Punakha Dzong, arguably Bhutan’s most beautiful dzong, contains some of its most impressive Thanka paintings. Photo: Julie L. Kessler
Punakha Dzong, arguably Bhutan’s most beautiful dzong, contains some of its most impressive Thanka paintings. Photo: Julie L. Kessler

Arriving in Bhutan is not for the faint of heart. As the Airbus 319 made its final descent into Paro – through a narrow mountain opening – my awe at the captain’s skills as the plane hugged the snow-capped, jagged-edged Himalayas, was overshadowed only by the racing beat of my pulse. This was made even more impressive since I knew these were non-instrument, visual landings. Flights cannot enter or depart Paro in inclement weather or in darkness.

Bhutan is not easy to get to. Unless flying from Nepal or India, it requires flying to Bangkok, with an airport overnight since Bhutan flights leave at dawn to best hedge against cloud cover.

Long curious about this tiny Buddhist nation, where well-fed dogs roam freely and seemingly outnumber Bhutan’s nearly 800,000 people, I traveled there in late March.

A royal history

Remarkably, Bhutan has never been colonized. In the late 19th century, Ugyen Wangchuck consolidated power among disputing factions, and in 1907 was elected Druk Gyalpo – Dragon King. The Wangchuck clan has ruled Bhutan ever since.

In 1971, the beloved fourth King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, declared that Gross National Happiness (GNH) was a more important measure for a nation’s prosperity than Gross Domestic Product. GNH would be and remains today at the very heart of all governmental policies.

Convinced of democracy’s progression, King Singye abdicated the throne in 2006 in favor of his son, the fifth and current king, Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck. When Bhutan’s constitution was enacted in 2008 by its first elected parliament, a core principle was GNH.

Only in the last 45 years has Bhutan commenced opening its doors, both to modernize and protect itself. How could one not want to visit a country where its focus is happiness and kindness is practically a legal requirement?

A capital town – tiny Thimphu

With a population of just 100,000, it often seems there are more dogs than people. These pooches are gentle and well mannered since the mostly Buddhist population treat them well. But they are everywhere, sleeping, stretching and holding cute canine courts. It only becomes an issue when attempting slumber as collective barking culminates in deafening doggy drama.

Thimphu has narrow streets, a few cafes and some little shops, many selling wood carved phalluses of various shapes and sizes. There are also enormous flying versions painted near entryways of many homes. Said to ward off evil and protect fertility, this was the brainchild of 15th century Tibetan Buddhist monk, Lama Drukpa Kunley, known as the Divine Madman.

Thimphu is also one of the few capitals without a single traffic light. In fact nowhere in Bhutan is there a single stop sign. Thimphu used to have some traffic lights, but the populace objected to the King that they were too impersonal. The lights were removed and replaced with a uniformed, white-gloved policeman, perched in an elevated, brightly painted, gazebo-like structure, displaying robotic-like movements. Much like a 1980s disco dancer, it’s a sight to behold.

I set off to see Bhutan’s national sport of archery. At Changlimithang Archery Grounds, men in traditional Ghos – knee-length, belted, kimono-style wraps with internal pouches – were competing. Targets were 420 feet away and the arrows so fast, I could only tell who scored when participants started singing and dancing.

Bhutan’s tiny capital of Thimphu is without a single streetlight or stop sign. Photo: Julie L. Kessler

The Thimphu Dzong – fortress, government offices and monks’ quarters – is the city’s landmark. Rebuilt after a fire in traditional fashion – without nails – its massive, three tiered, red-and-gold roofed, whitewashed structures are impressive. Inside are colorful, intricate Thanka religious paintings.

Arriving to Jigme Dori National Park, with my guide I trekked three miles round-trip to Cheri Gompa, a monastery built in 1620 by Shabdrung, a high lama and Bhutan’s great unifier. At 9,200 feet elevation it provided panoramic views of Thimphu Valley. Taking photos while steering clear of two resting wild goats, one decided the mountaintop was his alone and charged, inexplicably stopping abruptly an inch from me. That pretty much alleviated the need for a second cup of coffee.

