I’ve barely been in Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital city, for two hours and I’m standing in the dimly lit hilltop Changangkha Temple, overlooked by terraced rice fields and distant mountains, listening to the gentle hum of Buddhist mantras and spinning prayer wheels. Suddenly, all the things you hear about Bhutan – its strict adherence to Buddhism, its oft-vaunted Gross National Happiness Index – seem more real, and make perfect sense.
Coming to Bhutan isn’t cheap. It famously costs a US$250 per night tariff to come here, a policy that helps limit the numbers of travellers to 65,000 a year. But if the S$1,500 I spent on a five-day itinerary sounds like a lot, it feels less like a rip-off than I’d expected. I’d paid Druk Asia (6338 9909, www.drukasia.com) upfront, and in return got a visa, food, transport, lodging at three-star hotels and a guide – in my case, a burly Bhutanese man called Tsering, who’s like a reliable local friend throughout my trip and provides countless cultural insights I wouldn’t have had otherwise.
Indeed, while tours can be oppressive in some places, here they not only ensure that Bhutan remains backpacker-free but provide an access point into how the country works. After our first stop at the Changangkha Temple, Tsering takes me to Thimphu’s main street, Norzim Lam. ‘We call this area Hong Kong Street because it’s always busy,’ he says, pointing to rows of shops traversing several blocks. Here the similarities end, however – instead of skyscrapers and neon signs, Thimphu’s CBD is made up of earthen-walled buildings adorned with traditional wooden frontages. A nearby cinema offers an 8.30pm showing of Singye Nga Enn, a local production showcasing Bhutanese family values. With very few streetlamps and no traffic lights, Thimphu feels more like a bustling frontier town than a capital city.
The following days find us all over the countryside doing some hardcore sightseeing. Bhutan’s attraction lies in its well-preserved culture, most evident in its many dzongs – ancient fortresses that serve as administrative and religious centres. Here, commoners, monks and government officials mingle amid exquisite traditional architecture. There are also the humble little temples that dot the countryside. In the district of Punakha, a three-hour drive from Thimphu, I saunter down rice-fields and sleepy villages towards the Chimi Lhakhang. This monastery is dedicated to a beloved saint, the ‘Divine Madman’ Drukpa Kunley, a poet who earned his other nickname – ‘The Saint of 5,000 Women’ – by giving them his blessing in the form of sex. Many Bhutanese homes have their walls adorned with his holy phallic symbol.
None of what I see, though, compares to my last destination. A few kilometres north of Paro town stands the Taktsang Palphug, probably Bhutan’s most famous sight. Built on a cliffside some 3,000ft above the landscape, this ancient monastery is accessible only via a robust two-hour trek. With Tsering leading the way, I trudge up the steep slope, stopping regularly to catch my breath in the thin mountain air. The knee-busting hike takes us from pine forest to rock face, the trail dotted with numerous shrines and lookout points.
By the time we reach the monastery I am thoroughly winded, yet elated at reaching Bhutan’s most venerated landmark. Prayer flags flutter in the breeze as I look down at the picturesque valley below. Beside me there’s a flash of crimson as a pair of monks appear. Behind me I hear the sound of spinning prayer wheels. Once again I smell incense in the air. Coming to Bhutan was definitely worth it.
Druk Air flies from Singapore to Paro from around $1,600 return (www.drukair.com.sg).