Travels in Bhutan
For decades, it’s been my dream to visit Bhutan, this tiny Buddhist kingdom nestled in
the Himalayas bordering India to the south and China to the north. Finally, last May, I made it.
I have spent many of my travels following parts of the Silk Road from Italy through Asia
Minor to India and China. With this trip, I added another stop on this lifelong journey of mine. I
brought with me a travel journal by Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, a 17th century French jeweler and
gem dealer. 300 years ago, Tavernier traveled extensively through Asia and along the Silk Road
documenting stories and observations along the way. So here I am continuing my own Silk Road
travels, slowly but surely over the decades closing the gaps.
On this visit, I discovered that Bhutan was not actually part of the Silk Road; the
mountains surrounding this tiny country made crossing too difficult. The country was preserved
and protected by its natural boundaries and really did not experience the influence of the Silk
Road. However, Bhutan was part of the storytelling of the Silk Road as per Tavenier. There were
Bhutanese traders that ventured out of the country south in to India and brought stories and
descriptions with them but mostly the country remained a mystery which it still mostly is today.
It is a long trip east to Bhutan, so my partner in life (and work), Paul Engler, and I spent a
few days in Bangkok to adjust to the time difference before traveling through Calcutta then
on to land on a little slice of a runway between the mountains in Paro, Bhutan. We settled in
to a lightly forested alpine property on the side of a hill outside of town called Como Paro.
Everyone working there and in town wore traditional dress; the women wore
long pieces of woven cloth wrapped in a certain way to make elegant skirts, while the men wore
something similar to a kilt. A national pastime is archery. Every Bhutanese speaks perfect
English and Dzongkha— the native language which has its roots in Sanskrit and is related to
Tibetan. The people are beautiful and smile easily. They resemble Tibetans and Nepali and may
all have descended centuries ago from Mongolians…Genghis Khan made his mark widely.
I have traveled in northern India and Nepal, but wasn’t sure what to expect in Bhutan. It
slowly revealed itself as a place of pure serenity and intense unspoiled nature. If you go trekking
there you are hiking in untouched areas. It is truly a place to go to retreat, recharge and reset.
Even the places touched by man, like the Como properties where we stayed, were strange and
wonderful. When we arrived, the manager greeted us and said Como Paro was sort of like the
Hotel California: you check in but you never check out. Initially I laughed at the comment but by
the end of our too-short stay, I knew exactly what he was talking about— I did not want to leave.
Something about the place, the people, the peaceable kingdom touched me and made me want to
stay and take in more of the magic. I vowed to return and to make visiting Bhutan part of a life
I want to bring my sons there. I want to experience the highest trek and to be there when
the rare endangered Black Cranes stop on their migration route.
After spending some time at Como Paro, Paul and I wound our way through the mountains to
another Como property called Uma Punakha.
This inn only has 10 rooms and is perched above
the fertile Punakha valley where all of their organic greens come from. A river meanders through
the valley and during our time there the jacaranda trees were in full bloom. I’ve never seen
anything like their purple blossoms against the emerald green.
We visited the Punakha Dzong, an immense fortress that houses both a Buddhist
monastery and secular offices. Enormous bee hives hung from the eaves of the building. Inside
the white walls, an occasional monk wandered by spinning the nearest prayer wheel, while we
examined the murals depicting the teachings of the Buddha.
Here, we also hiked across the river to a Buddhist monastery on a mountain across the valley.
It was a more recent temple built by the current king’s mother for her son. The temple overlooked
the valley. A single monk was there carrying out his morning chants to the beat of a handheld drum.
All else was completely silent. Such quiet and darkness so rare in most of the world, are a given in Bhutan.
Although the Silk Road did not reach in to Bhutan, the digital world has in fact reached
its fingers into this mountain kingdom. Bhutan’s young and well-loved king, Jigme Khesar
Namgyel Wangchuck, promotes tradition and safeguards this beautiful country by controlling
development and making sustainability central to life here. It was truly inspiring to see.
There is a serenity here in Bhutan that I’ve never experienced anywhere else— a
peacefulness that is a profound contrast to our digitally addicted western world. The idea of
living life beautifully may truly exist here.