Explore the rich cultural heritage of this Buddhist kingdom

With the world tumultuously trudging through uncertain times, Bhutan remains a sanctuary, the calm in the storm, a nurturing center of authenticity where life is measured by the quality of existence rather than quantity of accumulation. a journey through this tiny Buddhist country reminds us that while our personal achievements and material wealth may come and go, we are never without inner peace and the beauty of the present.

Landlocked between China and india, Bhutan is the last remaining Buddhist Himalayan kingdom, with a population of just 600,000 in an area slightly larger than Switzerland and equally mountainous.

Measured by Gross National Happiness rather than Gross Domestic Product, Bhutan offers a breath of fresh air. Coined by the fourth king of Bhutan, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, Gross National Happiness is rooted in the Buddhist philosophy that our ultimate purpose in life is inner happiness. The king believes that happiness of the people should be the guiding goal of development. Gross National Happiness permeates the making of all of Bhutan’s laws and policies.

Annually i have the pleasure of spending nearly three weeks in Bhutan, after which i always return home blissfully calm. Not simply because i’ve been soaked in Buddhism, spectacular natural beauty and the five flawlessly operated lodges and spas of amankora, but because i can rest in the fact that the kingdom has checks and balances in place that will not allow the country to become “just another destination.” in its long-term tourism plan the government recognizes and addresses the need to develop tourism which is socially, economically and environmentally sustainable.

To say the country is beautiful, that vistas are spectacular and landscape is pristine would be an understatement. it is without question one of the most untouched, raw destinations one can visit, with some 70 percent of the country covered in forest. To say the Bhutanese embrace their culture, respect their way of life without letting others’ intervene, and strongly desire to maintain their heritage would be another understatement. The Bhutanese have an unshakeable stronghold on their desire to preserve their humble way of life.

Every guest must register their itinerary with the Tourism Ministry and receive a government-issued visa. You can’t book Druk air tickets online or rent a car and tear off into the kingdom; you’re required to have a guide and driver. The Bhutanese want to know of your arrival, properly welcome you at the airport and guide you through their kingdom so that nothing is missed.

Like most travels from Hawaii, your trip to Bhutan begins with a long journey by plane via Delhi or Bangkok. after an overwhelming first view of Mt. Everest, the descent into Paro remains nothing short of breathtaking as the tarmac strategically lies between mountain ranges on what is probably the longest flat section of Bhutan. The plane glides along in an aerobatic ballet through the mountains, allowing glimpses of homes and farms dotting the landscape before coming to rest in front of the single-building international airport.

Most first-time guests make a point of traveling into as many valleys as possible. Considering roads are relatively new, the valleys developed on their own, giving way to distinct personalities, traits and highlights. The broadest and most accommodating overview of Bhutan is by way of Thimphu, Gangtey, Bumthang, Punakha and ending at Paro. With Paro’s proximity to the airport, the international departure is easily met.

Upon your arrival, you are met by your guide and driver, dressed in either gho or kira, which are Bhutan’s required traditional dress for men and women. With warm smiles, open hands for luggage and cool drinks, they’ll place you in the car before setting off. Both your guide and driver remain with you for the duration of your stay, and most guests say their trip wouldn’t have been what it was without the insight of these knowledgeable and kind men and women.

Typically, the first stop is Thimphu, permanently established as the capital of Bhutan in 1952. a maze of busy streets filled with handicraft shops, a variety of restaurants/bars, diesel-pow-ered cars, trucks and vans, and slumbering dogs and puppies, Thimphu is the only international capital without a traffic light. at one time a light was installed; however, the locals remarked that it was too impersonal, and it was promptly removed, and a police officer stepped back into the center of the main roundabout to direct traffic with white-gloved hands.

Every few nights, you’ll leave one valley to discover another. The drives between lodges are spectacular, reaching elevations as high as 11,200 feet. Cows, yaks and monkeys dot the road and hillsides, farmers prod their cattle, schoolchildren walk along, and rice paddies sit on slopes you can’t imagine to be plowable. Solid white prayer flags flutter on hand-hewn wooden poles more than 20 feet tall and are perfectly poised throughout the landscape. Square-paneled prayer flags in blue, green, red, yellow and white representing water, wood, fire, earth and iron, respectively, are sweetly strung across bridges, stupas (dome-shaped Buddhist shrines) and throughout the forest.

