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The magical charm of Bhutan

masked dancers Paro Masked dancers Paro, Bhutan

Land of mountain peaks, ancient Buddhist culture and architecture, dense forests and spectacular valleys

Even before you have landed in the remote kingdom of Bhutan you know you are arriving at a very special destination. As you peek out the window of the plane you find yourself surrounded by the majestic mountains of the Himalayas, descending into a valley that, even from the air, has the mystical quality of existing in an era that the rest of the world has long forgotten. As you walk along narrow mountain paths, you meet others walking, children enroute to school and adults making their way to work on terraced fields. They wear traditional dress and greet you warmly in English. Houses are all constructed in a time–honoured style helping with the illusion that you have been transported to a past era.

My first journey coincided with a Spring Teschu (festival), a time when the tranquil town of Paro was transformed into celebration. Bhutanese from all over the country arrived in their finest clothes and jewellery. We travellers joined the local men, women and children surrounding a temple-side courtyard where mystical masked dancers and musicians performed ancient traditions. Wooden balconies perched overhead were the reserved seating for hundreds of robed monks smiling at the gaiety below. We enjoyed the festival for two of its five days and included visits to the great Paro Dzong (fortress) and the newly erected festival stalls where merchants were selling wooden boxes, jewelry, carvings, metal lamps and weavings along with a collection of imported trinkets.

Leaving the merriment we journeyed further through Western and Central Bhutan, driving through high passes where prayers flags flew next to the blooms of rhododendrons. We journeyed into sacred valleys with names like “Valley of the Black-necked crane” and “Valley of the Kings”. We encountered yaks in the high alpine and grey and golden langurs in the broad-leafed forests.

Elsewhere in the Himalayas the great architectural monuments have been lost to ruin, destruction and modern renovation. In Bhutan they are preserved and in use as monasteries, museums and Government administrative centres. Trongsa Dzong is one of the largest in the country stretching alongside a green ridge that marks the trail between Eastern and Western Bhutan. The winter palace or Punakha Dzong, lies between two rivers and contains treasures from the past. Perhaps the most impressive was the Tigers Nest, a fortress perched on a high precipice that attracts pilgrims up a steep path. I made it half-way to the tea house view point while some of the more agile in the group made it all the way to the top. I have returned twice more to Bhutan, each time making it a little further towards the inner sanctuary of the cliff side monastery.  

Of all the world’s great destinations, none compares to Bhutan in its holistic approach to life and tourism. It coined the term GROSS NATIONAL HAPPINESS, a visionary choice that material well-being is replaced by policies that balance socio-economic development, a pristine ecological policy, good governance and rich cultural appreciation all in a perspective of spiritual happiness. Like most of the travellers lucky enough to visit, I cherish the memories of people, place, and philosophy now infused into my worldview. 

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