(Published in Outlook Traveller, November 2006)
Barely an hour into the journey, Bhutan’s getting on my nerves. “This is the most beautiful flight in the world,” travel websites gush. I shrug: so we’re flying over the Himalayas, big deal. “Ask for a seat on the left of the Druk Air plane on the way in,” a usually cynical friend says with uncharacteristic emotion. “It’s stunning.” Yeah, right, I think, so show me.
It does. Imagine the Himalayas spread out in crystal clarity beneath you, each ridge and spur sharply defined, the range magically swaddled in clouds. Everest is outside my window, incredibly beautiful in pristine white—you can’t see the climbers’ trash heaps from here—and grim black, wearing a feathery headdress of mist. This is a terrible thing to do to a professional grouch, I think, as I dash a tear of emotion from my eye and compose bad lyrical poetry to the heavens and the awesome beauty of the mountains. The tiny sliver of me that is still uncynical whispers: “I wish I could do this again.”
Be careful of what you wish for when you’re flying over the kingdom of happiness. Less than an hour later, those nice fluffy clouds draped like pretty fleece around the mountains back there have boiled up here into the monster chariots of the thunder gods. We have to fly back from Paro to Kathmandu and spend eons in the transit lounge waiting for the weather to change. It does, eventually, and I see the Himalayas from that incredible god’s-eye-view perspective again—my wish has been granted, never mind that I’m not exactly ecstatic about it.
Her Majesty the Queen, Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk, describes an early journey to Thimpu over the first roads in Bhutan in her book Treasures of the Thunder Dragon. She felt “sheer terror” when she saw the first Willys Jeep ever to arrive in Thimpu, at its “size, its noise and the nauseating smell of petrol”, and their journey was interrupted by landslides and falling rocks. They camped near a paddy field at journey’s end. That was in the 1960s, when Bhutan was still the closed kingdom, the country that inspired James Hilton’s Shangri-La, one of the last places left on earth where the mythical kingdom of Shambala might conceivably be found.
In 2006, with Bhutan cautiously opening up to affluent tourists, well-heeled trekkers and carefully monitored tour groups, the road from Paro to Thimpu is a relatively smooth spiral staircase to enchantment. The rice fields are disgustingly emerald, the cypresses insistently fragrant, the intricate carvings that adorn everything from local bars and post offices to the petrol pump shamelessly picturesque, and the interiors of the Toyota Landcruiser are pine-scented. And Amankora is no paddy field.
Aman junkies are people who, like me, assume that the best way to travel is to stay at one of Adrian Zecha’s discreetly luxurious or flamboyantly elegant properties scattered across the globe from Phuket and Jordan to Cambodia or Rajasthan in India, and who, unlike me, have the kind of happy relationship with their bank managers that allow them to do just this. Aman’s approach in Bhutan has been to build lodges rather than grand hotels—Thimpu, Gangtey, Punakha and Paro are open for business, and the Bumthang Aman will start operations next year.
This was one of Aman’s most difficult projects—everything from building materials to the Singaporean carved wooden room key-chains had to be imported and brought in by truck on those dangerously winding roads, carpenters were flown in from India and bawled out by Zecha when their first attempts weren’t up to Aman standards. At Paro, Chef Molly tells me that Aman discovered it was easier to set up its own abattoir rather than rely on the weekend market for decent meat, so even your yak burgers, breakfast sausages and bacon, yak chili con carne and yak steak au bleu are Aman-guaranteed. Even so, Bhutan is definitely the Apologetic Aman.
“I hope everything is all right?” asks Ap Yeshi, the manager at Thimpu, explaining that Bhutan has no tradition of hotel management training, and that Aman has had to work very hard at explaining its philosophy to the local staff.
“Not bad,” I say absently, wondering if I should ask Jamyang to light the brazier in my room with its spectacular view of Aman Thimpu’s Zen-like architecture and the property of the Queens who live next door. Jamyang asks whether I’d like it lit before I need to find him. Someone else has replenished the huge jar of moisturizer and cypress-almond-oil scrub that I’ve already depleted in the course of a luxurious soak in Aman’s signature slipper bath, plonked right in the centre of the room. And there’s a rare book on Himalayan explorers that I plan to read in the comfortable armchair by the fire in the lounge downstairs while the musician plays haunting hill melodies on the traditional kora and the harp-like dramyin.
