Steps to Spirituality: 10 days in the Kingdom of Bhutan.
Before I begin to describe Bhutan’s picturesque landscape, its freezing temperatures, its many monasteries and the plane journey from hell, I must confess that I was reluctant to venture to what is considered one of the most beautiful places on earth. Because, with examinations looming around the corner, my anxiety-induced brain was not pleased when my extended family announced that we (all 40 of us) would be going on a 10-day trip that would involve “a lot of hiking and a lot of time-consuming bus rides.”
“I felt I was a sponge, slowly absorbing each drop of magic that this place had to offer”
Upon landing at Paro airport, the first thing I noticed was the gorgeous elevated landscape. Virtually untouched, Bhutan is filled with forest-filled mountains, crystal clear rivers and people who never seem to stop smiling. Journeying onto the towns of Thimpu and Punakha, every turn on the narrow roads at edge of the mountains was a picture-worthy moment. Every so often however, someone would feel the need to throw up. We’d have to stop, abruptly, two buses parked on a winding road at the edge of a 600-meter mountain.
The country and its people ooze spirituality. With every stop, every different town and city, I felt I was a sponge, slowly absorbing each drop of magic that this place had to offer. Bhutan, however, is not a destination you can visit spontaneously whilst backpacking across Asia. Because the natural landscapes are so treasured in the kingdom, tourism is kept at a minimum and all trips to Bhutan must be pre-planned with a registered Bhutan tour guide; all funds must be paid in advance. It was thrilling to be one of barely 30,000 a year who got to spend time exploring the 400-year-old monasteries on the edge of cliffs and drink chai with strangers in their brightly painted homes.
Bhutan is famous for its numerous monasteries, fortresses (dzongs) and palaces. Though the country is filled with varying sizes of bright red, white and orange monasteries, each religious house is unique in its rich history, myths and even in aspects of its architecture. The history of the Punakha Fortress, where the king was first crowned in 1907, is fascinating. It was built in 1637 on the part of land known as the “elephant’s trunk,” based on a prophecy made in the 8th century, where a Guru named Rinpoche saw a dzong being built on a mountain that resembled an elephant. The stories behind many of Bhutan’s incredible works of architecture involve animals and mythical creatures and are combined with aspects of Buddhism, the prophecies of bodhisattva’s and the supernatural.
Hiking up the steep, slippery hills through the pouring rain to Tango Monastery in Thimphu, I realized how out of shape I was. But the reward at the top was incredible. I learnt that “Tango” in Bhutanese means “head of the horse.” The beauty and variations of personal belief was astounding. Being a citizen of a predominantly Buddhist country myself, I was surprised with the difference in the interpretation of the religion and the different methods of worship within religious temples. From trumpets created from the femur bones to the intricate storied paintings, the level and diversity of belief was magical.
One of Bhutan’s most popular sites is the ‘Tiger’s Nest Monastery’ or ‘Taktshang Goemba.’ Located over 900 meters on the top of the Paro Valley. Given the chance, the hike up is likely the most beautiful sight you will ever see. However, it’s also extremely dangerous. The route is meant for Buddhist monks to take the spiritual trail up to the temple and so the slippery and steep paths were never intended to be walked on by tourists. While hiking, our tour guide filled our ears with stories of tourists falling off the exposed precipices whilst trying to take pictures, somewhat terrifying when you yourself are trekking up that same path. Though the journey up was exhausting and involved varying degrees of altitude sickness, the view at the top was worth every excruciating moment of the climb. I didn’t even care that I had to walk the same way down at dusk because I was so moved by this hidden gem. But I did come back with so much respect for the dedicated monks that had to make regular journeys up and down the valley.
By the end of the 10 days, the prospect of returning home to my revision notes, leaving behind the beautiful landscapes and spirituality of the country was gloomy. The gloom was made worse by the plane journey from hell. The only airline permitted to travel in and out of the country was Druk Air. And because Bhutan is a country that is landlocked, surrounded by China, Tibet and India, and is also of extremely high altitude, planes are shot into the sky at a quick 75 degree angle. The 4 hour plane ride was not only coupled with terrible turbulence, but the plane seemed to do rollercoaster-like dips and escalations and swung about to and fro like a pendulum. At this point every single passenger on the plane began to scream and some even started praying. I honestly thought we were going to plummet straight down to our death. I only realised after landing that the plane was piloted by a member of the royal Bhutanese family, who had only been fully in control of a plane for 3 times in his entire life. Besides the almost dying bit, it is kind of fun to be able to say that I was on a plane with one of the Bhutan royals.
An adventure so it was. Though the hikes were difficult and the bus rides were long, it is definitely safe to say that I’m ashamed now to think I ever exclaimed that I wasn’t going to board the plane. Bhutan is a spiritual wonderland and if you ever get the chance to go you should grab it by the reigns.