At Choki Art School, students from 14 to 20 learn traditional arts of Thanka religious painting, wood carving and weaving to become employable and fulfill a pillar of GNH by preserving tradition. The results were labor intensive and beautiful.

My final stop in this region was Buddha Dordenma, where the 154-foot bronze and gold-dipped Buddha statue is one of the world’s largest. A gift from China, construction took seven years.

Pleasant Punakha

Driving the 55 miles from Thimphu to Punakha took about three hours. Hairpin turns along the Dochula Pass in the eastern Himalayas at 10,320 feet are legion, often with an abyss on one side, and meandering cattle and dogs. Thus one’s driver in Bhutan requires a neurosurgeon’s precision. The rewards for acrophobia are stellar forever views with gorgeous snowcapped mountains.

Parking by Mo Chhu River the next morning, I walked across a narrow suspension bridge, then ascended several switchbacks to Khamsum Yulley Namgyel Temple.

Trekking up was nearly as colorful as the temple built by the royal grandmother for King Khesar. Ablaze blood-red rhododendrons, glistening emerald-green tiered rice terraces and saffron colored robed monks bearing bright pink umbrellas against the sun seemed like mirages.

Terraced rice paddies in Punakha Valley, near the top of Khamsum Yulley Namgyel Temple. Photo: Julie L. Kessler

The temple sits in a flowered courtyard, contains three stories of religious deities and intricate Buddhist carvings. From the third floor terrace, more breathtaking views.

After descending I visited the 200-year-old Nalanda Buddhist Institute responsible for educating and housing 110 monks. Fortunate to have tea with Head Monk, Lama Pem, who commenced his studies 35 years ago at age 10, he charmingly imparted pearls of wisdom.

Additional highlights: the Punakha Dzong, perhaps the most beautiful in Bhutan, containing elaborately detailed Thanka paintings of Buddha’s life from birth to enlightenment, and the pleasant hike to Chimi Lakhang, a temple dedicated to the Divine Madman, known for unusual methods of teaching Buddhism, using humor and sexual overtones.

Paro and environs

Driving from Punakha to Paro – 78 miles as the crow flies – took four hours. Riding jump seat, I realized I did not have a great driver, but an automobilist rock star. This vantage gave me closer appreciation of the ever-present abyss, often seeing a foot of crumbling blacktop at the narrow road’s edge towards the void, as well as some hilarious road signs to help drivers keep their wits. My favorites, “If you are married, divorce speed” and “Safety on the road means safe tea at home.”

The journey’s apex was the trek to cliff-side Taktsang, a sacred, monastic retreat known as Tiger’s Nest and the image best known to foreigners. Lore has it that Guru Rinpoche flew to the mountain on a tigress’ back to subdue the local demon, then meditated there for three months.

The difficulty of this magical architecture, built at 10,200 feet, is nothing short of miraculous. Trekking slowly to appreciate the magnificent views took several hours round-trip. Twice on the path, for about 15 minutes, I was completely alone, resulting in utterly ethereal sensations. Without doubt this was the most spiritual place I visited in Bhutan. Near the top, additional rewards were a mammoth rushing waterfall, swaying, multi-colored prayer flags and an ancillary structure unimaginably built between two craggy mountain crevices.

Taktsang, the sacred monastic retreat known as Tiger’s Nest, built cliff-side at 10,200 feet, near Paro. Photo: Julie L. Kessler

Driving 90 minutes the next day on hairpin turns up to Chelela Pass at 12,500 feet, I spotted several enormous yaks, including a nursing baby the size of a large pony. Atop, I trekked a bit higher, placing prayer flags in view of Sikkim’s mountains to the west, and Tibet to the north.

During my week in the Land of the Thunder Dragon it became abundantly clear the Bhutanese are a kind and resilient people with spiritual generosity and ready smiles, despite, or perhaps in spite of, an often extremely challenging natural environment. Its GNH policy probably doesn’t hurt either.

For more information on traveling to Bhutan, go to www.tourism.gov.bt

Julie L. Kessler is a travel writer, attorney and legal columnist based in Los Angeles and the author of the award-winning book Fifty-Fifty: The Clarity of Hindsight.