When my friend and avid traveller Jane Reed flew out to Bhutan recently, I was green with envy. She was off on a 13-day trekking holiday with a group of ten to explore the kingdom that carries great reputation for being a mystical, magical country – a place that holds its national happiness above anything else.
I caught up with Jane after she returned home fresh from her trip trekking Bhutan (now I really want to go) to find out all about this mysterious kingdom and what it holds for travellers like us.
Jen: Bhutan is a country that I have always wanted to travel to, it has a reputation for being magical and mystical, one of those far away lands I dream of exploring. How did you find it?
Jane: Given my love for Nepal and all things Himalaya – I have always been curious about and wanted to visit the Kingdom of Bhutan for a long time. You are right in saying that its reputation for being magical and mystical makes it seem like one of those ‘far away lands’ – almost like in a fairytale. Because Bhutan was closed ‘of their own doing’ to the rest of the world for travellers to go there until the 1960s, it is a country that many people do not know a lot about – apart from the fact that gross national happiness is considered more important than gross domestic product. And when you are there you can see that gross national happiness is not just a slogan – the people really are incredibly happy and have fantastic and well balanced approach to life.
Jen: We can easily look up pictures of Bhutan, but how did the scenery ‘feel’ when you were there? It looks just breathtaking.
Jane: The countryside and scenery is like being in a bucolic fairytale setting.
With almost 70% of the country taken up by pine and cypress forest, the roads wind and twist from one valley to the next. In the valleys, land is devoted to fields of wheat and corn and lush terraced rice paddies. Homes are built in a traditional Tibetan style from the local pine and decorated with the most intricate hand painted designs. Prayer flags flutter everywhere providing bursts of colour against the verdant rolling hills. Against this backdrop are the spectacular dzongs and monasteries usually situated in the most strategic and awe inspiring settings.
Jen: So tell us, what did you actually do on your adventure?
Jane: The unique itinerary combined visiting the country’s main highlights – the capital city of Thimphu, Punakha – the ancient capital, where we got to experience a local festival, the beautiful Phobjika Valley, the town of Trongsa, Bumthang and Paro, where we hiked up to the Tiger’s Nest monastery – with a very remote and beautiful 5-day cultural walk in a part of central Bhutan that no other walkers/trekkers have been to.
We felt very privileged to be one of the very few to have walked and stayed in this region and in fact we were the first Australian/New Zealand group. Before we went to Bhutan I didn’t realise how special the experience would be.
What made it so special is that the guy who designed the walk, planned it around the villages and the area where he grew up. It was amazing walking along ancient pathways and village tracks and the only roads that were there where for the very rare farm tractor that we saw.
Jigme, our assistant guide, also came from one of the villages near where we camped for 2 nights. We had the wonderful experience of being invited to his family home for tea and to meet his father – a very important village elder – and other members of his extended family. Jigme hadn’t been back to his village for 8 years, so it was an incredibly emotional experience to be a party to and witness him with his father and also all the villagers.
Jen: Any time I have travelled to a country that has a strong Buddhist tradition and culture I have found it incredibly inspiring and calming, how did you find Bhutan in this sense?
Jane: Of all the Buddhist countries I have visited Bhutan is genuinely the most serene and calm I have been to. I think there are possibly a few factors that contribute to this.
With only 700,000 people, Bhutan is one of Asia’s smallest countries by population. The pace of life seems to be very balanced and the concept of national happiness really pervades all aspects of life. Having said that – it doesn’t mean that they are living in a time warp. It is evident that the digital world – mobile phones, wifi access etc – has arrived in Bhutan, but this doesn’t seem to dominate.
What does come through is that tradition and history is woven into every aspect of their daily life –even the fact that they proudly wear their national and traditional dress – the ‘goh’ for men and the ‘kira’ for women.
The people are so respectful of each other and their beautiful country.
Jen: I always find my most memorable adventures have been where I have been able to immerse myself in the local culture and meet the people, where you able to spend much time with the locals? What were they like?
Jane: Our tour/trek leader Kesang and assistant leader Jigme were wonderful in that they shared so much about their background and lives with us. Being able to visit Jigme’s family home and meet his family was a real privilege.
On the trek where we camped, the locals were so excited to have us staying in their villages. On both nights where we stayed at the camp in the village where Jigme grew up, all the villagers came to welcome us with their local brew – a rather alcoholic drink called ‘ara’. They danced and sang and invited us to join in – it was fantastic. Their singing was so beautiful. Then they wanted us to sing an Australian song – which was hilarious when we sang ‘Doing the hokey pokey’.
We had the fantastic opportunity to go to one of the local villagers homes for lunch and to see how they churn butter and make butter tea. We also got to participate in a local game sort of like darts – except we where throwing tree branches that are specially shaped and carved into a dart like missile. It was really hard to to hit the target, but we had loads of fun
Jen: The Bhutanese people pride themselves on sustainable tourism, how do you think they are managing this?
Jane: The countryside is so pristine and so unspoilt. It is extremely apparent that they are only too well aware of the importance of the environment as their most precious natural resource – and of course it is fuelling one of their two biggest income earners ie tourism. From what I saw they seem to be doing it incredibly well – with great respect to the environment. Learning and caring about the environment is a big part of what the children are taught at school and we saw groups of children in some of the larger villages and towns in groups out picking up what little rubbish that was lying about.
Jen: How were your expectations of Bhutan met?
Jane: It exceeded every expectation in bucket loads: The most warm and welcoming people, the rich and very calming Buddhist culture, the sublime and unbelievably picturesque country side– and the food was also a major surprise. I had been led to believe that the food was not a big draw card in Bhutan – because of their Buddhist beliefs and not killing animals – meat is not a big part of their diet. What was sensational however were the delicious and mouth-watering flavours and cooking of their fresh produce and vegies. For example stir fried eggplant and a very yummy edible field fern that they cook in butter. But the real surprise was the staple meal of Ema Datshi, which is served with red rice – it is a delicious and often rather fiery chilli and cheese dish.
Jane’s passion for discovering new places, a curiosity of other cultures and meeting interesting people, has fuelled her new venture, a travel company “Wandering the World”, who operate the 13-day Essence of Bhutan trek as described above. As a former marketing director of Peregrine Adventures, Jane has started the new travel business with friend and former Managing Director of Peregrine Adventures, Glenyce Johnson. Together you get the feeling this dynamic duo are literally about the walk the world.
You can check out the Bhutan trekking itinerary with Wandering the World here.