“We were warned before we came that Aman Bhutan is a little austere compared to the other Amans, so we’re prepared,” an American couple says, sitting out in the open courtyard at Aman Punakha, which is set in the middle of paddy fields and orchards, and where the sage for that evening’s pasta comes from its own herb garden. “Austere, hmmm, yes, just a trifle,” I say, negligently ordering another frothy pomegranate-mint concoction instead of wine or traditional arrack (served in an exquisite, glowing red bowl carved from the trunk of maple trees called a dapha). “It’s lovely, but not, well, as luxurious as some of the Amans,” says another guest, “though we did enjoy the private dinner they organized for us at the Honeymoon table upstairs? The one with the special table in the dzong-style room and the candles and flowers?” “Yes, quite,” I say abstractedly, wondering whether I should try the Indonesian fried rice as well as the toasted muesli for breakfast, see if the spa can fit me in for a massage with their special Himalayan oils, or walk down to the Punakha river where a bridge festooned in prayer flags reconnects Aman junkies with those sorry denizens who have to live in the Rest of the World.
Which, this being Bhutan, is not such a bad place to be in. At Thimpu, I goggle at the takin, a sweet, lumbering animal that was invented on one of God’s more whimsical days. It comes straight from a Dr Seuss menagerie and looks like a cross between a goat and a badger. Takins had become so tame on the streets of Thimpu that they had to be locked up in an open zoo for their own safety, Ugyen, our guide for the length of the trip, tells me. How tame? I don’t know, but two of them are eating oak leaves from my hand through the bars of the cage, nuzzling gently for more and emitting a small, resigned sigh when I run out. They remind me of the Push-me-pull-you from Dr Doolittle.
Then we settle down to watch the archery finals. Ugyen is an archer of note himself—every village shop in Bhutan sells fletched arrows alongside huge bunches of chillies (definitely the national vegetable), spinach and woven baby-carriers. The air is scented with cypress and juniper, and more pungently, with betel nut, Singma beer and Bhutan Highland whisky, all consumed in huge quantities by families lazing on the green as they wash down red rice and pork curry. The two teams wear the traditional ger and do complicated jigs like a formal fox-trot as a way of applauding good shots.
A circle of dancing girls sings insults to archers in an attempt to make them lose concentration. In The Hero with a Thousand Eyes, Karma Ura records typical examples of Bhutanese sledging: “Your head resembles that of an ape/ And from the backside you look like a bear…” The King, he records, received slightly more seductive verses from the local maidens: “You will not propel your arrow on to the target/ If you must shoot, you could launch it below my navel.”
Many of the houses are decorated with graphic renderings of phalluses, or have wooden phochens—a phallus crossed with a sword—hanging from the corner of the rafters. The Bhutanese are puzzled at the shock and gawking—for them, phalluses are a sacred symbol of male energy, bringing luck and keeping ghosts away, as innocuous as a peace sign would be for us. “What’s with the, you know, lingam things?” a woman tourist wants to know. Her companion stares grimly at a particularly limp specimen. “I wonder what my ex is up to these days,” she says at last.
Over the next week, I unwind, let go of the need to rush from one spot to another. We eat red rice, fiery chilli-cheese curry and ezay, a chilli relish, on the road; at Aman’s resorts, there’s Thai and Bhutanese cuisine, or elaborate rocket-and-marigold salads accompanying roast pork or wild mushroom gnocchi. Each resort has a signature menu, signature welcome drinks—hot apple cider, honey lemon tea, masala chai, and in the Gaantey spa, a sharp witches’ brew of cinnamon, chili and honey. We stop on the road from Thimpu to Gantey at Dochula, where I watch a solemn child in her blue kira, fastened with the traditional silver brooches, plod up to the 108 stupas draped in prayer flags, radiating peace against a sky the exact blue of a Botticelli Madonna’s robe.
