of any tour when visitors are fully acclimatised to the altitude, and hopefully fitter than when they arrived.

Back in Paro, having completed a circuit of part of the country, early on my penultimate morning in Bhutan, I dutifully trudge up the mountain, hoping that I'll cope with the altitude and make it all the way to the monastery, nearly 1000 metres above the densely forested valley floor. As I go, I'm inspired by one of those road safety signs back on the highway; it reads: "no rally in the valley." I make this my motto, a reminder that there is no rush to reach the top.

Some of the pilgrims who undertake this rather strenuous walk, including the heir to the British throne who complained of a gammy knee, choose to go only as far as a lookout from where the Tiger's Nest can be viewed on a precarious perch, framed by faded yellow prayer flags. But that would mean missing out on not just the monastery, but the sign just before you enter. It requests that visitors not bring prohibited items such as guns and explosives inside, adding that they will be returned to you on your departure.

Elated and, yes, proud, at having made it all up and down the mountain, my gross personal happiness levels have now reached giddy heights. I return to my final accommodation, COMO Uma Paro, loftily located for spectacular views of the valley town of Paro, it features private villas scattered through an idyllic forest setting. After a week of Bhutanesefood, having largely dodged the national dish, I'm pleased to learn that the yurt-like Bukhari restaurant provides a choice of Indian menu.

After a week or so in Bhutan it would be tempting to dismiss it as a quaint, backward, traffic-light free land renowned for its novel measure of national contentment and achievement. But, with the rest of the world in more turmoil than usual, you depart with the feeling that Bhutan's concept of gross national happiness, while fading in relevance, may, just like that much-maligned national dish, still have more than a little bit of a kick left in it yet.

FIVE MORE THINGS TO SEE AND DO IN BHUTAN

TAKE IN THE TSHECHU

Tshechu, one of Bhutan's major attractions, are grand and colourful religious festivals involving entire communities who gather to watch and take part in religious mask dances, receive blessings and to enjoy themselves.

MARVEL AT TASHICHHO DZONG

Tashichho Dzong is a spectacular 13th-century Buddhist monastery and fortress just outside the centre of Thimphu. It serves as the headquarters of the kingdom's civil government with the king's rather modest adjacent palace dwarfed next door.

VISIT THE GREAT BUDDHA DORDENMA

High above the capital Thimphu sits this 50-metre-tall golden Buddha. Unusually ostentatious for Bhutan, the Chinese-made statue is dwarfed by the surrounding peaks, but up close it is enormous as it gleams under the harsh high-altitude sun.

PRAY WITH MONKS AT DAWN

Lodges can usually arrange for guests to attend atmospheric dawn prayers with chanting Buddhist monks inside nearby monasteries. All you need to do in exchange is to provide a donation of $US20 to the monks.

TREK IN THE HEAVENS

An alternative to the soft option of Bhutan's luxury lodges is to join a trek from as short as three days up to the legendary 25-day Snowman's Trek. Commonly regarded as one of the world's most challenging multiday hikes, the epic trek traverses a dozen mountain passes, all of which are above  4500 metres.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/Bhutan

tourism.gov.bt

uniquetourism.com

VISIT

To manage the impact of tourism on Bhutan, there are several conditions imposed on Australian and other visitors to the kingdom. You must book through an approved travel agent and pay a $US200 a day (low season) and $2US50 a day (high season) compulsory tariff and package. It includes a minimum of three-star accommodation, food costs and an experienced guide and a driver with modern vehicle. The package also includes a $65 a day royalty that helps subsidise free education, free healthcare and poverty alleviation in Bhutan.

FLY

Druk Air and Royal Bhutan Airlines are the only carriers that fly to and from Bhutan. There are regular daily services in and out of Paro, the sole international airport. The best departure points for Australians to Bhutan are Bangkok and Singapore with Druk Air stopping briefly at an Indian city, the location of which can vary, en route. See drukair.com.bt; bhutanairlines.bt

STAY

Bhutan is blessed with a network of five-star lodge-style accommodation with the following establishments highly recommended: Zhiwa Ling lodge, Paro, doubles from $US206. See zhiwaling.com; Taj Tashi Hotel, Thimphu, doubles from $A305. See taj.tajhotels.com; Gangtey Lodge, Gangtey, Phobjikha Valley, doubles from $US425. See easternsafaris.com; Aman Punakha, Rates on application. See aman.com; COMO Uma Paro, doubles from $480. See comohotels.com. If travelling to Bhutan via the Thai capital, stay at COMO Metropolitan Bangkok, with doubles from $A145. See comohotels.com

Anthony Dennis was a guest of the Tourism Council of Bhutan and the Unique Tourism Collection

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