Travel and Tourism

Bhutan dreaming

BETWEEN EAST & WEST - Tonette Martel - The Philippine Star

Mountains reaching toward the clouds, wildflowers peeping out of hillsides, green valleys stretching as far as the eye can see, sloping rice fields, refreshing rivers and streams — Bhutan’s landscape gladdens the heart for its pristine beauty, clear skies and the crisp air of late September. Back home after a 10-day journey, I can still see it clearly in my mind’s eye.  It is as though I never left the place; much of it will always remain with me.

The nearly two-hour drive from Paro International Airport into Thimphu, the nation’s capital, takes you through roads carved out of the mountainsides, down to the city streets where homes and apartments, government buildings and commercial establishments pay homage to age-old architectural traditions. Thimphu’s main town is a patchwork of arcades housing pastry shops, antiques and handicrafts, an Internet café, a variety of eateries, and general merchandise stores. We drove uphill to the residential enclave of Motithang, its winding roads and environs bear a striking similarity to the quaint districts of Northern Italy. We make a sharp turn to the right and head down a path set amid a blue pine forest. Amankora Thimphu’s whitewashed stone buildings, inspired by the local dzong architecture, stands at the end of the road.  One flight up the stone steps leads to a long gallery, and down the hall, the lounge area and adjacent dining room are furnished with blond wood walls and commodious armchairs dressed in neutral tones. There is an air of monastic calm about the place.

As early evening descends on the lodge, a bonfire is lit in the outdoor deck, where on a clear night you can gaze at the stars. The lodge manager, Tshering Norbu, offers a warm welcome and puts his staff at my disposal. In short order, and in their caring hands, Amankora Thimphu begins to feel like home. In the suite that looks out to the courtyard and the surrounding pine forest, a warm apple cider is set on a coffee table along with a selection of spice and oatmeal cookies. Later that evening, I dined on a grilled rainbow trout in a reduction of baby vegetables, a raspberry Linzer torte and ended the meal with the local Tsheringma herb tea. At the outdoor deck, the bonfire crackles, providing warmth and illuminating a deep, dark night. What blissful peace with not a thought of the world outside.

The next day, we set out for the Punakha Valley by mid-afternoon, taking the Thimphu-Punakha road for an amazing three-hour drive through forested mountains, first all the way up to Dochu la Pass to catch a distant view of the Himalayan Mountains and then down to the valley. On the way, there were the occasional fruit and vegetable stalls, but for miles and miles, our vehicle wound in and out of a seemingly endless zone of green.

Halfway through Thimphu and near the top of the Dochu la Pass, we came to a circular compound that houses the 108 stupas. The stupas are of white stone pillars with triangular roofs and golden tips at its highest point. In Buddhist thought, it is believed that stupas are built to bring the observer to a state of wakefulness and liberation simply by seeing these structures. From there, we proceed to the top of Dochu la Pass where we stop for some milk coffee and cream cookies at a hilltop café. We reached the valley by evening and sighted a small village sparsely lit by gas lamps. It was another 30 minutes before we would reach the Uma Punakha Resort situated at the top of hill. I was told that from here, the views toward the valley are spectacular, and the food offerings are sourced locally and grown organically.   From the western dinner selection, I opted for a warm almond soup, a roasted chicken stuffed with spinach and local mushrooms, and a homemade yogurt sorbet. If the Amankora lodges are studies in subdued elegance and refinement, the Uma Punakha Resort is about laid-back chic — a fusion of contemporary accents and decorative touches drawn from the local culture.

  Early the next morning, I woke up to a sunny day with wide views of a verdant valley and the river that runs through it. I am reminded of the Bhutanese proverb that says, “Be like the sun and always rise, and the country stream which keeps gently flowing.” As a rainbow stretched across the horizon, I felt as though I was leafing through the pages of a storybook. In the days ahead, I came to know Bhutan through the contours of its landscape, and the different hours of day — the glorious skies of morning that cast a golden glow over the land, the hazy afternoons when it seemed like you were looking at a watercolor painting, and the pitch dark nights when everything disappears from view.

By mid-morning we visited Punakha Dzong, the religious and administrative center of the region. The fortress is known as the second oldest and second largest dzong in Bhutan, and is regarded as one of its most majestic structures. The dzong was built in 1637, by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the country’s first religious and political leader. Legend has it that Punakha Dzong was built without a plan but came to the architect, Zowe Palep in the form of a dream. The imposing structure sits at the confluence of the Pho Chhu and Mo Chhu rivers. The dzong is accessed through a wooden cantilever bridge that was built in the 17th century.  Punakha Dzong holds the remains of Terton Pema Lingpa, the spiritual treasure revealer, and Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the leader who unified the country as a single unit. The dzong also serves as the winter residence of the monastic order’s leader and his entourage of monks. After walking a full circle around the structure to view the inner courtyard and the gardens, we headed back to Uma Punakha for a light lunch in the outdoor terrace with stunning views toward the valley. By late afternoon, we strolled through the small town center where a few shops traded in basic goods and services. Despite the advent of tourism, and the presence of luxury hotels, Bhutan retains a strong rural character and happily holds fast to its ways of life. We stopped at a nearby temple surrounded by Nepalese-style chortens or stupas. We found devotees spinning large prayer wheels or offering quiet prayers in the garden courtyard. I felt blessed to be in a place where spiritual traditions are still held with the deepest reverence.