The tradition of prayer flags is not Bhutanese, but actually Nepali. They contain ancient Buddhist prayers, mantras and powerful symbols that produce a spiritual vibration that is “switched on” and carried away by the wind. The intention is that all beings touched by the wind are uplifted and become happier. Just as a drop of water can permeate the ocean, prayers dissolved in the wind extend to fill all of space. These prayers, offered for all mankind, may just be Bhutan’s greatest export. along the winding road, nearly every turn reveals something remarkable: glimmering and sometimes roaring waterfalls, prayer wheels in perpetual motion sitting above streams, deep, multi-layered mountain ranges in hues ranging from dark green to pale, distant gray, and mountain peaks disappearing into the clouds. This photogenic destination transforms the average person into a professional photographer poised to snap the shutter at each turn.

Every morning your guide and driver greet you with a gentle, “Good morning Aum (ma’am) or Ap (sir),” and begin offering suggestions for a day in their kingdom. Perhaps it would make you happy to visit one of the hundreds of 7th to 17th century Dzongs (monasteries) where you can meet with the local astrologer and have your birthday discussed with your guide interpreting his Dzongkha. Or stop in the carpet-making factory, which is comprised of three spools and three young girls sitting together weaving, chatting and giggling.

With a visit in October, you might witness the arrival of the auspicious black-necked crane into the Gangtey valley. These are the only birds that fly into the Himalayas, and the Bhutanese hold them in very high regard. They won’t plant the winter wheat crop until the first cranes arrive, circling the Phobjikha valley before landing in the marshy center. an annual festival is held with traditional song and cham (dance) in the Gangtey Goemba, a 16th century monastery.

Your guides describe, and sometimes prescribe, each experience you might have in Bhutan. Their faces light up when you agree to playing archery, their national sport, and they dance and sing for you when you hit the target, and gasp when you narrowly miss. They prostrate with you during your hourlong, private blessing ritual, and stand by your side while the lama delicately ties the sungkey (blessing cord) around your neck, and sit with you as you take in the deep voices of the crimson-robed monks chanting the 108 mantras. if you as much as mention any hardship at home, your guide suggests hiking to a Dzong to light butter lamp candles in an effort to cleanse the worry.

While much of your visit is enriched by what you see of the country, much more is in what you experience. You leave behind the weight of the world with treks through villages where locals sustain themselves on tiny gardens and dry chilies on rooftops, or simply standing among the women whistling off the bridge in hopes that the wind will hear them, rising and blowing away the husks of the drying wheat they’ve placed on the road.

However you take in Bhutan, no journey would be complete without visiting the Taktsang Goemba or Tiger’s Nest. a switch-back hike on foot or perhaps on the back of an accommodating horse leads to one of the most sacred of all sites. at 10,200 feet, this 8th century monastery hangs precariously on a cliff. History says the Tibetan Buddhist Guru rinpoche Padmasambhava flew on the back of a tigress across the Himalaya to that exact location. There he meditated for several years before unifying Bhutan in Buddhism and ordering the vast monastery’s construction.

With full days of rich discovery, it’s comforting to return to the soft, warm faces of the lodge staff who delight in listening to what you saw of their country that day. returning to your oversized suite offers space to take in all that you’ve experienced. My pre-dinner ritual was to light my bhukari (fireplace), request a glass of wine and silently go over the day in my mind. No music, no television – just silence and peace, which soon became the ambassadors of my experience.

My final day in Bhutan has become something of a ritual as well. after a full day at Tiger’s Nest sitting among the chanting monks and receiving blessings from the lama, i head back to my hotel for the reward of the spa. The end of a relaxing, full massage is heightened by a Dho Tsho or Bhutanese Hot Stone Bath. Even in the dizzying heights of Bhutan, where electricity is still but a whisper of a rumor, the Bhutanese shall not be denied the luxury of bathing.

Luxury Hotels in Bhutan:

Amankora Managed by Amanresorts
Locations: Paro, Thimphu, Gangtey, Bumthang, and Punakha
Website: www.amanresorts.com
US Toll-Free: 1-800-477-9180

Taj Tashi Managed by Taj Resorts, Hotels and Palaces
Location: Thimphu
Website: www.tajhotels.com
US Toll-Free: 1-866-969-1825

Uma Paro Managed by Como Hotels and Resorts
Location: Paro
Website: www.uma.como.bz/paro/default.asp
Telephone: 1-212-462-1167

Language Drongksa, but all Bhutanese are educated in English
Debbie Misajon is a locally based liaison for Amankora sales in Bhutan.