x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 23 October 2017

Travel secrets: Unforgettable Bhutan has all the ingredients for magic

On a planet so well travelled that little remains secret, the majestic mountain kingdom of Bhutan wields a power to astonish even the weariest of wanderers.

Taktsang Dzong, or the Tiger’s Nest monastery, overlooks Bhutan’s Paro valley. Peter Adams / JAI / Corbis
Taktsang Dzong, or the Tiger’s Nest monastery, overlooks Bhutan’s Paro valley. Peter Adams / JAI / Corbis

On a planet so well travelled that little remains secret, so bucket-listed that “been there” takes precedence over being there, so Instagrammed that worldly wonders serve merely as wallpaper for our selfies, the majestic mountain kingdom of Bhutan wields a power to astonish even the weariest of wanderers.

So I’m not entirely surprised that my recent yoga retreat in the Buddhist nation known for its Gross National Happiness index sent my own personal contentment levels soaring over its Himalayan peaks. I mean, if you’re practising yoga and meditation with the luminescent Elena Brower at a five-star resort in the Land of the Thunder Dragon and you’re unhappy, well, I’m going to spin a few prayer wheels for you.

Bhutan is a luxury in most senses of the word, except the superficial. Dubbed “Nepal for the jet set”, the difficulty of getting there and the cost of a visit, which effectively must be pre-arranged as an all-inclusive package with a minimum $250 daily tourist fee, keep the throngs at bay. Our week was completely arranged by the caring souls at Uma by COMO, a 29-room rustic luxury lodge overlooking the forests and rice fields of the Paro Valley. They looked for ways to pamper us at every step, showing up with fresh-ginger tea after yoga, packing us picnic lunches in tiffins, building us crackling bonfires, weaving me frond wreaths that Bhutanese women wear for sunshade. Sure, it was a steep investment, but the dividends? Priceless.

Most of us are wise enough to know that money, along with the exotic destinations it enables us to visit, is no guarantee of a happy life, nor even a happy holiday. However, whatever went down in that high-altitude air made for an idyllic summer vacation, the kind we store in our precious memory reserve to draw on when we need to reach for a happy place.

This being a column that imparts travel secrets, I must confess the reason for this euphoria is largely a mystery. It involves a magical ingredient, what I think of as the Invisible, which sprinkles its fairy dust over our lives at rare, unforeseen intersections. It was the fulfilment you get from being in precisely the right place with some seriously high-vibration people. When you say to them “I’m going to remember this for the rest of my life” or “I could die happy right now”, and the feeling’s mutual. When you relish the experience as it’s happening, because you know you can’t hold onto it, because you do know what you’ve got till it’s gone. When your heart, unable to contain its molten happiness, bubbles over like a volcano.

To turn this into practical advice, if you’re dreaming about a trip that feels like taking a plunge because it’s a far-flung destination and a little beyond your financial means, I’ll tell you what my friend told me when I was hesitating: do it. I’ve never heard anyone lament these barriers upon returning from the vacation they imagined into reality.

Beyond the Invisible, and the transformative wisdom Elena imparts by her devotion to truth both on and off the mat, I’ll ascribe the dragon’s share of the pure magic that swirled around our trip to Bhutan, with all the earthly and spiritual beauty of both its land and people. If a New York minute passes in a flash, then a Bhutanese minute slows everything down, widening the depth of experience and enlightenment, making each moment so rich it’s easy to be completely in it.

As I set my clock back to Bhutan time, I see multitudes of prayer flags draped with wispy moss in the blue-fir trees, mists that come and go to reveal ancient gold-topped temples perched miraculously on cliffsides, monsoon rains that herald the morning and evening, forest trails scattered with wild mushrooms and rhododendrons and brightly coloured prayer-wheel pit stops in the middle of nowhere. I hear a silence that drowns out the need for music, Buddhist nuns murmuring prayers like bees in a holy hive high up in their monastery, the mystical song of unrecognisable birds and the cowbells that clang at what you can barely call rush hour.

The destinations of our daily treks were magnificent, none more so than the epic Tiger’s Nest Monastery, built around a cave where they’ll tell you a flying tigress transported the Buddhist Guru Rinpoche. (If this stretches your imagination, wait until you hear about the Divine Madman and his Flaming Thunderbolt of Wisdom.) But when we shared our personal highlights each day, we usually left the destinations aside and chose something experienced on the journey, such as the revelatory talk I had with two companions when we stopped on a climb to commit the Haa Valley vista to everlasting memory (definitely a “haa” moment).

Many of our highlights were enhanced by the Bhutanese people: the monk who gave me an apple, the nun who told my friend “you are so beautiful”, the Tiger’s Nest security guard clasping his prayer beads who gestured me over to his window to show me the view, the aged woman who humbled us on the hike walking barefoot with giant bundles on her back, our mirthful guides who glided up and down steep rocks like the characters in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

On our final night, our guide UT, when asked to share his highlight, demonstrated the most enlightened way of thinking: “My highlight is happening now. This is our karma, to meet you here.” When I returned to my room, there was a tiny prayer-wheel on my pillow, with a note from the hotel explaining the Buddhist mantra “om mani padmi hum” that said: “We hope that your visit to Bhutan has given you enlightenment.” Hope granted.

In A Field Guide to Happiness: What I Learned in Bhutan, Linda Leaming observes: “A place can’t really change your essence. Nothing can. But a place can most definitely shape you. And you can shape yourself to fit the place.”

I am most definitely shaped by Bhutan, and for as long as I hold it as a precious memory, I’ll continue to shape myself to fit it.