Early the next morning, a heavy fog blanketed the horizon concealing everything from view. By midday, the sun came out as we made our way back to Thimphu. In the late afternoon, Amankora Thimphu held a presentation of folk songs and dances at the outdoor deck. The opening number, a traditional song known as Longgo Tashi Yangcha speaks of the sacredness of the mountains, its peaks adorned by gold, silver and precious jewels. The Mask Dance in Four Stages depicts the victory of Guru Padmasambhava over the spirits that have brought much unhappiness to the land and to all living beings. The dance is performed to pacify the world, restore peace and happiness for posterity. It is a reenactment of an auspicious time in the life of Bhutan’s most revered religious figure, the Guru Padmasambhava who introduced Buddhism to Tibet and Bhutan.

 One of the high points of my trip to Bhutan was a visit to the Neyphug Thegchen Tsemo Monastery in the village of Paro. Situated off the main road, you traverse a rocky path that leads uphill until you reach the monastery grounds. From there you are rewarded with scenic views of faraway, forest-clad mountains. The 450-year-old monastery is the principle seat of the Neyphug Rinpoches.  In the 8th century, Guru Padmasambhava foretold that one of his disciples would be reborn as the first Neyphug Trulku Rinpoche, and thus blessed the site of the monastery for all the Neyphug Rinpoches to come. The current Rinpoche or “precious teacher” is the ninth reincarnation, and one who presides over the monastery, its projects as well as the spiritual and temporal needs of the lay community. The Rinpoche is a spiritual leader as well as an energetic administrator with a strong sense of purpose. His long days are devoted to overseeing the monastery properties and expanding its facilities, supervising the welfare and education of orphaned and abandoned children, rehabilitating the lives those who have gone astray, and setting them on the right spiritual path. The work of such enlightened beings never ends, just as their mission of extending compassion and kindness to all who seek their guidance and support can never wane. Although it was a Sunday, I saw volunteer workers and laborers clearing the roads and laying the foundation for new dormitories to accommodate a growing number of young students who will receive an education in Buddhism, English as well as computer sciences to prepare them for the demands of life in the 21th century.

The Neyphug Monastery itself is a soaring structure of thick white walls and a sloping rooftop. In the dark and solemn interior space is a recessed altar with three golden statues of Buddha, candle offerings and delicate butter sculptures made by the student monks. The Rinpoche shows me volumes of handwritten sutras or direct teaching from the Buddha that date back to centuries. Running the length of the hall are multicolored hand-sewn silk temple hangings.  Back outside, a group of workers had gathered as they waited for the Rinpoche to give a lecture on spiritual values and seeking the right path.

  Later that evening at Amankora Paro, the Neyphug Rinpoche gave a talk on Gross National Happiness, the guiding government and development philosophy of Bhutan. It keeps the nation on a balance between pursuing modernization and protecting tradition.  The four pillars and nine domains of GNH touch on nearly all aspects of life, and underscore the need for awareness and a deep regard for family, fellow beings, the environment and the ecology.  Implicit in these is the Buddhist notion that all things are interrelated, and that inner peace first requires the condition of peace in the external environment. As Bhutan carefully straddles the worlds of tradition and modernity, it appears that the principles of GNH are a sound and effective government policy.

 Amankora Paro puts you in the midst of a pine forest, gentle streams, and a distant view of Mount Jhomolhari that rises to over 7,300 meters. From this rustic setting outfitted with contemporary comforts, you can hike up to the Tiger’s Nest monument, Bhutan’s most sacred site that hangs off the face of the cliff, 900 meters from the valley floor. It is said that Guru Padmasambhava flew to this point on the back of a mythical tigress and meditated in a cave before bringing Buddhism to Bhutan. For a more leisurely pace, take a walk from the lodge to the rice paddies which boarders the Paro Chhu. Along the way you’ll come upon farmers’ fields, humble homes, an archery range and old farmhouses. End your day at the Spa in a traditional hot stone bath infused with local herbs known for its curative benefits. Sometimes the most pleasurable pursuits are the solitary moments spent walking along the forest, sitting on a bench while listening to the sounds of the stream below, one with nature and your innermost thoughts.

 In Thimphu on the last leg of the trip, we made brief stops at the Folk Heritage Museum, the National Textile Museum, and a row of handicraft shops housed in a series of bamboo huts. Each revealed an aspect of Bhutan’s culture identity — its rural past, its refined art forms, and the traditional crafts of painting, weaving, woodcarving, embroidery and sculpting images made from clay.   

  Back at Amankora Thimphu in the late afternoon, I sat in the library, looking out to the stream, as I reflected on a meaningful journey. Of the many sights I had seen, the most memorable are the snapshots of everyday life — the prayer flags fluttering in the wind, men and women going about their days dressed in the traditional attire of ghos and kiras, the willow trees along the riverbanks leading the Paro’s main town, the atmospheric charm of the town, its antique shops and quiet cafes in the last hours of the day.  Still, there is nothing like taking in the wonders of nature, and allowing its healing peace to flow through your being. This is when Bhutan weaves its magic and leaves you with a transformative experience. Then you cease to become just a visitor, but an observer of life in its most elemental forms. 

  By way of goodbye, Sonam, the lodge directress of Amankora Thimphu said to me, “Wherever you go, you can leave your soul here until you come back again.” It was a beautiful thought, and one that I will cherish. Norbu, Tashi, Topgay and Sangay made me feel like I was part of their spheres of life, and that coming back to Bhutan would be the most natural thing. I’ve learned that home is a place where your heart is happiest and feels most settled. In Bhutan, I have found that home.          









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