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A trip to the land of the thunder dragon

Bhutan’s lush valleys.

Bhutan’s lush valleys.

Michelle Zammit and Nikki Vella are a couple from Malta struck by wanderlust and curiosity. A pharmacist and a mechanical engineer, they have travelled to over 60 countries in five continents and have recently traded their full-time jobs for an indefinite trip around the world.

Tiger’s Nest Monastery in Paro.Tiger’s Nest Monastery in Paro.

A rather obscure, little-explored kingdom nestled in the heart of the Himalayas, Bhutan is a country with lush forests, crystal-clear rivers and dramatic mountain landscapes sparsely populated by friendly, peaceful, nature-loving locals. It is a nation that prioritises Gross National Happiness over Gross Domestic Product. A kingdom in which fact, legend and magic have been merged to create the most delightful stories recounted from one generation to the next.

Sounds enticing? We had been wanting to explore Bhutan ever since we heard about the fascinating kingdom several years ago, curious about a country which remained isolated from the rest of the world for so long, where TV was only introduced in 1999 (making it the last country in the world to adopt the service), where the use of tobacco is prohibited and plastic is banned, and where marijuana’s only purpose was to feed pigs.

Even today, there is good reason for Bhutan’s obscurity. The country actively discourages budget-style backpacker travel typically common in other Asian countries by setting a ‘minimum daily package fee’ of $250 for anyone wanting to visit the country, making it rather prohibitive for those looking to travel on a budget.

Curious about a country which remained isolated from the rest of the world for so long

The daily package covers most expenses in Bhutan, including accommodation, three meals a day, a licensed guide and driver (which are mandatory) and all forms of internal transportation, so little else is needed. A trip has to be booked through one of the tour operators in the country and it is not possible to make your arrangements or travel there independently.

All this is compliant to Bhutan’s policy of high-value, low-impact tourism set by the government in an effort to attract quality tourists appreciative of the sustainability and conservation policies in the country, as opposed to budget travellers who effectively contribute very little to the country’s economy.

Our style of travel is normally a lot more in line with the latter category, so it felt very strange to have someone else plan our trip for us. Thankfully, we were allowed to draft up our own 12-day itinerary which was immediately approved by a tour agency of our choice, and we were also assured that we would not be travelling as part of a group tour but would have our own personal guide and driver and means of transportation.

Dancers at the festival in Bumthang Valley.Dancers at the festival in Bumthang Valley.

The national carrier Druk Air flies to very few international airports, so the most convenient way for us to arrive to the kingdom was by transiting through New Delhi. We were lucky enough to be seated on the left side of the aircraft during our flight to Paro International Airport, which allowed us to enjoy a spectacular view of the mighty snow-clad Himalayas.

As the aircraft twisted in and out of the mountains surrounding Paro Valley, we reminded ourselves that this particular landing is considered to be one of the world’s most dangerous and indeed, very few pilots are qualified to fly the route.

The following are some of our favourite moments during our 12-day trip:

Watching a festival – few experiences personify the true heart and soul of Bhutan in the same way a festival does. Festivals, or tshechus, are usually multi-day affairs which provide an opportunity for villagers to congregate, often in their best attire, to watch masked dancers and demons stage some fantastic performances such as dramas depicting good and evil. We had the opportunity to watch such a festival in the Bumthang Valley and were even encouraged to participate, much to the delight of the audience who laughed hysterically as one of the masked dancers hit Nikki on the head with a giant phallus!

Visiting the Takin Preserve – the Takin, a gentle Himalayan beast best described as a cow with a goat’s head, is easy to see in Bhutan due a number of animals being kept in Thimpu’s Motithang Takin Preserve. The preserve was actually a zoo until Bhutan’s King decided that keeping animals in captivity was not in accordance with the country’s Buddhist principles, and let them all out. The animals, however, had other plans. They had become so domesticated that they refused to go back into the forest and roamed about Thimpu’s streets for weeks creating a bit of a stir around local communities, whereupon they were led back to the enclosure where they have happily stayed ever since.

Punakha Dzong or 'The Palace of Great Happiness’.Punakha Dzong or 'The Palace of Great Happiness’.

Experiencing a homestay – fancy some rice with chunks of pork fat and butter tea? That’s black tea churned with butter. We shared this simple dinner with the friendly locals who hosted us during our homestay in the Paro valley. Breakfast was the dinner leftovers. Soon after we entered the farm through a door adorned with a phallus, a bunch of wheat and a horseshoe (for good luck), we were shown to an outhouse where we would take our traditional hot stone bath. The kind owners filled a rickety wooden bath with water from a nearby stream reputed to have medicinal properties, and heated it by placing in it large stones which had been thrown into a fire. We cannot claim to have experienced any health benefits. However, the long, relaxing soak ensured that we spent that night blissfully snoring away. The simplicity and genuinity of our hosts, with whom we shared some insightful conversations about their way of life and their love towards Bhutan and their community, was a much-cherished experience that we will treasure for a long time.

Hiking up to Tiger’s Nest Monastery – the dramatic monastery which seems to casually hang on to a cliff face is one of Bhutan’s most iconic landmarks. The locals will tell you that this location was chosen by a tigress who brought Guru Rinpoche (an important figure in the Buddhist religion) to the site to subdue a local demon. We were lucky enough to have great weather on the day of the hike which is moderately challenging for a person of normal fitness levels. The view of the monastery as we approached the end of the hike was truly impressive.

Visiting Punakha Dzong and the Temple of the Divine Madman – the Punakha Dzong, otherwise known as the ‘Palace of Great Happiness’, is a fort-monastery located at the confluence of two rivers, famous for its beauty. Dzongs are significantly important in Bhutan not only because of their particular structure, but also because they are the administrative and religious centres of Bhutanese communities.

The Temple of the Divine Madman on the other hand is a pilgrimage site for childless couples who are blessed in the temple in the hope of becoming fertile. That’s why Michelle was gently knocked on the head three times with a giant wooden phallus when she informed the monk in charge that she had no children. Much to her horror she was then assured that she would likely fall pregnant after this experience. The Divine Madman was a monk who wanted to show that it is possible to become enlightened without giving up on earthly pleasures, so his methods included ‘blessing’ women with sex (yes, really). Because of this, Bhutan is full of phallic images painted onto houses, hanging outside the doorways, even placed on the dinner table in the place of a flower bouquet. Phallic images are said to ward off evil spirits and are the subject of intense devotion in the country.

You can follow Michelle and Nikki’s adventures on their travel blog (Cheeky Passports) www.cheekypassports.com or on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest.

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