Isolated Bhutan a land of myth and mystery

Prayer flags blow in the wind overlooking Taktsang Monastery, which sits at an elevation of 3,120...

Prayer flags blow in the wind overlooking Taktsang Monastery, which sits at an elevation of 3,120 metres and hangs 900 metres above the Paro valley. Dyed in five colours representing the elements, the prayers inscribed on such flags are thought to spread goodwill and compassion to all. (STEPHEN RIPLEY/QMI Agency)


, Last Updated: 2:24 PM ET

Whoever coined the term "Getting there is half the fun" must have been a passenger on Drukair Flight 401 from Kathmandu to Paro.

The flight takes barely an hour but the scenery will stay with me the rest of my life. The word "scenery" is a gross understatement, really -- looking to the north from my left-side window seat, a vast panorama unfolds a few hundred metres below. By the time we land in Bhutan, we've seen five of the six highest peaks on Earth, including the tallest of them all, Mount Everest.

With such formidable obstacles blocking the route to its only international airport, it's no wonder the Kingdom of Bhutan has remained one of the most isolated and mysterious nations on the map. Landlocked, high in the Himalayas, the Land of the Thunder Dragon has been cut off from the outside world for most of its history, only opening its doors to visitors in the 1970s.

Dress code

Exiting Paro's tiny but immaculate airport, I am greeted by Leela Darlami, my guide during my weeklong stay in the kingdom. Both she and our driver, Belden, are decked out in traditional garb -- in her case, a purple blouse made of silk and a woven, ankle-length skirt called a kira. Belden wears a gho, a heavy, woven robe that hangs just below his knees.

Bhutan's dress code and other aspects of its culture are governed by the Driglam Namzha, a series of rules covering clothing, art, architecture and behaviour in formal settings. It's why I can't take photos or wear short sleeves inside Paro's Rinpung Dzong or why the dzong itself -- a massive fortress dating back to the 17th century -- had to be built without the use of nails or architectural plans.

The preservation and promotion of cultural values is one of the main pillars of "gross national happiness," a concept introduced in the 1970s by Bhutan's fourth king. Under GNH, all national policies must pass a review that encompasses such areas as the environment, sustainable development and general principles of good governance.

It all sounds wonderful, as long as you're a member of the Buddhist Drukpa majority. Ethnic Nepali Hindus, about 100,000 of whom were forced out of the country in the late 1980s and early 1990s, might regard "gross national happiness" as a piece of doublespeak worthy of Orwell.

But such worldly considerations are soon forgotten on my second day in Bhutan, as Leela and I embark on the arduous hike to Taktsang Monastery, high above the Paro valley. There's a chill in the air, but I'm soon sweating as we wind through dense stands of pine and rhododendron, climbing to an elevation of 3,120 metres, almost a full kilometre above the valley floor.

After 90 minutes of hiking we finally get a close-up view of one of the world's great architectural wonders -- the Tiger's Nest, perched impossibly on the face of a sheer cliff. Prayer flags snap in the wind as we climb the final steep, stone steps up to the monastery.

Although built in 1692, Taktsang has held a place in local lore for more than 1,000 years. In the 8th century, Padmasambhava -- the guru who introduced Buddhism to the Himalayas -- was said to have flown on the back of a flying tigress to the caves at Taktsang, where he spent more than three years deep in meditation.

The next day, we travel east to Punakha, Bhutan's former capital city. The highway is in excellent condition and traffic is light, a stark contrast from the crumbling chaos of the roads in nearby Nepal, where I've just spent two weeks.

As we drive along the banks of the crystal-clear Paro Chhu river, we pass scores of farmhouses with splashes of red on their tin roofs -- freshly harvested chili peppers laid out to dry in the sun. The fiery peppers are a staple of the local diet, often mixed with yak cheese in the national dish, ema datshi.

A food writer once famously described Bhutanese cuisine as the worst in the world. I wouldn't go that far, but after a couple of samples of ema datshi, I'm quite happy to stick with rice, veggies and chicken for most of my meals, even though they're often lukewarm and flavourless.

Sensory overload

After a nourishing but forgettable lunch, Leela takes me to Punakha Dzong, at the confluence of the Mo Chhu and Pho Chhu rivers. Built in 1638, the fortress is the second-oldest and second-largest in Bhutan, but quite possibly the most spectacular.

Behind its massive, rammed-earth walls, the dzong conceals three separate courtyards, the first of which contains a sprawling bodhi tree, the type of fig tree under which Buddha was said to have achieved enlightenment almost 2,500 years ago. Farther along, past a chorten, another courtyard and a six-storey central tower, we enter a temple at the far end of the third courtyard.

Inside the temple, it's sensory overload, as almost every square centimetre of space, including the ceiling, has been painted or carved. Monks chant and incense fills the air as Leela explains a series of murals depicting the life of Buddha. There's so much going on, it's almost impossible to know where to look.

The following day, the entire nation marks one of the events depicted in the murals -- Buddha's return to Earth after attaining nirvana. It's called Lhabab Duchen, and it's a time for visiting temples, making offerings and coming together in celebration.

We encounter one such celebration at a small village south of Punakha. In the hills above the dwellings, local youths are engaged in a spirited game of khuru, or darts. Teams of five or six young men take turns throwing wicked-looking darts at a tiny target some 30 metres away, singing and dancing each time they win a round. The potential for lethal injury seems high.

Our final stop in Bhutan is the capital, Thimphu, where we visit more dzongs, temples and Buddhist landmarks. More interesting to me, however, is a nature preserve on the western edge of the city, the home to a small herd of Bhutan's national animal.

The legend of the takin dates back to the 15th century, the time of Buddhist lama Drukpa Kunley, who was known as the Divine Madman for his bawdy sense of humour and offbeat teaching methods. According to the story, some villagers asked him to perform a trick, but he first demanded to be served a meal of a whole cow and a whole goat. Upon finishing his meal, he reassembled some of the bones, attaching the goat's skull to the cow's body, then reanimating the bizarre-looking creature.

The origin of the takin, much like the spurious concept of "gross national happiness," is one of the many myths visitors are asked to swallow when visiting Bhutan. But up here, in the rarefied air of this isloated Himalayan kingdom, it's remarkably easy to suspend one's sense of disbelief.