I begin to learn the rhythms of the dzongs—Bhutan’s ancient monastery-fortresses, where the shrill voices of exuberant boy monks in red robes are now upraised in the recitation of prayers, now in play. The beautiful dzong at Wangdi, where a banyan tree planted by Nehru and Indira Gandhi still flourishes in the central courtyard, was more monastery than fortress. The majestic, ship-like dzong at Punakha affectionately dubbed the Titanic by locals still retains the imprint of wars fought long ago; Paro’s awe-inspiring dzong commands the heights. How old are they? The question is meaningless. Most of the major dzongs have suffered fires, flood and earthquakes and been rebuilt: they could be four hundred years old, or four, but their beauty is ageless.
Myths and legends are woven into the landscape itself. Temples pin turbulent demons down, guardian spirits reside in rocks and rivers, the ghosts of monks keep benign watch over villages and must be offered buckwheat noodles and home-brewed barley beer, though in a pinch, I’m told, Maggi and Red Panda beer will do. In Gaantey village, I see several “spiritcatchers”—cats’ cradle networks of wool intended to trap and confuse demons. Then the black-necked cranes that were just white dots on a sloping meadow take wing and fly overhead, wheeling and turning gracefully, calling an ancient traveller’s hymn to each other, and I stop where I am to pay obeisance to these threatened, rare birds. “You’re lucky,” I’m told at Aman. Most visitors don’t get to see the birds up close. In Paro town, the local youths play carom and queue up for the popular Kinley Dorji film The Guest, at one of Bhutan’s only two cinemas—the other is in Thimpu.
I am lucky again at Paro, where we drive in as the light fades and the setting sun paints the peak of Jomolhari in autumn colours. “Her face is uncovered,” Ugyen murmurs in awe; no clouds obscure our view. I am lucky at Punakha Dzong, where we arrive in time for the evening prayers, the chants and the incense purifying the vast white spaces of the dzong just as prayer flags are supposed to purify the air around them. I was lucky at Gaantey Gompa, where we saw a death anniversary ritual in the morning—the soul of the departed is offered rice, curry and most important, quantities of barley beer, that is also shared with great enthusiasm by his earthly family. I am lucky, a phlegmatic innkeeper on the road to Punakha tells me, to be here in Bhutan before tourism really takes over, before mobile phones and the Net—already present—became ubiquitous, before plastic bags clog those pure green rivers and do dervish dances in the courtyards of the dzongs.
I don’t feel so lucky on the final day, walking—read wheezing—up the steep path to Takshang monastery in Paro, the famous Tiger’s Nest where the Guru Rimpoche arrived on the back of a flying tigress. Tiger’s Nest looks as though a giant hurled a monastery at a grim black peak of jagged rocks and had it stick. No tigresses are available, the mules look recalcitrant, so I’m doing this on my own steam, which is an arthritic pace. Every few metres, another spry seventy-year-old leaps nimbly past while I mutter dark imprecations under my breath. Once you’re through with the climb, there’s the small matter of a mere 720 vertiginious steps to ascend before you reach the monastery itself, and I wonder, can this really be worth it?
Later, at Aman, there will be hot towels, and Anjuna, the spa manager, will show me the herbal hot stone bath where you can soak away the aches of the day. Dinner will be Michelin-worthy, I will leave the windows open so that I can see the thousand stars in a velvet sky and wake to sunrise on Jomolhari, and there will be warm, fresh carrot muffins for breakfast.
But up here, at Takshang, I have finally reached the top. It is absolutely quiet and the air is so clear, it’s like breathing in the essence of crystal. The innermost room where the Guru Rimpoche meditated is barred to all but the King, the Head Abbot of Bhutan and two attending lamas. The flickering flames of butter lamps illuminate the inner dark of a shrine, and I can see Paro spread out like an emerald carpet far down below. And I realize that over this one week, an invisible spiritcatcher has spread its spokes across my heart, that all the ghosts and demons we carry around have left. I have to leave tomorrow; I’ll miss the pampering at “austere” Aman, the sharp, commanding silhouettes of the dzongs, the serendipity of sharing betel nut and forbidden cigarettes with the pretty women who runs the Thimpu bookstore. But sitting where the Guru once sat, head bowed in meditation in front of the Buddha, I know that what everyone in Bhutan has been saying to me all along is true. I’m lucky to be here, very lucky indeed.